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A communal turn

The police maintain nervous vigilance as a shrill mob threatens revenge

The qasbah of Tappal lies 50 kilometres away from Aligarh city. One can miss the town at the slightest distraction, especially those used to the pace of the nearby Yamuna Expressway.

Half a dozen years ago, 58-year-old Krishna (name changed) gave up his land for the expressway and built a pukka house in Tappal with the compensation. It was a matter of joy in the family. The household is now in mourning. On June 2, the badly decomposed corpse of his granddaughter was found in a nearby garbage dump.

The two-and-a-half-year-old victim went missing while playing with other children near her house at around 8.30 am on May 30. After searching for her without any success, the family went to the local police at about 12 pm that day. The police assured the family that the child would be found sooner or later, and no written complaint was registered at the police station.

“Whenever kids go missing, they’re usually found after some searching and announcements from the local temple or the mosque. The police assumed that this case was no different. After we came back from the station, we made announcements and kept looking for her. The police registered an FIR only on May 31 around 4 pm,” her father told Newslaundry.

In case of missing persons, it’s customary for the police to register an FIR—citing IPC Section 359 (kidnapping)—after a 48-hour-long search. However, the victim’s father is convinced that his daughter could’ve been saved had the police taken action the day she went missing. On June 7, five police officers including the SHO of the Tappal police station were suspended citing negligence.

On June 2, the child’s body was discovered at about 6.30 am by a woman who picks garbage in the village. “She first thought that it’s the infant of an animal. But when she noticed the size was unusual, she alerted us,” her father says. Her body was found wrapped in a dupatta, which her father says is one that is usually worn by Muslim women.

The Aligarh police states that the toddler was murdered by Zahid and Aslam, locals who stay within 100 metres of her family’s house. She was murdered by the duo on the day she was kidnapped and thrown into the dump in the wee hours of June 2. On June 7, the police claimed that the two had confessed to the crime.

According to the locals, the police used the dupatta as primary evidence in the case. Although the police refused to confirm this, citing investigation proprieties, Manilal Patidar, SPR, Aligarh, confirmed to Newslaundry that sniffer dogs were taken to the garbage dump on June 2. After picking up the scent, the dogs rushed to Zahid’s house. Locals corroborate this account.

“We didn’t even suspect Zahid at first. When Papaji [Krishna] went to the site and saw her corpse, that’s when he thought that Zahid might be behind it. His house is right opposite the dump,” says the victim’s mother.

A carpet is now laid out outside the family’s house, and a tent has been set up to protect the mourners from the scorching sun. In one corner, the victim’s grandfather Krishna sits with a dozen men from the village; in another are two police personnel and a few journalists. One journalist asks one of the police officers whether anyone from a rival channel has arrived.

Krishna had loaned Zahid ₹50,000 and charged him interest on it. After Zahid returned ₹40,000 through small installments, they had an argument with him over the remaining ₹10,000. Krishna explains the dispute to this correspondent in detail:

“I had lent him the money through a middleman. When I insisted that he return the remaining ₹10,000, he [Zahid] said he could not. He told me that he’ll mortgage his parents’ house and return the sum. That made me suspicious. He brought his parents’ ID to me, which he stole while they were sleeping. I told him I don’t trust him and asked him to take me to his parents.”

Krishna says Zahid then “acted fuzzy”. “His parents came later and said Zahid had taken their ID without their knowledge. So, I told the middleman that he needn’t return [to] me all the money at once through such illegal means. He can do it in small installments. Zahid then said that he won’t give it back. I said how can you not? This led to a typical brash talk between us: ‘tu kya karlega?’ he would say, and I would throw the same back at him. This was the argument.”

Krishna’s son, the victim’s father, believes that Zahid took this as a “humiliation”. According to him, Zahid and Aslam then plotted the kidnapping and killed his daughter.

Aslam is Zahid’s neighbour. His motivation to participate in the murder is not clear. Locals, including the victim’s family, believe he was arrested either because Zahid brought up his role while confessing or because of his criminal history: they claim Aslam had served a prison sentence in 2014 for molesting his seven-year-old daughter. His wife had left him after the alleged incident. Police sources merely told this reporter that Aslam has a “criminal history” but did not go into specifics. The police also told Newslaundry that Aslam and Zahid consumed drugs together.

