The world may never have heard of Rakbar Khan had it not been for the way he was murdered. On 20 July 2018, the 28-year-old dairy farmer was allegedly lynched by gau rakshaks (cow vigilantes), who suspected him of being a cow smuggler, in Rajasthan’s Alwar district.
In The Hour Of Lynching, an 18-minute documentary in The Guardian Documentaries series by Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya, we get to know Khan only through what he left behind—a couple of passport-sized photographs, a grieving family, and self-righteous gau rakshaks. In the wake of his murder, the family, forced to face a new brutal reality, finds it hard to come to terms with the tragedy. For the gau rakshaks, it’s all about destiny, though they claim they weren’t responsible for the killing.
Mumbai-based Abraham and Madheshiya have previously made The Cinema Travellers (2016), a paean to the itinerant theatres in villages of modern India, and Searching For Saraswati (2018), on the government-sponsored revival of a mythical river. For The Hour Of Lynching, the film-makers had their eyes trained on Nuh district, Haryana, where Muslim dairy farmers are monitored closely by gau rakshaks. According to news reports, several Muslim farmers live in fear of being accused of smuggling cattle for beef, especially while travelling between Rajasthan and Haryana, as Rakbar Khan was. In April 2017, a dairy farmer named Pehlu Khan was attacked by a mob of 200 men when he was returning home with cattle he had purchased at a fair in Jaipur.
The film-makers travelled to Kolgaon village in Nuh, where Rakbar Khan’s family lives, as soon as they heard of his death. The film shows how Khan’s death set in motion a chain of events centred around his disconsolate widow, Asmeena, and their seven children. Asmeena was consigned to iddat, a period of mourning in purdah. If she wanted justice, iddat was not the time to pursue it, the keening women advised her. Their eldest daughter, Sahila, quit school to care for the family. Well after Abraham and Madheshiya had finished filming, Asmeena met with an accident, in December, that left her paralysed waist down.
“As the family was falling apart, the narrative and machinery of the perpetrators sought to legitimize his killing. In doing so, nationalistic Hindu politicians, their foot soldiers and cow vigilantes, were justifying their violence as built on fear-mongering of Muslims,” says Abraham, adding: “It is said that those who are most convinced they have nothing more left to lose, would be most keen to tell their stories. Rakbar’s family saw us as an ally.” A post-mortem confirmed Khan died of shock as a result of injuries; though the police charged three men for the attack, they refused to term it a case of “mob lynching”.
According to cow-related hate crime numbers from data journalism initiative IndiaSpend’s Fact Checker, there have been 302 victims since 2010. Khan is among the 47 who have died so far.
Lynchings, cow vigilantes and mob violence—we have time-travelled to a medieval age. These are filmed and have become public spectacles that people consume through the privacy of their mobile phones.
For the film-makers, the story is not about the staggering numbers—they seek to focus on one family. In an email, Abraham tells Lounge: “We chose this story for its scope and depth. It allowed us to explore how the chilling meaning of lynching is made through Khan’s horrific murder—simultaneously mourned (by his family) and denied (by the gau rakshaks). We felt compelled to explore the meaning and resurgence of a primordial violence like mob lynching in contemporary India.”
The Hour Of Lynching shows cow protectors or cow vigilantes—depending on which side of the argument you are on—believe they are in the right. “(Politician) Nawal Kishore and the groups of cow vigilantes were wary of us, but convinced of their own intentions. They were facing the camera with a belief in the necessity of their work, as response to a call of duty. They allowed us access into their beliefs, but not their private worlds where the consequences of their violence lay,” says Abraham.
And what about Khan? As one mourner says, Khan’s love for cows brought him death. The documentary nudges readers to consider the meaning of gau rakshak —in the original sense of the term. The mob that kills in the name of “Gau Mata”? Or the young dairy farmer who tends cows, her life revolving around them?
Caught in this crossfire is the bovine creature itself, a timeless symbol of benevolence that is turning into a metaphor for hate crimes in modern India.
The film releases on The Guardian website on 24 May.