Eight months after three sadhus were killed in a barbaric way in a temple in Auraiya’s Kudarkot village, communal tension is still palpable.
The case is a clear example of religious bias in reporting of hate crimes, and in the state’s subsequent response to it.
On entering Bidhuna town in Auraiya district of Uttar Pradesh, the first person I stop by for help with directions happens to be a saffron-clad sadhu.
He knows the route to the village, Kudarkot, he has heard of the famous temple, Shri Bhayanaknath, but he does not know that three sadhus were brutally murdered there in sleep by cow smugglers just eight months ago.
I immediately regret sharing the last bit of information with the sadhu, who says his name is Dharamdas and that he hails from Barauna Kalan, a village less than eight kilometres from Kudarkot. Perhaps sensing my regret, he says "jo aya hai wo jayega" (one who has come will go), and calmly walks away.
On the morning of 15 August 2018, three resident sadhus at the centuries-old Shiva temple were found in a pool of blood, their hands and legs tied to their cots and multiple stab wounds on their necks and other body parts. Ramsharan (56) hailed from Bibipur village in Bidhuna, while the other two - Lajja Ram (65) and Halke Ram (53) - were residents of nearby towns namely Airwa Katra and and Bakewar.
The state police later arrested five men from the adjoining 'kasaayi mohalla' (butchers' colony). Those arrested- identified as Salman, Nadeem, Shahzad, Najeem and Jabbar - said they carried out the barbaric murders in revenge; the sadhus had recently tipped off the police about their illegal cow smuggling and slaughtering activities. They chopped off Lajja Ram's tongue as a signal to people for complaining against cow smuggling, the police told the media.
Photographs of the mutilated bodies, enough to send a chill down the spine of anybody who dares to take on the beef mafia, were widely shared on social media.
On way to Kudarkot, however, I notice surprising ignorance of the incident among residents. Out of curiosity, I also ask them about Akhlaq Khan, a victim of mob lynching over cow slaughter in distant Bisahda, some 350 kilometeres away, in 2015. Akhlaq Khan had allegedly slaughtered a calf and kept its meat stored in his fridge, following which an enraged mob attacked his house.
Invariably, they all know about Akhlaq.
There is nothing in Auraiya that suggests everyone is equal in death, even if some have suffered a brutal end.
Shri Bhayanaknath temple is located in the middle of fields and jungle. One crosses a Muslim-inhabited colony to reach the nearly desolate spot. Some distance away on an elevated rocky patch, a structure is coming up, which I learn is an idgah (a ground for public prayers by Muslims).
"Behind the idgah is the kasaayi mohalla," informs a police officer on duty at the temple.
"Don't go there," he says.
"Why? Is it not safe?"
"Aap jaanti hi hain (you know it already)," the cop replies and requests not to be named.
After that incident, four cops guard the temple at all times. In the night, one of them keeps a vigil while three others sleep - that's the arrangement. Before the Lok Sabha elections began, officers from the PAC (provincial armed constabulary) were stationed here, the cop says.
The temple now has one resident sadhu, Haridas Thakur, who says he barely escaped the fate of the other three. "I lived in this temple for five-six months before the murders. Only a few weeks ago I had shifted to the other Shiva temple, the one you must have seen on the way," he says. "That's because it was the month of Saawan and all Shiva temples draw huge crowds."
The temple has one room and a sprawling courtyard. The sadhus usually slept inside the room but that day, they placed their cots in the open, says Haridas. "They had been up for three nights due to an akhand path and were very tired.”
The temple is believed to be 5,000 years old and locals believe that Lord Krishna stayed here for a night. Haridas says says the temple used to draw devotees in droves but the number has now reduced to less than ten a day. "After sunset, nobody dares to come in this direction,” he says.
Haridas then shares something startling. "People from that [kasaayi] mohalla have told me it's a matter of time when the accused would be released. They say, earlier we slaughtered cows, now we will slaughter you," says Haridas and names one Mehboob Khan. "Mehboob says we got their men arrested. He keeps a grudge."
Asked who is "we" referred to here, Haridas says, "Obviously we Hindus. Who else?"
The murders were preceded by a spate of cow slaughter cases around the temple. As mentioned in the first information report (FIR) filed by the brother of Lajja Ram (Swarajya has a copy), the sadhus would verbally complain about it to the police. On the night preceding the murder, Lajja Ram had called up cops that six cows were about to be slaughtered near the temple. Police had raided the area, rescued the cows and arrested two men carrying sharp weapons.
Cops later found that the killings were carried out by relatives of those arrested and their accomplices.
Infuriated villagers had attacked shops and set some of them afire. They had also vandalised the kasaayi mohalla, prompting some of its inhabitants to flee, and got the construction of the idgah halted.
The mood in the village is that the killings were communal and so the reaction to it was also communal. Hindu residents of Kurdarkot identify the killers as "mussalman".
Again, the English media narrative around the case belies ground reality. The case passed off as a regular crime in news reports, hardly generating any outrage. A hate crime database maintained by a website - one that incidentally has been repeatedly shown as being tailor-made to make Muslims look like victims and Hindus as perpetrators - refused to acknowledge these killings as a communal crime. The site argued that the murders were triggered by loss of profit and not religious hate.
Auraiya case is a clear example of power disparity in reporting of hate crimes, and the state’s subsequent response to it.
Compared to the Rs 45 lakh and four flats that the family of Akhlaq got from the then Akhilesh-Yadav led Samajwadi Party (SP) government, the families of the sadhus got only Rs 7 lakh each - Rs 5 lakh from the current Yogi Adityanath-led BJP government and Rs 2 lakh from Akhilesh Yadav.
This is despite the fact that victims in both cases belong to SP's core vote bank - Akhlaq was a Muslim while Lajja Ram and Halke Ram were Yadavs and Ram Sharan a Shakya by caste. Lajja Ram had even contested local farmer union polls with SP support.
The disparity is not lost on the family of Ram Sharam, who I met in their village Bibipur, around three kilometres from the temple.
Sarvesh, youngest of his three sons, says he does not get why there was a huge difference in compensation. However he says the family wants nothing from the government except for a job for his elder brother who is psychically challenged.
“My brother Bhoop Singh is divyang’. If Yogiji could get him a job, we would be grateful. We wouldn't have asked for it but they promised us this,” he says.
“We request you to take this request to the government as no other reporter has come here,” he adds.
Sarvesh says local political workers made several promises to them but didn’t keep any. "They talked about installing busts of my father and the other two sadhus in the temple as they died in ‘gau raksha’ (cow protection). But they did nothing. Not that we asked for it.”
“I made a samadhi for my father with my own hands in our field,” he says.
Dhanwan Devi, Ram Sharan's wife, bursts into tears, recalling that her husband had shifted to the temple only six days prior to the killings.
"He took sanyas two years ago and used to live in a temple in our village itself," she says.
"If only he had continued to live here. There are no Muslims on our village,” she says.