Gau Rakshaks Sentenced To Life: Full Story Behind Latehar Lynching
A district court in Jharkhand's Latehar on Friday sentenced eight people to life imprisonment for killing two cattle traders, Mazloom Ansari and Imtiyaz Khan, in March 2016. The eight men thrashed Mazloom and Imtiyaz and hung their bodies from a tree. Imtiyaz was just 12 years old. The incident took place at Balumath, about 45 kilometres from Latehar.
Earlier this week, judicial magistrate Rishikesh Kumar convicted the eight accused – Arun Sau, Awadhesh Sahu, Manoj Sau, Manoj Kumar Sahu, Mitihlesh Prasad Sahu, Pramod Sahu, Vishal Tiwari and Sahdev Soni – and sent them to jail. Most of the eight are said to involved in cow protection activities, or in short, are Gau Rakshaks.
This is the second lynching case in which Gau Rakshaks have been convicted. In March this year, a fast-track court in Jharkhand convicted 11 out of 12 accused, including one BJP leader, for killing Alimuddin Ansari in Ramgarh in June 2017.
The relative success of lynching trials in Jharkhand is said to be mainly due to the steadfast pursuit of the cases by lawyers and activists and a certain degree of proactiveness on the part of the judiciary. Some also say that the police probes were more prompt compared to the cow vigilantism-related crimes in other parts of the country.
The case is important at several levels. First, the killings were so gruesome that the sight of Mazloom and Imtiyaz’s hanging bodies became an iconic image depicting the violence by cow vigilantes. Second, the background of the convicts, particularly Arun Sau, shows how cow vigilantism is a combination of communal hatred and criminality.
Let’s look at these two aspects in more detail through the accounts of eyewitnesses as well as the confessions of the convicts.
Eyewitnesses Recall The Horror
The conviction has largely been based on the eyewitness accounts of Mazloom's younger brother Munawar Ansari, Imtiyaz's father Azad Khan and one Mohammad Nizamuddin. Mazloom, Azad and Nizamuddin were all business partners. Their testimonies were published in a fact-finding report prepared by independent journalist Ajit Sahi in association with several human rights organisations. Here are some excerpts from the report.
Narrating the events that took place on the morning of the murders, Azad Khan said, "At about 2:30 am on 18 March, Mazloom and Imtiyaz were going towards the cattle fair with eight oxen. I too left on my motorcycle a little while later".
After travelling a certain distance, Azad saw that the eight oxen were grazing on the side and that Mazloom and Imtiyaz were missing. Soon he heard his son screaming for help. He saw a group of people armed with pistols abusing and assaulting Mazloom and Imtiyaz.
“I immediately hid in the bushes. I saw Arun Sau had climbed a tree and was fixing a rope. The others were on the ground trying to push Mazloom and Imtiyaz up to hang them from the tree,” Azad said in his deposition.
Munawar Ansari named and recognised five of the eight accused – Arun Sau, Mithilesh Sahu, Manoj Sau, Avdhesh Sahu and Vishal Tiwari. He recognised the other three accused but didn't know them by name. Munawar said that Manoj Sahu had taught him in school and that Mazloom had once purchased building material from Mitihlesh's store.
Nizamuddin corroborated the events narrated by Azad and Munawar.
According to the fact-finding report, Nizamuddin also identified a man called Vinod Prajapati, who is associated with the BJP, near the oxen. Nizamuddin claims that upon seeing him, Prajapati shouted, "Catch him, he's the real cattle trader."
“Upon hearing that, I quickly started my motorcycle and fled. After that, I called up Munawar,”he said.
Prajapati, who was named in one of the FIRs, is still at large.
Confessions Of Gau Rakshaks
In April 2016, Catch News had published excerpts from the confessions of the Gau Rakshaks, which provided chilling details of how they killed Mazloom and Imtiyaz. These confessions were later made part of the charge sheet filed by the police in the court.
Manoj Sau said in his confession, “On the morning of 18 March 2016, Avdhesh Sau called me at 3:30 am. He told me that he saw cattle being transported from Jhabar village towards Balumath. I told him to continue tracking the traders. Immediately, I called up Arun Sau. We summoned all other team members.”
In his confession, Pramod Sau narrated in detail how the murder took place:
- “We went to the kaccha road leading to Pakdi and stopped at Khaprail Bar. Then I, Arun Sau, Sahdev and Manoj Sau thrashed the two traders with sticks. Then Arun Sau got rope from a nearby village. He said that 'these are the people who sell cattle to the Qureshis of Balumath. We will not leave them alive. I will take revenge on them”.
- “Arun Sau used the rope to strangle the 30-32-year old trader (Mazloom Ansari) to death. He tied the rope around his neck and hung him from the tree. He ordered us to climb on the motorcycle and push the body upwards. I, Sahdev Soni and Manoj Sau began pushing the body upwards.”
- “Then Arun Sau hanged the body from the tree. We wanted it to appear that the cattle trader had hung himself”.
Another of the convicts, Mithilesh, confessed that he is a functionary of the local Gau Raksha Samiti and he was "only carrying out the responsibilities given to him".
“Around five months back, in October 2015, at Jhabar village, a meeting of some men of the village was called. At the meeting, I was given the responsibility of the area's Gau Raksha Samiti. I was given the task of countering people involved in cattle trade. On the basis of that mandate, I did what I did,” he said.
How A Dacoit Became A Gau Rakshak
By most accounts, it seemed that Arun Sau, who hails from Balumath, was the leader of the group. His transformation into a vigilante Gau Rakshak is an important aspect of the entire story.
In his confession, that was part of the police’s charge sheet, Arun said that he dropped out of school in Class 7 in 1997 and began working first as a truck-helper and then as a driver of one Munna Gupta, who initiated him into dacoity. According to his confession, he was caught in 2005 along with Gupta for carrying out dacoities. He was caught again a few months later, along with one Siraj Miyan of Palamau, for illegally transporting coal and was jailed for nearly a year.
After a few years of staying out of trouble, he was charged in two cases in Balumath in 2012. But the nature of his activities had changed. This time he was charged for rioting, unlawful assembly and intentional insult with the intent of trying to breach peace. From dacoity, he had moved to communal violence.
This revival in his criminal activities coincided with his increasing involvement in the Gau Raksha campaign. Around the same time, Balumath became a major hub for the cow protection campaign of an Uttarakhand-based preacher Gopal ji Maharaj. Arun Sau is said to have attended his discourses.
“In 2012, a campaign to prevent slaughter and trade of cows and oxen was started in Balumath. I became part of it. Because of this, I had altercations with Muslims of Balumath and I had to go to jail twice," he said in his confession.
In 2015, he had a confrontation with a few locals belonging to the Qureshi community, who thrashed him.
Even though a Muslim named Jasim Miyan gave him refuge after the attack, Arun Sau decided to “take revenge” on Muslim cattle traders. For this purpose, he created a “team” which included Manoj Sau, Mithilesh Sahu, Sahdev Soni, Vishal Tiwari, Avdhesh Sahu, Pramod Sahu and Majoj Kumar Sahu.
According to locals, Arun Sau is linked to the Bajrang Dal and had put up a board claiming to be the organisation’s block in-charge. However, Bajrang Dal has denied that Sau was part of it.
Arun Sau’s case shows how history-sheeters reinvent themselves as Gau Rakshaks. It not only provides them a legitimate pretext for their crimes, it also helps them gain social acceptability and influence. Conversely, some cow-protection organisers also seem to be using criminals like Arun Sau as their storm-troopers.