A fact-finding team visits the Rajasthan town where Shambhulal Regar killed a migrant Bengali labourer and had the attack filmed.
A broken slab of marble, soiled surgical gloves cast off by police investigators, and sniffing dogs mark the spot in Rajgarh, in Rajsamund district of Rajasthan, where Shambhulal Regar hacked, attempted to decapitate and then set fire to Afrazul Khan, a resident of Malda district in West Bengal, on December 6. This was the day Sangh Parivar activists demolished the Babri Masjid in faraway Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, 25 years ago. The day is celebrated by the Sangh Parivar as Shaurya Divas, or Bravery Day.
The site of the crime lies less than a kilometre from the office of the collector and the police station, and a few hundred metres from the highway and a wedding resort. The police had done nothing to cordon off and sanitise the spot, so all evidence was deliberately destroyed. We found a pack of stray dogs sniffing at the charred stone where Khan was burned. We felt sick in the stomach and the soul. We needed to do something. We collected some wild flowers and placed them where the man was slain, and knelt there is his memory.
Rajasthan, like many other parts of India, has seen a series of lynchings, hate attacks and targeted police killings of minorities in the past three years. These have almost become normalised, escaping public attention and scrutiny. But the incident of December 6 is particularly chilling because of its careful planning, the targeting of a man for no reason other than his identity, and the filming of the crime by a 14-year-old boy. The crime is one more urgent, even desperate, reminder of the intensity and depth of the radicalisation of rural and urban persons, even children, in Rajasthan.
The murder occurred in the small town of Rajnagar, the headquarters of Rajsamund district, barely 100 km from Udaipur, known till now in the rest of the country for little more than the Nathdwara temple town nearby and the marble warehouses and cutting and polishing factories surrounding it along the national highway to Udaipur.
A fact-finding team of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties, the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghathan, and the Aman Biradari visited the area. This is a summary of their report (still to be issued to the press).
Who was Afrazul Khan?
The police arrived at the site of the crime after someone informed them about foul fumes that rose from the place and a charred body that lay there. They found the body of a man burnt almost beyond recognition. They found on his body a diary, a mobile phone and an Aadhaar card, all partially or completely burnt. The man’s motorbike was parked nearby. Its number plate ended with the numbers 786, sacred to Muslims, so the police guessed he was Muslim and called Rafique, a Muslim community leader in Rajnagar. When Rafique got there, he could not bear to look at the body.
From the half-burnt Aadhaar card, the police and Rafique could barely read the last letters of his name – “… zul”. From this, they concluded the dead man may be Bengali. Since the town houses many Bengali Muslim migrant workers, they started calling up the Bengali workers Rafique had listed in his phone book. Their search finally led them to conclude that the body may be that of Afrazul Khan. His sister’s son, Inamul Sheikh, and his son-in-law, Mosharraf Khan, reached the spot. Mosharraf Khan told us later that he felt sick and nearly fainted when he saw his father-in-law’s charred body, and is still tormented by the sight. But there was no doubt that the murdered man was Afrazul Khan.
Afrazul Khan’s humble life trajectory mirrors that of a 100 million other circular migrants in the country, and their sacrifices of decades of lonely toil and permanent uprootment so that their loved ones at home can eat, study and marry. Across Rajasthan, skilled and difficult construction work, especially the raising of reinforced concrete roofs, is widely done by Bengali Muslim migrant workers. Rajsamund has some 400 workers, mostly from Malda in West Bengal. We visited the four bare rooms Afrazul Khan lived in with 16 other workers, including his two sons-in-law, a nephew, cousin, younger brother and other labourers. Outside the tiny unventilated rooms was an open space to cook and dump machines.
Over the decades he laboured in Rajasthan, Afrazul Khan had gradually raised his status to that of a petty labour contractor. It was this that probably cost him his life. Our enquiries make apparent that the killer, Shambhulal Regar, did not know Afrazul Khan. He probably met him for the first time the day he killed him.
From the probable sequence of events that we could piece together, it was a morning like any other when Afrazul Khan went for a cup of tea to the labour chowk Jalchakki, where Bengali workers customarily gather every morning. He last spoke to his son-in-law around 11.30 am about paying some workers their wages. Regar called him on his mobile phone to a vacant plot of land owned by his family, probably on the pretext of negotiating some construction work there. Afrazul Khan drove there on his motorbike. It was there that Regar attacked Khan, as Regar’s nephew videotaped the attack. The videotape shows Regar pick up a pickaxe from his own scooter, stalk Khan and attack him from the back with the pickaxe, then trying to behead him, sprinkle him with petrol and set him on fire. In another video filmed later – we do not know by whom – Regar repeatedly harangues, demonises and threatens the Muslims of India.
