By Dr. Malem Ningthouja
Campaign for Peace & Democracy (Manipur), New Delhi
The brutal murder of a ‘Muslim’ headmaster Md. Hashmad Ali alias Babu (55) was confirmed in the wee hour, before the dawn of 2nd November, 2015. There was an initial distortion of the fact to cover up the crime and the criminals. Outside Manipur, there was a deliberate mapping of Manipur into the ongoing ‘communal intolerance’ prevalent in ‘mainland’ India. To cite two examples, the Hindustan Times, dated 4th November, 2015 carried a news under the title Headmaster Lynched for Stealing Cow; Shutdown Call in Manipur. The following day, the New York Times published a news under the title Indian Muslim, Accused of Stealing a Cow, is Beaten to Death by a Hindu Mob. These news depicted about an ‘antagonistic co-existence’ of communities or uneasily relation between majority Meeteis (Hindus) and minority Panggals (Muslims), as if marked by occasional clashes ever since a riot took place in 1993 and the emergence of Panggal based Islamic militant groups.
In these reports, the murder and the agitation for justice are being construed with communal overtones. These were being shown as continuity of community hatred and extension of the recent Hindu Muslim tensions centred on the ban on beef and protection of cow. The deliberate mapping of Manipur in the Hindu Muslim communal landscape and the enforced correlation of the murder with other ‘communalized events’ in India are illustrative. The Hindustan Times report incorporated a photo with the caption the murder of Muslim man in a UP village for allegedly eating beef had sparked national outrage. Similarly the New York Times incorporated a photo with the caption Kashmiri villagers shouted pro-freedom slogans last month while carrying the body of a Muslim driver attacked by far-right extremists angered by rumours of cow slaughter, an issue that stirs religious tensions in the Hindu-majority country. These news distorted the facts of agitation and conveyed manufactured news about an irate Muslim public helplessly fighting vis-à-vis the regime of the Hindu majority that have denied the former protection and justice. The blame was on the Meetei.
Many believe in these reports and some are confused. But most of the people on the ground who are involved in the agitation for justice are unaware of these distorted news. The leaders of the agitation are surprised, when informed about it. However, the misreporting had done the job. The ‘no-news’ have become a ‘news’ and the actual ‘news’ have been reduced into oblivion. The misinformation have achieved widespread publicity, continuously reverberated on uncensored social networks. In other words, the distortions of the facts and circumstances of the murder of 2nd November and the outburst for justice have covered up the nature of the crime and the criminals responsible for it. At the same time, the misinformation humiliates many, when everything was shown communal and the Meeteis are being objectified as Hindus hatching religious fundamentalism against minority Muslims. For instance, since I am a Meetei with some roles in academics and democratic activism, the ‘mainland’ progressive friends, who consumed the distorted news, are unhappy with me for being what they termed ‘a mute spectators’ when minority Muslims are being selectively targeted in Manipur. My teacher in South Africa, who has been a guide for more than a decade, have tagged me on a social network with a reasonable question; ‘I wonder what the local politics are here (Manipur)’.
One of the primary tasks to fight ‘communal intolerance’ is to fight distortions of facts and circumstances. The media has a big responsibility in it. However, when journalism is being misused by a vested section, it adds to the burden of the progressives to invest in labour and time to collate facts and undo the misinformation. Many are forced by the circumstances to involve in the struggle vis-à-vis the distortions, for better representation and information. Otherwise, the distortions, cited above, merely add to the communal propaganda of the chauvinist forces, whose agenda is to encourage hatred and bloodshed. In the context of the murder of Ali and denial of justice, information from the ground, provided by the relatives of the victim and other ‘Muslim’ friends, who are directly involved in the agitation for justice, can undo the distortions by the Hindustan Times and the New York Times. But, before placing the findings, there are at least three points that had to be briefly clarified. First, Meetei cannot be homogenously identified with Hindu or Hinduism. Two, the Muslims who have settled for centuries in Manipur are known as Meetei Panggal. They possess localized linguistic and cultural characters that mark them distinctively peculiar to non-Manipuri Muslims. Third, Meetei and Meetei Panggal are neither socially exclusive to one another nor they are compartmentalized into watertight antagonistic communal politics. To sum up, the anachronous depiction of these communities by the media needs to be reviewed.
