Jaipur: It is October, the month of Hindu festivals, when Taslim Ali, his brother and uncounted numbers of bangle-sellers like them normally embark on long bus journeys from their western Uttar Pradesh (UP) village and fan out across neighbouring states to make their living, as they always have.
But Taslim, 25, is in jail, 800 km to the east in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, after being beaten by Hindu vigilantes when he was selling bangles there on 22 August, an attack widely regarded as part of a campaign (here, here and here) to economically emasculate Muslims in north India.
While Taslim’s attackers were released on bail, he was accused of sexual harassment—a case that his family and lawyer termed as “fake”—possessing two identity cards and, in the words of MP home minister Narottam Mishra, “posing as a Hindu”.
Taslim’s fate and similar attacks against itinerant Muslim salesmen (here, here and here) in UP, MP and Rajasthan have terrorised hundreds, if not thousands, of Muslim bangle-sellers and other itinerant salesman not just in his home village, Biraj Mou, 30 km north of the UP city of Hardoi, but across the districts of Lucknow, Unnao, Lakhimpur and Sitapur.
A month and a half after, Taslim’s family is on the brink of destitution, his case reflecting a rising tide of animosity against Muslims, who faced a “devastating combination” of factors, said a leading academic who has for years studied motivations of Hindu right-wing groups.
“Ali’s story is revealing of three dimensions of the new normal in today’s India,” said Christophe Jaffrelot, professor of Indian politics and sociology at London’s King’s India Institute. “The attempt at breaking the back of Muslims economically, the tendency of the police to transform Muslim victims into guilty men and the systematic denial of the ruling party, which claims that it deals with all the communities in the same way.”
Asked to comment on the fear among UP’s Muslim bangle-sellers, a spokesperson of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) indeed told Article 14 that his party did not discriminate. “Our policy is sabka saath sabka vikas (with everyone, everyone’s progress),” said Vijay Bahadur, a BJP vice president in UP, quoting a party slogan.
Taslim’s now penurious wife and brother stayed in Indore for sometime trying to secure bail before they returned to the village. Now the wife and their five children, the youngest of whom is just two-year-old, depend on relatives and friends for food and care.
“My husband has been selling bangles since we were married,” said Neeta, Taslim’s wife, her voice breaking as she spoke. “It is our only source of income,” added Taslim’s younger brother, Salman, who now looks after his wife and children.
Selling bangles is the leading occupation in Biraj Mou, a remote village with no government schools or healthcare. Most drop out after standard 8, attending school at a nearby village.
While Ali’s younger brother Salman is home, another brother, Jamal, is busy making the rounds of advocates and courts every day in Indore, as a long legal battle and uncertain future await the family.
Thousands Of Itinerant Muslim Salesman Stay Home
“In our village, almost everyone sells bangles,” said Saddam Khan, another bangle-seller from Taslim’s village. “Our livelihood depends on the festive season and we do the maximum business on occasions such as Rakshabandhan, Karva Chauth and Diwali.”
“But after Taslim was beaten and then arrested by the police, we were afraid, so we decided to return to our village in the middle of the peak season,” said Khan. “Most of our customers are Hindus. I have decided to sit at home for this season. We don’t know what will happen to our livelihood like this.”
The semi-educated young Muslim men of these UP villages, bangle-selling is the only livelihood they have known, and October is the most important month of the year, when they earn a profit of between Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000, said Khan.
Bangle sellers in villages from neighbouring districts provided similar figures. Mohammed Salman, a bangle-seller from Mahilabad in Lucknow district said they sold up to Rs 60,000 worth of bangles in other states where profits were greater, leaving them with Rs 25,000 to Rs 30,000 after expenses.
“Even since the incident involving Ali, we are afraid to go to other states,” added Mohammed Salman. “We are now selling locally near our villagers, earning around Rs 500 to Rs 1,000 a day, which is more or less the expenses of bangles. After buying household goods and groceries, nothing is left.”
‘People Now Ask If We Are Hindu Or Muslim’
The fear evident in Muslim bangle-sellers, said human-rights activists, has been present before, although they did not recall such strident calls for social and economic boycott of Muslims.
“The idea is to increase the intolerance to such a level that people will fear to venture out and those who do, might face such attacks,” said Yadav, who added that attacks on people like Taslim often resulted in religious profiling of hawkers and vendors.
That is now happening, said the bangle sellers.
“People ask us (after the attack on Taslim) if we are Muslim or Hindu,” said Mohammed Salman. “I tell them why, ‘why do you want to know this?’.”
“If you don’t want the goods I am selling, you can always choose to not buy, but why do you want to know which religion I follow? Earlier, customers never asked whether a vendor is a Thakur, Pandit, Ahir, Yadav, Muslim, Dalit or fakir.”
‘Govt Acts Quickly To Build Trust’: BJP
The call for economic boycott of Muslims has emanated from groups close to or allied with the BJP. In April 2020, a BJP member of UP’s legislative assembly called for such a boycott; reprimanded by his party, he did not back down. No further action was taken.
The Congress party accused the BJP, which runs governments in UP and MP, of protecting those responsible for hate crimes and dividing people by religion.
