At about 2 am on June 18, 24-year old Tabrez Ansari and two accomplices allegedly tried into break into the Mahto household at the rear end of Dhatkidih village in Jharkhand’s Seraikela-Kharsawan district. This was the trio’s attempt at a fourth theft that night: they had reportedly already stolen a Super Splendour bike from the nearby village of Malimurub.
In Dhatkidih, the plan was to jump inside the house by first climbing up to the terrace. What they did not know was that the family was sleeping on the terrace that night. So when Ansari and company climbed up, the family were woken up by the commotion, raised an alarm, and Ansari was soon caught.
While the accomplices escaped, Ansari was tied to a cement-made electricity poll barely 20 metres away and thrashed for hours. He was ultimately lynched by the village men. In a video of the incident that broke national headlines, a sobbing Ansari can be seen uttering “Jai Shri Ram” and “Jai Hanuman” upon forceful threats by the villagers.
The house in Dhatkidih village that Ansari and two others tried to break into.
The police have arrested 11 people so far.
This is the account Newslaundry derived from testimonies of people living in Dhatkidih and the local police.
In Jharkhand’s Seraikela-Kharsawan district, Dhatkidih village is settled between forested mountains and cultivated plains. Most of the village’s 50 or so backward caste families live in mud houses that open into square-shaped backyards. A striking attraction is a 12-foot tall Hanuman outside one of the few pucca houses, mace in one hand and the Dronagiri in the other. A road slices through the village and in the distance lies a railway line with a small station.
An uneasy silence now grips Dhatkidih. After the police arrested 11 village men for Ansari’s murder, the rest of the men here have fled. Women rush inside their houses at the first sight of an outsider, especially if they see police officials. Most of them refused to even engage with this correspondent.
Dhatkidih village in Jharkhand’s Seraikela-Kharsawan district.
Police pickets have been set up at the two ends of the village and I had to seek permission from the local SP before entering it. One police official tells me: “Mahaul theek nahi hai yahan (The atmosphere is not good here). Some Bajrang Dal members had come a couple of days ago and carried out a protest march with the local women.” Before the saffron outfit made an entrance, villagers claim that Muslim men in Maruti cars had shown up at Dhatkidih on June 24 and threatened to rape the women and bomb the place. Media reports allege that these men belonged to the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM). An FIR has been filed in this case, but the local police has not started investigating the matter yet.
A family of four lives in the house where Ansari and his ilk allegedly attempted theft. The son, who first saw the three break in, and the father, who raised an alarm, are accused in the case and have been arrested. Only two women remain in the house: the mother and the daughter. “The two accomplices had oil on their bodies so they could escape if caught,” the 20-year-old daughter tells me. “When Tabrez jumped off the terrace, I saw his face. He hit his leg on the ground during the act and limped towards the bushes and hid there. One of the accomplices ran behind the house towards the railway line, and one ran in Tabrez’s direction.”
The bush where Ansari had parked his bike and later hid.
“He was caught in the bushes by the villagers. He had parked his bike there as well. Once he was found, the villagers tied him to the pole and thrashed him. Others from the neighbouring hamlets also showed up. I was there for half an hour when they were beating him. I told them to stop, but they were enraged. We had called the police at 2 am and they came at 7 am.” When the police jeep drove up, Ansari was walked towards it with the villagers behind him.
The daughter says her father and brother have been falsely implicated since they were not part of the mob that lynched Ansari. There is also resentment towards Ansari’s family, who have allegedly received more than ₹32 lakh in aid since the incident. The amount is unfounded, but in addition to the state’s aid of ₹2 lakh to victims of mob violence, the AAP-led Delhi Waqf board has promised ₹5 lakh to family and a job for Ansari’s wife. Activists have also provided monetary assistance.
“Humare ghar mai chori hua aur police humare hi log ko le gaya, upar se unko 32 lakh mila hai (There was a theft in our house, and our family members were arrested. Over that they’ve received ₹32 lakh),” she says morosely. “We feel guilty now. If we could have just gotten them to stop beating him, perhaps he wouldn’t have died and our family members wouldn’t have been arrested.”
