“The Hour of Lynching” is a Haunting Potrait of Intolerance in India

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“The Hour of Lynching” is a Haunting Potrait of Intolerance in India

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

There’s a scene, a dialogue to be precise, in The Hour of Lynching, an 18-minute documentary probing the business of cow vigilantisim in India, that underlines how Hindus exploit it as a tool to assert their dominance. At the funeral of 28-year-old dairy farmer Rakbar Khan, attacked in the dead of the night on suspicion of cow smuggling, a mourner makes an observation, “The life of Muslims is worth nothing. We’re being killed like cats and dogs.” The sentiment is punctured by the wails of Asmeena, Khan’s widow.

It’s a chilling statement and the statistics in the opening slate of the documentary, echo that actuality: Since 2014 – the year that Narendra Modi became Prime Minister – 47 people have been murdered in cow-related hate crimes. Seventy six per cent of these men were Muslims. In 2019, as Modi has been re-elected with a resounding majority, Rakbar Khan’s life is merely a statistic, one that is easily discarded in an economy that brazenly endorses hate.

Directed by Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya, who previously made The Cinema Travellers (2016) and Searching For Saraswati (2018), The Hour of Lynching captures the aftermath of Khan’s death. Divided in 10 chapters, the documentary expertly conflates the grief of a Muslim family whose sole breadwinner is lynched by an angry Hindu mob.

In July last year, Khan, whose livelihood depended on cow’s milk, ventured out in the evening in Rajasthan’s Alwar district to buy two cows. He never made it back home. While returning, Khan was intercepted by a group of cow vigilantes, who were convinced that he was going to slaughter the cows. The accusation wasn’t backed up by any evidence, just mere fear-mongering. (In one scene, a gau rakshak justifies the attack on Khan with “Why do they ferry cows only at night?”) Yet Khan was mercilessly beaten with sticks and stones and as per his autopsy report, died in police custody due to the shock of his injuries and internal bleeding.

What captured the national consciousness was however, the chilling apathy toward his life: Khan was reportedly taken to the hospital three hours after he was attacked, despite it being a 12 minute drive away. The police first, dropped the “rescued cows” to a local shelter and even took a tea break before deeming it fit to drop a seriously injured man to the hospital. By the time they reached, Khan was already dead. The incident, revealed an undeniable collusion between the police, tasked with maintaining the law of the land, and self-appointed “gau rakshaks” who take up the law in their own hands.

The documentary presents that in real time: Days after Khan’s death, Nawal Kishore Sharma, chief of the Vishnu Hindu Parishad’s gau rakshak cell, addresses a rally that endorses mass murders of Muslims to “cleanse” the country. “Draw your swords and behead them,” he implores a packed crowd of old and young, who hang on to every word he utters. “If we (Hindus) lose our minds, we will sacrifice you 200 million,” he warns, reminding the crowd of their superiority, “We are 1 billion.” The crowd applauds as Kishore – angered by the fact that three men involved in Khan’s death were arrested “on mere pretext of constitutional law” – ends his speech with cries of “Jai Shri Ram”.

As The Hour of Lynching captures, the protection of cows are just a disguise to incite violence against Muslims. Kishore as much as suggests that by insisting that “the essence of Hinduism” is disappearing. It’s impossible then, to not view the documentary as a coda to the widespread legitimisation of the rising intolerance in the country. Abraham and Madheshiya document the fine line between hatred metamorphosing into a collective ideology, one that will be embedded in future generations. At a RSS youth camp, boys are trained to use swords and are told to “first attack the head and then break it”. Not far away, Rakbar Khan’s eldest daughter bears the brunt of that hatred: She has to give up school, resigned to mothering her six siblings and tending to her father’s cows at the tender age of 14.