Our second day in Shamli began with a meeting of yet another kind of violence that Muslim families are grappling with in Western UP, since the appointment of the new Yogi Adityanath government. It is not unusual for the front pages of local newspapers to carry banner headlines with sensational stories of ‘dreaded criminals’ killed or injured in dramatic shoot-outs with the police. The media publishes the police version of each of these ‘encounters’ uncritically. Almost 30 such encounters have occurred since the new government came to power in UP. It does not ring strange to the media who dutifully report these stories that the men shot in each of these are almost always Muslim. It does not worry reporters that most of the men killed or injured in these ‘encounter’ shoot-outs are either just petty criminals or men with no criminal records at all. Nothing seems amiss when in none of these shoot-outs are the police seriously injured. They just report light injuries usually on the shoulders or arms.
One family met us, but I will not mention their names so that they do not get into trouble with the police. Their son, a young man in his twenties with no police record, was picked up by the police with a friend from his village, although the police initially kept no official record of their detention. They were taken one night to the sugarcane fields and the policemen asked them to run. They were terrified, but still refused, fearing that the police would shoot them in their backs. They then laid them on a field, and shot them through their ankles, knees and elbows.
The police announced the next day (and the newspapers duly reported) that they were dangerous criminals, and had tried to run away from the police while firing at them. In self-defence, they shot them. No one asked how the fleeing men could have been shot with such accuracy on their ankles and knees even in a field with tall standing sugarcane crop on a dark night. Today their son is in jail, in constant and unbearable pain. They are day labourers, but have invested all their savings for medicines for the boy in the jail hospital. They don’t have any money left over to engage a lawyer. They fear their boy may never be able to walk again. Even more dangerously, they fear that he will never be able to prove his innocence.
Cases like this are not unusual. A roll call of new encounters are added every other day in Yodi Adityanath’s UP, and there seems no end to the official blood-letting. In the build-up to the elections, the story was influentially plugged by the BJP and RSS that Muslims in Western UP were the cause of the rise in high crime; and this was aggravated when after the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013, many more moved into Muslim majority towns and villages. The series of reports of Muslim men, all ‘dreaded criminals’, being shot by the UP police in large numbers, gives public credence to the communal stereotyping of Muslims as the main criminals of the area, and of the UP government under strongman Yogi Adityanath the only one with the resolve to abandon the alleged ‘appeasement’ of Muslims by earlier governments, and to come down hard on these ‘criminal elements’. For the Muslims of the region there was already the fear of lynching. Today there is even a greater fear that they may be dubbed criminals and shot one dark night.
Our next halt in the pilgrimage of the Karwan was in Khurgaon village in district Shamli, at the home of an old man who lost his son to a mob in 2013, when the Congress was in power in Haryana and the Samajwadi Party in UP. The old man, his face lined with suffering, was expecting the visit of the Karwan. And yet when we arrived, for a long time he was frightened to speak. We did not press him, only explained as gently as we could why we had come to meet him. After a while he was reassured. He wept as he spoke of the wounds of a father who did not know who killed his son, and despaired of any justice. His son Mohammad Salim, recently married, had gone out for work with a friend to neighbouring Haryana, perhaps for the trade of cattle. News came, not from the police but from his companion, that a mob of around nine men had fallen upon their son. He was badly injured when they found him. They took him to a private hospital, but they could not in the end save his life. The police did not do a post-mortem on his body, and handed it over to them for his burial. Pressure built on the state administration, and more than a week later, the body of their boy was exhumed, and a post-mortem done. The words used by his heartbroken father was ‘kabar phad diya’ : his grave was torn open. He is tormented all the time with the thought that it was utterly inauspicious for the boy to be pulled out of the grave where he had been rested, and this may trouble him in his afterlife. The father had consented to this only in the hope that justice would follow. His agony is that despite their many efforts, they have not even been given a copy of the post-mortem report.
‘I just want to know how my father died’, the old man wept. Maine sabar kar lia, he added. I have decided to endure. Endure what? The loss of a son to a violent mob, not even knowing why and how this happened. Accepting that justice will never be done. We assured him that we would help him in his fight for justice, that we felt broken should he fall so deep in despair. He replied that if anyone could help him just see my son’s post-mortem report, he would go to jannat.
We drove with memories of the tormented father to our next halt in Nuh in Mewat, Haryana. Our young hosts in Gharesa insisted that the Karwan should spend the night in the village Ghasera, which has a special place in the history of the region. They told us that in 1947, amidst the rivers of blood of Hindu Muslim violence, Meo Muslims of Mewat were leaving in large numbers for Pakistan. Mahatma Gandhi visited Ghasera village in Mewat and appealed to the Meo Muslims to stay on in India. India is your home, he said to them , as much as it is the home of Hindus and people of other faiths. He said if Muslims left India, India would get hollowed out. The Meo Muslims took Gandhiji’s appeal to heart, and not a single Meo Muslim went to Pakistan after that day. It is for this reason that our hosts felt that there was no more fitting place for the Karwan to spend a night. We reached to a beautiful gathering, in which singers and speakers recalled and celebrated this moment in their history when their ancestors chose India over their country. But they also spoke of their pain. ‘A strange wind is passing through our country’, one young man said. ‘I am feeling a stranger in my own country’.
Our hosts had invited Junaid’s parents to this gathering. I had met them in their home after their son had been lynched in a train. Her mother Saira took me aside, and said she wanted to say something important to me. She said that her son used to say that he wanted to do something great in his life, maybe to be an imam of a big mosque and deliver the Friday sermon. That was not to be now. But she still thought how he could still do something great, and she now had the answer. She wanted to open a school in his name. A school for girls, where she said they would learn English and Hindi in addition to Urdu. A school, she insisted, that would be open not just for Muslim girls, but also Hindu and Christian girls. I could think of no finer way of remembering Junaid. Not just for his mother, but for all of us.