The killing of a Hindu tailor in India stokes fears of communal violence

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NEW DELHI – Grainy smartphone video shows the final moments of Kanhaiya Lal Teli’s life: the tailor is seen measuring customers in his shop, but when he turns around they suddenly attack him.

A second video shows the consequences. Two men with bloodstained cleavers warn Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi of rising religious tensions in India and swear to avenge acts of blasphemy.

Indian authorities on Wednesday voiced fears of a spiral of violence following the Hindu man’s gruesome murder – and the chilling videos filmed and posted online by his apparently Muslim attackers – sent shockwaves through a country already struggling to to contain religious tensions.

The killing in the lakeside city of Udaipur is the latest focus of a months-long controversy that began when a spokeswoman for India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Nupur Sharma, criticized the Prophet Muhammad for marrying underage women. Sharma’s remarks, made during an appearance on a TV talk show on May 26, drew condemnation from more than a dozen Muslim-majority countries, but Sharma became a hero to many on India’s right-wing.

Teli’s social media posts supporting Sharma angered two local Muslims, Gaus Mohammad and Riyaz Attari, police officials said Tuesday as they sealed off parts of Udaipur with a curfew and cut internet access across Rajasthan to prevent each other Spread protests across the state. Local authorities vowed to fine netizens for sharing videos and photos of the murder, but videos and photos were widely circulated late Tuesday, and snippets of video were repeatedly played on the TV news.

“We beheaded the tailor,” Attari says in one of the videos. “We live for our God and we will die for him. Listen to me Narendra Modi. You started this fire. We will delete it.”

Mohammad and Attari did not affiliate themselves with any extremist group in their videos, but Indian officials treated the killing as a terrorist attack and signaled the men were not acting alone. The two were arrested late Tuesday at a highway checkpoint while allegedly attempting to flee Udaipur on a motorbike and were questioned about their alleged links to two militant groups based in Pakistan, the Hindustan Times reported.

Ashok Gehlot, Prime Minister of Rajasthan, who is a member of the opposition Indian National Congress party, said on Twitter on Wednesday that investigators had collected information about the killers’ foreign contacts but had not released any details. The killing was “beyond imagination,” he said, while urging Modi to reach out to the nation and call for unity.

“The atmosphere needs to be improved,” said Gehlot. “There is an atmosphere of tension across the country.”

India, which is about 80 percent Hindu and 15 percent Muslim, has a long history of religious conflict. But over the past year, a surge in hate speech and communal unrest – which have so far resulted in relatively few deaths – have raised fears that tensions could lead to large-scale bloodshed.

Hindu preachers have held large rallies openly calling for the mass killing of Muslims. Hindu mobs have brandished swords in front of mosques, prompting Muslims to throw stones at them. As these clashes erupted into riots, local officials in several cities have called in bulldozers to demolish Muslim homes and businesses, a move critics say is a form of collective punishment. Conspiracy theories on Indian social media are accusing Indian Muslims of waging “jihad” against Hindus by seducing their wives and spreading the coronavirus.

“We see a cycle of endless violence as significant numbers of people from both communities manage to convince themselves that their differences can no longer be resolved politically,” said Debashish Roy Chowdhury, a political commentator and author. As Muslims become increasingly marginalized in Indian society, there is a risk of “self-radicalization,” he added.

On Wednesday, Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, one of India’s most prominent Islamic organizations, condemned Teli’s murder as “against the law of the country and our religion”. The group’s leader, cleric Hakimuddin Qasmi, called on all Indian citizens to “control their emotions and keep the peace”.

In the weeks leading up to Teli’s assassination, the controversy surrounding Sharma’s remarks about the Prophet Mohammed had drawn widespread condemnation in the Islamic world and prompted the Indian government to issue an apology, but the incident also sparked a complex debate about political identity in India the BJP – and whether there should be restrictions on free speech.

BJP critics say prominent party members often stoke religious tensions by making provocative statements, and party critics supported her decision to sack Sharma. But her removal enraged many in the BJP’s Hindu nationalist political base, who argued that Sharma was only quoting what was in the Islamic scriptures and accused her critics of intolerance.

Teli, one of Sharma’s defenders, wrote about the controversy on social media, which angered his Muslim neighbors, according to a police complaint they filed in early June. The complaint, seen by the Washington Post, did not specify what Teli allegedly said in his post, which was later deleted, but it prompted local police to briefly arrest him.

Teli then complained about being watched by men in his neighborhood and having received death threats over the post, according to a document he provided to police. The tailor closed his shop for several days before reopening this week.

On Tuesday, Mohammad and Attari entered Teli’s store and posed as customers before attacking him, police said. He was hacked multiple times and repeatedly stabbed in the neck but not decapitated, police said.

Authorities banned large gatherings in Rajasthan on Wednesday, but small protests organized by hard-line Hindu groups have emerged across the country.

“There is chaos, there is anarchy and there is no rule of law,” said Apoorvanand, a professor at Delhi University who is known by a name. “Unless we make a concerted effort and bring the temperature down, we are headed for, or already are, a catastrophe.”

Anant Gupta contributed to this report.