Latehar, Ramgarh & Garhwa, Jharkhand: Saira Bibi remembered the nights she and her husband Mazloom Ansari sat on their string charpoy or cot, almost every day till midnight or later, talking about their days—his trading business, her household chores.
Sometimes, they had nothing to say. But it was just nice to be there after the children were asleep. Together in the small courtyard outside their brick-mud house, gazing at the stars, amid the fireflies.
For the past four-and-a-half years, she has continued to sit on that charpoy—alone.
“There is no talking any more, but I would like to believe that he is still here,” said Bibi, about 35 years old (she wasn’t sure), smiling gently, as she handed us a glass of water.
Carefully weaving delicate flowers on a chatai (mat) with bamboo strips, she sat opposite us on the charpoy and looked into the distance.
It was here in the western Jharkhand district of Latehar that Bibi and her husband, then 32, had their nightly sojourns, until 18 March 2016, a little after sunrise, when her brother-in-law Manowar received a call.
A hushed voice told him that Mazloom and an 11-year-old boy—later identified as his business partner’s son Imtiaz—were found hanging from a tree in the village of Jhabar, approximately 5 km southwest of Bibi and Mazloom’s home in Dumardih.
Disbelieving, a tense Manowar rushed to Jhabar to see two bodies hanging from a tree, one of them unmistakably of his older brother. Mazloom and Imtiaz, Manowar learned, had been lynched to death at dawn by a mob of 12 Hindus.
Mazloom’s murder was one of the first in Jharkhand, India’s poorest state, in the name of ‘cow protection’, setting off a chain of copycat events nationwide.
The next year, on 29 June 2017, cattle trader Alimuddin Ansari was dragged out of his car and attacked by a frenzied Hindu mob that recorded the incident. Two months later, Adivasi Christian Ramesh Minj died in police custody after being attacked by Hindu vigilantes.
Their deaths, the fates of their families and the slow progress of the criminal cases against their attackers are emblematic of the empowerment of Hindu vigilantes in Jharkhand, where those murdered have primarily been Muslims and some Christians or tribals.
Police & Political Support For Lynchings
As many as 86% of gau-raksha (cow protection) vigilante crimes from 2010 to 2019 targeted religious minorities, with 97% of them occurring after 2014, according IndiaSpend data (now taken down). In 2019, The Wire reported there was little likelihood of a law to address such lynchings.
The state assemblies of Manipur, Rajasthan and West Bengal passed anti-lynching bills in December 2018, July 2019 and August 2019, respectively. Jharkhand drafted one in December 2021 and intends to introduce it in the winter session, which begins on 16 December, The Indian Express reported.
The ‘Prevention of Mob Violence and Mob Lynching Bill, 2021’, addresses registration of cases for “irresponsible and explosive content”, sentencing of attackers (from three years to life imprisonment), monetary compensation and free medical treatment for families of victims, duties of the police, including providing written updates of the case to families, and intends to provide “‘effective protection” of constitutional rights.
Lynchings are not specifically recognised crimes under the Indian Penal Code, 1860. Sections 302 (murder) or 141 (unlawful assembly) are often used in such cases. Despite collecting data for lynchings in 2016—the year Mazloom was beaten to death and hanged—the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) never released the information.
Every third Indian police official thinks it is to a “large extent” or “somewhat” natural for a mob to punish “culprits” in a case of “cow slaughter”, whether proven or otherwise, according to a 2019 report on the status of policing by Common Cause, a non-profit, and Lokniti–Centre for the Study Developing Societies, a think-tank.
On that morning in 2016, it was a mob with supposed cause who changed Saira Bibi’s fate when they murdered her 32-year-old husband and his business partner’s son.
Two and a half years after Mazloom’s murder, the Latehar District Court sentenced eight perpetrators to life imprisonment, but local Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Vinod Prajapati, a prime accused named by eyewitnesses in one of three First Information Reports (FIRs), has neither been arrested nor has he faced trial.
A Family’s Reality
“I have seen the video over and over again. The women in my neighbourhood kept telling me to stop,” said Mariam, her voice louder than the sound of the rain outside her kothi or home in Ramgarh. “It was too cruel; I could not see my husband like that. But I had to. I am the one who has to live with this.”
Her husband, cattle trader Alimuddin Ansari was dragged out of his Maruti van and brutally lynched during a busy Saturday market in daylight for allegedly transporting beef.
Mariam first found out about her husband’s murder through a video her son found on Whatsapp. The family saw Ansari holding his bloody head and pleading for his life as a group of 11 men ignored his entreaties.
