Noor Mohammad’s eyes well up when he recalls the dawn of September 14, 2016. It was just before sunrise when half-asleep Noor Mohammad was picked up by the police on charges of cow slaughter. The 62-year-old says he did not think twice before opening the door when the police came knocking. Being an ex-sarpanch of Reoda Bas village, he thought this must be about some small mischief in the village. He was shocked when the police said he was being arrested on charges of cow slaughter.
“Our young daughters were assaulted when they pleaded to not arrest their father and our house was vandalized,” claims Mohammad’s wife Nasreen. Mohammad, who has been rearing cows since many years, says, “The policemen knew I was innocent but still they framed me. Later they told me that they had to arrest some people otherwise cow vigilantes would have set the whole village on fire because they had information that cows were being slaughtered.”
Mohammad, who spent three months in jail and is currently out on bail, says he has stopped buying cows as he fears he would meet the same fate as Pehlu Khan in April 2017 or Rakbar Khan in July 2018. Both were lynched. He has had to spend a lot of money in litigation. Apart from mental stress the family has also been living through a financially stressful time.
Police had arrested a total of 22 people on the same day that they arrested Noor Mohammad. Among them were farmer Yaqoob Khan’s sons who had come home from Alwar city on holiday. Yaqoob lives in Bada bans village of Raghunathgad and his sons - Javed (26) and Rashid (21) - work in a Hero Honda showroom in Alwar city. “Houses in the villages were being vandalised. My sons went to the door after hearing the commotion. Police took them along also. They said to my sons that they are not being arrested but are being taken for questioning. It was a lie. My sons, who don’t even live here, were charged with cow slaughter. They could get bail only after three months. They take leaves to attend court hearings. We have spent Rs 1 lakh on a lawyer. All of this happened to us because we are Muslims,” said Yaqoob.
Cow is a running theme in Alwar where many Muslims like Noor and Yaqoob have either seen punishing court trials and some like Rakbar Khan’s family have seen much worse. This Lok Sabha constituency, which goes to polls on May 6, is witnessing a triangular contest between BJP, Congress and BSP and leaders of all the three big parties are using this communally sensitive issue to suit their political campaigns.
On Thursday, while addressing a public meeting in Alwar, UP CM Yogi Adityanath invoked “slaughterhouses” in his speech. In an indirect reference to Muslims, he said, “We closed down slaughterhouses when we came to power in Uttar Pradesh. This took care of crimes. We ensured criminals are sent to jail or they are killed.” Yogi also targeted BSP’s candidate for the Alwar seat, “When Narendra Modi speaks, Imran Khan starts sweating. Be it the Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan or the Imran Khan of BSP.” Earlier this week, BSP supremo Mayawati told a gathering in Alwar that she would be the voice of all the suppressed communities and minorities that the BJP has harassed in the last five years.
After the April 2017 lynching of dairy farmer Pehlu Khan, then BJP MLA Gyandev Ahuja had made a string of controversial remarks. One being that he has “no regret over the death of Khan because those who are cow-smugglers and cow-killers are sinners and they have met this fate earlier and will continue to do so.” However, in the state Assembly polls last year, Ahuja was denied a BJP ticket allegedly for being a vocal critic of then Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje.
The Haryana-Rajasthan border districts of Alwar and Bharatpur account for a third of all cattle smuggling cases recorded in Rajasthan, and more than 90% of cow vigilantism deaths in the past couple of years have been related to ‘movement of cattle’. Hindu groups claim many Muslims are cow smugglers and also dangerous because they carry weapons. They say cows are illegally transported across the border to illegal slaughterhouses in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Cow slaughter is banned in Rajasthan. These charges are denied by Muslims who say their livelihood is being targeted because of their identity and because they possess significant amount of land, an asset.
Alwar President of Keshav Kripa which is Vishva Hindu Parishad’s cow protection group Dilip Modi says, “Everyone knows it is Muslims who indulge in cow smuggling and when we catch them red-handed, it takes a violent turn as Meos are loaded with weapons. When you see your mother in danger, you will naturally get furious and attack those targeting your mother.
This is what happens. We don’t have personal enmity with them.” On being asked if things have changed in their favour in past couple of years, Modi says, “Cow protection groups is not a new thing in Alwar but yes, we have become more active with the last five years during the BJP regime because we have support of the government. BJP is a party of Hindutva. If they don’t stand for the cause. Who else will?”
With elections fast approaching, there is unease in Alwar-- the region dominated by Scheduled Castes and Muslims. Many in the minority community feel they need to vote, taking into consideration the incidents of lynching and mob violence of the past couple of years.62-year-old Harun Khan, a farmer, says BJP created a clear Hindu-Muslim divide in the region. “In the name of cow violence and cow protection, the livelihood of people was destroyed as we are dairy farmers. Just to demonise Muslims, cows were made an issue. People are scared to buy cows now. The cows that stop giving milk are abandoned. Earlier, they used to be sold to UP and Haryana. That is banned cow. The number of stray cows has gone up manifold. The strays destroy our farms.”
■ So, what makes Alwar a “Hindutva laboratory” as some call it? The demographics, the occupation and the favourable location of Alwar, say experts.
■ With a population of around 2.5 lakh, Muslims are a sizeable community in Alwar and they are mostly part of agrarian society and animal husbandry.
■ Rajasthan based political analyst Narayan Bareth says, “Alwar has become a Hindutva laboratory in last few years.”
■ Polarisation is a huge factor.
■ “Demographically speaking, the Congress has an edge. But if people are divided on communal lines, then Congress is weakened. BJP is playing on this. Alwar is aptly located too and shares proximity with important states like Delhi, UP and Haryana. Any propaganda can be easily spread from here,” says political analyst Narayan Bareth.
■ According to Census 2011, female literacy rate in Alwar’s Aadipur was a shocking 0%, and in the neighbouring Shadipur village, it was 4%.
■ Bareth added that right wing groups have been working in the region since long but have become more aggressive in the last few years.
■ More than a year has passed since the lynching of Pehlu Khan and Rakbar Khan but the rift between Hindus and Muslims here still remains quite wide.
■ Sameer Khan of civil rights group Meo Yuva Sangathan says he has recently turned down invitation to a Hindu wedding because a member in the family of the host “demonises Muslims”.
■ Noor Mohammad, a social activist, believes that escalating cases of cow violence benefits parties because it diverts attention from poor governance. “It is not about cow protection. It is about ruining the economy of Meos for whom milking cows and selling milk is the main occupation but now cows have become a liability for them,” he said.
■ If the BJP brands itself as Hindutva and the Congress plays on the “insecurity of people”, they both successfully shift focus from issues of development. Issues such as literacy don’t come up in campaign speeches here.