Hawa kharaab hai (circumstances are adverse)”, says Pravesh Kumar, an autorickshaw driver, as he ferries this correspondent to Bisada village in western Uttar Pradesh’s Dadri town, where seven years ago, on the night of September 28, 2015, a mob lynched 52-year-old Mohammad Akhlaq on the suspicion of slaughtering a calf.
“Aapka wahan jaana theek nahi hai (You shouldn’t go there),” Mr. Kumar, whose family hails from Bisada, adds.
A few hours ago, Akhlaq’s brother, Jaan Mohammed, had issued a similar warning. “I’ll advise that you go only during the day.”
Even before one reaches Bisada, the total breakdown of relations between the village’s Muslims and Hindus is palpable.
“There is no social interaction between Hindus and Muslims in Bisada unless one comes face to face on the road. Of the 30 Muslim families that used to reside in the village before Akhlaq’s murder, eight to ten have moved out,” Mr. Mohammed says.
The first to move out was Akhlaq’s family, which fled their house under the shadow of fear on October 17, 2015.
This year, as has happened over the past six, no family member came to the village to host a prayer meeting on Akhlaq’s death anniversary. There is a danger to their life and limb. The attackers, as Mr. Mohammed points out, “roam freely”.
Of the 17 accused, one — Ravin Sisodia — died in judicial custody in June 2017, while the rest got bail by September 2017. The chargesheet in the case was filed on December 25, 2015, but the case gained momentum only this year.
“Nobody keeps in touch with us anymore,” Mr. Mohammed says, adding, “The uncle of one of the attackers was known to me. He too does not call up to find out about us. It has been years. We have never been able to return to our house.”
The house, located in a remote part of the village, wears a forsaken look. There is tall, wild grass in the courtyard; the yellow paint on the walls is peeling off; plaster has fallen off the walls due to unattended seepage over the years.
A narrow staircase leads to Akhlaq’s bedroom on the first floor. It had then been freshly whitewashed, probably for Id-ul-Azha. Akhlaq had just retired to bed after celebrating Id with family and friends when he was dragged out of the bedroom by a mob around 9 p.m., as allegations of cow slaughter flew thick and fast.
The village had not reported any communal incident until then. Akhlaq’s family had often shared the Id sewaiyan with the neighbours in a perfect picture of communal bonhomie.
“Five generations of our family lived there. You could ask any villager if we had ever even squabbled with any neighbour. Never,” says Mr. Mohammed, as Akhlaq’s daughter nods in agreement.
It all changed that evening. Passions ran high and reason took leave. Men, young and old, pounced upon Akhlaq, as his wife, daughter and son screamed for help. “I was away. An acquaintance was in my room. He could not help either. The attackers hit my bhabhi (Akhlaq’s wife Ikraman) and Shaista (Akhlaq’s daughter) as they tried to save him,” says Mr. Mohammed.
The men kicked and slapped Akhlaq, pulled at his hair, and hit him with bricks and batons. The police arrived half an hour later. By then Akhlaq was no more.
Later, as his body was readied for burial with a ceremonial bath, the family discovered, as Mohammed Qumar, a family friend, recalls, “He was bruised and bleeding all over. His skull, neck and knees were fractured; his left arm hung loosely. It was difficult to wrap the body in a shroud.”
“Akhlaq bhai was mauled. It was like the attackers had gone wild. They recorded a video of the attack and uploaded it on social media. Some of the locals might still have the video,” Mr. Qumar says.
The police arrested the priest of the temple, from where the announcement about the missing calf had allegedly been made, and his assistant for questioning.
An FIR was filed naming 10 of the attackers based on the testimony of the family members. It contained charges under Sections 147 (rioting), 148 (rioting with deadly weapons), 149 (unlawful assembly), 302 (murder), 307 (attempt to murder) and 458 (house-breaking) of the Indian Penal Code.
Prime time news
The case hit the headlines across India. Every newspaper and TV news channel gave it prime space. No lynching incident since has been covered in as much detail.
In many ways, Akhlaq’s lynching set the template for future attacks on unarmed Muslim men by self-proclaimed ‘gau rakshaks’ who claimed their victims either killed a cow, as in the case of Akhlaq, or were transporting cows for slaughter, as in the case of Pehlu Khan and Rakbar Khan in Rajasthan’s Alwar district.
The then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav, promised justice to the family. He even flew Akhlaq’s wife and daughter to Lucknow for a meeting.
Mr. Yadav announced financial aid to the family — Akhlaq’s wife was given ₹30 lakh and his brothers ₹5 lakh each. Later, the Greater Noida Development Authority awarded four flats to Akhlaq’s kin. No compensation was announced by the Centre.
