Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99 per year.
Subscribe for Full Access
Polarized politics and mainstream intolerance

Mohammed Akhlaq went to bed early on the night he was murdered. His wife, Ikraman, stayed downstairs to clean up the kitchen and help her mother-in-law onto the cot in the living room. Around ten, Ikraman was laying out mattresses for her daughter and herself when she heard a loudspeaker crackling nearby: “People, assemble near the electric transformer. Go quickly, quickly!” She didn’t pay attention; it was probably the priest at the Hindu temple in their village, Bisada, and as a Muslim she was used to letting its announcements and devotional songs wash over her. By ten-thirty, she had put her head on her pillow and was nodding off.

A noise startled her back to alertness: her iron front door clanging open. Fifteen men stormed in, screaming, brandishing batons and knives. “Akhlaq! You will pay for what you’ve done!” The intruders thundered up the narrow stairs to where Akhlaq and his younger son, Danish, were sleeping. The Muslim family had insulted Hindus, the men shouted, kicking father and son awake. They twisted Danish’s arms, slammed him against the wall. A sewing machine was on the table—Ikraman used it to tailor shirts and blouses for other villagers—and the men picked it up and hit Akhlaq over the head. They dragged the frail man by his ears, by his hair, across the cement floor and down the stairs.

More men were coming in—Shaista, Akhlaq’s daughter, noticed some of her brothers’ friends, old schoolmates, acquaintances, nearly unrecognizable in their fury. A few made for the kitchen, where someone tore open a bag of rice, strewing white grains across the floor. Some went for the fridge, where one man reached inside and pulled out what they had come looking for: “Beef!” he yelled.

Ikraman swore it was not, that it was goat meat, leftovers from the animal that a relative had sacrificed for Eid three days earlier. The men called her a liar. “Some of them pushed me, I felt a hand inside my clothes, they cursed at me,” Ikraman told reporters later. A man slapped Asgari Begum, Akhlaq’s eighty-year-old mother, and another punched her in the eye. The rest of the mob pulled Akhlaq to the courtyard, where more people kicked, hit, stabbed him.

The police arrived an hour or two later. Akhlaq was bleeding in the courtyard, his white vest and cotton pajamas soaked with blood; he showed no signs of breathing. Da­nish was unconscious. They were rushed to the hospital, where Akhlaq was declared dead on arrival. Sartaj, the eldest son, flew in from Chennai the next day to bury his father. None of the Hindu villagers—not even longtime friends—came to the funeral.

I first met Akhlaq’s family after the ceremony, in late September 2015. They were exhausted with crying, hadn’t been sleeping, shell-shocked amid the scattered rice and Akhlaq’s bloody clothes, with neighbors seething outside their door. They knew there was no place for them in Bisada anymore. Within a week, they had left for New Delhi.

In the capital, the family largely retreated. Sartaj and I had long conversations on the phone over the following year, but he didn’t feel comfortable meeting me. The press had come to the funeral, and he did a few TV interviews afterward, but they had made him wary of “media-wale.” And he was concerned about his family—his bedridden brother, his sister, his mother, his grandmother. The eldest son and the only one with a job, as a technician in the Air Force, he had suddenly become the patriarch. He was self-conscious about how his family would be seen, how they would be judged. Every photograph of Sartaj in the media was from the funeral, showing him in a creased shirt and skullcap, a passive Muslim victim. The soft-spoken, slender, confident young man with a crew cut and neatly pressed clothes had disappeared. “I want to protect them from this, especially my mother,” he said.

There was a lot to protect them from. Soon after the murder, nine people, most of them upper-caste Hindu men under the age of twenty-five, were arrested. The family received 500,000 rupees (about $7,500 at the time) in compensation from the Uttar Pradesh state government and a discounted apartment in Noida, a Delhi suburb, but for anything like justice, they would have a long wait. Indian courts move slowly at the best of times, and a case like this—the death of a Muslim man at the hands of a Hindu mob, for allegedly possessing cow meat—was bound to generate controversy.

