Books | The New Natural

How staying alive is now full-time work for Muslims in India today. An extract

Ziya Us Salam

Hindu IndiaWhat started with Sheikh in Pune has since spread across India. With Muslims now being attacked for no reason except their faith. A little over 17 years ago, while reviewing noted film director Govind Nihalani’s film Dev, I began the piece with the words, ‘They judge everybody by the foreskin.’ It was enough to outrage the sensibilities of an editor. The sentence was deleted from the review. But today, as I review the Muslim killings, the truth of the words comes back to haunt me. In the initial years after Modi’s elevation, a fig-leaf allegation or suspicion of cow slaughter or transportation of animals for possible slaughter was enough to trigger a mob to vent its fury on a helpless man. None of the allegations of animal slaughter was substantiated. Worse, none needed to be. At least not in public perception. Neither did the dead come back to life. By 2019, even these flimsy excuses were done away with. Being a Muslim was enough to be vulnerable to murder, to one’s house being set on fire or bulldozed. Not every instance was as gory or gruesome as the ones we have read about till now. But there were instances when a clean-shaven shopkeeper with no visible sign of his faith–no beard, no skullcap, no amulet, no tehmat–was murdered on a whim! In some cases, the man was asked to ‘pull down trousers’–the attackers, you see, judged by the foreskin, its absence being a life-threatening condition. As Imran Khan, a street hawker, discovered in the north-east Delhi violence. In others, the victim was asked to say ‘Allah-u-Akbar’ by goons. The ability to pronounce the first line of the Muslim call for prayer was deemed sufficient for them to unleash the most macabre violence in full public view. Thrashing a Muslim was no longer a crime furtively and hurriedly carried out in the dingy by-lanes of small-town India. It had become a public administration of violence, even death. It was a spectacle to be viewed by scores of passive but not necessary non-approving observers at the site and was to be later devoured and even celebrated by thousands and tens of thousands on the Internet, after the video of the attack was uploaded by the ‘brave defenders’ of sanskriti (culture). The murder of innocents had become a ritual. Muslims in modern India could as well be the cattle of ancient India! It forced noted legal eagle Dushyant Arora to tweet in October 2020, ‘To be a Muslim in today’s India is to fear for your life 24X7.’

Dushyant’s words were in response to a series of fatal attacks on Muslim men. In June 2019, a young man in Jharkhand was caught by a group of violent, sword-wielding men; fearing for his life, he mouthed, ‘La Ilaha Ilallah’, the first tentet of Islam. He was taunted by the attackers to say ‘Jai Shri Ram’ instead, if he wanted to live. Overpowered and fearing he would die if he didn’t comply, he did as asked. The rampaging mob continued, tied him to a lamp post and beat him with anything that was on hand, from iron rods to batons, tyres and belts. The man bled from his head, hands and face. His legs were swollen, many of the bones, were broken and his hands were bleeding. He could barely stand. He sought forgiveness. His crime? He was a Muslim in New India.

The police took him away. Not to the hospital to get his wounds the urgent medical attention they required, but to the police station. He was booked on charges of theft. The police initially preferred not to press charges against the men who had attacked him. Presented to a magistrate as an accused, the Muslim man was sent to four days’ police custody. He died. He was Tabrez Ansari, the new Mohsin Sheikh, the best publicized victim of lynching in Modi’s second innings as prime minister. It was not until four years had passed that the Seraikela Court of Jharkhand pronounced 10 years imprisonment to the 10 accused in June 2023. They were sentenced under Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code, which concerns culpable homicide not amounting to murder. Other laws under which they were sentenced include IPC sections 323, 325, 341, 295 (A) and 149. Additional District Judge (One) Amit Shekhar pronounced the sentence and imposed a fine of Rs 15,000 each on all the convicts. The verdict came too late for his wife who alleged her husband was lynched because he was Muslim. The only solace she may have had was that there was no dearth of company for her husband. Scores of men before him had met a similarly violent, terrifying and hate-filled end. And many more joined him soon after. The way he was murdered after being compelled to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’ became a template that many others copied in the days to come. A little more than two years after his death, similar slogans were raised at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi where the goons screamed, ‘Jab mulle kaate jayenge, Ram-Ram chillayenge (Muslims will chant Ram-Ram when they will be slaughtered).’ Supreme Court lawyer and former spokesperson of Delhi BJP Ashwani Upadhyay, Pinky Chaudhary and noted actor Gajendra Chauhan were in attendance.

Ansari was in many ways luckier than others. His ordeal ended with his life. Unlike Akhlaq in Dadri or Pehlu Khan in Alwar, who was waylaid and killed by cow vigilantes in April 2017 and his sons Irshad and Aarif charged under the Rajasthan Bovine Animals (Prohibition of Temporary Migration or Export) Act, there was no posthumous FIR filed against him or his family members. The cause of his death, at least initially, was not attributed to the injuries inflicted on his person but to cardiac arrest. In other words. Ansari was not murdered. He died naturally. Lynching was not just the new normal in New India, it was the new natural.

Ziya Us Salam
HarperCollins, Pg 310, Rs 599



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