Ghaziabad: The local BJP politician whose son and six other relatives are among the 19 accused of lynching Mohammed Akhlaque believes the mob action in Bisara village near Dadri was "horrific" and "ghastly".
But Sanjay Rana, a former BJP district unit chief, is non-committal whether Akhlaque indeed slaughtered a cow and attributes the murder to hurt "sentiments", introducing a sliver of ambiguity in his condemnation.
He, however, appeared to distance himself from these "sentiments", suggesting that Hindu children not be taught to revere the cow and that such teachings be deleted "from the books".
This newspaper caught up with Rana outside the chief judicial magistrate's court in Greater Noida, district headquarters of Gautam Buddha Nagar, where all the accused had been brought on Thursday to be handed copies of the chargesheet.
The 46-year-old had been evading the media since September 28 night when Akhlaque was dragged out of his home in Bisara, where Rana too lives, and beaten to death over unproved allegations of cow slaughter and beef storage. He agreed to talk after some persuasion and, first up, declared his son Vishal, 21, innocent.
"What happened to Akhlaque was horrific. I still can't believe that such a ghastly incident can take place in a village where people had been living amicably for decades," Rana said.
He claimed he had been "left speechless" when his younger son Tushar aka Manu, a 14-year-old Class VIII pupil, confronted him with a question a week after the incident.
"He asked me whether it was right to kill a person for storing beef. I had no answer," Rana said.
Why didn't he tell him it was wrong? "I didn't know what to say at that moment," he replied, eyes fixed on the prison van parked outside the court lock-up where Vishal and fellow accused had been brought.
Rana said Tushar confessed to him that he had been feeling "disturbed" ever since some of his classmates at the Takshashila Gurukulam school in Dadri, about 6km from Bisara, asked him the same question.
Rana denied the murder was premeditated: "This is what happens when mob frenzy takes over. Hindus revere the cow as mother - strong sentiments are involved."
He said Vishal was away in Delhi that night. "The next day, police came to my house asking for my son. They arrested him five days later without any reason."
According to the chargesheet, Vishal has told the police that some unidentified villagers had instigated him and the other accused and they had raided Akhlaque's home.
"I'm paying the price for my long association with the BJP," Rana, a well-off farmer, said. "The Akhilesh Yadav government has targeted me and my family for vote-bank politics."
Rana's association with the BJP began in 1990 when he and thousands of other kar sevaks assembled in Ayodhya and were fired on by Mulayam Singh Yadav's police on October 30, 1990. Some 36 kar sevaks died and Rana was arrested. "I was released after seven days."
Within five years, he said, he had risen to become the chief of the BJP's district unit in Ghaziabad, from which Gautam Buddha Nagar was later carved out.
"But now I'm just a party member - you may call me a 'local BJP leader'," Rana smiled.
He claimed he had tried to save Akhlaque, whose home is at most a 10-minute walk from Rana's.
"After hearing the announcement (about Akhlaque allegedly slaughtering a cow) over the temple loudspeaker on September 28 night, I realised that something brutal was going to happen," he said.
"I ran to Akhlaque's home and found several villagers gathered there. I was the first to call the police helpline. I also rushed Akhlaque to hospital in a police van."
Akhlaque's family says the mob appeared within minutes of the announcement and beat him to death.
Asked whether he believed that Akhlaque had indeed slaughtered a cow and stored beef, Rana was equivocal: "Wait for the final forensic report and the truth will come out."
A preliminary forensic report has said the meat found at Akhlaque's home was goat meat.
A sombre note crept into Rana's voice as he said: "Cow slaughter is banned in Uttar Pradesh."
Current Union home minister Rajnath Singh was chief minister in 2002 when the state banned cow slaughter - but not the possession and consumption of beef, which means that cattle slaughtered outside can be sold and eaten in the state.
The punishment for cow slaughter, which carries a maximum jail term of seven years, cannot be lynching, surely? Rana evaded the question.
"The media has pronounced my son guilty. Write whatever you want," he said.
As he was about to walk away, he suddenly stopped and turned back with a look of agony.
"Why do they teach our children that the cow is our mother?" Rana asked. "The problem will be solved forever if they scrap this from the books, so that children do not develop strong sentiments over the issue."