By KUNAL PUROHIT / Article14
Soi Village, Bulandshahr district (UP): On 10 March, as it became clear that Yogi Adityanath would be the first chief minister of India’s most populous state to get a second term in four decades, it appeared that one of his party’s electoral planks had worked.
On 16 February, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed an election rally in the central Uttar Pradesh (UP) district of Sitapur and urged voters to re-elect his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2022 assembly elections because it had brought suraksha (security) to the state’s more than 200 million people.
“Do you want security or not? Should you lead a secure life or not? When there is no rule of law, my poor people get squished,” said Modi.
Just before the BJP swept to victory for a second consecutive term, Article 14 travelled to the scenes of six hate crimes reported since 2015 in this state, covering five districts and 1,800 km in eight days, to see how the suraksha claim played out in villages where communal polarisation and identity politics sparked mob lynchings, religious violence and riots.
We met victims, families of those murdered and their lawyers, some of the accused, scrutinised dozens of pages of legal documents to understand what happened after these hate crimes, widely publicised at the time but forgotten since.
At the six scenes of crime—the villages of Soi and Saunda Habibpur in Bulandshahr, Purbaliyan in Muzaffarnagar, Kasganj city, Madhapur village in Hapur and Bissada village of Gautam Buddh Nagar—we found no one had been convicted, and the 135 accused in all cases out on bail.
The only man in jail was called Salim, a Muslim, accused in the murder of Chandan Gupta, a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the youth wing of the BJP, during communal riots on 26 January 2018 in Kasganj.
The crimes registered against these 136 accused in police first information reports (FIRs) and chargesheets include: sedition (section 124A), punishable with imprisonment for life to which a fine may be added or a jail term that may extend up to three years; murder (section 302), which could mean death or life imprisonment with a fine; attempt to murder (section 307), punishable with a jail term that may extend up to 10 years with a fine; rioting with a deadly weapon (section 148), punishable with a jail term that may extend up to three years or a fine or both; promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion (section 153A) punishable with imprisonement which may extend to three years with a fine; criminal intimidation (section 506), punishable with a term which may extend to two years with a fine and may extend to seven years with a fine in cases where the threat causes death or grievous hurt; criminal conspiracy (section 120B) to commit an offence punishable with death, imprisonement for life, rigorous imprisonment for two years or more can be punished with the same punishment; and other sections of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 as well as The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
In Violation Of Supreme Court Orders
A common strand with all the six cases we explored was the arduous legal journeys victims had to endure: Some of these hate crimes occurred more than five years ago but the trials were nowhere near finishing.
Long-winded trials meant frequent court visits, loss of livelihood for those days and expenses that most families found difficult to bear.
To curb such delays, the Supreme Court in 2018 issued a slew of directions to state governments, ordering lynching and mob-violence trials to be conducted in fast-track courts and concluded within six months.
That directive was not in evidence anywhere.
Such delays adversely affect the chances of the victims to get justice, we found. In some cases, with the accused free, key eyewitnesses were wilting under pressure and changing testimonies. In others, gaping holes in police investigations were evident.
In at least four of the six scenes of crime, victims told us that they were exploring settlements with the perpetrators, a decision driven by the fact that they did not have the money or social support to sustain such long, uncertain trials.
“The SC’s guidelines have remained on paper,” said advocate Yusuf Saifi, who represents the family of Mohamed Akhlaq, 52, who was lynched by a mob of Hindu villagers on suspicion that he had slaughtered a cow, stored its meat in his refrigerator and ate it in Dadri’s Bisada village in September 2015, at a time when the Samajwadi Party was in power. Terrified, the family left the village and moved to Delhi.
Sitting in his office in the Noida district court, less than than 20 km from where Akhlaq was lynched, Saifi, a tall man with silky hair separated by a middle-parting, said that he had tempered his expectations.
“Sometimes, I think to myself that it’s an achievement that we have at least been able to get the charges framed, in the face of constant attempts by the accused to delay the trial,” said Saifi.
Over six and a half years, there have been over 100 hearings, but only charges have been framed against the accused, whom the police have accused of murder, attempt to murder, rioting with deadly weapon, criminal intimidation, and voluntarily causing hurt, among other crimes.
Eyewitnesses are yet to be examined, arguments are yet to be made, a process that Saifi said would take at least a year more. All the 15 men accused of Akhlaq’s murder are out on bail.
