Bisara: At Ground zero of the lynching
In the village where Mohammad Akhlaq was lynched communal tensions simmer below the surface. Not surprisingly, most villagers intend to vote along religious lines
On the face of it, Bisara is like any other village in Uttar Pradesh – longing for pucca roads, better electricity supply and infrastructure. However, there are two things that set it apart from the rest of the villages in Dadri: the village witnessed the mob lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq over rumours of eating beef in September 2015 and it wears its affinity for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on its sleeve. As soon as you enter the village, you see flags bearing the lotus symbol hanging from rooftops.
An open ground in the heart of the village is the centre of all activity as the village prepares to receive Home Minister Rajnath Singh the next day. Hariom Singh, who serves as a proxy for his wife and sarpanch Kaushalya Devi, asserts that Rajnath shares a ‘special bond’ with Bisara because he is a Thakur and the village is dominated by the community. “It is only natural for him to visit this village. He is close to us and we are close to him. For Bisara, the mood on the ground is aligned with the lotus symbol, as it has always been,” Hariom says. Ask him about the lynching that hurled the obscure village into the limelight and he tells me to stop looking for nuances as the incident will have no bearing on the upcoming assembly elections. “It’s a thing of the past and was unfortunate. We do feel that the victim’s side of the story got more attention than the accused but it won’t have any impact on the polls.”
Bisara is inhabited by at least 5,335 people. No boundaries have been drawn on the ground but there is a clear division between the upper caste and the lower caste and Thakurs and Muslims. Groups of people are seated on charpais with hookahs under the afternoon sun, discussing issues that concern the Thakur community. Like Hariom, there are many who say that the lynching case holds no relevance today but the tension in the air is so palpable that you can cut it with a knife. The case has become the elephant in the room. While the more articulate ones are guarded when they speak of it, there are some who are fiercely defensive.
A man who used to work with Kelvinator as a supervisor and identifies himself as ‘gupchup’ (secretive) says that with the decision to consume beef, Akhlaq set in motion a string of incidents that were inevitable. “I have seen a lot of the world. If you spit in the air, it will fall on you. What Akhlaq did was wrong and then one thing led to another,” he asserts. Seeing him initiate the conversation on the issue that is best avoided, an old man pitches in: “It was wrong. Muslims have to remember that they are living in a Hindu society. If they want to do these things, they might as well go to Pakistan. That’s where they belong. They are violent and are responsible for all criminal activities taking place in the village. Women like you can’t walk on streets because of them. Saara mahaul kharab kar diya hai (They have ruined the ambience of the village).” Awkwardness gives way to rage and a heated argument erupts on why Muslims belong in Pakistan. One of the men gets up from his doorstep, raises his finger in the air to make a point and says that there is space for Muslims in their society but only if they follow and respect their traditions. When I ask them to guide me to the place where Muslim families stay, I am asked if I am a Muslim too.
In villages around Bisara, voters are divided over the government’s policies, the decision to demonetise higher denomination notes and the promises made in the budget, but in Bisara, the Thakur community’s affinity for the BJP is guided only by a desire to assert their identity and safeguard it.
Women and politics
Huddled together on a platform, soaking in the pleasantness of the sun, women in Bisara have crossed their threshold because the politics now involves their children. Anju Devi looks at me from behind her veil and says she is waiting for the day when the village kids who are in jail in connection with the lynching will return home. She feels that the Thakur community in the village has been wronged. Anju asserts that Akhlaq’s side of the story hogged the headlines and his family also received an ex-gratia of Rs 20 lakh from the Samajwadi Party government. However, when Ravi Sisodia, one of the 15 accused, died in custody, all that the government offered was a sum of Rs 10 lakh. “Don’t we deserve to know what happened? They are our kids. If authorities can be callous to one of them, can you imagine what will happen to the rest?” asks another woman who chose not to be named.
The day Sisodia’s body was brought home after post-mortem in October last year, the women of the community staged a sit-in protest around it. Refusing to cremate it, the women had kept the body in a casket, draped with the Tricolour, and demanded that the government pay Rs 1 crore as compensation and order a CBI probe into the incident.
Are they really pinning hopes of seeing their kids again on the ascent of the BJP? One of the women in the group says, “Maybe, maybe not. But the BJP is our best and only chance at safeguarding our interests and preventing Muslims from taking over our jobs and society.”
The alternative view
The village is spread over merely six square kilometres but the political discourse in the area varies widely as you navigate the bends and the corners to reach the enclave which houses the marginalised in the village: Muslims, Jatavs and Valmikis.
A 500-metre alleyway with open drains on either side is the only space in the village that is inhabited by Muslims. About 40 families live in small, cramped houses and at least six families have left the village.
Mohammad Ashfaq Khan is perched on the steps of a grocery shop. He dodges eye contact and wears silence on his face like armour. Any attempts to get him to speak are met with a terse “I don’t know.” A Jatav woman sitting nearby loses her patience and says, “What do you want to know? Yes, he is scared. Politicians and mediapersons have wrecked everything we had. It wasn’t like this. We have been neighbours for years and we care about each other. Now, everybody knows about Bisara but for all the wrong reasons.”
According to Surendra Singh, a Rajput who lives in the area, it may be difficult to believe but the village did celebrate both Eid and Diwali peacefully for a long time before the lynching. He also believes that out of the 15 people arrested for the lynching, eight are innocent and weren’t present but got dragged into the muck because peace in the village has been sacrificed at the altar of politics. “I live in the same area and I can assure you that nothing has changed between me and Ashfaq Bhai. The part of the village where you went has a different opinion from us but there is an alternative view. I have told Ashfaq Bhai that no harm will come to him and his family as long as I am alive.”
A man who identifies himself only as Rajesh says that the Thakur community is raking up non-issues, more so because a host of problems plague the daily lives of the villagers. “Water-logging is a major problem. We are submerged waist-deep in water during the monsoon. My community carries corpses for cremation and has to wade through water to reach the area. Shouldn’t we be fighting on these issues?” Rajesh asks.
Salim, a young man whose father recently passed away, recounts how he carried the body on his head and made his way through waist-deep water to the burial ground. “With great difficulty, we found a corner in the graveyard that was elevated. As we dug the grave, water kept rushing in. We had to remove water with utensils before laying Abbu to rest,” he recalls and adds that he wants to vote for a party that can solve these everyday problems for them.
The locals rue the fact that no politician has ever visited the area to talk about anything except the lynching. “Sadhvi Pragya visited the village but only to stoke trouble. Rajnath Singh is going to come tomorrow but none of the real issues concerning the village will be raised. We will vote against the BJP only because they seek votes by dividing us,” the Jatav woman asserts.
Surendra says the enclave sits and decides which party they will vote for but the final decision has to be made by people individually. He looks at Ashfaque who hasn’t spoken a word all this while and jokes, “Who are you going to vote for? BJP?” Without waiting for a response, he assures the old man that he doesn’t have to respond because everybody should be able to vote for anyone they choose and on issues that affect them the most.
He then turns to me: “When you write about Bisara, write about us. Tell people that we exist. As much as people would like to believe that Hindus and Muslims in Bisara have become each other’s arch enemies, there is more to it than appears on the surface.”