She adds: “Most men in the village have fled since. They were afraid that they too will get arrested.”
The electricity pole to which Ansari was tied. In the distance lies a railway track, towards which one of the accomplices ran.
A few houses away, a 42-year-old woman recounts how the incident unfolded. “We woke up after hearing cries of ‘Chor! Chor!’ When we walked out, some villagers produced a knife, a collection of keys, wallets, a smartphone and kept it outside our house. There was a black mask and a bike as well. A mob was interrogating a boy in a black shirt tied to the electric pole.” She says an Aadhaar card and contact details were found in one of the purses procured from Ansari. When the villagers telephoned the number, someone from another village picked up and said his wallet had been stolen that night.
Additionally, police sources told Newslaundry that when word of the thief reached neighbouring villages, the owner of the bike that Ansari was travelling on also showed up. However, the angry mob had damaged the bike by then.
The bike that Ansari and two accomplices travelled with.
“In the morning around 6.30 am, he was just sitting near the pole,” the woman continues. “He saw me and said ‘aunty humko paani de dijiye (aunty, give me a glass of water)’. Other neighbours did not provide him water since he was a thief. But I sent my son with some water in a polythene bag, not a glass.”
The woman was surprised when she learnt of Ansari’s death and is not happy with the media’s coverage of the event. “This village is not a communal place, sir. Hum waise log nahi hai. Media mai gaon ka naam kharaab kiya jaa raha hai, achha nahi lagta ye sab sunkar (We are not like that. The media is tarnishing the village’s name, we don’t like it).”
Both the witnesses in Dhatkidih that this correspondent spoke to claim they did not hear cries of “Jai Shri Ram” and “Jai Hanuman” from the mob. Neither did they see villagers stuff the leaves of a poisonous plant in Ansari’s mouth, as Ansari’s family has claimed. But it should be noted that neither of them were spectators to the entire incident that lasted five hours, between 2 am and 7 am.
Police sources told Newslaundry that they’ve tracked down a 20-year-old villager who shot one of the videos of Ansari being beaten up. “He told us that ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and ‘Jai Hanuman’ were indeed shouted,” the source said.
Tabrez Ansari belonged to Kadamdiha village about six kilometres away from Dhatkidih. At his house, women are in mourning but busy with morning chores. They refused to speak to this correspondent, stating that “jo bolna tha humein humne wo bol diya (we have said what we had to say)”. I was also denied access to Ansari’s wife because she “cannot see another man for four months”. The men in the household were to return by late evening.
According to media reports, Ansari’s family claims that he was returning from Jamshedpur after meeting his aunt on the fateful night of June 17-18. When he reached Dhatkidih, the villagers nabbed him and thrashed him for being a thief.
Md Mansoor Alam, Tabrez’s uncle, told The Hindu: “Tabrez could have been let off with a few slaps. All hell broke loose when he revealed his name. He was tied to an electric pole and beaten up the whole night. Later, he was dragged to nearby bushy areas and another round of thrashing started. He was also forced to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and ‘Jai Hanuman’.”
There are around 500 households in Kadamdiha, with about five backward caste Hindu families. Most of them are traders who sell items in local markets in the area. Unlike Dhatkidih, pucca houses line the village on both sides of the street. In the middle of the village stands the tall minaret of a local mosque.
Ansari’s village of Kadamdiha near Kharsawan in Jharkhand.
Locals say there is an atmosphere of sorrow in the village since the incident. “No one thinks about the Muslims these days. Hume apna kafan khud saath mai lekar chalna hoga. Basti mai ek sannata hai, dar hai (We’ll have to carry our own coffins. There is silence and fear in the village),” says MD Haqqani, who runs a grocery store opposite Ansari’s house.
There is also fear. Young men claim they have stopped taking the route to Seraikela that Ansari took. “We don’t want a second Tabrez. We’ve stopped venturing there once the sun sets,” says 20-year-old Mohammad Jubair.