“They want to keep people afraid, in an environment of fear,” said Anshu Awasthi, UP Congress spokesperson. “It is the government’s responsibility to protect fundamental rights and stand with the aggrieved. But the BJP stands with those who strike fear in others and divide people in the name of Hindu-Muslim.”
Awasthi accused the BJP of distracting public attention from the economic downturn after the Covid-19 pandemic. “It is unfortunate that the government is not helping those who are trying to do business and earn their livelihood,” he said.
The BJP denied it was enabling the marginalisation of Muslims.
“We have developed the confidence in the public that this government is for everyone,” said Bahadur, the BJP vice president quoted earlier. “In case of any incident involving any community irrespective of their identity, the government acts swiftly to ensure trust is built among all sections of the public.”
That trust appeared to be lacking among the bangle-sellers of UP, and a desperation has taken hold of Taslim’s beleaguered family, as they try to win his freedom.
‘We Are Living A Slow Death’
“Mar mar ke ji rahe hain ji (we are living a slow death),” said Salman.
The family recalled that Ali, whose business suffered in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, had hoped to improve their financial condition and so travelled to Indore before Rakshabandhan, as lockdown restrictions eased.
“Our customers are mostly Hindus; lac and metal bangles are mostly worn by Hindu women,” said Jameel, another brother of Taslim. “There was no festival of Muslims coming up. Our business depends on Hindu festivals. My brother had high expectations from this festive season. Now, we are not sure how we will arrange the next day’s meals.”
When Taslim was staying with Ali 22 August, Jamal too was staying with Ali. Both brothers had shared a room in Indore and each day they would visit different localities to sell bangles.
Recalling the day his brother was attacked, Jamal said it was the fallout of an attack earlier that day on two Dalit women accused of being friends with an upper-caste Hindu in an Indore market called Bombay bazaar.
“My brother was beaten only because he was a Muslim,” said Jamal. “Had he been a Hindu, he wouldn’t have been harmed.”
Khan, the bangle seller from Taslim’s village quoted earlier, alleged Taslim was targeted because he was not a local.
“Pardesi aadmi ko phasa diya,” said Khan. “Pardesi aadmi se kyun badla lena? (They found a scapegoat in an outsider (Ali). Why take revenge from an outsider?)”
A Raft Of Criminal Charges
While a case was registered against Taslim’s attackers at the Kotwali police station in Indore on 23 August, a case against him was registered at another police station 18 hours later.
He was later accused of a series of offences, including sexual crimes against children, and criminal intimidation, after an FIR was registered in another police station based on a complaint by the minor daughter of one of the accused, and then arrested.
In the FIR registered against Taslim the girl said that he touched her inappropriately on the pretext of helping her wear bangles, when her mother had gone inside to get money for Ali.
Taslim’s lawyer Ehtesham Hashmi said his client said no girl was present when he was selling bangles. “He said that bangles he was selling come in sealed packets,” he said. “There was no question of anyone trying them out.”
“The bangles which we sell are kangans, which are worn by older women,” said Jameel, Taslim’s brother. “Children generally don’t wear them. Why would my brother ask the child to wear bangles?”
The FIR filed by Taslim accused the men who attacked him of anti-Muslim abuse, stealing bangles worth Rs 25,000, his mobile phone and cash of Rs 10,000.
The FIR registered against Taslim lists sections 354 (assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty), 354A (sexual harassment and punishment for sexual harassment), 467 (forgery of valuable security, will, etc.), 468 (forgery for purpose of cheating), 471 (using as genuine a forged document or electronic record), 420 (cheating and dishonestly inducing delivery of property), 506 (punishment for criminal intimidation) of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, and other sections of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012.
The FIR registered against Taslim’s attackers quotes sections 141(unlawful assembly), 142 (being member of unlawful assembly), 143 (punishment for unlawful assembly), 147(punishment for rioting), 148 (rioting, armed with deadly weapon), 149 (every member of unlawful assembly guilty of offence committed in prosecution of common object), 153-A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion etc), 298 (uttering, words, etc., with deliberate intent to wound the religious feelings of any person), 323 (punishment for voluntarily causing hurt), 294 (obscene acts and songs), 506 (punishment for criminal intimidation), 395(punishment for dacoity), 120-B (punishment of criminal conspiracy) and 34 (acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention) of the IPC.
“It would be no wrong to assert herein that merely to make a case against the applicant, he was slapped with stringent provisions of POCSO, which at (sic) no figment of imagination could have been applied against him,” said the bail application filed by Taslim’s lawyer before the Madhya Pradesh High Court. Taslim is in the judicial custody (jail) at present.
On 31 August an Indore sessions court rejected Taslim’s bail application: his lawyer, Ehteshan Hashmi, filed another bail application before the Madhya Pradesh High Court on 13 September, listed for hearing on 4 October. The Court further extended it for hearing on 7 October.
The police said that they were investigating the case, and the girl's statement had been recorded.
“We have recorded the statement of the minor girl and Ali has been arrested,” said sub-inspector Nidhi Mittal, the investigating officer. “At present we are verifying all the documents pertaining to the case.”
(Tabeenah Anjum is a journalist based in Rajasthan, reporting on politics, gender, human rights, and issues impacting marginalised communities.)