We struggled to understand why Khan was chosen for this murder. Since he was a stranger to Regar, and no one even alleges he had any alliance with a Hindu woman, it seems he was killed only because Regar was looking for any Muslim to slaughter that day. Khan’s vocation as a construction contractor made it possible for Regar to summon him to the vacant site where he chose to stage this ghoulish videotaped murder.
Who is Shambhulal Regar?
Shambhulal Regar, 37, is the oldest of three brothers of a relatively well-off family in what is said to be a low-caste, working-class colony. The three brothers and their families live together. One brother is a laboratory technician in the Government Hospital, another runs a small furniture business. Their parents live in Anand where their father builds small marble home temples in the houses of the rich. The women work in the house, a multi-storeyed structure with a lift and an iron gate. Their sister also lives in a nearby lane. It was her son who videotaped the murder. After her son was taken away by the police to a juvenile home, she had come to stay in her parents’ house.
The Regar caste traditionally skins cattle and tans leather, and is deemed below even the Jatavs or leather workers in the caste hierarchy. But many are now educated, and the Regar colony looks like any other lower middle class complex in a town would, with tarred roads, cemented drains, motorcycles, cars and, of course, cows in the lanes.
The family spoke guardedly with us outside their gate. Only Regar’s mentally challenged daughter cheerfully touched everyone’s feet, unaware of the gravity of the tragedy. His brothers said Regar, like his father, worked in marble and his business had done well. He had decided to move his office to Udaipur, invested heavily in the business, and hired an “outlet office” in Gurgaon in the National Capital Region. But the business had collapsed because of demonetisation and Regar had done no work since then, spending much of his time glued to the internet, they added. Neighbours we spoke to said he surfed mainly radical Hindutva sites.
He has three children, owns a motorcycle and is part owner of the plot of land he lured Khan to, to kill him. His plot is overgrown with shrubbery but has a road frontage and an old stone well. He is not distinguished in any way and had shown no deep religiosity or political inclinations, at least according to his family. As far as they knew, he had no connections to any militant religious or nationalist organisation, such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. He was just addicted to watching videos, they said. He had made several himself. Other people we spoke to said he used drugs, but his family did not mention this. He had never given any indication of being agitated over something, or of being mentally disturbed. They were, therefore, taken by surprise when he murdered Afrazul Khan.
No one in the family understands how he managed to influence his nephew to collaborate in his crime and film the murder. The teenager wanted to join the Army. Regar’s sister finds it hard to forgive him. The boy is in a government observation home in Udaipur for children in conflict with the law. It is clear from the video that the teenager kept his nerve, that his hands were steady as he held the smartphone camera firm, as if on a tripod, while his uncle hit and felled Khan to the ground, picked up a steel implement and struck him on the head as the man screamed, first in disbelief and then in panic as realisation dawned and he started pleading for his life. As the victim lay prone, Regar walked back, picked up another implement and hit the now immobile man as if to decapitate him. He made a deep gash but could not separate the head from the body. He walked back a third time to pick up the petrol he had bought earlier, splashed it on the body and set a match to it. The petrol flashed, and flames engulfed the dead man’s back. Uncle and nephew must have been face to face as the older man spoke into the phone camera lens, a rant that brought a chill to strangers who heard it on social media days later. His words reveal the state of mind of Shambhulal Regar, and the state of Rajasthan.
Regar may indeed have been a lone wolf hate killer, as the police claim. But he was manifestly indoctrinated by the venom that circulates openly on social media and in the hate speeches of political leaders, including ministers of the ruling party. His communal rant in the videos he and his nephew made reflect an intense internalisation of the ideological anti-Muslim propaganda of the Sangh organisations and the Bharatiya Janata Party. He speaks of love jihad that, he alleges, targets innocent Muslim girls for sexual bondage to Muslim men; of counterfeit notes that fund terrorist groups; of films (he specifically mentions PK and Padmavati) that 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 calls for the breaking of caste boundaries for all Hindus to unite against the multiple jihadi conspiracies of Muslims.
(It is both poignant and scary that he holds his mentally challenged daughter on his lap during one of his rants).
Love jihad as a dog whistle
In one video, Regar says he killed Khan to save women from love jihad. His family said they were shocked by what he had done, his sister was furious because he had made her teenaged son videotape his crime. But they said he hated Muslims for trapping Hindu women, suggesting that his rage against love jihad was understandable. This was also the view of other residents we spoke with.
