These have been harrowing expeditions into the darkest recesses of our souls. The Karwan e Mohabbat has completed 22 journeys across 12 states in 12 months. In our visits to the homes of families wracked by lynching and other hate attacks, we hear over and over again stories of unspeakable public cruelty, and profound personal suffering, loss and fear.
But in this undeclared nationwide epidemic of hate violence, we also find the malign role of the state: Policepersons allegedly acting like lynch mobs, uncaring officials rarely reaching out to protect and support the victims, and senior politicians valourising killers. What much of India barely acknowledges is that the Indian state has substantially transmuted into a hard, majoritarian Hindu state which is callous to, and sometimes even at war with, its minorities.
It is this fearsome face of the state that we ran into all through our most recent journey to Jharkhand. Our first halt was in village Dighari in Jamtara, where 22-year-old Minhaj Ansari lived with his daughter, wife and old parents. He fed them with what he earned from a small mobile repair shop. For posting a picture of beef and a joke on Whats App, the local police dragged him to the police station with some of his friends, allegedly beating them brutally. They took Minhaj Ansari to another room, and his friends found him later with his fingers, toes, legs and hands broken. Sonu Singh, a local VHP leader, allegedly joined the officer-in-charge of the police station, Harish Pathak, goading him to pulp the man.
A crowd meanwhile gutted and looted Minhaj Ansari’s shop. His family gathered outside the police station, but claim Pathak chased them away with communal threats. Days later, the police shifted him to a Ranchi hospital, where he died. When his mother saw the corpse of her son in hospital, she responded with anguish and helpless rage, beating her hands against police officer Pathak. Her bangles broke, grazing his neck. Pathak reportedly admitted himself in hospital, and registered a criminal case of assault against the mother.
The Superintendent of Police initially claimed that Minhaj Ansari had died of encephalitis, until the autopsy report confirmed that he had succumbed to ‘haemorrhage and shock” as a result of injuries “caused by hard and blunt substances”. The NHRC guidelines for custodial deaths were still entirely flouted. Two years have passed, but police have still not arrested the main accused.
Our next passage was to the still-charred home of dairy farmer Usman Ansari in Barwabad village of Giridih. Fourteen months earlier, a false rumour that he had killed a cow spurred his neighbours to drag him out of his home, strip him, beat him until he was unconscious, and lock his family in his house before setting it aflame. Their lives were saved by the timely and fair action by Deputy Commissioner Uma Shankar Singh and his police force. It was many months later that the family finally returned to their village. “We would have starved to death otherwise,” Usman Ansari explained. The family had survived by begging at mosques. Usman Ansari’s injury has left him permanently disabled, and the government gave him no compensation for his damaged house and loss of livelihood. The main accused men had still not been arrested, and others were out on bail. They continued to taunt the family at night, threatening that if they continued to testify against their attackers, they would ensure that they are killed this time round.
Another family we met was of Ramesh Minj of village Tingari in Garhwa, a tribal Christian driver lynched by his neighbours for allegedly slaughtering a cow. When the police arrived, they found Minj badly injured, and a sword injury had cut off his lower leg. But instead of ensuring his immediate medical care in hospital, they arrested him, took him to the police station and later shifted him to jail where he died of his injuries. His widow, left alone to raise her small children, is determined to battle in the courts for justice.
We met another widow in village Chiru in Latehar district. Her husband Mazlum Ansari had been hung from a tree by self-styled cow vigilantes. There is no other able-bodied male member left to take care of the family. She spoke quietly of being driven to feed her children and old parents only roti with salt. She walks alone to the court for its hearings, passing through the village where her husband was killed. Everyone in her village is too scared to walk with her. They explained with shame and lowered eyes to us: “If we go with her, it could be our turn next.”
Even more horrifying was that the mob chose to lynch and hang a 12- year- old boy, Imtiaz Khan, who had missed school to herd the cattle to the market because his father was injured and could not run fast enough. The father was present in the crowd which watched as the mob lynched and hung his boy, but did not to try to save him because he knew this would be futile and they would have hung him as well. Two years later, he is still too frightened to go out to work.
We left Jharkhand intensely dismayed to observe once again the virulence of hate violence that stalked this land. The failures of the state were stark, multiple and unconscionable. I have served in the civil service and know that a compassionate, and fair, administration at the state and local levels could have ensured that the families are enabled to pick up the broken pieces of their lives, that they are protected from fear and intimidation and most of all ensured justice for them. With rare exceptions, none of this was evident in Jharkhand.