In a deeply affecting account titled Hashimpura 22 May (Penguin 2016) of the slaughter by armed policemen in 1987 of 42 young civilian Muslim men, police officer and novelist Vibhuti Narain Rai says, ‘Imagine such a close encounter with death that when you open your eyes to bodies – dead and half dead – you may want to touch (your killers) to believe you are still alive. When molten lead rips through your flesh and flings you in the air like cotton balls, there is no pain, no fear and there is not even time for memories to torment you. There are rifles blazing around you and then there is the cacophony of abuses being sprouted by your killers. And with numbed senses, you wait for one of the bullets whizzing past you to enter your body in a way that you are tossed in the air for a moment and collapse on the ground with a thud. How will you describe such a death? Especially when you are seeing your killers for the first time and despite thinking hard your mind cannot just figure out why would they want to kill you’.
I imagine that similar thoughts would have raced through the mind of Bengali migrant worker Afrazul Khan, minutes before he died, in Rajsamand in Rajasthan on December 6,2017.
When a man he had never met in his life assaulted him suddenly, savagely, incomprehensibly. Initially unable to grasp what was happening to him, he realized in the last seconds of his life that the man for some reason wanted to take his life. ‘Babu’, he begged him plaintively, desperately, ‘let me live’. But his killer persisted. Did he notice that a young teenager was filming his killing? Was there time even for memories of his loved ones before he was knocked unconscious and set on fire?
Through his book on Hashimpura, Rai is tortured by another question. Why the soldiers ‘put their rifles on the chest of unarmed hapless youngsters and shot them and even after they fell on the ground shivering, kept on pumping bullets in them to make sure they die. All this without knowing them, without any personal enmity! Why?’
The same question has besieged and haunted me as well, ever since I went four days after the brutal hate killing of Afrazul Khan with a fact-finding team of comrades to try to make sense of what had happened. And why?
Through our investigations, it became clear that the man who killed Khan in a video-graphed gruesome murder, Shambhulal Regar, did not even know the man he killed. Even less did he have any personal grouse or enmity against him. It is evident that he murdered him because he wanted to kill a Muslim, any Muslim, as an example to all Muslims.
Khan’s trade as a petty construction and labour contractor allowed him to invite him unsuspectingly to an isolated plot of land – a vacant housing plot that he owned jointly with his brothers – close to the highway but hidden by thick overgrowth. We speculate that Shambhu got Khan’s number on the false ground that he wanted some construction work done on his land, possibly a boundary wall.
To understand what may have motivated this man to kill a stranger, my colleagues and I visited his home. He was born into the Regar caste, deemed to fall very low in the caste hierarchy. Their traditional caste occupation is the skinning of cattle and the treatment of the hide. Even the Chamar, who traditionally make shoes, regards the Regar to be unclean and untouchable.
The small town in which he lives is settled in colonies divided mostly by caste. He lives with his brothers in a joint family in the town’s Regar colony. We found that not just Shambhu’s family but many others of their caste seem to have raised their economic situation over time. The colony had paved roads, cemented drains and concrete houses, although the roads were mostly blocked by stray cattle. Shambhu’s family lived in a three storeyed home, with a lift and an iron gate.
His family met us outside the gate of their home, and understandably were cautious and guarded as they spoke to us. Shambhu has a mentally challenged daughter, who he is seen holding close to him in one the videos in which he rants against Muslims. In the first visit to their home by my colleagues, she was playing outside. Unaware of the gravity of the crisis into which the family had been plunged, and affectionately insisted on touching the feet of all the visitors.
It was clear that no one in the family now pursued their family trade. Rajsamand is famous for its marble business, and Shambhu’s family too had benefited from this. His father had shifted his base to Anand in Gujarat, where he built and installed marble temples in the homes of the devout. I am sure that he would not have revealed his caste to his customers. One of Shambhu’s brothers worked as a laboratory technician in the government hospital. His other brother was doing well in his furniture business.
Shambhu, they said, was ‘doing nothing’ these days. He had built up for himself a fairly successful marble business, and even had an office in Gurgaon. But they said that his business also collapsed under the pressures of demonetisation. Since then, they said that he spent most of his time glued to the internet. He was most drawn to videos circulated on the internet by many Hindutva groups that are full of venomous propaganda against Muslims and Christians.
