Seraikela/Ramgarh/Khunti/Ranchi: When 24-year-old Tabrez Ansari, accused of being a bike thief, was lynched at Seraikela village in Jharkhand’s Kharsawan district, he was the 18th victim of mob violence in the state over the past two years.
Since his death, at least three more people have been lynched in the state, taking the total number of victims to 21.
While the state police have no separate data for lynching incidents, according to figures maintained by the Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha (JJM), an organisation of social activists in the state, these 21 people were killed between 18 March 2016 and 22 September 2019.
There is a distinct communal angle as the majority of those killed are Muslims, but the victims are from other religions too. According to the JJM data, at least 11 of the victims were Muslim, with most of them having been killed by cow vigilante groups. Five of the victims were Hindu, lynched over child lifting rumours, and two were tribal Christians, killed for carrying and consuming beef. The identities of the three others are not known.
Activists say a combination of botched probes, brazen political support for the accused, coupled with rumours of child lifting, theft, selling of beef and cow smuggling have led to Jharkhand being one of the worst affected by the “lynch-mob” syndrome.
Siraj Dutta, a social activist with the JJM, said the situation is even more dire as the organisation’s data excludes those lynched over the suspicion of witchcraft.
“The figure for lynching deaths that we have been maintaining excludes those killed over the suspicion of practising witchcraft. Adding those deaths will take figure to over 50 to 60 deaths,” Dutta said. “But this specific kind of lynching can be connected to illiteracy and tribal customs while the lynching over child-lifting rumours and other communal issues is a new trend that we have been witnessing over the last three years.”
Dutta said lynching over beef is a newer phenomenon in the state where the BJP has been in power since 2014 (the party has been part of Jharkhand’s ruling coalitions ever since the state was formed).
“Lynching over cow slaughter is surely a new phenomenon in the state. This is rampant because the perpetrators have political patronage and indirect support of police and the administration,” Dutta said. “In some cases, the victims were harassed and cases slapped against them. There is no fear of law. In most cases, the culprits are granted bail by the higher court. This mob mentality is growing on the religious lines and it reflects the feeling of majoritarianism.”
Police have no data on lynching
Even as the number of cases rise, the state administration is yet to build a database on lynching.
“The cases of lynching are very commonplace and routine here,” a senior police officer told ThePrint. “People may call it lynching or mob violence and so on, but to us, these are murder cases. We file a murder case, as there is no separate section for lynching under the IPC. So, we never thought of compiling such cases.”
“However, the police directorate does have reports of 89 people being convicted for such cases in over a year,” he added.
Apart from the violence unleashed by gau-rakshaks, the officer said, the state has witnessed a good number of mob violence instances over rumours of child-lifting.
He said 30 such incidents over child lifting rumours were reported over the last two months leading to two deaths in the state.
In the absence of any direct remedial action by the administration and bureaucracy, the police directorate has come up with a set of guidelines for its force to handle “such cases”.
“We sensitise all police stations about handling of such cases, how should be the response and what should be done during such violence,” said M.L. Meena, ADG (Operations), Jharkhand Police. “We regularly hold video-conferences reiterating the guidelines that have been laid down.”
“The standard instruction is to use whatever force available to stop lynching,” he added. “In fact, we have also stated that if any officer is found guilty of not responding promptly to such situation, or if there is delay in saving the victim, strict disciplinary action will be taken against the concerned officer.”
The state’s political class, both the BJP and the opposition Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), is indifferent to such “regular” incidents.
According to Deepak Prakash, BJP’s state general secretary, the tribal population across the state is mostly illiterate and “age-old practices and customs” lead to such mindless violence.
“Lynching is a political word. This is used by the so-called liberals,” he told ThePrint. “It is nothing new. Our government is against any violence and mandate has been given to the police to take strict action in such cases.”
On such lynch mobs found in the state, he said, “This is mostly due to illiteracy, lack of awareness and some age old regressive practices in tribal society. It is not a new phenomenon in Jharkhand as some political parties are trying to project it.
“This has been happening here for long. Earlier, several tribal women were lynched as people suspected them of witchcraft, now some such incidents are being reported over cow-slaughter. People should also need to be a little vigilant and careful about such cases and respect the ban on cow-slaughter in the state.”
He, however, said it was not the party’s job to carry out awareness campaigns against such practices.
On the other hand, JMM general secretary Supriyo Bhattacharya said his party had not done enough to protest such incidents and added it would now do more. But he too echoed Prakash on why this was happening. “These are age-old issues here,” he said. “But the number of incidents has increased manifold over the last four years. Now, people have started killing others over the cow — this is a product of saffron mobilisation.”
For the families of the victims, the political indifference and the botched up probes have led to an indefinite wait for justice.
Mariam Khatoon of Ramgarh village in Hazaribagh district has now given up.
Her husband Alimuddin Ansari, 45, was beaten to death on 27 June 2017 for allegedly transporting beef.
Two months after the incident, police arrested and slapped murder charge against 10 accused. A fast track court convicted all the perpetrators and sentenced them to life imprisonment.
The convicts appealed to the Jharkhand High Court and were granted bail in 2018. The case led to a furore as Hazaribagh MP and former Union minister Jayant Sinha celebrated their bail by garlanding the accused. He also reportedly provided them with financial aid.
“Initially I got justice as police arrested the killers. They were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. But things changed when the (Jharkhand) High Court granted them bail and ruled the (available) evidence to inconclusive,” she said. “I have no financial support to move higher courts. I’m hardly able to support my family.”
To add to her woes, the mother of three sons and two daughters said, her oldest son passed away in January this year. “My husband and my 23-year-old son were the earning members of my family. Now I beg and borrow to run the family,” she said.
No one from the government, including Sinha, has ever met her, she said.
“He helped the killers but did not ask me once how my children and I are making ends meet,” she said.
Her younger son, Shaaban, 20, is studying in a madrasa in Jamshedpur. “I have always dreamt of becoming a Hafiz (one who has memorised the Quran). But after witnessing my father’s death, I think I should not read anything but the Quran,” he said. “Can you tell me why should I trust our government? Why do we have so many police stations if mobs decide who can live and who dies? I will never go to any police station again.”
With all the accused out on bail, Mariam and her children now live in the fear of further assaults. “It is very hard on any wife to see her husband’s killers move around freely,” she said. “I am so scared (of them) that I do not send my children to local markets.”
In Saraikela, around 200 km from Ramgarh, another family fights a similar battle.
Sahida Parveen, the 19-year-old widow of lynching victim Tabrez Ansari, says she won’t rest until her husband’s killers are hanged.
“I want the death sentence for them. They have no right to live,” she said. “I want to see them suffer the same pain that I have been suffering over the last three months.”