Villagers remember Ansari as a bright and good-looking boy who couldn’t have engaged in theft. “I used to work with his chacha’s brother,” says 55-year-old Anant Majhi, who manufactures and sells clothes in the nearby market. “I saw him growing up. Wo ekdum raja ladka tha (He was a very nice child). I felt very bad when I heard of it.”
At a kirana store nearby, 52-year-old Tahira Khatun says Ansari was born in front of her and used to visit her shop often. “He was a very nice and beautiful boy. He had married a couple of months ago and did not have parents. He couldn’t have been a thief,” she insists earnestly. “Have you seen the video? They did it out of such bloodlust; to show everyone that look, we’re beating him up.”
Anant Majhi, whose family is one of few Hindu families in Ansari’s village.
Anant Majhi adds that things have been normal in the village since the incident and there have been no communal skirmishes in the 15 years that he has lived here. “‘Jai Shri Ram’ bolwana galat hai (It’s wrong to make someone say ‘Jai Shri Ram’). They should not have done this. But what can one do? There are good and bad people in every village,” he says, with a hint of resignation on his face.
Surinder Surakh and Sohan Majhi live about 100 metres away from Manjhi’s house. They too sell ready-made clothes in the region’s markets. “We are not worried about the state of this village. We were born and grew up here. Things have never turned communal. We live together. When we celebrate our festivals, they come to our homes. We go to theirs during their festivals,” says Surakh.
Surinder Surakh and Sohan Majhi.
The two are not happy with what they saw in the video. “He was Muslim, we are Hindus. If we make someone say ‘Jai Shri Ram’, then it’ll be wrong,” Surakh adds with a quizzical look. Majhi says: “Uska zindagi toh chala gaya, upar se Ram ka bhi naam kharab kiya (They took his life away, and over that they also desecrated Ram’s name). Even we were afraid of venturing to that area after learning about the incident.”
In May this year, the walls of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Kharsawan office were blown up by Naxalites. Since then, the workers and members of the party have been camping at a nearby medical store. Some of them do not own a smartphone, but claim to have seen Ansari’s video on “maalik’s” phone. The maalik is party district president Uday Pratap Singh Dev, who seems to be a busy man but drops by often to meet his comrades. Singh and his lackeys believe that the video of Ansari being lynched is manipulated.
“The problem with you people in the media is that you have showered so much affection over a thief, as if he was the nicest guy in the world,” he says. “That boy was a khandani chor. His father too was a thief.”
Singh believes that thieves should not be associated with a religion, and even thieves who happen to be Hindus are beaten up whenever they’re caught. But are the Hindus lynched? Singh does not think Ansari was lynched to begin with. “There was once a local boy here who died while playing football. It happens. Sometimes there’s a heart problem. I think that’s what happened to him,” Singh claims, asking: “He was beaten with a thetar stem, how can that cause death?” He uproots a green stem from a nearby bush and hands it over to me. The plant is known as thetar or besharam among the locals in the region. “Isko todke dekhiye. Isse kaise chot lagega kisiko (Try to break this. How can this wound someone)?” Singh demonstrates by bending the elastic stem and it breaks easily.
A thetar plant near the pole where Ansari was lynched. Locals claim he was beaten up with the stem of the plant.
There is a hum of approbation around me. I contemplate suggesting that we try the thetar on someone to see if it really hurts but just before I venture my proposal to Singh himself, a party worker interrupts.
“Sometimes the fellow prisoners beat a new prisoner when he shows up at the jail. That could have also killed Ansari,” he speculates.
I ask Singh about the religious chants that Ansari was forced to utter. He denies this too. “That video came out a day after he died. It was planned,” Singh says. “These people who formed the mahagathbandhan—the Congress party, Owaisi and the Jai Bhim people—they lost badly in the Lok Sabha elections. Now they get agitated and wonder what to do. So when they finally found an issue, they associated it with a religion and made it political to corner Modi. They just want Muslim votes. Have you seen Bengal? Wahan ‘Jai Shri Ram’ bolna mana hai (It is prohibited to say ‘Jai Shri Ram’ there).”
