As Rajasthan goes to polls, silence shrouds the Afrazul hate killing

Afrazul was a 48-year-old migrant construction worker, who had moved from Malda in West Bengal to Rajasthan in search of better opportunities. Mohammad Afrazul Khan's family
28 April, 2019

On 6 December 2017, Mohammad Afrazul Khan, a migrant labourer from West Bengal was hacked to death with a pickaxe by Shambhulal Regar, in Rajasthan’s Rajsamand town. After the murder, Regar set Afrazul on fire, as his 15-year-old nephew filmed the entire incident. Regar then uploaded the video on social media, evoking outrage, and in some quarters, celebration. As the state gears up for its first phase of polling in the ongoing general elections on 29 April, I travelled to Rajsamand and discovered that the Afrazul murder barely registered with the locals anymore. The brutal hate crime is not an election issue. However, the crime itself skims fault lines that have a historical, cultural and economic resonance beyond the immediacy of an election.

The genesis of the crime and its political relevance can be found in the backgrounds and lives of the perpetrator and the victim. Shambhulal Regar hails from the Regar community, a Dalit sub-caste whose traditional occupation was skinning cattle and leather tanning. Afrazul was from the Malda district in West Bengal and had migrated to Rajasthan to work on construction sites, almost a decade ago. He was part of a 400-strong community of migrant Bengali-Muslim workers. A fact-finding report by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, or PUCL—a human-rights organisation—compiled by a team that visited Rajsamand soon after the incident, notes that Afrazul had done reasonably well over the years and become a labour contractor.

On the other hand, the fact-finding report notes that Regar, a marble dealer, was unemployed after his business collapsed due to demonetisation. According to the PUCL report, the unemployed Regar spent most of his time browsing radical Hindutva content on the internet and social media. In the weeks before the crime, he was angry that a woman from his community had reportedly eloped with a Bengali Muslim. According to the charge sheet filed by the Rajasthan Police, Regar claimed that he killed Afrazul partly because of this “love jihad,” a conspiracy theory propagated by right-wing Hindu outfits who claim that Muslim men lure Hindu women and convert them to Islam.

Bengali Muslims, such as Afrazul, have become synonymous with “Bangladeshi infiltrators” in the dog-whistle politics of the Bharatiya Janata Party. It was in Rajasthan that Amit Shah, the BJP president, first referred to Bangladeshi immigrants as “termites” and vowed to strike them off the electoral rolls. A BJP rally in Rajsamand on 26 April this year, held in support of Diya Kumari, the party’s candidate from the constituency, followed the same script. The meeting, which was helmed by the former chief minister Vasundhara Raje, started at 10 am and Rajsamand’s BJP leadership addressed the gathering of about a thousand people. Madan Rathod, the BJP’s Rajsamand incharge for the Lok Sabha elections, started the rally with some fairly routine things from the BJP’s election playbook—praise for Narendra Modi, Pakistan baiting and muscular nationalism. “Do you know what is happening in West Bengal?” Rathod asked the crowd at one point. “There is a war on our [Hindu] cultural identity. Mamata Banerjee wants to finish Hindus there.”

Kiran Maheshwari, the member of legislative assembly from Rajsamand, Kumari and Raje spoke after Rathod. None of them mentioned Afrazul or Regar.

According to the police, Regar also linked Afrazul’s death to the Article 370 of the constitution that grants special status to Jammu and Kashmir, and religious terrorism. Many people I spoke to in Rajsamand told me that the date of the murder, 6 December, was not a coincidence. The Babri Masjid was demolished by a frenzied crowd of kar sevaks on 6 December 1992.

This antipathy towards the Muslim community was reflected in my conversation with Nilesh Khatri, a long time Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh activist in Rajsamand. “Wherever the population of Muslims crosses 30 percent, they start persecuting Hindus, like it is happening in West Bengal,” Khatri told me. Khatri is a trader and owns two shops. Khatri parroted almost every anti-Muslim trope propagated by the Hindu right-wing—the licentious Muslim male; the extremist Muslim male; the exploding Muslim population. Khatri said that while he condemned Regar’s crime, “incidents of love jihad in Rajsamand have stopped after the murder.” When I asked him if the Afrazul murder was a poll issue, he said, “There is no discussion of Afrazul or Shambhulal during these elections. It is only people like you who come from outside who rake up this issue.”

The Congress has also steered clear of the Afrazul hate-killing. When I asked Akhtar, a member of the party’s minority cell in Rajsamand, if the Congress was raising the lynching during campaigning, he said, “No, we are not raising this issue at all.” He said the Congress was instead focusing on other agendas, such as the NYAY programme—the minimum-income guarantee scheme, which is the party’s flagship poll promise ahead of the elections—and other promises in its manifesto.

Some Muslims in Rajsamand are also in favour of not politicising the Afrazul killing. In the district, I met Feroz Khan, a Rajsamand-based lawyer who was associated with the Afrazul case, his friend Iqbal Khan and Mohammad Rafique, a Muslim community leader. Iqbal and Rafique were some of the first people to arrive at the crime scene on 6 December. They established the dead body’s identity from his half-burnt Aadhaar card and called his relatives. “Afrazul was not connected to the woman or Shambhulal—he was just an incidental victim because Shambhu wanted to kill a Bengali because of his hatred of them due to the alleged love affair,” Rafique told me. Iqbal said that many from the Regar community, especially the women, are construction workers and come into contact with Bengali Muslim men at work sites. “The Regar men thus feel that their women are being seduced by the Bengali Muslims,” he said.

When I asked them if the Afrazul killing should be a poll issue, all three vehemently said no. “Everyone in this town is slowly trying to come back to normal. No political party has raised this issue,” Rafique said. “Shambhulal became a hero for fringe Hindu outfits who came from outside Rajsamand looking for trouble. The local Hindus condemned the incident and all of us want to move on,” he added. Feroz told me that the murder “was a crime of passion, later made out to be a communal incident.” He said, “This incident brought disrepute to Rajsamand, it ruined the name of India. Justice will be served when Shambhulal is punished.”

After the meeting I went to the Regar basti, or colony, to meet Shambhulal’s family. He is currently being held in the Jodhpur jail. His wife, Sita, appeared at the door. She looked listless and answered my questions in monosyllables, wearing a resigned look on her face. When I asked her if she knew why Shambhulal murdered Afrazul, she said, “I don’t know.” Sita has to take care of her three children, one of whom is a special-needs child. The extended family is helping out with money. It was clear that she and the kids were living through difficult circumstances. “We used to have a good life, but …” Her voice trailed off.