Freedom is indivisible. “The chains on any one of my people,” Nelson Mandela reminded us, “were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me.”
There are many things that trouble me about India today. One is our ever-mounting tolerance of the open and profound injustice done to “other people”. A boy stabbed to death on a train does not trouble me because he is Muslim; a young girl brutally gang-raped does not stir my outrage because she is Dalit; an entire people locked down for over a month deserve it because they do not accept India to be their country; and nearly two million people excluded as citizens in Assam do not trouble me because they are “infiltrators” (even if they were born in and love this nation).
India’s criminal justice system has always been biased against disadvantaged castes, women and Muslims. Few people who organised and participated in caste and communal massacres and rapes have ever been punished. But in recent years, this official bias has become more open, brazen and unapologetic. A Muslim charged with terror crimes can spend 14, even 23, years in jail, before he steps out, innocent. A Hindu charged with terror is likely to soon walk free, and might even be elected to Parliament. Criminal cases after the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots collapse wholesale with barely a whimper of protest.
This open bias of the criminal justice system is most visible in mob lynching. Lynch mobs, who in most cases record their own crimes triumphantly on mobile phone cameras, roam as heroes. The victim, even after he dies, is tainted as a criminal. The most recent example of this is the decision of the Jharkhand police to write down the crime of the lynch mob that attacked Tabrez Ansari from murder to culpable homicide.
Orphaned as a boy, raised by his uncles, as a young teenager, Ansari migrated to Pune to build his life on his own. At 22, now an accomplished welder, he returned home to find a bride. His uncles married him off to a very impoverished Shaista. Her father, an alcoholic, accepted Ansari because he sought no dowry. The two young people were to leave for Pune the morning after his lynching to start their new life; their train tickets were booked. But that was not to be. I feel a personal sense of grief and loss at his killing, especially following our visit of the Karwan e Mohabbat to his home.
Ansari was returning that night after seeking his aunt’s blessings. A mob caught him, tied him to a pole, thrashed him savagely for six hours, and forced him to recite “Jai Shri Ram”.
People phoned the police several times to rescue the boy, but they did not arrive until morning. They did not register a complaint against the lynch mob until after he died four days later. But they promptly registered criminal charges of robbery against Ansari. The police took him to a local health centre. Although his skull was cracked, and bones broken, the doctors handed him back to the police after cursory first aid. Police detained him in their lock-up. His family pleaded that they be allowed to take him to a hospital, promising to return him to the police after he was better, but they refused. The family secretly took a picture of him in the lock-up. He was clearly wounded critically. The police then presented him to a judge, who should have ordered his medical treatment. Instead, he sent Ansari to jail. The jail authorities should have insisted that he be sent to a competent hospital. They did not. The family saw him once through a screen in jail, as he moaned in agony, begging them to get him to a hospital. Four days after the lynching, Ansari died.
The grounds the police stated for watering down the charge of murder to culpable homicide was that it was “not a case of pre-meditated murder”; and that the second medical report concludes that Ansari died of cardiac arrest, not just a head injury. This ignores an earlier inquiry by senior officials of the Jharkhand government, which concluded that Ansari died due to the negligence of police officials and grave lapses by doctors.
There was no robbery in the village. The police charge-sheet tried to justify the mob crime by charging Ansari with the “intention” of stealing. They ignored evidence on video of this being a religious hate crime. Ansari’s uncle, who went to the lynching site in the morning, records in his statement that he heard a member of the mob shout, “Beat him so much that he dies”.
There was only one post-mortem. The second report stating that he died due to cardiac failure (signed by five doctors, none of who were trained in forensics), was based only on the first post-mortem report. The immediate cause of death after violence indeed could be heart-failure, but this opinion deliberately obscures the circumstances which led to organ failure. I spoke to J Amalorpavanathan, retired head of vascular surgery, Madras Medical College. He said the human skull bone is incredibly sturdy. Cracking it requires application of great force. “It is very clear”, he said, based on the post-mortem report, “that this young person, who was otherwise healthy and normal, was beaten so severely that he cracked his skull and bled inside his brain. This resulted in his death. In short, he was beaten to death.”
What does this add up to? That a mob attacked an unarmed young man murderously in a religious hate crime. The police, judge, doctors and jail officials all abetted his murder with shameful, wilful neglect.
Why is it possible for state authorities to act in this way, over and over again? Because the rest of us don’t care. This happened to a working-class Muslim orphan. How does it concern me?
We forget Martin Luther King’s iridescent words from Birmingham jail, “Injustice anywhere,” he declared, “is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny”.
My destiny is tied to that of Tabrez and Shaista Ansari. Until they are assured justice, I will never be free.