What if it is proved that Ansari was made to chant “Jai Shri Ram”? Singh’s answer: “It’s a wrong thing to do. You shouldn’t force it on others. People should utter His name only out of piety.”
Uday Pratap Singh Dev, the district president of the BJP in Seraikela-Kharsawan.
Singh suddenly contradicts himself: “I don’t say all Muslims are thieves, but most thieves are Muslims.” Why does he believe so? “Dekhiye hum bolenge toh logon ko taqleef hone lagega (If I say what I believe then people wouldn’t like it).”
When I prod him on, Singh furnishes his theory: “When you have two children, you want to give them a good upbringing. But when you have 15, how can you make sure all of them are brought up well? You need to have the means too. So the kids in their families aren’t brought up well. They don’t get a good atmosphere and a good company. And everyone needs a smartphone these days. You can’t get that if you work in a mechanic’s shop. The shortcut is to steal it. And this boy was not a welder in Pune, he was a khandani chor. He father had quite a track record.”
The local police told Newslaundry that it cannot confirm whether Ansari’s father had any criminal record.
‘Why is this a big deal?’
Ansari was pronounced dead when he was brought to Tata Main Hospital in Jamshedpur on June 22. Before this, he had been declared dead at the Sadar hospital in Seraikela, but a local journalist had alleged that he had been alive. The police claims that this was untrue and blown out of proportion.
Yet, the local police in the district has a lot to answer for. Why did it arrive five hours late to arrest Ansari in Dhatkidih that day? How did Ansari die despite being declared fit on the morning of June 18? One official told Newslaundry that police in the region have orders to not instantly respond to late night alarms because it can turn out to be a trap set up by local Naxalites. To the second, the official pointed to lapses in Ansari’s medical examination in Sadar hospital and the doctor’s failure to detect a head injury which might have caused a serious haemorrhage.
Based on inputs by the police’s intelligence department, 11 accused have been arrested so far: Bhim Mandal (45), Chamu Nayak (40), Kamal Mahto (48), Madan Nayak (30), Mahesh Mahli (28), Prakash Mandal (28), Premchand Mahli (21), Satyanarayan Nayak (55), Sonamu Pradhan (23), Sonaram Mahli (31) and Sumant Mahto (24). However, evidence has only been furnished for six of them. The police are still looking for witnesses, though many have fled, and will choose to book others based on their testimony. The original phone that captured Ansari’s assault has been sent to Chandigarh to determine the authenticity of the videos.
It is also widespread belief on the ground that the late night lynching of Tabrez Ansari gained such exorbitant traction among the national media solely because of the “Jai Shri Ram” chants. “If you just take that bit out, the news of it wouldn’t have reached 40 kilometres away in Jamshedpur, forget Delhi,” one police official told me. “Whenever they get hold of a thief here, they beat him up. That’s what they did to Ansari. Why is this a big deal?”
It’s not difficult to understand why communal mob violence is not a big deal for a police official in Jharkhand’s suburbia. In the past two years, especially in the month of June, mob violence in the state has become as frequent as the monsoon. In June 2018, Muslim men were thrashed in the state capital of Ranchi and forced to chant Jai Shri Ram; a few days later, two Muslim men were lynched in the district of Godda on the suspicion of cattle theft.
In June 2017, 50-year-old Usman Ansari was battered and his house in Giridih burnt down by a mob that suspected him of killing a cow. He’s currently in hiding. Just three days later, Alimuddin Ansari was killed by a mob led by a local BJP leader in Ramgarh based on the same suspicion. (Ten of the 11 convicted in the case are currently out on bail.) Another mob assaulted Ainul Ansari in Dhanbad that month because they thought he was carrying beef to an iftar party.
This murderous gallery does not include cases of communal mob violence in Jharkhand outside the month of June in the last few years (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here). But once all of them are brought together, the murder of Tabrez Ansari becomes another piece in the recent social and political pattern of anti-Muslim mob violence in Jharkhand.