The post-mortem report revealed that the child was tortured before she was murdered. The cause of death, it states, is “shock due to antemortum injuries”—that is, due to injuries inflicted before death. It adds that the corpse had been infested by maggots and turned “blackish white”, with the right arm amputated and left leg fractured.

Although the post-mortem report did not mention that the victim was sexually assaulted, Aligarh police informed that a forensic investigation on the matter is yet to confirm this.

The victim’s mother and uncle claim that Zahid’s younger brother, Mehdi Hasan, is also involved in the murder. Her mother says, “He told papaji: ‘I’ve killed her, now do what you can.’” According to them, Mehdi is about 25 years old, Zahid is 30-32 years old, and Aslam is 40-42.

On June 8, Mehdi Hasan and his wife were arrested by Aligarh police. All four accused have been booked under the National Security Act. Aligarh SP Rural Manilal Patidar told Newslaundry that the police is not looking for more suspects.

The victim’s uncle doesn’t believe the murder was simply about money. While he ascribes it to Zahid and Aslam being “mohammedans”, that it was Ramzan and they “possibly did it because they are jihadis”, her parents shoot this theory down. Her father says, “Aaropi toh aaropi hota hai, chahe Hindu ho ya Musalmaan (a criminal is a criminal, be it a Hindu or a Muslim).”

Outside, village elders claim there has never been any Hindu-Muslim tension in Tappal. “Even during the Partition, Tappal was peaceful. There was peace when the [Babri] masjid came down. Muslims here play roles in the Ramlila. We look out for them during Ramzan and arrange water for them,” says one man.

However, there is a consensus on a particular complaint with local Muslims. “They haven’t grieved with us. Recently, when one Muslim girl went missing, a congregation went to the local police station to register protest and expedite the search operations. Seventy per cent of them were Hindus. But when this happened, not one Muslim came ahead to stand with us shoulder-to-shoulder. They didn’t come to the police station with us. They didn’t take out a candle march,” says the man. Others agree.

However, this alleged lack of support from the Muslim community can be attributed to their fear of coming out and expressing support. Rakku Khan, a mechanic who owns a shop in the Tappal market, says Zahid and Aslam deserve the harshest punishment for their crime. “But our community is scared to head out there, especially with all these angry people pouring into the city. We are with the family but we are scared. Yahaan dar ka mahaul hai [there is an atmosphere of fear here]. The police have helped us so we’re able to go to the bazaar in the evening. But we’ve been hearing about harassment of Muslims and no one wants to get in trouble here,” he says.

A pradhan of a village near Tappal, who wishes to be anonymous, says there have been cases of misbehavior in his area since June 6. “Our community is smaller. And with these boys creating ruckus and making this issue communal, how can you expect a Muslim to venture out to that area? We too think about justice, but we have to think about our safety first,” the pradhan said.

In the village pradhan’s house in Tappal, journalists and patrol officers have taken shelter from the heat in the large verandah. While the pradhan is busy giving an interview, an enthused young man waves his phone which has  Facebook Live playing on it. “There’s a protesting mob outside,” he shouts.

Within a few minutes, at 10.30 am, the clamour and roar of an approaching crowd becomes conspicuous. A boisterous mob of around 100-150 men, mostly young, gather outside the pradhan’s house and raise loud slogans: “Zahid ko phaasi do (hang Zahid).” An effigy made out of dirty cloth is held high, then smashed and beaten. The journalists rush out to document the large crowd as policemen look on nervously.

As the mob moves through the narrow lanes of the village, the slogans sometimes change to “suar ko phaasi do (hang the pig)”. One man in the crowd curses, “Koi saala kattua dharne mai nahi aaya (None of the Muslims turned up for the protest)”. Kattua is a slur word used for Muslims.” When the mob reaches a lane with Muslim households, residents glanced outside anxiously. “Humne toh Modi ko vote diya hai (We voted for Modi),” says one woman, peeping out from the window.

The young men claim they’re from a student association of a nearby coaching centre. They don’t live in Tappal; they’re from outside, from Hamidpur. “We think that what has happened with the girl is wrong, the accused should be hanged,” one of them tells me.

