“Not a single bone of his body was unbroken. Both arms and legs were fractured in three places each. His shoulders and all his ribs were broken,” Haroun Khan spoke up from amongst the group of men who were sitting in the courtyard of Rakbar Khan’s home. Haroun is Rakbar’s first cousin and the man who went to the mortuary to claim Rakbar’s corpse.
“When I first received the body, it was frozen and seemed stiff. Rakbar had been dressed in new clothes that did not belong to him. As the temperature rose, we realised the extent of the injuries on the body. Even his neck was broken, his face was turning all the way to the back,” he said, holding his own neck. He began to sob.
I visited Rakbar Khan’s home, in Kolgaon village in tehsil Ferozepur Jhirka of Haryana’s Nuh district, on Tuesday, as part of a group representing the civil-society initiative Karwan e Mohabbat. When the Karwan team arrived, a large group of about 200 people was sitting outside Rakbar’s home. The leaders of the community and many others had gathered to make sure that the family was not alone in this time of mourning. These included Naseem Ahmed, the current member of legislative assembly of Ferozepur Jhirka, two former MLAs—Azad Mohammad and Habib Ur Rahman—and Lekh Raj, the sarpanch of a nearby village, Doha. The air hung heavy with a sense of helplessness, grief and bafflement.
Rakbar was a dairy farmer. His is yet another name that has been added to the growing list of victims who have been brutally assaulted and killed in the name of protecting cows. On the intervening night between 20 July and 21 July, Rakbar and his friend Aslam were returning from the neighbouring tehsil of Ramgarh in the district of Alwar, Rajasthan after buying cattle from there. A group of self-styled gau rakshaks attacked them. Rakbar was brutally beaten, and subsequently died, while in police custody.
Villagers told us that Rakbar Khan and Aslam were walking back with the cows at night for two reasons. In recent years, it has become commonplace for groups of men to stop dairy farmers on the highway and extort money from them, or threaten to beat them up and seize their animals. Walking back through the fields also meant that Rakbar would be able to save on the cost of hiring a vehicle to transport them. Both men had hoped that the choice to walk through the fields at night would make them less vulnerable to the threat of assault or extortion.
Aslam witnessed the beginning of the incident that finally led to Rakbar’s death. “We were walking through a field in Lalawandi village when we heard the sound of motorcycles and shots being fired,” he said. Both men abandoned the cows and began to run for their lives. Aslam entered a field of standing crops and dropped to the ground, crawling forward on his elbows and knees. He reached Kolgaon the next day, his body covered with scratches and feet infested with thorns. He found out that the police had already reported that Rakbar had died from the injuries inflicted on him by the gau rakshaks.
In a statement to the police, Aslam named five attackers and reported that he heard them say, “Set him on fire. The MLA sahib is with us.” According to him, they were referring to Gyan Dev Ahuja, the MLA from Ramgarh, who is a member of the BJP.
Naseem Ahmed, the MLA of Ferozepur Jhirka, said that Ahuja, and Naval Kishore Sharma, the chief of the VHP’s cattle-protection squad, have encouraged and abetted vigilante assaults on Muslim dairy farmers. “The MLA of Ramgarh has only one agenda and that is Hindu-Muslim,” he says. “He wins elections primarily by demonising Muslims.”
In a statement to the press in December 2017, Ahuja had said, “If anyone is found engaging in cow smuggling or the slaughter of cows, he will be killed.”
“They call themselves gau rakshaks, but they have nothing to do with cows in their own lives. They don’t have any cows in their own homes,” Ahmed said. “They are extortionists by day and violent goons by night. And they are protected by the BJP and the police.”
The brutality of the attack, the impunity of the killers and the apathy of the administration towards the victim and his survivors have become common, even routine. Yet, they do not fail to stun.
Rakbar Khan was still alive when the police arrived and took him away to the police station. Sharma shared two photographs of him after he had been washed and made to wear new clothes. In these photos, Rakbar is alive, able to support his neck and still able to sit on the ground. He was with the police for four hours after these photographs were taken and yet they brought him dead to the hospital, with injuries much worse than those visible in the photos.
Did the police beat him to death? Did the cow vigilantes beat him again after the photographs were taken? It is clear that no one made any attempt to provide or seek medical help that could have saved him. Rakbar’s post-mortem report states that he died of “internal bleeding,” from injuries sustained during a severe beating. Senior police officials have only gone so far as to acknowledge that there was an “error in judgment” on the part of the police—but the responsible officers have only faced mild reprimands. The police’s lack of transparency reeks of collusion.
