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.