A profound betrayal
To protest against the hate and fear sweeping the country, a group of us undertook in the autumn of 2017 a journey of solidarity and conscience across India. This Karwan-e-Mohabbat or Caravan of Love travelled through eight states, from Assam to Gujarat, and in each we visited families battered by hate violence. Because there are few parts of India untouched by hate, we resolved to continue the Karwan through all of 2018, visiting one state every month.
We began with Bengal, from January 24 to 26, traversing the state, meeting families stricken by hate violence. Bengal is one part of India that has maintained greater communal peace since its blood-drenched Partition than most others, and is led by a leader who claims to champion secularism. However, we returned from our journey to Bengal shaken and dismayed.
During this journey, we visited families of three young men in North Dinajpur lynched on June 22, 2017. Two were day labourers doing any work that was locally offered to them - construction, farm labour, or tea leaf plucking; one was trying to set up a small business. All were married, with small children. These three friends, all in their mid-twenties, were breaking their Ramazan fasts when their mobile phones rang. Reluctant to leave their family celebrations, each finally agreed. Their families speculate that because they often took petty construction assignments together, this could have been for what they were called away so urgently. Two of the young men left on their bikes. They did not return all that night.
The morning after, a policeman showed one family a video of a lynching. To their horror, they recognized one of the men as their son. They rushed to the police station, only to be handed his body. The distraught families of his two friends were also there. Two bodies were in an ambulance, and a third on a hospital stretcher. They were disfigured and dismembered, with limbs smashed, even their genitals stoned.
The police said villagers of a neighbouring Hindu village, Durgapur, had found them stealing cows, caught and lynched them. The families were enraged at the charge that their boys were cow thieves. "Would anyone set out to steal cows on motorcycles?" they asked indignantly. After the post-mortems, the dazed and grieving families spent their own money to transport the bodies home, before they confined each to his grave.
An influential local politician of the ruling party announced later that he was convinced that the lynched men were indeed cow smugglers. He offered no proof, but implicitly justified their lynching. No senior officials offered help or solace. One family reported that the local block office gave them some grain, a set of clothes and a bag of rice. Nothing else.
We met all three families, finding them in extreme want, their able-bodied bread earners suddenly lost. One home we went to was in the village, Dhulagoch. The young man's ageing father, Yasin Mohammed, met us sobbing. For the hour that we were with him, he would not leave my hand. The boy's grandmother, mother, widow and their small children joined us, weeping inconsolably.
The families are understandably desperate to know the truth of who killed their sons and husbands so viciously, and why. We looked at the case papers, and found that the police had registered the crimes under Section 304 - culpable homicide - not murder under Section 302. The faces of the killers and onlookers were clearly visible in the video they circulated. But only three men were ultimately arrested, and released on bail in just a fortnight because of the lenient charge.
The families went in delegations to the police station, but were roughly turned away without answers. They claim that the police threatened that they too would be locked up if they made too much trouble. The villagers planned a gherao surrounding the police station. But a local leader - the same who said the men were cow smugglers - dissuaded them. He said that if they went ahead, it would anger their Hindu neighbours, and might result in Hindu-Muslim riots. It was a barely veiled threat.
We took representatives from each of the three families with us to the Chopra police station. The circle inspector said he would not speak until he had the permission of the superintendent of police. He consulted with his superior in our presence, and then replied that he was not authorized to give any answers. I asked heatedly how, as a public servant, he could turn away the bereaved families without answers. But he was adamant.
I left Bengal intensely troubled about how deep the poison of communal hatred has penetrated society here. This is not the Bengal I know and love. I worry about the failures of the political opposition and local civil liberty groups. But I am most troubled by the response of the state government. It refused to extend to the stricken families solace, support or justice. I could easily instead have been in Gujarat, or Rajasthan, or Uttar Pradesh, not West Bengal.
In these fraught times when India is being slashed by cynical communal politics, the responsibility of parties that claim to be secular is even more onerous. Secular politics does not comprise appeasing clerics or funding madrasas. It means standing firmly in defence of minorities and of disadvantaged castes, especially when they are targeted by hate violence. But instead I saw them abandoned, profoundly betrayed.