Another ordinary day had almost drawn to an end in the village. Dinner was well over and lights were being switched off in Bisada, a large, nondescript village in western Uttar Pradesh. Some youth were still out, hanging in the labyrinthine maze of half-fulfilled dreams. The morrow held little promise and little, if no relief, from the drudgery of every day existence.
Two young boys, may be three, were sitting and chatting in one of the bylanes when they saw a dog wrestle with a packet of bones he’d pulled out of a drain. The ‘size’ of the bones caught the attention of the idling youngsters and they inferred that the packet contained the remains of a cow.
Not far from there, 55-year-old Mohammad Ikhlaq — one of three Muslim families who have lived in Bisada for generations — was chatting with his family. Eid had just gone by three days ago and there was a sense of revelry and excitement within the walls of the blacksmith’s home. Ikhlaq had a lot to be thankful about. He was the only blacksmith in the large village with a population of 17,000 and enough work came his way. One son had joined the Indian Air Force and another was preparing to follow suit.
Shadow of death
Unknown to Ikhlaq and his family, the idling youngsters had been so consumed by their discovery, they’d collected more youth on the way and strode to the village temple and were in the process of persuading the priest to make an announcement. The loudspeaker magnified the message: A cow had been slaughtered and eaten by the Ikhlaq family. Ikhlaq had thrown the packet in the drain, they claimed.
Within minutes, Bisada underwent a violent transformation. A village which the police say has no history-sheeter — not even one — would soon have ten accused for murder under Section 302. A village that has been the epitome of harmony was soon to be torn down to its very foundations.
Ikhlaq had climbed up to the second floor of his home to rest his tired body when he and the other members of the family heard slogan-shouting. A mob of 1,000 to 1,500 had gathered in the tiny, four-foot lane leading up to their home. Sensing trouble, Ikhlaq called Manoj Sisodia, one of his best friends in the village and urged him for help. “Call the police,” he pleaded as the mob broke the window and the main door and barged in.
Several boys — as many as could fit into the tiny home — came in and leapt straight for the refrigerator. Finding a utensil containing uncooked meat, they delivered their verdict -- ‘saboot mil gaya, saboot mil gaya (we have found the proof).
The ‘proof ’ was enough for the neighbours to turn killers that night. They hurled all that they could find at a crouching Ikhlaq and his son Danish who tried to plead, and at daughter Shahista who tried to reason.
Reason was the last thing they were looking for. In the naked dance of death that followed, they shoved Shahista out of the way. The bricks smashed the father and son’s head and with it, the longstanding tradition of harmony. One of them picked up a sewing machine — that helped the daughter and Ikhlaq’s widow Ikram add to the family’s earnings — and delivered a deadly, lethal blow on Ikhlaq’s head and the village’s reputation of shared festivals.
Bisada’s sons lay on the floor bleeding profusely but the youth had not extracted enough revenge. More bestiality was to follow. They dragged a barely breathing Ikhlaq by his feet, down the stairs to the ground floor and all the way to the main road, past the four feet lane.
Sisodia did not have enough balance in his phone to make a call to the police after his friend’s urgent call for help but as he ran towards Ikhlaq’s home – 800 meters away — he stopped for a bit, borrowed a passer-by’s phone, dialled 100 and continued running. He found Ikhlaq lying on the main road. “I couldn’t tell if he was alive or dead,” he said.
The police arrived soon after and so did Sanjay Rana, the pradhan (village head). “Take him to a private hospital, they have better facilities,’’ screamed Sisodia as his friend was put into a car.
Back in the Ikhlaq residence, Danish was lying in a pool of blood, moaning on the floor. “He was writhing like a fish out of water,” his mother said. His grandmother sat by his side, also beaten.
Day of divisions
Bisada’s long night gave way to an ugly dawn. On the morning of September 30, Sisodia found himself hostage to a deep fault line. His friend’s body came home that afternoon one last time and like the rest of the Hindus in the village, Sisodia stayed away from Ikhlaq’s burial. Overnight, the village had transformed itself along religious lines. It had become us versus them.
“Everyone is frightened. The Muslims thought we wouldn’t allow the burial and Hindus were fearful of being named as accused,” Sisodia explained. Had he gone to see Danish -- who is like a son to him — in hospital? The answer was no. Ask Corporal Mohammad Sartaj, Ikhlaq’s son — who is proud to be wearing an air force uniform — if his childhood friends have called on him and he says, “May be they haven’t come because of social pressure.”
Did his father’s friends come to offer their condolences? His reply is a stab in the heart. “Some of his Muslim friends came,’’ he says.
Those who did make it a point to come only deepened the fault line. Several politicians made a beeline for Bisada and many pledged to save the cow. Most of them visited Ikhlaq’s home but didn’t say that it was impossible for slaughter to have remained undetected in the tiny lanes of the populous village. Nobody pointed to the fact that the accused were all immediate neighbours, living within 60 to 80 metres of the Ikhlaq residence.
Neighbours as killers
Why did neighbours suddenly turn blood thirsty?
Three days before Ikhlaq was brutally murdered, the same neighbourhood had embraced him on the occasion of Eid and complimented his mother for the tasty mutton she packed in boxes for them to take home.
In the divided village, the non-Muslims, who perceive themselves to be at the receiving end of relentless media scrutiny, are not willing to face up to the hard questions. They have shut themselves to the basic truth that while slaughter may be banned in UP, consumption of beef is not a crime. Instead, they seek solace in the beef theory and hold it up as a reason for why Ikhlaq was attacked. They also have a set of counter accusations: The family has got so much compensation (Rs 45 lakh) from the UP government, what else do they want? The family is naming random Hindu youth and getting them arrested so are they being good neighbours?
Ikhlaq’s widow points to a larger conspiracy. “Of late, my husband was being taunted for being a Pakistani and was told that he would not be tolerated. Some youth also told him that they would repeat a Muzaffarnagar kind of situation,” said Ikram, pointing to the communal violence of September 2013.
Ikhlaq’s family also speaks of incidences of unrest in the village due to open and increased drinking. “The youth are unwilling to listen to their parents and are out drinking in the open till late in the evening,” one member said, also revealing that several cow protection organisations had been active in the Dadri belt of late.
Bisada is a part of Dadri and the police admit that the organisations target the young, aged between 18 and 25. “The boys are encouraged to use their smart phones and film any signs of cow slaughter.”
Were Bisada’s boys actively indoctrinated and recruited? Anurag Singh, Circle Officer, Dadri said, “We had oral reports of some organisations being active in the area, looking for unemployed youngsters but did not get anything in black and white.”
Are Bisada’s accused amongst the indoctrinated? The administration is now delving into their phone records in search of answers. But there is other urgent work to be done too. Bisada has lit bushfires in UP and cow slaughter has taken centre stage. A mere spark can have a cascading effect and the administration is busy holding village-level meetings and calling in village pradhans for special briefings.
“All those who live, will die. Human beings die, animals too will die. But we need to be careful when a cow or a calf dies,” NP Singh, district magistrate, Gautam Budh Nagar tells a group of about twenty Dadri pradhans (HT sat through the briefing).
“Make sure your village does not get a black mark like Bisada. Find four credible witnesses to sign off on their death.” He informs them of an incident early this week when a man filmed the disposal of a calf carcass and quickly collected a crowd of 200 people who started raising slogans. It turned out that the calf had died due to an illness but that didn’t matter even though the owner kept telling him that. “And do you know the owner of the calf was a Hindu…’’ Singh tells the gathered pradhans.
In today’s political environment, the sub-text is inescapable. What if the owner had been a Muslim?