This video would mark the beginning of a long battle for justice. Ansari, who was taken to two hospitals because of the severity of his injuries, died without seeing his family ever again.
In March 2018, a fast-track court sentenced the 11 accused, including the then co-in-charge of the BJP’s media cell in Ramgarh, Nityanand Mahato, to life imprisonment. It also convicted three of them under section 120B (criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code 1860, indicating the violence was pre-planned.
But three months after the verdict, eight of the killers were granted bail under Article 389 (“suspension of sentence”) of the Code of Criminal Procedure 1973 (CrPC). Soon after their release, they were garlanded by Jayant Sinha, union minister of state for civil aviation and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Harvard-educated member of parliament from Hazaribagh—the constituency in which Ramgarh falls. They continue to be free.
Sinha reportedly provided the members of the mob with “legal and monetary assistance” as well. His home was their first destination after they were released from the Jai Prakash Narayan Central Jail in Hazaribagh.
While members of the mob that killed her husband are free, Mariam’s battle continues. But this is not the only one she is fighting.
Compensation, Police, The State
“I did receive monetary compensation after my husband was killed. But it has been more than four years. My children have forty more to go,” Mariam said. “It is them I need to take care of today.”
Months after her husband’s death, Mariam's oldest child, Shehzad, met with a road accident. On 12 October 2017, the 22-year-old was on his way back home from Court—where he had accompanied his uncle and the witness to his father’s lynching, Jalil Ansari, when a bike with two riders crashed into their motorbike. While Jalil’s wife Julekha Khatun succumbed to her injuries soon after reaching the hospital, Shehzad sustained severe head injuries. On 23 January 2019, he died complaining of excruciating head pain and other undetermined medical issues.
Despite her weary eyes, Mariam did not shed a tear. Instead, she beamed with pride when she talked about her 17-year-old daughter, Sadiya Parveen’s desire to become a nurse.
Following the 2018 guidelines set by the landmark Supreme Court judgment of Tehseen S. Poonawalla vs Union of India, the Jharkhand state government offered a compensation of Rs 200,000 for families of victims of mob lynching. This fixed sum neither factors in the size of the surviving family, nor its ability to sustain itself in the near future.
For most of these families, that is just about sufficient to meet legal costs.
The Provision of Bail & the Lack of Aid
“I have not seen my children in three months. I earn Rs 250 a day, and cannot afford to travel to see them often. But if I do not do this for them, who will?’ asked Anita Minj, an Adivasi Christian woman living in a makeshift room in Garhwa.
She started working at a construction site here in 2019, two years after her husband and the sole bread earner of their family, Ramesh Minj, died in prison on 19 August 2017, the day after being lynched.
After being severely beaten by a mob of 39, Anita said, he succumbed to his injuries in jail. The mob was from Ramesh’s own village, Barkol. While 12 men were arrested for the violence that same night, they were all granted bail by the Jharkhand High Court nine months later, on the condition that they each compensate Anita with Rs 10,000.
The role of the police, said Ramesh’s family, was troubling.
According to Anita and the victim’s brother, Umesh Minj, who was also beaten by the mob, the police wilfully prevented adequate medical aid from reaching Ramesh on the crucial night that he spent alive in the station.
A Family’s Fundamental Rights and Self-Respect
While some non-government organisations have been providing aid to victims of hate crimes over the past years, it tends to be inadequate, especially as such crime mount.
With no central or municipal programmes or scholarships, the children of those lynched, often young enough for primary or secondary schooling, find it hard to afford school. The state offers no support to these children.
More often than not, this has often compelled newly-single mothers to pull their children out of conventional educational systems.
“What does a ‘pension’ mean? Is it to help, or does it belittle us?” All the three grieving women asked me a version of this question. They currently receive a monthly widow’s pension of Rs 1,000 every month from the Jharkhand government.
There were other questions that arose through the interviews: How was a family supposed to survive? How many days of the month was such aid supposed to suffice? What percentage of living cost did it take into consideration? How many family members was it supposed to cater to?
Until 2017, 52% of mob lynchings in the name of cow protection were based on rumour. While the Supreme Court in July 2018 listed preventive, remedial and punitive measures to be deployed in such cases, the union government has not gathered these under a law.
‘I do not need any charity. None of us do. We need them to acknowledge us; respect us,” Saira Bibi smiled as she sipped on the chai her son had made, sitting on the same charpai. “And even though they never can, apologise to us.”
(Oishika Neogi is a human rights’ researcher at Karwan e Mohabbat, Delhi.)