I took Usman Ansari’s one good hand in mine and said that I had come with the message of sharing his pain. I sought his forgiveness, on behalf of all of us. In hiding, his crushed arm in a sling, the old man was manifestly broken. Not just in body but in spirit. He sobbed many times as he spoke with us: When he talked of the lynch attack by his neighbours, who accused him of killing his cows; when he told us how much he loves his cows; while speaking of his family who have to beg to pay for his medical expenses and food; his son, who has lost his mental balance after the lynching incident. Ansari talked of his resolve to return to his village — he knows no one wants him there, but there is no other place he can call home.
We met Ansari on the third day of our Karwane Mohabbat, Caravan of Love, a journey of atonement and solidarity with the people who are targets of hate attacks across the country. We began in Assam on September 4. Our first engagement in Jharkhand was to meet Ansari. But he feared another attack, so Ansari’s family did not disclose his hide-out. People met us instead on the main road, from where only a few of us left in a jeep, driving through many villages before we reached his secret refuge.
His story had chilling echoes of Akhlaq in Dadri. Ansari’s was the only Muslim home in a Hindu neighbourhood in village Barwadah in Giridih district. He reared 10 cows and sold milk to both Hindus and Muslims. Some 10 days before the attack, one of his jersey cows fell ill and died. The custom of the village is that dead cattle are not buried but thrown in a designated yard. Ansari contacted the man from a disadvantaged caste who usually disposed dead cattle. But they could not settle on a price. So Ansari decided to drag the corpse with his sons to the dumpyard, where it lay for two days. The day of the lynching, two days after Eid on June 27, the corpse was found mysteriously without its head and a leg. Rumour spread that Ansari had killed his own cow to eat during Eid. A mob surrounded his home baying for his blood. A terrified Ansari pleaded that the cow had died of sickness. If he had wanted to eat her meat, why would he take away its head and leave the body which contained the meat?
But the mob dragged him out, stripped him and thrashed him until he lost consciousness. They locked his son and daughter-in-law in a room in the house and set it on fire. They sprinkled the old man’s comatose body with petrol and would have set him on fire, if not for the timely intervention of the young deputy commissioner and the police force he commanded. They rescued the unconscious man, but the throng then turned its rage on the police, attacking their vehicles. The police opened fire, injuring one man. Ansari’s son and daughter-in-law had a miraculous escape because the village chowkidar broke down the door of the room in which the horde had locked them before torching their house. Ansari regained consciousness only eight days later. Discharged from hospital after two months, he remains in hiding. He has no police protection and dreads his neighbours may still take his life. The old man is determined to fight for justice. He does not know how, amidst so much hate, but he hopes — hopelessly — that he can return one day to his village.
As part of the karwan, wherever we travel, we request local organisers to arrange a peace meeting. We were encouraged that one such meeting was organised after we met Ansari. We were heartened to find that hundreds of men had gathered, including local officials. But our optimism did not last long. Speaker after speaker declared that the attack was an unfortunate “accident” that was best forgotten. Peace could be restored if Ansari told the police that the men they had arrested were innocent and that he did not recognise the men who tried to kill him. After these men were set free, they would allow Ansari to return. John Dayal, who accompanied the karwan, and I tried to reason with the gathering. “If it was your own father who was stripped and nearly killed by his neighbours based on false hate rumours,” I asked them, “would you even then say it was a minor incident that should be forgotten?” I appealed to them to go to Ansari, seek his forgiveness, assure him of his safety without conditions, and pool money to rebuild his home. Tempers rose. Speakers asked why we did not display the same sympathy with the Hindu man who the police had injured while firing to disperse the mob. They claimed Ansari was an evil man, a murderer. (We enquired and learnt he had been involved in a violent property dispute with his brother.) They said we were unconcerned that Ansari had provoked the anger of the Hindus of his village by beheading a cow.
The programme organisers were members of a leftist organisation. But they too said they were sorely disappointed with our visit. They had hoped we would restore peace by brokering a compromise that set the Hindus free. Instead all we could do was to “take the side of the Muslims”.
We could have been in Dadri. We could have been in living rooms across the land. The arguments are always the same. Muslims always provoke violence, they are always guilty, even when they are lynched. Hindus, in contrast, are innocent and non-violent, roused into understandable violence only by the perfidy of Muslims.
The karwan could not make place for love in the hearts of the Hindus assembled in the village there. Love that is inseparable from justice. Love that does not differentiate between “Hindu suffering” and “Muslim suffering”. Heavy in heart, we realised that it will take many journeys for love to prevail, to overcome. Until then we must continue to journey.