Sartaj spent the following years trying to keep away not only reporters but also the news itself. Since his father’s death, India has seen an estimated seventy attacks against people accused of harming cows. More than 80 percent of these have been against Muslims, who can become targets even on the basis of a rumor about eating beef, being seen transporting or killing cows, or just seeming too Muslim—sporting a beard or wearing a skullcap. Last year alone, vigilantes claiming to protect cows killed eleven people; it was the deadliest year since 2010, according to India­spend, a data journalism website. And with each new murder, Mohammed Akhlaq’s death comes back in all its horrifying detail.

After cow vigilante crimes, some appalled citizens protest, but they are drowned out by enthusiastic ministers and right-wing commentators offering justification: the perpetrators are emotional Hindus responding to heinous provocations by lawbreaking Muslims or unclean Dalits.1 The lynching of Akhlaq, one year after the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) assumed power in New Delhi, has created a sort of attack template. India is no stranger to either slow-burning prejudice or deadly bursts of communal violence. But today’s Hindu right can not only call forth the power of the mob but also move the levers of the state. Politically legitimized, intolerance has become a fact of everyday life.

Bisada used to be another unremarkable village in Uttar Pradesh: broken roads, winding lanes, old brick houses brightly painted on the outside and crumbling on the inside. Only two dusty hours from New Delhi, the village sits between highways and fields of wheat, rice, and sugarcane. Diesel smoke acquires the whiff of damp hay from the cow sheds. The village is home to small farmers, traders, and day laborers. There is room for everyone, but everyone must know his place.

Anonymous traditional fabric painting © Roland & Sabrina Michaud/akg-images

Akhlaq was the third generation of his family to live in Bisada. They are Saifi Muslims, once blacksmiths who traveled with the armies of Hindu kings, taking care of ammunition and weapons. “As payment, the local Rajput kings gave them small pieces of land or houses,” said Mohammad Ali, an Uttar Pradesh–based journalist who is writing a book about Muslims in present-day India. But the village is dominated by Thakurs—upper-caste Hindus who claim descent from the Rajput warriors. They aren’t all affluent, but they own most of the land and control local affairs. Of Bisada’s 15,000 residents, only some 375 are Muslim. (There are also some 500 Dalits in the village.)

When I visited Bisada again in 2016, a year after Akhlaq’s murder, the village was on edge. Eighteen men had been arrested; even the priest had been detained, though he subsequently vanished. The Thakur women were both heartbroken and indignant, insisting that their sons and husbands and brothers were innocent victims of “dirty politics,” but also asking how an act of cow protection could merit jail time. They brought up the case of Ravi Sisodia, a twenty-two-year-old who died in detention while awaiting trial for his alleged role in Akhlaq’s death. The official explanation was dengue fever, but the villagers refused to believe that, and when his body was sent back, they would not cremate him. Local politicians laid Sisodia’s body outside his home and draped it in an Indian flag as though he were a martyr. They made speeches—Sisodia’s mother felt honored, but his wife, Pooja, rocking her infant son inside their hut, just asked me whether politics could awaken the dead.

The same residents, though, took pains to tell me that while some social differences existed—segregated housing, no interreligious marriage—their village did not have a history of communal violence. Thakurs had paid to build the local mosque, they claimed, and pitched in for Muslim girls’ weddings. “It didn’t matter that Akhlaq bhai was Muslim,” said a fifty­something Hindu woman who asked to be called Lalitha. “The family had lived among Hindus for generations.” Roopa, a woman in her early forties, said her son had gone to school with Akhlaq’s children. “His kids kept their heads down, they studied hard. I used to tell my son to learn from their discipline.”

Akhlaq was Bisada’s handyman: ironsmith, carpenter, plumber, go-to electrician. Lalitha recalled him dropping in every few days, checking whether there was a water pump that needed repair or trousers his wife could mend. For any jobs they needed done, they went to Akhlaq bhai’s house. But even as they claimed they missed him, the Hindu residents all eventually told me that “the mullah”—meaning the Muslim—had done something unforgivable. No true Indian, they repeated, would eat beef.

