(This story was first published on 28 September, 2020 and is being republished from The Quint’s archives in the backdrop of a fast-track court on 25 March starting the trial in the murder of Mohammad Akhlaq, five years after he was allegedly lynched by a mob over suspicion of storing beef in Uttar Pradesh’s Dadri.)
"Earlier, reporters called, local politicians called. Now, the frequency with which people want to know about the case has dropped. Lynchings have become so normalised in India, that they don't shock anyone's conscience anymore," 51-year-old Jaan Mohammad Saifi, the 2015 Dadri lynching victim Mohammad Akhlaq's brother, said to The Quint from his home in Dadri.
It has now been five years since Akhlaq, whose real name is Ikhlaq, was murdered on the suspicion of consuming and storing cow meat in his home in Uttar Pradesh's Dadri district on 28 September 2015.
The 50-year-old, who was an electrician and mechanic by trade, was killed by a frenzied mob while his son Danish suffered severe injuries. Nineteen of the accused were named in the testimonies of three witnesses – Akhlaq's wife Ikrama, daughter Shahista and Danish. Of the 19, 18 were charge sheeted by December 2015, the family said.
Despite the case being moved to a fast-track court in Noida, the charges are yet to be framed in the case. This is the very first step for the case to move to trial.
We spoke to Akhlaq’s family and his lawyer, as well as relatives of the accused in Bisada village, to expose how fractured the idea of community and justice has been ever since the Dadri lynching of September 2015.
40 VISITS BY ACCUSED TO STRIKE A COMPROMISE: AKHLAQ’S FAMILY
"The relatives of the 18 accused have come to meet us at least 40-odd times in the last five years. Every time they'll start with downplaying how their boys made a mistake and quickly follow this up with the cow slaughter case they have registered against us. It is a sinister move on their part to create pressure on us," Jaan Mohammad Saifi said.
In June 2016, a case of cow slaughter was filed against Akhlaq's family members on the directions of the district court. Amongst the accused are Jaan Mohammad Saifi, Ikrama, Shahista and Danish.
An investigation done by The Quint in August 2016 revealed how the complainant, Surajpal, had himself not witnessed Akhlaq and his family members slaughter a cow.
The basis of his complaint was hearsay of three other villagers, of whom only one was an ‘eyewitness’. This eyewitness, Prem Singh, is the grandfather of one of the accused, Vishal Rana.
"The case is baseless, which is why the local police was also not registering it," Jaan Mohammad Saifi said. "The relatives then try to posture us as those who have killed cows. They then tell us that if we take our case back, so will they."
The last time two accused visited Jaan Mohammad Saifi was about six months ago, before COVID-19 halted lives and movement.
"Always remember that those who have committed a crime will never want to make enemies or hold grudges, but why should someone who has lost a loved one in the family show undue sympathy? Despite that, I have always served them tea when they have visited. They are, at the end of the day, from my own village," said Jaan Mohammad Saifi, who betrays an affinity to his neighbours from the village of his forefathers. None of the family members, including the families of Akhlaq and his brothers, Mohammad Jameel Saifi, Mohammad Afzal Saifi and Jaan Mohammad Saifi himself, have ever gone back.
“On 17 October 2015, we all permanently packed up left and left. I will not forget this date,” he said.
The only real connection to their village is four homes of the four brothers that have been lying locked up ever since. Jaan Mohammad says he is looking to find a buyer for his home in Bisada village.
"Once about a year ago, someone wanted to buy our home, but due to the collective pressure of the villagers it never materialised," he said.
WOULD HAVE STRUCK A DEAL IF NOT FOR COVID-19: ACCUSED
Back in Bisada village, the relatives of the accused are worried any media attention on the subject will hurt their chances to strike a compromise.