Meanwhile, the Indian Air Force helped by posting Akhlaq’s son Mohammed Sartaj, who was till then serving in Chennai, to Delhi.
“After the incident, the Indian Air Force gave two options of transfer to Sartaj — to the Hindon airbase or to the air force station in Delhi. We opted for Delhi. Sartaj’s mother and sister shifted with him in October 2015,” recalls Mr. Mohammed, who himself lives in another house in Dadri, a few kilometres away from his ancestral house, which he once shared with his brothers Akhlaq, Jameel and other family members.
Amid heightened public interest, the trial started in Surajpur sessions court soon after the incident. It was, however, not until 2020 that the hearings began.
“It is difficult to put a number on the exact hearings. They have sometimes been scheduled fortnightly and at other times monthly. I would say around 60 hearings have taken place so far,” says Mohammed Yusuf Saifi, the advocate representing the victims.
The statements of all the family members of Akhlaq are yet to be recorded. There have been many delays and plenty of bureaucratic hurdles.
For instance, Ms. Shaista, who now lives with her husband in Sangam Vihar in Delhi, could not record her statement before the court on two occasions earlier this year, as no security was provided to her.
It was only when U.P. Police provided her protection on the third occasion that she could record her statement in court. The police said no security could be provided to her due to lack of manpower.
She is one of the three eyewitnesses in the case, the other two being Ms. Ikraman and Akhlaq’s younger son, Danish. Ms. Shaista repeated the names of those mentioned in the FIR in the last hearing. She recognised them all.
Noted legal activist Asad Hayat, who is part of the team representing the victims, says, “Ikraman’s statement will be recorded on October 12. Then we will record Danish’s statement. There has been an inordinate delay from the defence lawyers since the chargesheet was filed in 2015. Two years were lost to the pandemic. But this year the case has gained momentum.”
Mr. Saifi chips in, “Whether it takes one year or two, we are confident of getting convictions in the case. The hearings have so far been good for us. We are moving in the right direction.” Mr. Danish is yet to be called for recording his account.
He suffered grievous injuries in the attack and was treated at Noida’s Kailash Hospital where he underwent two brain surgeries. His medical bills were footed by the Akhilesh government. He had been promised a government job too, but that has not materialised with the change of government in the State. He is unemployed today.
“The family did not get any help from the State government or the police. We cannot even ask for a job for Danish with this government,” says Mr. Mohammed.
‘Climate of fear’
Mr. Mohammed says a BJP MP visited their house soon after the incident. “The MP described Akhlaq’s killing as an ‘accident’, to which someone in the crowd raised an objection asserting that it was a ‘planned murder’. The MP did speak to the family after that and left. Soon after, a BJP MLA visited our village but did not come to our house. Later the same MLA met me at a function and advised me to ‘sort out this matter of Akhlaq’s killing’”.
Meanwhile, Mr. Mohammed says there have been attempts by the accused to settle the matter out of court.
“Gaurav, son of Dhiraj, and Sachin, son of Om Kumar, approached me. They came along with a man called Kalicharan and requested that we reach some sort of settlement,” says Mr. Mohammed, adding, “My name was added to the FIR to build pressure on me. But I did not succumb. It is a matter of justice for my late brother. That’s why no family member lives there now. There is a climate of fear there.”
The FIR he refers to stems from the police investigations in the case.
“The police came to take the meat from Akhlaq’s house around 1 a.m. on the night of September 28-29. They found no meat there. Yet in the chargesheet, they did not say so. Instead, they showed meat in a utensil which was too big to be put inside the fridge,” says Mr. Mohammed.
He adds, “They then put the meat in plastic bags and sent it to the Dadri animal hospital. On investigation there, it was found to be mutton. The meat was red in colour, the fat was white. The vet also checked the feet of the animal. And concluded it was mutton. Later, we heard of a forensic report from Mathura which said it was beef.” Following this, an FIR was filed against Mr. Mohammed and a daughter-in-law of Akhlaq, Sonu.
Mr. Saifi claimed then that the findings of the Mathura laboratory will have no bearing on the case. “It has been the unanimous view of the prosecution and also of the investigating agencies that the ongoing criminal case is about murder. The fresh forensic report will have no bearing on that case,” he had said.
Meanwhile, the autorickshaw driver says, “Justice should be done. Whosoever is the culprit should be punished. After the incident, the communal bonhomie in the village is gone. People from different faiths don’t visit each other’s homes now.”