Hindus make up about 80 percent of the Indian population, and for many, the cow is sacred. This holiness is popularly held as age-old and eternal, though it may be of more recent vintage. In 2002, the historian D. N. Jha published The Myth of the Holy Cow, in which he cites evidence from the Vedas and the Upanishads indicating that Buddhists, Jains, and Hindus, including Brahmins, sacrificed cattle and even ate beef; literature suggests that this practice may have continued until as late as the nineteenth century. The first organized cow-protection movement has been traced to a Sikh sect, formed in Punjab around 1870. Eleven years later, Dayananda Saraswati, the founder of a Hindu religious reform movement called the Arya Samaj, started a campaign to venerate the cow through schools, lectures, and books. It became a political tool: sanctifying the cow united various Hindu upper castes, “challenged the Muslim practice of its killing, and not surprisingly, provoked a series of communal riots in the 1880s and 1890s,” writes Jha.2 During the British Raj, various groups attacked cow consumption as a Western idea, a symbol of the colonizer’s oppression. Cow-protectionist literature characterized Muslims as “bloodthirsty” cow killers “stubbornly disrupting social and political harmony,” writes the religious historian Cassie Adcock.

Gradually, the cow became inviolable. For many Hindus today, especially in North India, to eat beef is to be dharam bhrasht—to lose one’s religion. (In Bisada, Thakur men sometimes eat chicken and mutton—to the clear annoyance of their wives and mothers, who will not eat or cook any meat—but no one will touch beef.) Muslims, Dalits, Christians, indigenous communities, and even millions of Hindus in the South and the Northeast, however, have no such taboo.

In the 1940s, as the country’s first leaders struggled to come up with a constitution that could satisfy every group, some Hindu legislators proposed prohibiting cow killing under the Fundamental Rights, the section that guarantees basic rights such as freedom of religion and freedom of speech. Their arguments: cow sacrifice or beef consumption was not an essential practice for Muslims; the cow was the Hindus’ primary farm animal; and democratic India could follow many religions but could have only one culture, in which the cow was revered.

The man considered the father of the Indian constitution, B. R. Ambedkar, was a Dalit, and saw the taboos against eating beef as the root of untouchability. It may have been at his insistence, suggests the legal researcher Shraddha Chigateri, that cow slaughter was only partially prohibited—as a directive principle of state policy, a recommendation rather than a law. Ambedkar framed the prohibition in terms of the cow’s use value in a primarily agricultural economy, saying nothing about Hindu religious sentiment. Why he included it at all, Chigateri says, his writings don’t explain.

Taking this as a constitutional directive to protect “the cow and its progeny,” however, most states with majority Hindu populations subsequently restricted slaughter, and over time, the laws protecting cows grew more severe. (Animal rights have rarely been part of this discourse, perhaps given the inherent hypocrisy of privileging one animal over others.) Secular leaders presented the rationale as economic, but in a diverse country where the beef and leather industries are also significant, that was clearly a very particular economics.

Since the Nineties, when the Hindu right began winning elections by promising development on the one hand and a “return” to Hindu supremacy on the other, the fig leaves have fallen away. BJP governments have tried to make the history of Hindu Indian beef-eating practices disappear, for example by removing mention of them from the syllabus of the National Council of Educational Research and Training, which designs school curricula. In the run-up to the 2004 elections, the BJP proposed a ban on cow killing across India and suggested that the guilty be punished under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Neither has become law, but there is no longer any doubt that cow protection is about normalizing Hindu dominance.

Today, the BJP runs not only the national government but also twenty-two of India’s twenty-nine states, and Hindu extremism has moved from the fringes of society to the center, cattle in tow. The Har­yana state police has a cow-protection department. Uttar Pradesh launched a cow-ambulance service. The central government funds research to prove that cow urine is a medical miracle. Even some private companies are spending more of their corporate social responsibility requirement on cow upkeep.

Lone vigilantes, bloodthirsty mobs, and organized cow-protection groups called gau rakshaks now police who is trading cattle and who is eating beef. They warn, humiliate, harass, intimidate; they have allegedly raped women. And sometimes they kill. When condemned, they retort with the argument they used against Mohammed Akhlaq: the victim deserved it. In Bisada, Sanjay Rana—a BJP member and the father of one of the men accused of Akhlaq’s murder—said such violence is not premeditated murder. To him, these are crimes of passion.