To focus on the murder of 1st or 2nd November, it was plotted by Ali’s distant relative and immediate neighbour (a ‘Muslim’) to settle some personal grudges. In fact, Late Md. Hashmad Ali, a calm and respectable person in the locality, was the family head of a moderately well to do middle class background in a Panggal neighbourhood called Keirao Makting Awang Leikai, under Irilbung Police Station in Imphal East. He was the headmaster of an evening Keirao Primary Madrassa. His wife, Jamila, is the headmaster of the morning Keirao Litan Makhong Primary School, in the same locality. The eldest son, Riyas, owns a BPO outsource and lives with his family at Babupara in Greater Imphal. The next son, Malick, is the Managing Director in the BPO. The youngest son, Khaligue, is a computer operator and his wife works in a nursing institute.
On the unfortunate night of 1st November Ali was alone at the home. His wife, the youngest son and the daughter-in-law had gone out for some days to live with the relatives at Rahaman Hospital in Guwahati (Assam). Since Riyas lived at Babupara, Malick was taking care of Ali after his office hours. Usually, Malick worked in the night shift and returned home lately at around 10 p.m. That night, when Malick returned home, he could not find his father. He was worried as his father seldom went out at night. He searched, but, could not locate Ali. Being suspected he lodged a complaint of missing at the police station at around 2 a.m. At around 3 a.m., the police informed Malick about an abandoned dead body at a place called Kongba Uchekkon Thongkhong, which is located in Meetei neighbourhood area. In the morning, when Malick and others confirmed the ‘death’ of Ali, they were also being informed that Ali was caught while stealing a calf belonging to one Khumallambam Brojen, a Meetei, and that he was killed by a mob. When further enquiry had to be done, Brojen was found absconding and no one could belief the story.
Police took the calf into the custody and arrested Brojen at around the noon. Police interrogation revealed that Ali was killed by a group of ‘co-workers’ hired by Md. Matlib. It was unfolded that Ali was a distant relative of Matlib and they live together as adjacent neighbour. Their relation became strained because of land dispute. Some days ago there was an intensive altercation on this issue and Matlib had threatened to kill Ali. Since then, there has been a plot to kill. When Ali was alone at that particular night, Matlib hired three other ‘Muslim’ friends from the same locality and six Meetei co-workers from the Meetei neighbourhood known as the Kongba Makha Nandeibam Leikai. At around 8 p.m., Matlib sent two Meeteis to pick up Ali. They alarmed Ali that Malick had met with an accident on the way to home and that they were being sent there to drop him to the hospital. Ali believed in their story. When all of them met at the Nandeibam Leikai, they raised the alarm of cattle thief, fatally tortured Ali with iron rods, and abandoned the body on the road near a Meetei temple known as Lai Moriba Temple.
The news of the murder infuriated many. Nobody could buy the story of cattle thief by Ali, who is an economically sound and a respectable headmaster. The ‘Muslim’ neighbourhood immediately constituted a body christened as the Joint Action Committee against the Brutal Killing of Md. Hashmad Ali (JAC). The agenda of the JAC is to punish the culprits and compensate the victim family. When the fact and circumstances of the murder was socially revealed, the house of the prime accused Md Matlib was vandalised and finally burnt into ashes. However, all the accused other than Brojen were absconding. The JAC is disappointed with the police inaction. According to the JAC, “despite our best efforts to obtain justice of Mr. Hashmad Ali in a peaceful manner, no concrete steps have been taken by the authorities so far. The Irilbung Police Station where the FIR of the case is filed has not taken any step to investigate the case and arrest the culprits. .. This clearly points to complacency and connivance on the part of the authorities, including the Officer-in-Charge of Irilbing Police to the missing report filed by one of the sons of the deceased on the night of 1st November itself.’ Police are inactive, probably due to political pressure in favour of the ‘accused’ by the candidates who are contesting the Thongju Kendra bye-election to the Manipur State Assembly. On 5th November the JAC stormed the police station, which have led to repression and casualty of a dozen of agitators.
The rumour about cattle thief and mobbing, which were aimed at covering up the objective of murder and the crime, became redundant following the arrest of and revelation by Brojen. The accused are now socially known. However, the law enforcing agents are deviating from the prescribed course of delivering justice. On the other hand, if there was community mobbing, it was not when Ali was murdered by a hired gang. Mobbing occurred in the ‘Muslim’ locality when the house of the prime accused was burnt, which had badly affected other members of the family who might have not involved in the crime. Such tendency of mobbing as a form of vengeance and justice has become an undesirable trend in Manipur. Police irresponsiveness and inaction for justice have not only protected the criminals but also encouraged the aggrieved sections to take law into their hands. In all these, there is neither Hindu mobbing nor communal conflict. The JAC is seeking the support of peoples across communities and agitating for justice. It remains uncertain about the durability of the JAC and different tactical courses it may take, if those who are in power are deliberate to withhold justice. The media, particularly good reporting, can play a positively effective role in this.