“The accused have repeatedly tried to delay the trial with various tactics,” said Saifi. He explained how the accused tried to halt the trial by filing an application asking if the forensic report said the meat recovered from the family’s refrigerator was beef.
“The forensic report of the meat has no connection to the trial at all,” said Saifi.
Such situations are pushing many vulnerable victims and their families to consider a ‘compromise’ with the accused, as a guarantee of safety.
These compromises are a sign that the country’s legal justice system is letting its victims down, said Teesta Setalvad, a civil rights activist and secretary of Citizens for Justice and Peace, an advocacy group.
“In effect, we are creating a class of citizens who are not just disillusioned with the system but are bitter and cut-off and don’t even have a normal sense of Constitutional entitlement,” said Setalvad.
The BJP & The Rise Of Hate Crimes In UP
Since his appointment as chief minister in March 2017, Adityanath repeatedly said that “restoring” law and order would be among his top priorities. Top BJP leaders, from Modi to Amit Shah, have claimed that the BJP’s five-year-tenure in power ended what it called “mafia-raj”, a political narrative employed by the BJP to allege the previous Samajwadi Party government allowed criminals a free hand.
The Adityanath government has often boasted of its strong-arm tactics as a way of countering this “mafia raj”, but its targets have often been minorities and vulnerable communities. For instance, The Indian Express reported in August 2021 that the UP police, during the BJP’s tenure, carried out 8,472 ‘encounters’, killing 146 and injuring 3,302. Government data from August 2020 showed that over 37% of those killed were Muslims, who make up 19% of the state’s total population.
News reports have also revealed how the government has selectively used the National Security Act (NSA) 1980, which allows a person to be held in preventive detention for a year, against Muslims: 41 of 120 times the NSA was invoked between January 2018 and December 2020 related to alleged cow slaughter by Muslims.
UP accounts for 16.5% of India’s population and nearly a third of all hate crimes, according to the Hate Crime Watch database, which shut down in 2019. The database reported that between 2009 and 2018, UP accounted for 61 of 278 hate crimes based on religious identity.
In July 2019, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) reported that over three years to 2019, 43% or 869 of 2,008 cases nationally related to “harassment”—a broad term that includes lynchings—of minorities, including Dalits, were reported from UP.
In many of these cases, the accused are from Hindu right-wing groups, often belonging to the BJP’s ideological stable and aligned with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Many BJP leaders have openly backed such crimes—then union culture minister and local member of Parliament Mahesh Sharma met the family of a man accused of lynching Akhlaq.
The UP government has, often, amplified and backed concerns and claims of Hindu fundamentalists. Adityanath has repeatedly alleged that Muslim men were engaged in “love jihad”, an unsubstantiated conspiracy alleging that Muslims conspire to convert Hindu women to Islam by marrying them. In November 2020, the UP government promulgated an ordinance that punished religious conversion through “misrepresentation, force, undue influence” with a jail term of up to five years and a minimum fine of Rs 15,000.
Setalvad, the activist, said this was not surprising. “Our experience, across different communal riots and hate crimes, is that the state almost always fails to prosecute (the accused),” said Setalvad. “And has always been very lax about ensuring justice to victims of such crimes.”
“But the process of getting justice becomes particularly vicious in states like Uttar Pradesh, where the state itself is very hostile,” Setalvad said.
‘I Can Forget The Attack, Not The Humiliation’
Samiuddin, a 67-year-old dairy farmer from Madhapur village in Hapur, has appeared in most of the 142 court hearings that have been held at the Hapur District and Sessions Court since June 2018, when a mob of Hindu villagers and cow vigilantes attacked him and lynched Mohammad Qasim—a cattle trader from the nearby town Pilkhuwa—on the suspicion of slaughtering a cow.
At the time, Samiuddin was on his way to a funeral but decided to pay a quick visit to his farm between Muslim-dominated Madhapur village and the Hindu-dominated village of Bajhera Khurd, to collect fodder for his cattle. While he was there, he suddenly noticed a mob armed with wooden staffs attacking Qasim. He had slaughtered a cow and he had to be punished, Samiuddin heard the mob say. Samiuddin had seen Qasim before: he was a regular in the area, buying from and selling cattle to locals. Samiuddin saw some villagers he knew in the mob and thought he could reason with them.
Instead, the mob turned on him: some kicked him, others punched him, hit him in the head and abdomen repeatedly. In a video that surfaced, Samiuddin is seen in a torn, white, blood stained kurta, his head bleeding and young men dragging him by his beard.
