An uneasy calm prevails in India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh where a Hindu mob lynched a Muslim man following rumors of him eating beef.
The killing has sent shock waves across the country and demands are growing for swift and stern action against the groups involved.
As Bismillah Geelani reports, many see the incident as a conspiracy by Hindu nationalist groups aimed at dividing communities along religious lines ahead of the regional elections.
Eighty two-year old Asghari Begum is inconsolable.
Sitting at the front door of her mob-ravaged house in Dadri district, tears roll down her face as she recounts the events leading to the violent killing of her 50-year old son Akhlak.
“A bunch of people suddenly started beating our door; they were shouting, ‘Open the door, open the door,’ and hurling filthy abuses. We were just trying to understand the situation when some of them climbed the outer wall and barged in, others broke open the main gate,” she recalls.
Begum says the intruders ransacked the house and started beating her family.
“I asked them ‘Why they are doing all this?’ But they kept abusing and beating us. I locked myself in the bathroom but they broke the door open and continued hitting and kicking me, she says, “My son and grandson were both bleeding profusely; they dragged them out of the house.”
Akhlak’s 17-year-old daughter Shaista ran after the attackers urging them to leave her father and brother.
But her pleas fell on deaf ears.
“As they were dragging my father and brother I recognized many of them they were all our neighbors. I begged them to stop this and leave our house but they didn’t listen,” she says, “They smashed my father’s head with bricks. He fell unconscious then they dragged him and my brother to the street.”
Shaista says hundreds more joined in as the men continued to beat her father and brother. About an hour later the police arrived and took Akhlak and his son to the hospital.
The father was declared dead while the son is still battling for his life.
The attack on Asghari Begum’s house was the result of an announcement made on the public address system of the local temple.
The temple priest says some local youth forced him to make the announcement.
“My disciple opened the door and they told him that an announcement has to be made asking people to gather at a particular place because someone has killed a cow in the village,” he says, “The boy told them about my illness… But they insisted that I had to make it.”
Within minutes hundreds of villagers gathered near Asghari begum’s house and attacked the family.
In utter disbelief, Asghari Begum saw her world shattering and not a single neighbor coming to their rescue.
Begum says theirs was a village that had maintained communal harmony even during the worst of times.
“I was born and married in this village and we shared a very cordial relationship with our Hindu neighbors,” she says, “We never had even an argument with our neighbors let alone harboring any ill will.”
Begum says they celebrated festivals together, and frequently visited each other’s home and shared food.
“Everything was so perfect here for all these years and today this very village killed my son so mercilessly. Why? What had he done to deserve this?”
But many, including Hindu religious leader Swami Agnivesh, are not surprised.
He says Hindu groups enjoying the support of the ruling establishment are working to create an atmosphere of fear and mistrust among communities across the country.
“The way the politics of polarization is being played in the country especially after the current government came into power, incidents like this are bound to happen,” said Agnivesh, “It’s a conspiracy to divide communities by cornering and targeting the minorities so that the Hindu vote could be consolidated.”
Agnivesh says that before the general elections politicians are doing it again because of the state elections in Bihar and upcoming civic polls in Uttar Pradesh.
The killing left the entire nation shell-shocked. Protests erupted in several places expressing solidarity with the bereaved family and demanding swift and severe action against the culprits.
Social activist Shabnam joined one such protest in New Delhi
“Everyone knows who is interested in doing all this,” comments Shabnam, “They want to do with Muslims and Christians here what Hitler did to Jews. But they should know that this is not our culture and we won’t allow it here.”
But in the village where it all happened the sentiments are entirely different.
Most of the villagers are indifferent to the incident while some openly support the killing – accusing the bereaved family of slaughtering a cow and eating its meat.
The villagers also resisted the police’s attempt to arrest the accused persons prompting the soldiers to use force.
Politicians who made a beeline to visit the village have further vitiated the atmosphere.
Mahesh Sharma a senior minister in the Modi government says the attack was an accident.
“This incident happened because of some misunderstanding, it has nothing to do with communalism so it should be treated as an accident and people should not politicize it,” he says.
But Muslim political leader and MP Asaduddin Owaisi criticizes the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for what he calls the party’s tacit approval of violent attacks on the Muslim community.
“This is not an accident. It’s a pre-planned conspiracy and the mind-set behind this is the same that does not want to see Indians united and that looks at Indian Muslims with suspicion,” argues Owaisi, “It’s not about meat; they were attacked because they belonged to a particular faith.”
The police have now arrested nearly half a dozen accused and the government says the guilty will soon be brought to book.
Akhilesh Yadav, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, has promised justice. “The family has lost a member. While we can’t bring him back, but I assure the family and the country the perpetrators of this violence will not be spared and justice will be done,” he says.
The government has also deployed a large number of police personnel in the area and the situation appears to be under control.
But there is a palpable sense of insecurity and uncertainly, especially among the Muslim families.
Many of them have already moved out while others are also making up their mind to leave the village permanently.
The government’s assurances of providing safety and security have failed to convince Muslims like Sharifa Bibi to stay.
“We have no existence and no dignity here. We can’t stay in this village any more,” says Bibi, “ We have not been able to sleep since this incident. There’s no safety here now.”