Since 2012, 47 people have been killed in cow related violence in India.

The Hour of Lynching documentary A portrait of grief triggered by cow vigilantismScreenshot/The Hour of Lynching
Flix Documentary Monday, June 03, 2019 - 13:14

On the rainy night of July 21, 2018 in Lalawandi village in Alwar district of Rajasthan, Rakbar Khan and Aslam were walking through the fields with two cows when they were ambushed by Gau Rakshaks.

Subsequently, in the events that unfolded, Aslam escaped but Rakbar Khan was assaulted eventually leading to his death by 4 am.  While the Gau Rakshaks claimed Rakbar was smuggling cows for slaughter, Aslam and family said he had bought them for his small dairy farm. The role of the police, who reached the scene at about 1 am and accompanied the body to the hospital, was also suspect.

Rakbar was one of the 47 people who have been killed in cow related violence in India since 2012 (as per the data collated by Indiaspend website). A total of 127 reported incidents have been documented. The number of incidents has increased after the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh in September 2015. These shocking incidents have inspired several documentary filmmakers resulting in films such as Lynch Nation by Shameem Ahmed, Ashfaque EJ, Furqan Faridi and Vishu Sejwal, Reasons by Anand Patwardhan and now The Hour of Lynching by Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya.

Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya shot to fame with their debut film The Cinema Travellers about the traveling tent cinemas of interior Maharashtra which premiered at Cannes 2016 and won the special jury prize. Since then, the filmmakers have made two films – Searching for Saraswati - a brilliant film which explores how the ancient myth of the Saraswati river is being used in rural Haryana to propagate hyper nationalism - the first Indian documentary to be featured on the New York Times website and now The Hour of Lynching which has premiered on the Guardian website.

The Hour of Lynching is an independently made short documentary (19 minutes long) focussed on the killing of Rakbar Khan and is supported by the non-profit Pulitzer Center. The choice of the medium, says Amit in one of their interviews in Indian Express on the eve of the release, was driven by the idea of viral videos which is the medium used to “perpetuate the spectacle of lynching”.

 He says, “It is the ecosystem the virus is infesting, so we wanted to inject an antibody within the same system. The internet is the best medium for a film on viral videos.” 

This is not the first short documentary on Rakbar’s killing. In February 2019, BBC correspondent James Clayton made a documentary titled India’s Cow Vigilantes about the incident. While James’s film comes across as a thrilling investigative reportage where he attempts to find out the truth by talking to the vigilantes, the police and the victim’s family, Shirley and Amit’s film documents the grief of the immediate family of Rakbar and intersperses it with the narrative of cow protection and islamophobia propagated by the powerful vigilante groups, making us feel the enormity of the problem.

The film begins with Rakbar’s funeral and gives us a glimpse of the complex patriarchal beliefs which add to the pathos of the grieving wife. The sensitive portrayal of Rakbar and Asmeena’s teenage daughter is bound to make us think of the plight of children in such conflicts.

In contrast, the scenes of very young children undergoing stick training at the local RSS centre make us worry about their future.  In a chilling scene, we hear Nawal Kishore Sharma (leader of the local vigilante group) at a Vishwa Hindu Parishad rally, make a clarion call to all the Hindus to draw their swords and cleanse the country of Muslims. His words are met with loud applause. The cinema veritĂ© style and the measured pace force the audience to enter the world of Rakbar and interpret the complex forces at play. The film ends with a title announcing the resounding victory of Narendra Modi in the 2019 elections.

Since 2015, people (men, women and children) have been attacked on highways, gangraped (Haryana, August 2016) killed and hanged from a tree (Jharkhand, March 2016). In most of the cases, men (mostly foot soldiers) have been arrested and the court cases are in progress.

But, there does not seem to be a bigger plan or effort to stop this menace and nip it at the bud. Cow-related violence did not even become an issue during the elections. Also, tragically, throughout the election campaigns, there seemed to be no party willing to represent and speak for these unfortunate victims of mob violence. There is also a significant history to cow-related violence in India which started in late 19th century and intensified during the Independence movement.  In such a scenario, it probably would have been important for the film to talk about the structural impunity and the role of the state in such incidents.

Today, we are at a crucial juncture in India. We are hopelessly polarised  and divided across the nation. But more importantly, thanks to the relentless fake news and polarising narratives spread via WhatsApp, social media, biased news sites and TV channels, there is a lack of trust in the media. Also, news reports of such incidents have become so frequent that they are under threat of being labelled as normal. In this context, there are some important questions to ask : What does it mean to release such a documentary via The Guardian? Who are the audience for this film? Is it specifically made for an international audience? How can we take this wonderful film and the conversations it brings forth to every nook and corner of the country? Although it is not the purpose of art to change a society, will it at least make civil society sit up and notice the problem?

Without a doubt, The Hour of Lynching is a must watch for its urgently political theme and the humanist approach.

Basav Biradar is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker based in Bengaluru.

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