Down a narrow bylane in west UP’s Bisada village lies a locked house. For the first time, this Eid, the house will remain empty, shorn of its owners, deprived of the celebration it had got accustomed to.
Late on the night of September 28 last year, a mob of locals attacked Mohammad Ikhlaq in this very house. The mob alleged the family had slaughtered a cow and stored its meat for consumption. Ikhlaq succumbed to his injuries the next day.
The empty house is but a symbol of a broken village, a family in tatters and a community which is unable to exercise even its most basic rights as citizens - of eating without fear; of speaking freely; and praying and practicing their faith without looking over their shoulders.
Travails of Ikhlaq’s family
Ikhlaq’s immediate family shifted out of the village soon after the killing. His son, Mohammad Sartaj, is in the Indian Air Force - and he lives in a defence area, Delhi’s Subroto Park.
An immediate family member, who did not want to be named, told HT, “What is Eid for us this time? Our Eid is no Eid. It is just a responsibility, a ritual, and we will do the namaz, but there is no happiness.” The family’s tryst with misfortune has continued. Earlier this week, Ikhlaq’s daughter got burnt while cooking and had to be hospitalised for treatment. There is no festive spirit at home.
The relative recalled how Ikhlaq used to ensure all his children had new clothes; and how he would call up his eldest son, Sartaj, to check if he had taken a holiday to come during Eid. “There is such a vacuum this time.”
Jan Mohammad, Ikhlaq’s brother who lives in Dadri, attests to the feeling of helplessness. “It would have been difficult to cope with a family member’s death in any case. But the circumstances and brutality of Ikhlaq’s death is such we cannot ever forget.” Their house used to light up during the festival. The family cooked kheer and sent it to Hindu neighbours.
Back in the village, Moolchand, a neighbour who runs a shop at the road that forks off into Ikhlaq’s home, too looks back at the celebration. “It was because of Ikhlaq that we got to know Eid has arrived. We used to send sweets during Diwali; they reciprocated on Eid. It is all gone now.”
Instead, what Ikhlaq’s family is saddled with are a bunch of legal cases - of having to prove that the meat consumed that night was not beef, and of pursuing justice against the killers of their loved ones despite relentless pressure by their erstwhile neighbours for a ‘compromise’.
A polarised village
The impact of the killing is not confined only to the family, but the village of Bisada. It hangs like a shadow over every conversation. It has divided the village. It has made some angry, some fearful, and many quiet. It has changed cultural practices, so subtly that it would be hard to discover. Most Hindus of the village insist that while Ikhlaq’s family may have left, things are normal in the village for the remaining Muslim families.
The father of one of the accused, and a former BJP activist, Sanjay Rana claimed, “Eid, Shab-e-Barat and many other festivals of the Muslims are being celebrated here very peacefully since time immemorial. We grew up with our Muslim neighbours and no communal tension ever occurred in the village.” He instead blamed the media for tagging the village as communal. Jaspal Rana, a shopkeeper, recalled how Hindus had constructed the mosque.
This narrative of ‘normalcy’ is so overwhelming that it has silenced people who differ, primarily Muslims.
An elderly Muslim first told HT, “It is all normal now.” But when asked again if anything had changed, he said, “Don’t use my name. And don’t take my picture. I don’t want villagers to come to me and say I am defaming the village.” Pointing to neighbours, he added, “They all think we instigate the media.”
When assured that his identity will be kept secure, he says, “I have never seen anything like last year’s incident in my life. And every day, I live with the fear that it could happen to me. It could happen to my children.”
And how has life changed?
Akhtar is a carpenter and lives next to the village mosque. A fortnight ago, he and a few friends had gone to a nearby pond to take a bath. Some Hindus of the village saw and taunted them. “Our children are in jail, and you people want to come and enjoy here.” The Muslims, keen to avoid a confrontation, walked away. “The younger Hindu men are far more aggressive.”
The aggression among some of these younger men was apparent in a conversation. Shekhar was hanging around with other young friends outside a shop. After a brief conversation about some of his friends who are in jail for Ikhlaq’s killing, HT asked him if he had any Muslim friends. He responded, “I don’t talk to these low, neech, castes.”
When asked if Ikhlaq’s killing had prompted them to think about moving out, Akhtar nodded. “Yes, we thought about it. But we don’t have the capital to start something new. This house was built by my father. We divided it up among three brothers and made it new only last year. Where will we go?”
A subdued Eid
The polarisation will shape the way the village celebrates Eid. There are 20 to 30 Muslim families in a village of approximately 10,000 people.
Akhtar’s mother, Zarina, is sixty. She says, “Earlier, we used to give food to neighbours. They used to come home. This year, nothing of that sort will happen.” Another Muslim middle-aged man, who had come to the mosque next door for his prayers, said, “We won’t even go to homes of other Muslims. If all of us congregate at one place, we don’t know how they will react.”
But the most visible change, over the past year, is in the mosque. The azaan - the Islamic call to worship - is no longer on the microphone, but recited quietly inside the mosque. The call from the mosque at the end of the day during Ramzan, in effect alerting people they can eat, has been discontinued.
When asked for the reason, a Muslim resident said, “Fear.” But has anyone threatened them? “But no one has assured us either that there will be no harm. It is then best to remain quiet, not attract attention.”
Muslims of Bisada village will spend their Eid internalising that lesson - of living quietly.
(inputs from Abhishek Anand)