“There are more mentions of the word ‘beef’ in the case files than the word ‘murder,’ ” said Yusuf Saifi, the lawyer representing the Akhlaq family, “as if the central issue isn’t that a man has been killed.” For a long time, Saifi was the closest I could get to the family. Like them, he is a Saifi Muslim, but that was only part of the reason they chose him to represent them over many more prominent Delhi lawyers who offered their services free of charge. A local lawyer would be more conversant with the social dynamics: Hindu upper-caste police inspectors, Muslim victims and witnesses, district court judges with their own biases. Also, Sartaj knew the case would become a political powder keg. “An unknown lawyer will prevent a media circus around us,” he said.

A large man with attentive eyes and a sweep of jet-black hair, Saifi has a confident, languid mien. When I met him in 2016, he sat behind a glass-topped desk in his poky, air-conditioned office in the Surajpur court complex in Greater Noida, halfway between Bisada and Delhi. His assistant sat to his right, partially hidden behind towers of files, handing me photocopies. One of the documents he gave me was Shaista’s first statement to a magistrate, from the afternoon after her father was killed. She identified fifteen attackers by name. “Not a vague word in her statement,” said Saifi.

The investigators were less dependable than the eighteen-year-old. From the moment evidence collection began, Saifi said, there were signs of bias. For example, the state police sent the meat from Akhlaq’s house for forensic testing. A district subdivisional magistrate told me that procedurally, the type of meat was irrelevant to a murder case. A predominantly Hindu police force, even under instructions from a government that was supportive of the Muslim family, thought it pertinent for the Hindu mob’s claim of beef to be verified in the name of motive. “It’s not bigotry,” he said, “but a normalized mind-set.”

On the day after the murder, a veterinary doctor in Dadri submitted his report to the police investigator. The report said the meat was “red in colour . . . with white fat deposit,” and concluded that “prima facie it seems that this meat belongs to goat progeny.”

But the court required a forensic report from a certified laboratory, so the Dadri vet sent the remainder of the sample to the nearby city of Mathura. This lab’s official diagnosis reached the court only after an unusual delay of six months, in April 2016. It came in a sealed envelope, given the politically incendiary nature of the case.

The sealed report was leaked to the media the following month. Dated October 3, 2015, five days after Akhlaq’s murder, it said: “On the basis of chemical analysis, the sample belongs to cow or its progeny.” The murder trial of the men from Bisada hadn’t even begun, but for the defense, this information was enough to steamroll Sartaj’s case. Ram Saran Nagar, the lawyer for Vishal, Sanjay Rana’s son, told me, “It proves that the Muslim family ate beef, like the boys suspected. That’s why the Hindus lost control.”

Politicians acted swiftly. BJP leaders gathered in Bisada, even India’s minister of culture, Mahesh Sharma. They exhorted the police to “take action” against the Akhlaq family. “If not,” said Sanjay Rana, “I cannot guarantee that I can control public anger.”

Amonth after that meeting, Rana told me, he decided to move the spotlight. He advised some of the defendants, including his son, to accuse Akhlaq and his family of the crime that would be punishable: cow slaughter. “Until that time, the country’s sympathy was with Akhlaq,” Rana said. “We decided to highlight the real incidents.” In the complaint they filed with the police in July 2016, the men describe the “slaughter” over three pages of astonishing detail.

It was around noon on Eid, September 25, the report reads, when one man heard “the loud mooing of a calf” from the back yard of Akhlaq’s brother’s house. A neighbor, Prem Singh, peeked through a gap in the doorframe and saw the entire family holding the animal down as Akhlaq’s brother cut its throat. Singh, a Thakur, was “severely traumatized on witnessing this horrifying scene,” so he could not immediately tell others about it. But two days later, the village noticed that a stray calf was missing, an animal “much beloved” in Bisada. “Teams of villagers searched for the calf here and there.”

On September 28, Om Prakash “saw Akhlaq, in the darkness of night, dump a large black plastic bag full of stuff” near the village’s electric transformer. Ompal and Kanchi saw him, too. They shouted for help, and other villagers quickly gathered. They opened the bag: “cow innards.”

