The killings of a tailor in Udaipur, Rajasthan, and a veterinary pharmacist in Amravati, Maharashtra, for sharing posts in support of suspended BJP spokeswoman Nupur Sharma have triggered a cascade of events, ranging from communal mobilisation by both Hindu and Muslim groups to scathing observations by a two-judge bench on the prevailing incendiary trends. It began on June 28 when two men, Riaz Akhtari and Ghouse Mohammad, visited the tailoring shop of Kanhaiyalal Teli in Udaipur to give their measurements. They had a brief altercation over the posts Teli had shared in support of Nupur Sharma, who had in a television debate in May made remarks deemed insulting to Prophet Muhammad. The altercation ended badly. Teli was hacked to death by Akhtari and Mohammad, who then shared the video of the murder on social media.
Akhtari and Mohammad, daily wagers and small-time technicians, were soon apprehended from Rajsamand, a district adjoining Udaipur, on June 28. Rajsamand is the same place where, in December 2017, one Shambu Lal Regar had hacked and burnt to death Mohammad Afrazul, a daily wage labourer from West Bengal’s Malda district. Regar too had asked his nephew to videograph the act and put it up on social media. The video led to his identification and subsequent arrest.
After the murder of Teli, the Chief Minister of Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot, declared that the killing had a terror angle and a National Investigation Agency (NIA) team landed up in Rajasthan. It was established that Mohammad had visited Karachi in 2014, and this was presented as proof of his terror connections. The two main accused were booked by the police under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and other provisions of the IPC.
A day after the arrest, Director-General of Police, M.L. Lather, claimed that the crime had been committed to spread “terror and fear”. Gehlot too hinted that the two men had national and international terror links.
New line of inquiry
Soon, however, a photo surfaced that showed one of the accused, Riaz Akhtari, standing next to Gulab Chand Kataria, who is the leader of the Opposition in Rajasthan, a senior member of the BJP, and a former Home Minister of the State. The BJP minority cell member, Irshad Chainwala, is also seen standing beside Akhtari in the photo. Chainwala later said that both the accused have been trying to join the BJP’s minority cell for many years. The discovery of this photograph has now thrown up a whole new line of inquiry.
A week before the Udaipur incident, on June 21, a veterinary pharmacist in Amravati, Maharashtra, had been stabbed to death, also for sharing messages in support of Nupur Sharma. Six persons were arrested and booked under various clauses of the UAPA. As in the Udaipur case, the Home Ministry again directed the NIA to look into the possible involvement of national and international organisations in the crime.
The State unit of the BJP accused the Congress-led Rajasthan government of aiding the formation of a Taliban state and trying to appease Muslims. The BJP’s central leadership made joint references to Teli and the murdered Punjabi singer, Sidhu Moose Wala, in a condolence message at the national executive meeting held in Hyderabad on July 2-3.
Observers pointed out that in contrast to the alacrity with which the UAPA has been invoked in these two cases, Regar’s earlier act of murder and burning was openly supported by many people, who had claimed at the time that the killing was a retribution for ‘love jihad’. Subsequently, it was also reported that Regar had perhaps killed Afrazul to hide his own illicit affair. In 2018, a tableau had been taken out for Regar, honouring him for the deed.
Comments by the bench
On July 2, a two-judge (vacation) bench of the Supreme Court, comprising Justices Surya Kant and J.B. Pardiwala, was convened to hear Nupur Sharma’s petition asking for the clubbing of all FIRs against her to a single Delhi court.
During the hearing, the judges made some scathing observations, including asking why Nupur Sharma had filed the petition under the alias of N.V. Sharma. They went on to say that her “loose tongue” had “set the entire country on fire”. The judges held her responsible for “igniting the country and damaging the social fabric with her blasphemous comments”.
The judges refused to give relief to the petitioner, and asked instead what action had been taken against her till date besides her suspension. When the petitioner said that she wanted the FIRs clubbed because she was facing a security threat and it would not be safe to travel to various States, the bench asked if she was not a security threat herself. The two judges also said her apology was insufficient and she should apologise on television to the entire nation.
Although these were observations by the bench and not part of the final order, that the judges took such a strong stand was seen by some as a significant intervention by the judiciary in an incendiary matter.
There has, however, been an outpouring of support for both Nupur Sharma and the murdered men across north India. Rallies have been taken out and slogans raised by both sides.
Meanwhile, a Delhi-based priest, Ajay Gautam, while endorsing Nupur Sharma’s comments on the Prophet, sent a petition to the Chief Justice of India (CJI) demanding that the “unwarranted” comments by the judges be withdrawn. A group of retired judges, military officials and bureaucrats also wrote a letter to the CJI criticising the two judges for not protecting the fundamental rights of Nupur Sharma and for breaching “judicial ethics”.
The justices faced a backlash on social media too, compelling one of them to say that personal attacks on judges harm the rule of law. Addressing the Justice H.R. Khanna Memorial Symposium, Justice Pardiwala said that social media was being used for personalised opinions rather than a critical appraisal of judgments.
Meanwhile, communal mobilisation after the murders has continued unabated. At Manesar, Gurgaon, in Haryana, a panchayat was held on July 3 in which Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad members called for the eviction of illegal migrants and the boycott of Muslim shopkeepers.
They claimed that they were doing so in concern over the growing religious fundamentalism and jihadist forces that they alleged had taken root in the country. Gurgaon has earlier seen meat shops being shut down during Ram Navmi and a campaign against the offering of namaz in officially designated open spaces.
Another aspect of this unfolding drama has been the irresponsible coverage on certain television channels, which aired disturbing images of the Udaipur murder incessantly, adding to the hysteria. Interestingly, the editor-in-chief of the television channel where Nupur Sharma had been allowed to air her inflammatory comments, argued on the editorial pages of a leading daily that the BJP should target hate speech in its ranks and be guided in its policies by pragmatism and not expediency. Meanwhile, anchors of the same channel continued convincing viewers that there was no connection between Nupur Sharma’s comments and the two killings.
The BJP might try to distance itself from the comments of its former spokespersons by calling them “fringe elements”, but the difference in its approach to various communal incidents is hard to miss. While it has urgently deployed Central agencies to uncover a terror angle in the latest murders, earlier episodes such as the lynching of Afrazul or the more recent killing of Bhanwarlal Jain, a mentally ill senior citizen, by Dinesh Kushwaha, a BJP leader in Madhya Pradesh who thought the old man was a Muslim named Mohammed, have not received equal condemnation.
It is significant that Rajasthan goes to polls next year. The party might be banking on the communal polarisation around Teli’s murder to reap political dividends.