When pressed, they spoke of three incidents of Muslim men forming alliances with Hindu women in the locality. One case went back 12 years, another nine years, and the third incident was from seven years ago.
We met the young woman involved in the last of these incidents. She was taken to Bengal by a much older Muslim man, under circumstances that are unclear. Eighteen months later, she returned home. She was furious with Regar and his family for raking up her story when she was struggling to rebuild her life.
In our investigation, we also found the house of a woman from Regar Basti who had gone away with a Muslim boy from a nearby village 12 years ago. She died apparently in a road accident some time later. Both her parents and those of the man she had eloped with had refused to accept her body.
The other case was nine years old. We have no further information on this.
The Rajasthan Police confirm what was apparent in our investigation, that Khan had no alliance with any Hindu woman. It is obvious that there was no immediate case of a Muslim-Hindu alliance that precipitated this kind of hate and frenzy.
Social media has exploded with posts in support of the killer. The video of the murder is now one of the most watched videos on YouTube in the country. It helped collect a reported Rs 3 lakhs for his wife. Hindutva groups with the media and regular incendiary posts on social media have convinced people like Regar that Muslim men are on the rampage to trap innocent Hindu girls who must be rescued. Social media seems bent on waging war on Muslims. Those who come from West Bengal are being called Bangladeshi infiltrators.
Many of these groups celebrated the killing. Among them is a WhatsApp group (called Swacch Bharat), which includes the MP and MLA of Rajsamund. It describes Regar as “Shere Mewat”, or the brave lion of Mewar, a saviour of community honour, a hero to be emulated. On both our visits, we found lawyers outside his house who said they had volunteered to give Regar and his nephew free legal aid. We met one lawyer with a conspicuous tika on his forehead who had come from Jaipur to defend Regar. He also handed the family a cheque of Rs 50,000.
Fear, lack of compassion
Meanwhile, migrant Muslim workers in the area have headed back to Malda in a panic. Three of Khan’s relatives were still there, waiting for the post-mortem report. “A sense of fear pervades the colonies where the Bengali-speaking Muslim migrants live,” said his son-in-law Mosharraf Khan. He, too, will leave Rajsamund for Malda after he receives the death certificate and the permission of the police.
Some social activists in Rajsamund have been trying to persuade the labourers not to leave, but with little success. “In the past four days, we have held several meetings and tried to convince the Muslim migrants that they have nothing to fear,” said Firoz Khan, a resident of Rajsamund who heads the Anjuman Peace Committee. “But we cannot stop them forcibly. They are scared beyond imagination after what they have seen. Senior police officials also joined our meetings but their words about a stable law and order situation were not enough to stop the migrants from leaving. Most of them have left, a few are stuck because of work and payments.”
Muslim residents, most of them in the marble business and relatively prosperous, said that for the past three years, it has been routine for the police to pick up young Muslim men, and to summon their aged fathers or their wives to police stations and keep them there for hours. They said they live in dread. “Young people are studying in colleges,” one such resident said. “It is possible that a Muslim boy will befriend a Hindu girl. But the consequences of this on all of us will be catastrophic.”
The chief minister issued a statement condemning the killing, calling it deplorable. But there has been none from the prime minister or his senior cabinet colleagues. When Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh was asked what he felt about the hate killing, he replied, “I refuse to answer a political question.”
We spoke to leaders of the Regar community, telling them this was a serious crime and that many others may have been indoctrinated. We urged them to call a meeting and address this hate that is enveloping the youth. But they were very diffident and said there was no such problem – they called this an individual case, for Shambhulal Regar’s family to address.
While the Muslim community is palpably tense, there seems to be no sense of remorse, in the town or even in the lanes of the Regar colony. To the best of our knowledge, till our visit, there had been no local civil society effort to reassure the Muslims, no meetings, no rallies, no statements. The horror behind the murder was that men, women and youth outside the Muslim community were not condemning the murder unequivocally. The consensus seemed to be that while the murder was unfortunate, Muslims had brought this misfortune upon themselves by their propensity for love jihad.
Hindus and Muslims have lived together peacefully for centuries but today, wedges of hate are being driven to deliberately divide them. With each new hate attack, India as a humane and inclusive republic is being unmade. Even more culpable than both this upwelling of hate attacks and partisan state action is the resounding silence through the large majority, the near absence of public remorse or compassion. The voices from the country’s senior political leadership and from the Hindu community that condemned the crime and reached out to the victims have been too few. In the end, what anguished us the most was this famine of compassion, solidarity and outrage.