Qasim died of injuries, while Samiuddin survived with multiple fractured ribs and limbs along with internal bleeding. The police charged 12 people with murder, attempt to murder, rioting with a deadly weapon, and promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion.
All the accused are out on bail: 142 hearings and 44 months later, the trial continues. Three judges have been changed, which has considerably slowed down the trial, Yusuf Qureshi, a local lawyer fighting the case pro-bono, told Article 14.
Samiuddin said that he could not afford to go for each hearing: the court is more than 20 km away, and he spends nearly Rs 200 each time he goes.
Qureshi said that Samiuddin was offered “crores of rupees” to settle the matter but refused. Samiuddin confirmed the offer.
Sitting in a wooden charpoy outside his home, touching the back of his head, where doctors recently detected a blood clot, possibly due to the attack, Samiuddin said he could forget the physical assault but not the humiliation.
“No matter how much time it takes, I want to fight this out,” he said.
‘He Wasn’t Lynched, He Fell Off A Tree’
Less than two months after Adityanath was sworn in as chief minister in March 2017, a mob of the Hindu Yuva Vahini, a far-right Hindu vigilante group he founded in 2002, lynched 60-year-old Ghulam Ahmad, from Soi village in Bulandshahr district on 2 May 2017.
Ahmad’s neighbour, a young Muslim man, had eloped with an upper-caste Hindu girl from a neighbouring village. The mob suspected that Ahmad had a role to play.
The police chargesheeted nine persons with murder, rioting, criminal conspiracy, and criminal intimidation. All were out on bail within months of the incident. The main accused, Gavendra, was even garlanded and feted, with DJs arranged in the village to welcome him home, six months later.
Gavendra refused to accept the charges against him, insisting to Article 14 that Ahmad wasn’t lynched but had died after falling off a tree.
“I was falsely implicated because of village-level politics,” he said.
“Disgusted” at how villagers felicitated Gavendra, Ahmad’s son, Vakil Ahmad, left the village and moved to Aligarh city with his two brothers and their families. That only increased his woes in the trial against his father’s killers.
The distance from his new home to the Bulandshahr district court is over 70 km, so Vakil must ride his motorcycle or take a bus, lose a day’s wages as a carpenter and spend an entire day in the court.
“Often, we wait the whole day only for the court to adjourn the matter to the next date for some reason,” he said.
While bail was swift, the trial has been anything but.
Vakil’s lawyer, Mohd Naimuddin, said that there have been 120 hearings but little progress since March 2020, when the pandemic hit India.
Vakil said that with the accused, including some from the same village, free on bail, key eyewitnesses were hesitating about testifying.
The Cost Of Attending A Hearing
In Saunda Habibpur in Bulandshahr, 48-year-old Shri Krishna, a Dalit man from the Kori community, was attacked and made to lick his own spit off the ground by upper-caste Hindus, after his son eloped with a Muslim girl from the village in June 2018.
Krishna filed a complaint with the Khurja Nagar police station in Bulandshahr, naming five. The police booked them for rioting, voluntarily causing hurt, criminal intimidation as well as section 3(2)(ii) (giving or fabricating false evidence against an SC or ST) and 3(1)(i) (forcing an SC or ST to drink or eat any inedible or obnoxious substance) of The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. But the police charge sheet, a copy of which is with Article14, reveals that only two of five accused named by Krishna were arrested, and even they were let off on bail soon after.
There have been 42 hearings and a long way to go, said Krishna’s advocate Pavan Kumar Nim. “The case is still in the initial stages and eyewitnesses are being examined,” Nim said.
Krishna, a thin man dressed in a faded olive green sweater paired with a grey trouser, always slightly slouched forward on a charpoy in his dung-paved courtyard, is a daily-wage worker who does odd-jobs in brick kilns as well as in construction. The long trial and the uncertainty of the outcome was unnerving, he said. Attending a hearing meant the loss of that day’s livelihood, the Rs 350 he earns for each day he gets work.
“In a good month, I get up to 15 days of work, but sometimes, there are two hearings in a month and that’s two less days of work,” he said.
For Hindu Victim’s Family, Promises Not Kept
On 26 January 2018, Chandan Gupta of the ABVP was killed after communal riots broke out in Kasganj city in central UP.
The riots were triggered after Hindu fundamentalists, including Gupta, took a ‘tiranga rally’ through the city. The activists insisted on driving through Muslim-dominated localities, where they clashed with locals who were holding a flag-hoisting ceremony.
