At around 10:30 that Tuesday morning, my phone began to ring with messages about the killing of a man in Dadri in Gautam Budh Nagar district in Uttar Pradesh. As I usually do, I immediately called up my sources for confirmation. The report was authentic. It had happened late the previous night at Dadri’s Bisada village, a mere forty kilometers away from the national capital, New Delhi. A two-hundred-strong mob had gathered outside the house of Mohammad Akhlaq, who was among a handful of Muslim residents of Bisada, after an announcement was made at the local temple that he had slaughtered a cow and consumed beef.
I immediately left for Dadri. Upon reaching Uncha Gaon village, a few kilometers aways from Bisada, I encountered a heavy police deployment outside the local mosque. It was where Hindu villagers had been protesting against the arrests of some youth who had been detained on the night of September 28 after the killing of Mohammad Akhlaq. I started documenting the scenes of police deployment. Stones and bricks were scattered on the roads. The protesters had also torched a motorcycle on the roadside.
I entered the mosque in Uncha Gaon that had been attacked by the protesters. Around 200 people had attacked the mosque with bricks and sticks and broken the lock of the main gate, said the person who leads prayers at the mosque. He added that the protesters came in vehicles and some of them belonged to Hindu nationalist parties.
After this, I made up my mind to go directly to the victim, Mohammad Akhlaq’s house despite the fact that all my other media colleagues chose to remain at Uncha Gaon. When I arrived at the house, his relatives were preparing his body for burial by performing ghusul (ritual washing). I could hear the family wailing, and as a human being, I could feel their pain. But, as a journalist, I knew I had to present an unbiased report. So, I carried on despite it being extremely difficult to stand up there with my camera, documenting the grieving, loss and pain. As a visual story-teller, I felt it was my duty to document the aftermath of this brutal killing.
I entered the small two-storeyed house where I could see a group of women wailing, screaming and crying for Mohammad Akhlaq. I clicked some shots of his injured mother, Asghari, his wife and his daughter, Shaista. The women were in shock. One of the family members took me to the first floor of the house, from where Akhlaq was dragged and beaten with bricks, stones and sticks until he died. It was an assault that left his son, Danish, critically injured. I could see the blood-stained wall and the broken sewing machines, which were also used by the mob to kill Akhlaq. The refrigerator, which was suspected of having been used to allegedly store beef, had also been broken by the angry ignorant mob. The family member repeatedly told me, “We never did any harm to the villagers, then why did they kill Akhlaq?”
Soon after this, the ritual of body cleansing was completed and it was time for the family members to see a final glimpse of the dead. His body was in a coffin, covered with a shroud, and I could clearly see his injured face. Again, it was difficult for me to document those scenes, but I tried to bring a journalistic dispassion to the situation. Soon, family members surrounded the coffin. Akhlaq’s mother, Asgari, came to see her dead son for the last time, needing to be held up by two men. She touched her son’s face for the last time and recited verses from the Quran.
Shaista, Akhlaq’s daughter, was screaming and crying in front of her dead father’s coffin, while being comforted by other women. His wife was in shock, while I photographed the heart-wrenching scenes of the funeral. His sisters sat on the ground next to the coffin to look at his face. In the meantime, I asked a family member for a file photograph of the deceased, who brought a small passport-size photograph for me to click.
By the time I reached my office in Noida to file the pictures, the news of Akhlaq’s brutal murder by a Hindu mob over rumours that he had slaughtered a cow and consumed beef, had gone viral on social media.
The next day, September 30, Akhlaq’s lynching made headlines in all leading newspapers and was soon picked up by electronic media. I went to Akhlaq’s house the next day and witnessed the shock and pain of his family members. Akhlaq’s mother and daughter were being interviewed by TV journalists. His mother recalled the horrific scenes and explained how her son was dragged from the first floor of the house by a mob of more than two hundred people. She tried to save her son but was helpless as she was abused, pushed back and attacked. The mob broke the door and entered the house. “I pleaded with them to let my son go, but they repeatedly hit him with bricks on the chest and head,” she said.
Asghari told me that her grandson, Danish, tried to save his father but he was also attacked with bricks and severely injured. The inconsolable mother told me, “Only God can protect us now.” I went to the nearby temple from where the announcement was made and talked to some local Hindus. They by and large had no regret about Akhlaq’s brutal killing. A local Hindu girl told me that if someone will slaughter a cow, that person deserves to die.
I visited the village for several consecutive days to document the aftermath of this gruesome killing. Politicians started visiting the village to meet family members. I continued documenting the aftermath of Akhlaq’s killing and the reaction of the majority Hindu community in the village. After the huge uproar worldwide and the extensive media coverage nationally and internationally, the Hindu villagers became extremely upset with the media for what they perceived to be a hyped-up version of the killing.
On 3rd October, some three hundred women of the village, including boys of ages seven to ten, gathered on the road leading towards Akhlaq’s house armed with sticks and stones. As soon as they saw journalists and mediapersons, they began pelting stones, forcing us to leave the village.
On 3rd October, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal was supposed to meet Akhlaq’s family. He was at first barred from entering the village by the administration but was later allowed to meet the family. The Hindu majority village was furious about the media coverage and the villagers had barred the entry of media. As soon as Arvind Kejriwal arrived, I followed his cavalcade into the village and shot some pictures of his arrival. During his visit, hundreds of women had gathered on the road outside Akhlaq’s house. There was a heavy deployment of the police force.
The moment he left, I and several other colleagues, quickly ran towards a cab, but was ambushed by a large group of some two hundred women. Suddenly, two of them abused me, pushed me, snatched my camera and tried to break it. I reacted very quickly, took hold of the camera strap, and pulled at it. I had to pull at it thrice before I could succeed in freeing it from their grasp. I grabbed my camera and ran towards the cab. The furious mob was angry at the media for giving so much coverage to the incident, and their intention (which was palpably felt) was that the media should support their barbaric act of dragging an innocent man out of his home and beating him to death.