"Is case ke baarein mein mat likhiye. Media mein baat aayegi toh nuksaan ho jayega. Logo ke purane zakham phir khul jayenge. Baat jitni purani padhti jaayegi, utna mamla thanda hota jayega. Jitna media mein aayega, utne garam rahega (Don’t write about this case. If this matter is raised in the media, then it will harm us. Old wounds will open again. On the other hand, if the matter is left alone, then the issue will cool down)," Om Mahesh, whose son and nephew are amongst the seventeen accused out on bail, told The Quint, as he openly chuckled.
Of the 18 accused, 17 are currently out on bail while one of them died in custody in October 2016 of Chikungunya. Mahesh claims to know the case the best in the village and says he talks for all accused.
"Each and every one of them is innocent. There was a mob of people, someone hit him with a brick, someone with a stick and he died. We had sympathy for his death, but instead of giving us credit, his family has named us an accused and is trying to screw us over," Mahesh said. He is sitting with various elders in the village, who can be heard agreeing with him loudly over the phone call.
Explaining the traditions prevalent in villages, he says that the older people in the village come together and strike a compromise.
Speaking about a similar case of death due to suspicion of cow slaughter, Mahesh said, "A few days after this case, there is an area called Kripa Ganj close to Etawah, where Thakurs and Yadavs had killed two Muslims over a similar case*. However, you will find nothing in the media about it. People got together and did not even let an FIR be registered. However, in our village, they are not letting us compromise. Political leaders paid the media to hype the issue and the media glare ensured we could not find a peaceful solution."
(*The Quint has not been able to independently verify this claim.)
He agrees that the various accused and their relatives have met Akhlaq’s family members repeatedly, adding that if not for COVID-19, they would have struck a compromise by now.
Speaking about Jaan Mohammad saying he is not able to sell his home, Bisada village pradhan Hari Om tells this reporter that he has not heard about this.
"Their homes are locked and here for the last five years. No one goes to that area, but it is all safe and fine," he says disinterestedly. Mahesh interrupts and says over the call, "I told you we are meeting them for a compromise in Dadri right? Once that is taken care of, then we can see what will happen with their homes."
5 YEARS ON, CHARGES ARE YET TO BE FRAMED
Akhlaq's lawyer, 44-year-old Mohammad Yusuf Saifi, explains the delay in the case. "Charge was submitted within the stipulated time frame by UP Police. However, in these five years, the discharge applications of accused are only being heard. All these are tactics by the accused to save themselves from the real trial, when evidence will come up. They are scared of conviction and therefore keep moving applications. The judge also keeps obliging."
Citing the 2018 Supreme Court guidelines on lynching, Saifi says none of its provisions are being followed. “The guidelines say that a nodal officer, who could be an IPS officer, has to overlook the progress of the case. That has not happened. The case is to be heard in a fast-track court, which, despite happening, we have not been able to take the first step of framing the charges yet. I even gave a copy of the SC guidelines to the Senior Superintendent of Police two years ago, but he did not take any action.”
Lawyer of the five accused Ram Saran Nagar, who is a practising advocate in district court Gautam Budhh Nagar in Greater Noida, said, “Before the framing of charges happens several things have to happen. Moving applications is the right of the accused. In these five years sometimes they have moved for discharge applications, asked for copies of statements, submitted written objections etc. It is bound to take time.”
Back in Bisada village, Mahesh and the elders sound optimistic about reaching a compromise. On being told of the Akhlaq family’s intentions of seeing the case go to court, Mahesh says, "Aisa hai, aap batao, ki agar aadmi mar gaya toh vo toh jeevit wapas nahi ho sakta kisi keemat pe bhi. Vo haadsa hogaya. Ye sab karke kya hum use wapas la sakte hai kya? (You tell me, the man has been killed and he cannot be brought back to life come what may. The incident is in the past. By doing all this, is he going to come back?)"
As the accused continue to press for a compromise in the case, Jaan Mohammad takes a pause and says, "What is the guarantee that if we agree to enter a compromise with them, that I, my sons and daughters, my brothers will be safe? I've seen poison in their eyes. Is it not possible, that they end up getting more emboldened by our perceived defeat and try to defame and attack us?"