Hindu extremists, many carrying saffron flags, are alleged to have shouted provocative slogans, such as ‘Pakistan murdabad’ and ‘Hindustan mein rehna hoga toh Vande Mataram kehna hoga’ (You will have to chant Vande Mataram if you want to stay in India).
The police filed two FIRs. In one case, relating to the riots and vandalism, the police booked three persons and 100-150 unnamed persons for rioting, attempt to murder, among others crimes under the IPC.
In the other case, related to Gupta’s death, the police booked 20 persons for murder, sedition and other crimes under the IPC.
In both cases, there have been 97 hearings. Of the 57 men accused, only one accused, a Muslim man named Salim, charged with Gupta’s murder, continues to be in jail. Salim, brothers Wasim and Nasim, were arrested days after the incident. Wasim and Nasim got bail from the Allahabad High Court in August 2018, but before they could be released, the Kasganj administration invoked the NSA against all three brothers.
Under the NSA, the accused can be held, as we said, under preventive detention for up to a year. The act allows the government to conceal information about the charges from the accused if it is deemed against “public interest”.
In July 2019, the Allahabad High Court set aside the NSA, but Salim continues to be in prison in the murder case.
Article 14 met his family, but they refused to comment, fearing the consequences.
“A minister’s son is accused of running over farmers but he gets bail within months,” said a person close to the family, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But Salim has been in prison for over four years for the death of a person in a communal riot, without any proof of his involvement.”
In the Gupta household, the trial has been overshadowed by a bigger purpose for the family, one they feel will be an explicit sign of ‘justice’ for the 22-year-old—a memorial and the renaming of a town square after him.
“That is the only way we can keep Chandan alive,” said Sangeeta Gupta, his mother. Sitting in the family’s home off the Railway road in Kasganj, leading to the Kasganj junction railway station, Sangeeta’s shoulders droop when talking of her son.
For her, he was a “martyr” and he needed to be remembered as one, she said, the criticism around his role in the controversial tiranga rally notwithstanding.
“When he died, the Yogi government promised us the memorial, the Chandan chowk and a government job,” she said. “Four years later, none of it has materialised.”
NSA Over A Cricket Match
In Muzaffarnagar’s Purbaliyan, a large village with a population of over 20,000 people, paved roads and colourful, double-storey homes, 38 Muslims were named in two different complaints by a Hindu family after a dispute on the cricket field between teenagaers turned into a scuffle in August 2018.
Of these, 27 Muslims were arrested and three, including 68-year-old Shamsher, were detained under the NSA, a move that was widely criticised.
Charges against the accused include rioting, voluntarily causing hurt, house-trespass with a preparation of causing hurt (section 452) and assaulting a woman (section 354), both punishable with a jail term, which may extend to seven years along with a fine.
The incident is now mostly forgotten, except for the men accused, who must visit the court for hearings.
Shamsher, now 72, is a frail, thin man with a host of ailments. He was in prison for over eight months, a time he said he wanted to put behind him, before the Allahabad HC granted him bail.
“Tabiyat theek nahi rehti. (I don’t keep well these days),” Shamsher told Article 14, while on his way to the bank.
“It was a small dispute that was blown up by politicians who wanted to milk it for their gains,” he said, denying the allegations in the FIR that he and his family attacked Sumit Pal, 24, the complainant and his family. “I don’t even know what he looks like,” he added, struggling to remember Pal’s first name.
Others said that the scars of the incident remained.
Shaukat Ali, 44, who was also arrested by the police after the incident, said the police entered his home and smashed things when they could not find him. He was in prison for 38 days. Now, he wants to move on.
Pal said the tensions that swept the village after the incident—BJP member of Parliament (MP) Sanjeev Balyan visited the village days after the incident and announced that the administration would impose NSA against “primary offenders”—had now dissipated.
The trial in the case is at the early stages, with 82 hearings so far.
But neither side appeared keen on a denouement. “We have learnt to put it behind us,” Pal said.
The word faisla, which, in these parts, means an out-of-court settlement, often involves monetary compensation to the families in exchange for a recanting of complaints. There are echoes of a faisla in almost each of the six crime scenes.
In Bulandshahr, Ahmad’s 38-year-old son, Vakil, said he was exploring the possibility of a faisla.
120 hearings later, Vakil said he was increasingly less sure of the outcome.
