On a bumpy bus journey from Giridih to Ramgarh in Jharkhand, my heart weighed down with many reminders of why this Karwan was important to attempt.
The cowardly killing of a fearless, charismatic, influential and uncompromising fighter against religious hatred and bigotry Gauri Lankesh, of course, cast a grim shadow on our hearts. It is a sobering reminder that the climate of hate, intimidation and fear is mounted not just against minorities and Dalits, but also against those who defend their rights and fight for constitutional values.
We went to a village in Giridih (Jharkhand), and found a terrifying replay of the Akhlaq lynching, not just of the events but of the communal rationalisations in the village to justify the lynching. Usman Ansari, the old man who was attacked, has just about survived the lynching, but is terribly broken both in body and in spirit. He is still in hiding months after the attack. The organisers did not let even us know where Usman had taken refuge, and agreed to have only a small group from the Karwan visit him in secret.
The story that unfolded on July 28, 2017, had many echoes from Dadri. A secluded Muslim household in a Hindu settlement. A rumour that he had killed a cow after a decapitated cow carcass was mysteriously found in the village dump yard. His neighbours attack him brutally in his house, beating him till he is unconscious. They take him for dead, and set his house on fire, reducing it to ashes. Usman is saved just seconds before he is about to be set ablaze after the police and the district collector (DC) reach the spot.
The one silver lining in the story is the exemplary role played by the young DC, and the police under his guidance. The crowd pelts stones at them and their vehicle. But they rescue the old man, and rush him to Hazaribagh hospital. Usman was unconscious for eight days, and treated in a Ranchi hospital for two months. His scalp is still wounded, the bones in his arms crushed to pieces.
No one from the village tried to save Usman during the attack, and none have reached out to him since. The state administration has also given no financial help. The old man wept when he spoke to us about how his neighbours tried to kill him. About how his sons were out begging for money to meet his medical expenses and feed the family. About a son who is so traumatised that he has “has lost his mind”. About his resolve to return to his village, even if no one wants him, even if he may be attacked again, because there is nowhere else to go.
We faced a greater disappointment in the village meeting that followed. Around 300 men had gathered but there was no sign of any remorse. They were convinced that Usman was guilty. They asked why we did not express sympathy with the “innocent” men who the police had arrested, and the man injured in the leg when the police opened fire to disperse the mob that wanted to burn alive the unconscious Usman.
This was a replay of the same arguments that we heard in Dadri. That Muslims were guilty by definition, that Hindus were innocent and nationalist by definition. Our arguments appealing to justice, to even basic humanity, only led to anger and hostility among most who gathered there from the majority community, even members of progressive and left organisations. No compassion, no contrition of any kind.
Two reasons – Lankesh’s killing and the absence of any compassion for the aged and injured Usman — of why this Karwan-e-Mohabbat needed to be done.