Some men in the mob say they do not mind if communal tensions arise in Tappal. “Out of the 11 people in their house [Zahid’s], only two have been arrested. We don’t know where they are. For the sake of votes, local politicians told us to call off our protest,” says one of them, Bhim Chand Sharma. When I try to question the appropriateness of the slogan “suar ko phaasi ho”, Sharma cuts me off, saying it’s a manifestation of people’s anger and frustration.

Do you have any intent to rouse communal passions, I ask. “We don’t want to, but if needed, we are ready for it,” he says. Sharma claims he has no affiliation to any political party or association.

Another member of the mob, Kuldeep Singh, claims to be a BJP worker and an “RSS ka aadmi”. When asked about a possible communal flare-up, he says there is every chance: “The girl should get justice. If there’s a riot, I’ll be the first to die.” Singh says he’s an “original Hindutvawadi” and that this is a Hindu-Muslim issue. When I tell him the family doesn’t believe this to be the case, Singh flatly denies it.

He says: “I came here from a village called Managarhi, 25 kilometres away. There is so much frustration there. On June 9, tomorrow, at least 10 cars full of men will come here from my village. They just need one person to be in front which they can’t find. If we find someone, then there will be so many people behind him that the police will not be able to do anything. There is a 100 per cent chance that it’ll get communal, and they’ll either kill or get killed.”

One police officer witnessing this interview calls out to Singh from a distance. “You said you run a mobile shop, right?” he says, “so why don’t you go back and manage it?” Singh fumbles, and the officer’s tone gets louder and firmer. “When something like this happens, one should cool it down, not add fire to it. Do you understand? Go away.” Singh complies like a scolded child and saunters off.

However, not everyone in the crowd views this incident from a communal angle. Vishnu Verma, who comes from a village 20 kilometres away, says he relates to the victim because he and his wife have suffered injustice themselves. “My wife was raped in 2015. The court sentenced the culprit to seven years in jail with a fine. But he came out on bail after three months, and has been out since. What punishment did he get? Nothing. He continues to harass us,” Verma says. At 11 am, the angry mob ends up at the Tappal police station. Pankaj Kumar Srivastava, the Circle Officer, is there to regulate the rage and calm things down. After being harangued from all sides about the police’s incompetence, Srivastava leads the crowd to a tree’s cool shade and makes his case.

“I would request all of you to cooperate with the system,” Srivastava begins. “We understand your feelings and we’ll make sure that the accused are punished as soon as possible.” The hot sun and angry crowd has Srivastava sweating profusely. From time to time, he’s interrupted by someone or the other who threatens to take matters into their own hands if the police do not expedite justice.

Kuldeep Singh goes a step further and issues an open challenge: “You said you’ll put NSA on them—we’ll cooperate. But you leave them here with the public and we’ll decide amongst ourselves what must be done.” This is tempered by a few others in the crowd, one of whom says, “Everything will happen by the book. Justice is enshrined by the Constitution, not by any one of you.”

When asked about the police’s negligence in the initial stages of the case, Srivastava says: “The officers have been suspended because there was negligence at the lowest rank, be it a delay of 10 minutes or miscommunication.” He tries to defuse the situation by saying that there has been another arrest in the case, and prods the crowd to not do anything untoward: “You all are wise young men. You know that there are all kinds of people in the crowd. Don’t do anything on which we all have to cry over tomorrow. All of you are like brothers to me. I pray to you, don’t do anything bad.”

After almost half an hour of this back and forth, the crowd disperses. “We’ll return tomorrow,” warns another man.

“You know how things are,” Srivastava tells Newslaundry . “It hardly takes a minute to burn everything to the ground.”

The victim’s father wants nothing more and nothing less than justice for his daughter’s torture and murder. Swept with media attention, he has stoically recounted the events of that horrific day to multiple journalists. But he looks tired.

“All I feel right now is an urge to get justice for my daughter. The police could have avoided this, but it is cooperating with us now,” he says.

In the village elders’ congregation outside, Krishna and friends are unsure about the future of communal harmony in their village: “We have had good relations with them [Muslims], and we still want them to maintain them now. But who knows what the future has in store?”

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