Prejudice and communalism in government machinery exposed by acquittal of 17 innocent Muslims in false case after six years

Muslim men accused on allegations of raising pro-Pakistan slogans after a victory in cricket match on June 18, 2017, in Mohad village of Madhya Pradesh. File Photo courtesy: Amnesty International.

By Our Correspondent

BHOPAL – An extreme form of prejudice, discrimination and communalism rampant in the government machinery has been exposed once again in the acquittal of 17 innocent Muslims, who were implicated in a false case of raising ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ slogans and celebrating Pakistan’s victory in a cricket match in a far-off village of Madhya Pradesh’s Burhanpur district six years ago.

The acquittal, ordered by a Magistrate’s court, after six years of protracted trial has only revealed the irony of difficult times faced by the accused persons. Though the court has found the police case to be false and fabricated, one of the accused, 40, father of two, broken by the ordeal killed himself in 2019. Others have faced the pain of public humiliation, torture and the debt burden for fighting the court case for six years.

Fifteen Muslim men and two minors were arrested at Mohad village in Burhanpur district on June 18, 2017, on charges of raising pro-Pakistan slogans and celebrating the country’s win over India during the ICC Champions Trophy final cricket match. Pakistan had won by 180 runs in the match. The local police accused Muslims of supporting the Pakistani team, raising ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ slogans, and bursting firecrackers.

The police alleged that the Muslim accused persons distributed sweets, giving the impression of conspiring against the Government of India and supporting Pakistan. The police slapped the sedition charges against the accused, and the Hindu lawyers in Burhanpur chanted slogans in court, saying they would not represent “terrorists and traitors to the nation”. Only one Muslim lawyer, Ubaid Ahmed, came forward to take their case.

The sedition case fitted into the larger pattern of the police in the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled states, as it acts with communal prejudice and under pressure of the Hindutva organisations affiliated to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which wields a great influence over the BJP. The prosecution submitted in the court that the incident had created an “atmosphere of unrest in the village and insulted the country of India”. The accused had displayed their hatred towards the country of India, claimed the prosecution.

The police later withdrew the sedition charges in the case and filed the charge-sheet under Sections 120B (criminal conspiracy) and 153A (promoting enmity between groups on grounds of religion) of Indian Penal Code. However, the main complainant, Subhash Kohli, refuted the police narrative of what had happened in Mohad and the villagers also said no sloganeering or celebration over Pakistan’s victory in the match had taken place.

The Judicial Magistrate (First Class), Devesh Mishra, in his recent judgement acquitting the Muslim men, noted that the prosecution witness did not support the prosecution story and denied giving any statements to the police. The police had based the case on the testimony by Subhash Kohli, but he told the court that he was watching the match at his home and had visited the police station after he found out that his friend, Shahid Mansoori, had been arrested along with other locals.

At the police station, the station in-charge slapped Kohli’s father twice and locked his friend Shahid in a room for 10 minutes, assaulted him, and called the 100 number from the witness’s mobile phone, the court noted in its judgement. “The witness further stated that the next day, the police intimidated him and made him sign a written document, but did not read the document to him, nor did they take his statement,” the judgement read.

The court noted that other witnesses did not support the prosecution case and had stated that they did not see anyone bursting crackers or chanting anti-India slogans. These witnesses also denied giving any statement to the police. Kohli died of cancer six months ago, while the accused had raised money for his treatment.

Mohad village is situated on the Madhya Pradesh-Maharashtra border, 359 km away from Bhopal. Most of the villagers work as agricultural labourers and daily wage workers. The acquitted persons alleged that they were assaulted by inspector Sanjay Pathak and other police personnel when they were locked up.  The villagers are still traumatised by the arrest and trial of the 17 Muslims accused of cheering for Pakistan.

The village has a population of 4,000, largely comprising the marginalised Dalits, Bhil tribals, and Tadvi Bhil Muslims, a sub-caste of the Bhils who converted to Islam. Almost everyone is a small farmer or daily wage worker, and they survive primarily on monthly government rations.

When the case was registered, the BJP had been in power for three years at the Centre, Hindu nationalism was rising, and the term “anti-national” was freely used against critics, especially Muslims. The mainstream media was reinforcing the government’s narrative and spreading Islamophobia. The television news channels called the accused men “traitors”.

The verbal abuse continued at the police station, where the accused were called “traitors” or “terrorists” when they went to mark their weekly attendance after getting bail until the acquittal. The trial took away any sense of normalcy for all the acquitted persons. Several of them were agricultural labourers who used to migrate to Gujarat and South Indian states like Andhra Pradesh for work. Since they had to mark their attendance for the first three years of the trial as part of the bail conditions, they spent most of their time working at corn fields in Burhanpur, earning a paltry sum of Rs. 300 a day.

The two minors falsely implicated in the case were acquitted by the juvenile justice court in June 2022. They had to drop out of school because of the case and their future is shattered. The father of an accused, Sheikh Mukadar Mansoori, died because of stress over the case.

The legal experts have opined that the court should have ordered the state government to pay compensation to the acquitted persons for the physical abuse, mental stress and financial burden which they faced during the trial. The Supreme Court in 2022 and the Madhya Pradesh High Court in 2018 have ruled that those falsely implicated by the police should be compensated. The victims are often not able to fight for compensation in the courts and it is given in very rare instances.

Across Madhya Pradesh, the incidents where Muslims were accused of raising slogans in favour of Pakistan have since surfaced in Ujjain, Shajapur, Katni, Chhatarpur and Mandsaur, and all of them appear to be baseless. In Mohad village, Bajrang Dal, which is Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s youth wing, had opened a unit one year before the incident. Since then, constant attempts have been made to spoil the peace between Hindus and Muslims in the village.

The Muslims in Mohad village apparently became the target of police repression because of the 2018 State Assembly election, as the BJP-led government has been using stray incidents and controversial issues to polarise the voters on religious lines. This has been the handiwork of the BJP all over the country for getting electoral benefits at the cost of social and communal harmony.


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