Akhlaq seemed very nervous, the report says. He begged everyone to check his refrigerator—the leftovers of the meat his family had eaten for Eid were still there, and it was goat, not beef. “That was when some people ran to Akhlaq’s house.” They came back after a while, holding the meat they had found. Akhlaq was a liar: it was beef. “At this point, Akhlaq apologized, saying he did indeed sacrifice the calf for Eid. Hearing this, the crowd lost control and started to beat Akhlaq.” Sanjay Rana arrived at that point and called the police—a cow had been killed, and “they must get there before great violence occurred.”

By the time constables arrived, Akhlaq was gravely injured. He was at home, though—not near the transformer—and his son Danish had also been attacked; the complaint is silent on how they may have gotten from one place to the other, how the son got involved, or when the temple announcement that Ikraman heard was made.

The villagers wanted to file this cow-slaughter complaint back in September, but they claim that the police threatened them with jail for Akhlaq’s murder instead. The “many witnesses” didn’t speak either, fearing that the Samajwadi Party government would side with a Muslim family. (The police have not arrested Akhlaq’s family. In August 2016, a month after the complaint was filed, the Allahabad High Court granted them immunity from arrest until investigations were completed.)

That summer, some journalists had unearthed a new piece of evidence: the police seizure report from the night of the murder. In it, the local constable had written that the meat sent for testing had been collected from near the electric transformer, about 550 yards away from Akhlaq’s house. The media had assumed, from Ikraman’s statement and some pictures released by the police, that it had been collected from the family’s fridge. The police said it was not clear whether this was the same meat the mob claims it brought from the house to the transformer. The seizure report also noted that police found, in total, four and half pounds of meat, though the Dadri vet’s one-page report says he received about ten pounds for testing and then sent nearly all of it on to Mathura.

“Why didn’t they use the meat in the house for testing, and where did the extra meat come from?” Saifi asked me. He also noted that the vet sent the meat in a glass container, while the Mathura lab received a plastic container. “The forensic diagnosis might have gaps,” he offered delicately. “Whether it is deliberate manipulation or shoddy police work, the bottom line is that the evidence on the basis of which they allege cow slaughter is rubbish.”

In his living room in Bisada, Sanjay Rana showed me framed photographs of him standing with senior BJP politicians: Rajnath Singh, the home minister, and L. K. Advani, the former party president. Above the door, there was a picture of Vishal with some friends. This was September 2016; Vishal had been in pretrial detention for Akhlaq’s murder for more than ten months.

Rana shouted for lunch and refused to say any more until a young man came in with some tea. After slurping it loudly, he finally opened up. “You’ll be surprised by what I have to say,” he began. “Akhlaq bhai, I respected him. His younger brother, Jan Mohammed, was my classmate, and you could say we were close friends.” He leaned forward animatedly. “But all the villagers felt they were changing.”

This was a story I’d already heard in Bisada; several people complained that Akhlaq had become “too big for his boots.” The Thakurs—both landowners and farm laborers—depended on agricultural income, and in recent years, because of the farming crisis, erratic rainfall, and drought, that had been less reliable. Akhlaq’s was among the few Bisada families, and certainly the only Muslim one, to have a professional income to fall back on. Urmila Devi, whose sons were detained with Vishal, noted bitterly, “He didn’t have a scrap of land, and he was better off.”

Especially after Sartaj joined the Air Force, the family did not struggle financially. Akhlaq even started to refuse work. His sons had asked him to—he was growing older and they were more able to contribute—but people took it as an affront. A fortysomething Hindu man told me that he had no reason to dislike the family, except that it bothered him when they parked their new Maruti Alto in front of his house. Next to him, his elderly father tut-tutted. “A person can have a car. But a person like Akhlaq?” (The car was part of Sartaj’s wife’s dowry; the family told me it was registered in her name.)