“Once in a while, a case comes to the limelight and the media highlights it, but the majority of incidents of violence in the name of cow protection go unreported in this area. Bodies are brought home and buried without any cases being reported,” Habib Ur Rehman, the former MLA of Nuh, an elderly man in his 60s, said. “Dairy farming and driving is the main livelihood of the people of Mewat and men in both professions are increasingly being framed as cattle smugglers and attacked.”
More than one person from the group told us about YouTube channels where videos of violence against Muslim men are routinely uploaded. One man listed keywords that we would have to use to find these.
The most prominent among the cases that have been reported from the Mewat region was the lynching of Pehlu Khan in April 2017, which was also recorded on camera. There are startling similarities between the two cases. Both men had just bought expensive milch cows with calves with their life’s savings and both were lynched by a group of Hindu men who accused them of smuggling cows for slaughter. Within a few months, all the men he named in his dying declaration were let off. Rakbar had also given an account of the attack on him in his dying declaration.
Among the men in the group outside Rakbar Khan’s home was Hashim, a truck driver in his 50s, who was wearing a blood-stained, torn vest over his checked blue lungi. Two men supported him as he hobbled painfully, to come closer. He waited as a chair was brought, and sat on it. Hashim had visible wounds on his legs and lower back. He said that he sustained these injuries as a result of an attack that took place on 22 July.
“I was driving my truck on the highway when I noticed a group of men standing ahead. A few of them were lying on the road and I was forced to stop to avoid hurting them,” Hashim said. “I was pulled out of my truck and beaten. They accused me of transporting beef and asked me to open the containers in my truck. I was transporting grocery goods and the containers had been sealed in a factory. They tried to break the seal with stones and bricks but they couldn’t do it. They beat me till I was unconscious and left me on the road, taking away the keys of my truck.”
Neither Hashim nor his employer has registered a case with the police. He said he felt lucky to have escaped alive.
Inside Rakbar’s home, his wife, Asmeena lay comatose on the bed. She was so weak from grief and shock that she was unable to get up or speak at all. Rakbar’s mother, Habiban, watched over her daughter-in-law, sometimes consoling her by holding her hand. “She is so young. She cannot cope,” Asmeena’s mother, who had come to support her, said. Rakbar Khan and Asmeena’s seven children stood nearby, wide-eyed and silent. They watched as photographers took their photos and asked their names.
“Rakbar loved his cows,” Haroun said, and various people from the family agreed with him His father, Sulaiman, said that he had named Rakbar after the son of the man who had started the first big dairy in the area, called Leela Dairy. “Rakbar could go hungry but he always made sure there was fodder for the cows.” The family is landless and the parents have been supplementing their income from dairy farming by working as labourers.
A man from the village spontaneously began to tell us a folktale in Mewati, the local dialect. Habib Ur Rahman translated it for our benefit:
A dog and a bitch were very thirsty. The dog decided to go to the nearest village and drink from the pond.“Are you crazy?” the bitch said. “They will kill us there.”
“No way, we have a patta” the dog assured her. “A paper that says we belong here.” The bitch tried to dissuade the dog from going near the village, but the dog was confident that he had the right to be there and take what he needs. They went to the pond in the village. A crowd arrived and began to beat them up with lathis. “You said you have a patta,” cried the bitch.“I would show them my right to be here, but no one is interested in listening to me here,” the dog said, between blows.
The man who was narrating this fable then said, “This has become our state in Mewat also. They see Muslims and they try to kill us. No one is interested in our rights or existence here.” Everyone in the crowd appeared to realise that something large was at stake—the imminent destruction of livelihoods and identity of the entire community.
Another story that the people of Mewat repeat with pride is the place of the Meo Muslims in the history of India. They talk about Muslim Rajput rulers who resisted the might of the Mughals and later participated in the independence struggle against the British. In 1947, Mohandas Gandhi visited Mewat to persuade the Muslim leaders of the community to continue to stay in India and not migrate to Pakistan. Today, the Meo Muslims feel under siege yet again, but no leader has arrived to console or reassure them.
“On whose shoulder can we cry? Where do we go from here?” Habib Ur Rahman asked. “There is a Cow Protection Task Force to protect cattle but there seems to be no intent to provide justice to humans.”
Sitting outside Rakbar’s home, it was impossible to deny the urgency of these stories. One thing becomes clearer and clearer with every such incident—the communal fires that have been lit are only growing, reaching for the rest of us before we know it. What happens in Mewat will not stay in Mewat. As a nation and a people, we need to participate in the process to atone and seek justice.
Natasha Badhwar is an author, filmmaker and a member of the civil-society initiative, Karwan e Mohabbat.