Twenty-eight knife wounds, ten of them slicing through the victim’s neck: Even without the confession video, forensic psychiatrists would have suspected the murder of Kanhaiya Lal Teli was driven by demons inside his killers’ minds. ‘Love of God,’ Mohammed Riaz and Ghaus Mohammed calmly admitted, led them to murder the tailor who they accused of insulting their faith. Like other blasphemy murders, the killing involved crossing the frontier between extreme religious beliefs and insanity.
The dark passions of the blasphemy murderers, though, aren’t just those of deranged individuals. India’s first blasphemy murder—the 1929 murder of Mahashe Rajpal, publisher of the purportedly blasphemous book Rangila Rasul—served to warn of the rising communal tensions that exploded at the time of Partition.
As India marks seventy-five years of Independence, it’s seeing rising numbers of similar religion-driven murders, circulated on social media to an approving audience of ideological supporters. And that’s why the blasphemy murder is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.
An unholy war
Exactly what process of indoctrination drove Riaz and Ghaus to kill will emerge only as their prosecution by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) unfolds. In a statement released online, the two men said they were angered by Teli’s social-media support for blasphemy-accused former BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma. The killers had no past criminal record, though—nor known links to violent Islamist groups.
Video-recording killings for social-media dissemination have become a key feature of religiously motivated killings. The tool was also used by Shambhu Lal Regar, who killed a Muslim migrant worker in 2017. There have been several other video-recorded murders since, of both Hindus and Muslims. In Punjab, killings of alleged anti-Sikh blasphemy have been broadcast on social media.
The emergence of blasphemy as a key motif in Indian communal politics began in 1988 though, long before the dawn of social media. Following protests against Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, Rajiv Gandhi’s government banned the book. But that didn’t stop riots from breaking out in Kashmir. Twelve people were also killed in the violence in Mumbai.
For clerics and fundamentalist ideologues, The Satanic Verses provided an opportunity to gain legitimacy among ordinary Muslims frightened of the growing communal violence and increasingly sceptical of the government’s commitment to secularism in the 1980s.
Like in the 1920s, the blasphemy riots were a warning of the worst to come. Through the 1990s, in the wake of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, hundreds were killed in savage communal violence. Those riots saw often saw corporeal violence just as savage as blasphemy killings, though there were no smartphones around to record them. The arms of one child in Hyderabad, social activist Asghar Ali Engineer recorded, were cut off as she held them out to beg for mercy; a woman had her breasts cut off; others had their skulls beaten in with clubs.
Ethnic-religious terrorist groups also carried out executions to punish purported enemies of the faith. In Punjab, the Babbar Khalsa beheaded journalist Mohan Lal Manchanda, for defiance of its edicts on reporting of the Khalistan movement. There have been dozens of similar killings in Kashmir, involving slitting of throats or decapitation.
Since 1988, blasphemy killings have also escalated in Pakistan—and continue to claim lives. The issue has political support, and even influences pop culture. The 1990 movie International Gorillay featured a commando team hunting down and killing Rushdie, aided by divine thunderbolts.
For centuries, religious warriors have exulted in savagery. “In the Temple of Solomon,” recorded Raymond d’Aguilers as he watched the sack of Jerusalem in 1099 CE, “crusaders rode in blood to the knees and bridles of their horses”. “Some of the pagans were mercifully beheaded, others pierced by arrows plunged from towers, and yet others, tortured for a long time, were burned to death in searing flames.”
“Jerusalem was now littered with bodies and stained with blood,” D’Aguilers approvingly went on, “the blood of pagans who blasphemed God there for so long.” In the centuries after, many other religious movements used gruesome execution methods.
Islamist terror groups were the first to realise choreographed execution videos could be used to spread fear and demonstrate power. Beginning with the execution of journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002, jihadist execution videos became increasingly common.
From 2014 onwards, the Islamic State began regularly releasing execution videos of purported apostates and blasphemers. In one video, small children were shown executing a bound man. There has also been a string of blasphemy killings in Nigeria, where jihadists are active, as well as in other countries of West Africa.
Jihadists, though, aren’t the only practitioners of this savagery. Mexican drug cartels also beheaded thousands from 2007 onwards, even releasing videos of victims being cut alive with hacksaws. The videos are known to have inspired unholy followers: A serial killer in Sao Paolo, Japanese teenagers who beheaded a thirteen-year-old, as well as Dutch drug dealers.
In societies already fractured along ethnic-religious lines, these kinds of killings are a special source of concern: Each killing inspires communal competitors to stage ever-more-macabre acts of revenge. And this holds out the danger of setting off mass violence.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)