It didn’t help that Akhlaq had become more kattar (“staunch”), as the Thakurs put it, going to the small local mosque more often. An elderly villager named Om Mahesh Rana told me that while “Muslims in our village always repeated our Ram Ram”—the local Hindu greeting—“I noticed that Akhlaq had begun to say namaste suddenly.” Rana’s wife mentioned this, too. The switch was enough to make them wonder whether Bisada’s friendly ironsmith was “not as innocent as” they had thought. It wasn’t long before villagers started connecting the car, Akhlaq’s increased praying, and the family’s prosperity to ill-gotten money. They remembered a trip Akhlaq had made to Pakistan in the Eighties to see a relative. Had he gone back again more recently? Soon enough, everything spiraled into conspiracy theories about Islamist terrorism.

That September day, as we walked to his house, Sanjay Rana painted a picture of absolute harmony in Bisada and blamed local Muslims for changing the dynamic. I asked whether perhaps the Hindus were changing, too, and he grinned. “You hit the nail on the head,” he said. “We are changing, we are uniting—for the better. Our people were simple, accommodating, but now, Hindu youth—like my son—have seen the light.”

Rana was sold on the standard Hindu-nationalist version of history: that it was Hindu meekness that allowed the Muslim Mughal Empire to rule the subcontinent for three hundred years. For groups like the BJP, the Hindu awakening cannot be complete without Muslim repression. Such politics have been around ever since independent India had to accommodate the millions of Muslims who chose not to leave for Pa­kistan during Partition, but they took center stage in 1992. On December 6 of that year, 150,000 members of various Hindu fundamentalist groups gathered in Ayodhya, home to a famous mosque built in the sixteenth century by the Mughal emperor Babur. Hindus consider Ayodhya the birthplace of Lord Ram, and for fundamentalists, a mosque on sacred land was an affront. Egged on by hate-filled speeches, they demolished the mosque’s dome. Hindu-Muslim riots followed. They raged for months across the country, killing thousands. In 1996, the BJP was voted into power in Delhi for the first time.3

Rana told me that he was “always a God-fearing Hindu,” but his “political consciousness” was born at Ayodhya. “Being part of such an epic moment taught me something: politics is about thinking ahead, years ahead.” Every action had to have a larger purpose.

His voice dropped. “Shall I tell you a secret? Akhlaq had invited our boys for a meal on Eid, a day or two before the attack. When they found out that it was cow they had eaten, they felt their religion was violated. What could they have done?” He sat back, satisfied.

Later, as Rana escorted me to a neighbor’s house, I asked: Is that really what happened? From the beginning of our interview to the end, Rana had answered few questions directly. Instead, he posed logical conundrums, posited theories, and seemed to deliberately blur reality and fiction, enjoying my discomfort throughout. His response to my last question was just a riff on his favorite word, agar, “what if.”

Rana didn’t mention the beef issue to the first journalists he met, or to the police; he was simply tossing the dice. In more than half of the seventy cow-related attacks that have taken place since Akhlaq’s death, police have described rumors as the trigger for the violence. In some cases, an undated photo or video of a dead cow, or of someone transporting a cow, is sent out to ­WhatsApp groups of young gau rakshaks, and that is enough to call them to action. For months after the attacks hit headlines, politicians and pro-establishment media play fast and loose with the facts, introducing so many details, conspiracies, and characters that even as the judiciary looks at evidence, the mistrust built by the rumors makes reality hazy. In late January 2018, following Hindu-Muslim clashes in Uttar Pradesh, a viral message on Facebook and WhatsApp mourned a “Hindu martyr” who was very much alive. But attacks quickly took place in his name.

Such rumors snowball now faster than ever, but political parties across the spectrum—the socialist Samaj­wadi Party, which has traditionally wooed Muslims; the grand old secular Congress; the ascendant Hindu-nationalist parties—have long used toxic identity politics to increase or maintain their power bases. The process has been particularly extreme in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. Before state elections were held in 2017, polls showed voters to be almost evenly divided among four parties. Hindu chauvinists used the two-year-old lynching of Akhlaq to make the cow a central issue, especially in regions with high proportions of Muslims and Dalits, to consolidate Hindus across caste lines. After a long and hard-fought campaign, the BJP swept the state. The saffron-clad, ultraconservative Yogi Adityanath, a three-term parliamentarian from Gorakhpur, was appointed chief minister.

