Biswanath (Assam): In the third cow-related hate-crime reported nationwide in 2019, Shaukat Ali, 68, was beaten, bloodied by a mob and force-fed pork, on April 7, 2019, for allegedly selling cooked beef–which is not a crime in this state–as he had for 35 years at his restaurant in this northern Assam district.
Since the attack, his restaurant, which was ransacked by the mob, has been shut, leaving his family of seven without an income. Ali–who was kept in a police lock-up the night after the attack–is currently recuperating in a hospital about 240 km east to the state capital of Guwahati.
Since 2010, 126 cow-related hate-crimes have been reported across India, according to a FactChecker database that tracks such crimes. At least 46 Indians have been killed and 251 injured, the database shows. About 57% of those attacked and 78% of those killed are Muslim.
Up to 98% of these crimes were reported after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party came to power at the Centre.
With four attacks since 2010, Assam, India’s 15th-most populous state, where Muslims account for over a third of the population, occupies 10th spot by number of cow-related attacks, all recorded after 2016, when the BJP won state assembly elections.
“Shaukat had been running the restaurant and selling beef for the last 35 years–for non-Muslims, he kept tea and snacks,” said his brother Abdur Rahman (57). “This place used to belong to our grandfather, and he was popular among the people,” said Rahman. “We are not looking for compensation, we just want the police to nab the culprits.”
“The mahaldar [market manager], Kamal Thapa, has asked us to close down the shop and forbidden us from carrying out our business in the market area,” said Ali’s son Abdul Wahab, 17, who has been helping his father at the restaurant. “He says it’s election time and the matter is sensitive. We do not have agricultural lands, the only source of income was the hotel.”
Cattle slaughter in Assam is allowed under The Assam Cattle Preservation Act, 1950, for bovines over the age of 14 years or if the animal is incapable of working or reproducing, in which case, a ‘fit-for-slaughter’ certificate must be obtained from a veterinary officer. In other cases, it is a cognisable–meaning a police officer can make an arrest without permission from a judge–bailable offence, with a maximum fine of Rs 1,000 and a maximum prison term of six months.
On April 4, 2019, three days before the mob attacked Ali and a week prior to the first phase of Lok Sabha elections in the area, 15 people, mostly locals, according to Thapa, ransacked Ali’s shop, located in the Madhupur area of Biswanath chariali (square).
Searching for beef, the mob shot a video of the beef that they found and left, after warning Ali to stop selling the meat. Intimidated, Ali then contacted Thapa–one of eight town mahaldars–who advised him similarly.
“After Ali told us about the incident, we went to the police station where the town sub-inspector instructed me to inform all the restaurant owners in the area to stop selling beef,” Thapa told FactChecker. “I asked Ali to get rid of all the beef in his hotel. I told him that since it was election time anything regarding beef can scale up to a messy affair. I asked him to stop operating his hotel in the market for his security.”
Ali said he suspected the mahaldars of being involved in the mob attack. Three days later, on April 7, 2019, Ali closed his shop early and was about to leave to offer namaz when one of the mahaldars said it was not safe for him to go home alone. “I could sense danger, but I felt obligated to go with him,” Ali told FactChecker.
The mahaldar, identified as Maina, asked Ali to wait at a paan (betel leaf) shop, until he returned. Maina never returned, according to Ali. “After one-and-a-half hours, at around 3:30 pm, the same group which had threatened me earlier, appeared,” he said.
With more people this time and armed with wooden sticks and iron rods, the mob dragged Ali inside a girl’s high school, and started to beat him. Someone in the crowd shot a video of the attack and circulated it on social media.
“They asked me if I was a Bangladeshi, and if my name was in the NRC (National Register of Citizens),” said Ali. “Then, they force-fed me pork.” Eating pork is forbidden in Islam.
The NRC is currently underway in Assam to identify citizens from foreign migrants, mostly Bangladeshis. Muslims of Bengali origin in Assam are often suspected as Bangladeshi nationals due to linguistic and cultural similarities.
Mahmudal Hassan, an eyewitness, said he saw Shaukat Ali surrounded by the mob. “There was blood all over his shirt, and he was almost losing consciousness,” said Hasan
Police arrived at the scene an hour after the mob attacked Ali. A team of five policemen led by officer-in-charge Subhan Chandra Das, from Biswanath Chariali police station–1 km away–extricated Ali and bundled him into a police vehicle.
“The mob was furious,” said Das. “They surrounded my vehicle and demanded that I leave Ali to them. I only had a few men and it was impossible for us to stop the mob of more than 100 people.”
Das called for backup, which came from a paramilitary patrol deployed for the Lok Sabha elections. “We managed to take Ali to the police station,” said Das.
After Ali was rescued from the mob, police kept him in lockup for the night, alleged Abdur Rahman, Ali’s brother. The family filed a first information report–a copy of which is with FactChecker–with the police about this.
“I was made to stay in the police lock-up with my dirty clothes on,” Ali told FactChecker. “It was stained with blood and dirt. Only the next day was I allowed to change my clothes.”
Das, the head of Biswanath Chariali police station, said Shaukat Ali was kept at the police station overnight “for his safety”, after the mob followed them from the hospital–where he was examined–to the police station.
“We realised a mob was gathering outside the police station,” said Das. “We feared that if we took him out of the police station they might attack him again.”
Rahman said the police allowed the family to have Ali admitted to the Biswanath Chariali civil hospital only the next day, and three days later, on April 10, 2019, he was moved to a hospital in Guwahati for better care.
The police have arrested five persons in connection with the assault. “They have been arrested on the basis of the electronic evidence and eyewitness accounts,” said Das. “We have been zeroing in on more people involved in the crime, but most of them are on the run.”
Ahead of the first phase of polling for the general elections on April 11, 2019, section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure–which prohibits assembly of five or more persons, holding of public meetings, and carrying of firearms–was imposed in the district.
“We do not want anyone to take advantage of the tension and do more ruckus,” Pabitra Ram Khaund, Deputy Commissioner of Biswanath, told FactChecker. “I have been in talks with the local organisations and I am also going to organise a peace meeting between communities.”
(Zahan is a Guwahati-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)
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