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The Rediff Special/ Chindu Sreedharan
The first part of a series on the attacks on Christians in the Hindi heartland
There is a 10-year-old boy somewhere in North India, in what you can call a safe place, who bears the cross of a bloody truth.
For the moment his shoulders are squared. He falters not too much. And most times when not directly questioned about it, successfully manages to block out the visions of a fateful, moonlit night in June.
We all know of him -- Ajin. He came to us last month on the front page of our morning newspapers. As the boy who witnessed a dastardly crime, the killing of Brother George Kuzhikandam.
We read about how the brother, the principal of a missionary school in Navada, a few kilometres from Mathura in Uttar Pradesh, decided to sleep out in his courtyard and was beaten to death. We learnt how Ajin, sleeping next to the brother, found himself rudely awakened, slapped, pushed into a room, and locked in.
We also know that the boy spent the night there, frightened and alone, the cries of the brother reverberating in his mind.
Ten days later, Vijay Ekka, employed as a cook in the school and also a witness to the crime, died in police custody. His pregnant wife Gloria has proved unreliable; it is not very clear whether she witnessed the murder.
Which makes Ajin the key witness today.
The only living one.
"He is okay now, normal," one of his custodians tells us. "We don't speak to him about the incident and he doesn't bring it up himself. He doesn't want to be reminded about it at all."
"He has been interrogated seven times. He gets upset and goes into a sort of depression when that occurs -- you know, not talking, just sitting and staring. Fortunately, that doesn't last for long and he is back to his usual self within a few hours. No, he doesn't seem to be frightened for his life."
For the moment Ajin is safe. But how long will you hide him? That's what bothers his aunt Neelam.
Neelam was born Kunjumol to Keralite parents. Now settled in Navada. She will tell you that Ajin's mother died of blood cancer at 28, when the child was one. The boy has been with her since; his father has remarried.
"The case may go on for years," she says. "How long can such protection last?"
"Should I send him to Kerala, do you think?" she asks. "My parents can look after him. But I don't really want to do that. Also, they [the investigators] may need to question him again.
"See, he has studied here [near Delhi] till now. He doesn't know to read and write Malayalam. I don't want to send him [to Kerala] if there's no risk to his safety here."
But there is. And Neelam is aware of it. Her house, a stone's throw from where Brother George was killed, has witnessed strange goings-on. So much so that it is under police protection now.
"Last week there was a group of people outside our compound in the night, shining torches. Luckily they didn't attempt to come in," Neelam says. "Maybe they were just scouting the location."
The next day, she continues, two Tata Sumos stopped near her house. One in front, and the other on the road behind.
"They didn't open the doors. Just waited there for a long time and then went away," Neelam adds.
She can't see any other reason for the activity but one connected with the murder. "Maybe they came for Ajin," she says.
Does she think her family -- her husband, child and father-in-law -- is in any danger? Yes, she does. "They must have something in mind," she says. "They can do anything."
Neelam, incidentally, was among the first to arrive on the scene of the murder. Indeed it was she, a nurse, who first checked Brother George and found him dead.
"I had just woken up when Ajin and Gloria came," she recollects. "He told me 'Aunty, badmashee log aaye, brother ko maara.'
"I called up the police station and came here. The body was lying on the cot, the mattress had been pulled over it. His chest was covered in sand and there were marks of horrible beatings on his torso."
And horribly he had been beaten up. According to Ajin, by six men, four of them in shorts and the other two in lungis, with iron rods, sticks and even the handle of a water pump.
"Ajin didn't know that Brother George was dead till I got back. He was quite okay till he came to know that. Then he said, 'Mar gaya? Brotherji mar gaya? [Brother is dead?]' and sat down. He didn't eat anything that day, nor talk.
"You know," Neelam continues, "it just happened that Ajin was with the brother that night. It was his birthday. Brother George had come this way in the evening and had seen Ajin sitting here. And he had said, Ajin come, I have a [video] cassette, we will watch it."
"Ajin told me they had gone to sleep somewhere around one in the night. He was sleeping next to the brother in the courtyard. He was woken up and locked inside a room.
"From there he could hear sounds. The brother was calling out for help... Bachao, bachao. He called Vijay by name, asking him for help [The cook and his wife were sleeping hardly 25 metres away, with the open windows facing where the brother was being beaten to death.]
"Ajin spent the night in the room, sitting up in a chair. Vijay unlocked him in the morning, after he cried out for a long time. And then he just ran out, past the body and came home with Gloria."
Would Ajin recognise the murderers? Neelam doesn't think so. "I asked him that. His reply was, 'Mushkil se hi pehechan paayenge. [I maybe able to, with great difficulty]."
The last time Neelam saw Ajin was 15 days ago. "And he said, 'Aunty, Vijay uncle is also dead? You didn't tell me!' "
"I asked him how he came to know. He told me, 'I read the papers. I know everything. Mere dimag kharab ho gaya.'
"I want him to study. I want him to be safe," his aunt says. "If he was a little bigger we could have thought of relocating him."
That option, Neelam knows very well, will have to wait. Till the police finish their investigation and the courts pronounce the verdict, Ajin will have to bear his cross.
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