Adityanath has a long history of being rabidly anti-Muslim. He has made fiery speeches about eliminating Muslims and turning India “back into a Hindu nation.” In 2009, I saw him drive through Muslim-majority areas in a cavalcade of ­SUVs, screaming into a megaphone. “You kill ten of ours, we will kill a hundred of yours,” he warned Muslims. When he became chief minister, he was fighting criminal charges from 1995 and 2007, the former for violating prohibitory orders and the latter for making inflammatory speeches like the one I heard. Within a year after he came to power, he got his assembly to pass a law withdrawing 20,000 cases he called “politically motivated,” including, conveniently, one of his own.

Bisada’s Thakurs were overjoyed by the BJP’s victory. “All these years, adharm”—immorality—“was winning,” Sanjay Rana said. “Ab dharm ki jeet hogi”—now religious principle will win. He believed the appointment of Adityanath, a Thakur as well, would have a direct bearing on the lynching case, which had come to a standstill, delayed by sluggish investigation. “Our time has come.”

The Akhlaq family would have to keep waiting for their day in court. By the end of August 2017, all the accused men were out on bail. (Three were minors and had been released earlier.) This was procedural, but the Thakurs read it as a point in their favor. Sanjay Rana was relieved that his son Vishal was out, but worried about him too, calling him repeatedly on the phone to check in. “He’s become a cow-protection hero, and all the rakshak groups in UP want to meet him,” he told me, but added, “he shouldn’t get excited—as a dad, I want him to stay out of trouble till the case is over.”

Vishal came by on his motorcycle around sunset, patting down his windblown hair. He wore a red T-shirt and jeans, and looked thinner than he did in the pictures I had seen. He sat on the floor, and a friend draped an arm around him. He began to tell me about the night of the murder and his role in it, but his father cut him off, reminding him that the matter was sub judice. It annoyed Vishal, who seemed desperate to both justify his role and demand more payback from politicians. “All the papers have called me the ‘key accused,’ right?” he said. “And what’s life like for me? I’m not getting a job because people recognize my name in the papers, and they want a character certificate. I won’t even get a passport or visa now.” In the end, everyone had profited, he said, except him.

Once he’d calmed down, Vishal brought up Sartaj. “He must be doing great,” he said. “Flourishing.”

The last time Sartaj and I met, we went to a community center close to his house in Delhi. It was past dusk, but he was still in office clothes. Students from two nearby colleges lounged on the grass, couples stole kisses, and a few waiters zoned out on a smoke break. High-heeled women clopped by with shopping bags. There were at least six cafés around, but Sartaj chose a park bench; he could not stomach anyone paying 300 rupees for a cup of coffee.

“One day over, another to come,” he said as we sat down. Cow-protection groups, pro-beef protests, beef bans, Adityanath—“I would love to switch all this off, go shopping, meet my friends for a movie.” But as soon as he read about another man being beaten in Jharkhand or Rajasthan or Karnataka, it all came back. “We know exactly how his family must feel. We know it’s not just us.”

After half an hour, I asked him the question he had been avoiding, the worst one I could ask: Was it beef?

Sartaj looked straight at me. “No, but it won’t matter to anyone anyhow,” he said. “I think of myself as educated, progressive, but I care deeply about religion—mine, and as a proud Indian, others’ too.” He saw Indian secularism not as most liberals would, as the right to practice one’s beliefs without interference from the state, but as something more like neighborliness. “People who want to eat beef can eat it, but I don’t eat beef if I live near Hindus.”

He didn’t expect most Hindus in India to return the courtesy, that is, not eat pork or non-halal meat, an asymmetry he has only recently begun to question. He showed me his phone: “Look—nearly all my friends were Hindu.” Most of them have cut off contact, but two of his best buddies, Hindu boys from Bisada, still speak to him. In a world he can hardly recognize anymore, this small act of resistance, of solidarity, gives him some hope. They can’t support him in public, but the warmth in their occasional private messages overwhelmed him. In the end, it wasn’t his battle at all, he realized. “My last hope against dirty religious politics is that some good people will resist it, Muslim or Hindu.”

is the author of The Seasons of Trouble: Life amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War (Verso Books). She lives in Bengaluru, India.

| View All Issues |

September 2018

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now