In Soi village, where Vakil’s extended family still lives—one of the only two Muslim households left in the village—the delay in the trial and fact that the men accused are free has disturbing implications. The family, which includes some key eyewitnesses in the trial, often come face-to-face with the alleged attackers in the village, on social occasions or when walking around.
Vakil said he was no longer clear about their original belief that seeking justice for his dead father was a good idea. His relatives have urged him to settle the case “because they have to continue staying among the mostly-Hindu villagers”, Vakil said.
In court, his lawyer Naimuddin said, the delay has prompted witnesses to change testimonies.
“After initially being key eyewitnesses, some of the family members are now dithering and saying that they don’t remember too well what they saw,” he said.
The pressure from his family, his own financial troubles, his wavering belief in justice after his uncles changed testimonies and the slow pace of the trial have led Vakil to contemplate the unthinkable—a deal with those accused of murdering his father.
Locals had approached him on behalf of the accused (Vakil refused to say who) and asked him to pursue an out-of-court settlement, a faisla.
After dithering initially, Vakil said he was now open to it.
Standing inside what once used to be their family home but is now slowly turning into a ruin, Vakil said he realised the implications of his decision.
The Compulsions Behind ‘Faisla’
Naimuddin, Vakil’s lawyer, said that he was not in favour of such a compromise and criticised the family.
“Kal aapke bhai ko, aapki beti-beton ko lynch kardenge, aur who aapko paise de denge toh aap faisla kar doge? (In the future, if they come for your brother, your children and lynch them and pay you off, will you continue cutting such deals with them?),” he said.
Vakil said the main issue was his growing belief that the accused might be acquitted. If that happened, they would make life even more difficult for the family, he said.
“Main akela kaise ladu? Bina family ke? (How can I fight this alone, without even my own family backing me?)” said Vakil.
Vakil said he also felt nervous because the police did not make him and his family feel secure.
For weeks after his father’s death, the family lived in fear that soon turned to panic. Within weeks of Ahmad’s death, his brothers Chidda, 50, and Yameen, 44, married their daughters.
“We kept thinking, what if they came for our daughters next? This kept us up at nights and we thought it’s best if we sent them all away, before they came for us,” said Yameen. The family, Yameen said, conducted small weddings of 40-50 people each and had all five daughters married in a matter of weeks.
Even during the celebrations, a group of Hindu villagers stopped guests from entering the village and threatened them, Yameen said, but when the family complained to the police, they did not react.
If the mob returned, said Vakil, the police weren’t going to come to his rescue.
‘Bahut Bahadur Ho Tum’
The lack of faith in the police was palpable in the six cases.
Less than 10 km from Soi, Krishna shared Vakil’s predicament.
Krishna said his assault and humiliation by villagers in 2018 was sparked off after the main accused, an upper-caste man called Solanki, saw him sitting on a chair, when he entered the venue. ‘Saale Koriye’, Solanki said, referring to Krishna’s Kori caste, he told us.
Villagers kicked, punched and dragged him home. They went to his house and said they would rape his daughter and his wife, according to Krishna. “By then, they (daughter and wife) both hid in the toilet, so the mob left,” Krishna said.
For months after, the village boycotted him. Friends and acquaintances were warned of consequences if they talked to Krishna. Yet, he decided to pursue his complaint against Solanki and named four others.
Midway through the trial, Krishna discovered something that has now made him wonder if the case is worth fighting: when the police filed the chargesheet in October 2018, Solanki’s name was not there. The police said he was not present at the scene of the crime. The police also dropped the charge of rioting against the other men accused.
Krishna said that he feared Solanki would now go scott-free and seek revenge. “The case was the only thing that stopped him and his men from attacking us,” he said. “Suddenly, that case (against him) is gone,” he said.
“They (the police) told me, ‘Bahut bahador ho tum ki abhi isi gaon mein ho. Koi aur hota toh praant chod kar chala gaya hota’ (You are a brave man to still be living in the same village. Most others would have fled the state by now),” Krishna said.
Some villager, said Krishna, asked if he would be interested in a faisla. He has not forgotten the humiliation of that day, but he does not reject the possibility of a compromise.
The settlement, said Krishna, would allow him to live without fear. What the case couldn’t do, he reasoned, the faisla could.
His faith in the trial waning, Krishna said until a faisla is reached, he was leaving nothing to chance—no matter what, he does not leave home after sunset.
“Kaun kab maar de is ka koi bharosa nahin,” he said. (I could be bumped off anytime).