In circulation are also videos of hate and lynch attacks against Muslims in many parts of the country, circulated by the hate attackers themselves, as convinced about the masculine valour of their aggression and blood of what they feel is the defence of their religion, as they are of their impunity. We spoke to other residents of the Regar colony. They all spoke of his addiction to Hindutva videos. Some said he also watched the execution videos of Islamist groups like the ISIS. Others spoke of his other addiction, to smoking ganja.
No one among his family and neighbours spoke of him being mentally disturbed or agitated. None would have suspected that he could have done what he did. He was, of course, full of hatred against Muslims. They did not, of course, support his killing, but they seemed to find both explicable and justified his loathing of Muslims.
We asked them what the cause was of this hatred. They spoke in particular about them as predators of innocent Hindu girls, in the evil conspiracy of love jihad. We asked them to cite specific instances. They were able to recount only three instances of alliances of Muslim men with Hindu woman.
One dated back 12 years, a second 9 years and the third 7 years. We met the young woman involved in the last incident. She did go as a young teenager with a much older Muslim man to Malda in Bengal. She said that Shambhulal Regar took some money – around 10,000 rupees – from her mother to ‘rescue’ her and bring her back. She refused to return with Regar. But on her own volition some months later, she returned to her mother, as she was unhappy in the man’s home. The past five years after her return, she has tried to study and rebuild her life. She is now studying for her Class 12 examination, and wants to be a nurse. She is furious with Regar for dragging her name as a rationale for his horrific crime. She wishes to be left alone, and so I do not mention her name or other details here.
When people of different communities live side by side, it is surprising that there were not more instances of people being drawn to one another across faith. In our meeting with local Muslims of the district (and not the migrants), they said that since many among them were doing well in the marble business, they were able to send their children to college. They now live in dread that if even one of their sons befriends a Hindu girl, the consequences can be catastrophic for the entire community.
Shambhu explains his reasons for enmity with Muslims in three videos that he circulated. One was a rant that followed immediately after his nephew records his murder of Afrazul Khan. A second shows him at a temple, and a third with his mentally challenged daughter. I quote the substance of his tirade in the Fact Finding Report that I wrote with John Dayal and Kavita Shrivastava. ‘He speaks of love jihad which he alleges targets innocent Muslim girls for sexual bondage to Muslim men; of counterfeit notes that fund terrorist groups; of films (and he specifically mentions PK and Padmavati) which make fun of Hindu gods and distort ‘Hindu’ history; of a Muslim conspiracy to destroy a generation of Hindus by attracting them to drugs; of mafia dons who find safe havens in Pakistan while looting India; of sinister black-robed Muslim men who surround mosques; and of the Babri Masjid where a Ram Temple could not be built even after 25 years. Being born to a disadvantaged caste, he significantly calls for the breaking of caste boundaries for all Hindus to unite against the multiple jihadi conspiracies of the Muslims in India’.
The defence of the Sangh organisations will surely be that his was a lone wolf attack, and that he was not an enrolled member of the RSS or any of its affiliate organisations, or that we was mentally disturbed. This was their defence when Dara Singh burned alive Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons; and even earlier that Nathuram Godse who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi was not a member of the RSS. This is what an RSS spokesperson said to me in a heated television debate on the question: he charged that I and others like me from the ‘Left’ had a ‘jaundiced eye’, and saw blame the RSS and its affiliates for the crime of a man who was no more than a deranged murderer.
These are, however, very thin defences. There can be little doubt that Godse shot Gandhiji because he was intensely influenced by the relentless venomous ideological fusillade of the Hindu Mahasabha and RSS against Mahatma Gandhi’s conviction that India belonged to its Muslim citizens as much as it belonged to Hindus. Likewise that Dara Singh was swayed by the Sangh propaganda of Christian evangelism threatening to bribe ‘innocent’ tribal people to Christianity. (Even Atal Vajpayee said in barely disguised defence after the killing of Staines and his sons that there should be a national debate on conversions). In the same way, Shambhu’s communal rant on the videos he and his nephew made reflect intense internalisation sustained through the past century of the ideological anti-Muslim propaganda of the Sangh organisations and the BJP.
We need to stare the truth in its face. Shambhulal Regar killed an innocent Muslim man in a public videotaped performance because he was taught and programmed to hate all Muslims.