Etched on to the pages of history in elegant cursive handwriting, the confession recorded the story of the sensational 1929 murder, which tore apart late-colonial Punjab: spurned by his teenage love, a young Lahore carpenter had walked into a shop in Anarkali bazaar, and sought redemption by plunging his knife into a man’s heart. In a gesture likely to delight Freudian forensic psychologists, the killer took one rupee from his mother to buy the dagger, which he concealed in the nefa, or waist-fold, of his shalwar.
Today, the murder is remembered somewhat differently. A mausoleum in Lahore’s Miani Sahib graveyard celebrates the sacrifice of Ghazi Ilm-ud-Din Shaheed, the holy warrior martyred to avenge blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad.
Large numbers of blasphemy murderers in Pakistan—among them, the assassin of Punjab politician Salman Taseer—have invoked Ilm-ud-Din’s memory. His father, the Left-wing poet Muhammad Din Taseer, was among those who led the funeral procession that buried Ilm-ud-Din in Lahore.
As India struggles to make sense of the murder of Kanhaiya Lal Teli, the confession holds out an important lesson: The mind of the religious fanatic inhabits a dark wilderness, at the frontiers of passion and insanity.
For decades, the discomfiting Punjab Police case diary—recorded by police inspectors Said Ahmad Shah, Sardar Partab Singh and Jowahar Lal—has lain inside the Panjab Archives in Lahore, and is also available online. It is hard to imagine that none of Ilm Din’s many hagiographers discovered this document, the only legal document one in which the illiterate blasphemy-murderer’s own voice may be heard.
In a magisterial essay on how the myth of Ilm Din was manufactured, scholar Hashim Rashid noted there were good reasons for hagiographers to ignore this text. “From a political point of view,” he suggests, their contents “would cause a scandal.” That’s true: the bizarre story, involving homoerotic passion, hacks at cherished beliefs about the venerated national martyr.
The stage for murder
Little in Ilm-ud-Din’s confession casts him as being engaged with the great communal currents unleashed after Rangila Rasul — an incendiary tract attacking the Prophet’s sexual morality — was published in 1924. Five months before communal riots broke out at Lahore in 1927, in the wake of the author being acquitted by the High Court, Ilm-ud-Din said he had left for Multan, to help his father make furniture for a hospital. Then, after a brief one-week break in Lahore, he left again, this time to work in Kohat.
Ilm-ud-Din returned to Lahore in late 1928. There’s nothing in the confession to suggest that he encountered religious instruction or movements before or after this time.
The author of Rangila Rasul, Mahashe Rajpal, had been arrested in 1924, after Muslim protests. The case, however, dragged on until 1927, when he was acquitted by the High Court. In response to large-scale communal violence, the government enacted Section 295A, which proscribed speech with the “’deliberate and malicious intentions of outraging the religious sentiments of any class.” The earlier Section 153A only prohibited the promotion of enmity between communities.
Hindu politicians, historian Julia Stevens has recorded, were less-than-enthusiastic about the new law. Lala Lajpat Rai supported it, but only as a “temporary measure” to “satisfy some hyper-sensitive folk.”
Ignoring the blasphemer
Large numbers of pop-histories—blogs, books and movies, beginning with a 1978 hit starring the impossibly good-looking Haider as the Lahore carpenter—all insist Ilm-ud-Din had passionate religious convictions since childhood. These accounts uniformly have learning of the blasphemy in 1929, and immediately deciding to take vengeance. In his confession, though, there is evidence that Ilm-ud-Din had long known of the blasphemy issue and even encountered Rajpal personally—but wasn’t particularly interested.
During a 1927 visit to Lahore, Ilm-ud-Din recalled hearing that “a Hindu shopkeeper of Anarkali had published a book called Rangila Rasul against the Holy Prophet for which he was prosecuted but acquitted which excited the feelings of the whole Mohammadan community.” This information, however, did not impel Ilm-ud-Din to act.
“About 1¾ years ago,” Ilm-ud-Din went on, “I heard a news given in a newspaper, that Khuda Baksh, [a] kabab seller of Lahore, made an attempt to murder that Hindu, who had escaped and Khuda Baksh was convicted.” Again, this information does not seem to have impacted Ilm-ud-Din’s life significantly.
Indeed, the confession suggests, Ilm-ud-Din had seen his victim several times before the killing—and was unmoved by the sight. In 1928, Ilm-ud-Din had run into his friend Bassa Jatt, who had come to Anarkali Bazaar to have posters printed announcing a wrestling competition at that year’s Chiraghan fair. “Bassa pointed me out that Hindu sitting in his shop where some constables were present in order to keep watch,” he recorded.
Ilm-ud-Din saw “the Hindu” several times again: on the evening of Shab-i-Baraat in 1928, on the way to a visit to the Lahore zoo, and when he visited the studio of Girdhari Lal, together with Deen Muhammad, to be photographed. The thought of violence never seems to have crossed his mind.
A crime of passion
Ilm-ud-Din’s confessional account, instead, centred on his “friendly terms” with Sadiq Kasab, nicknamed Haji, an adolescent boy living in Lahore’s Siranwali bazaar. A few days before Eid, Haji stopped speaking to Ilm-ud-Din, and also refused to accompany him to the famous fair of Chiraghan, held to mark the death anniversary of the medieval Punjabi poet and Sufi Shah Hussain. To his dismay, Ghulam Nabi, another carpenter living in Siranwala, claimed “he had committed sodomy on Haji.”
The next day, Ilm-ud-Din said, he confronted both Haji and Ghulam Nabi at a paan shop owned by his friend, Din Mohammad. “Ghulam Nabi denied to have told me any such story, whereupon I slapped him [sic., thoughout],” Ilm-ud-Din recalled. A brawl broke out.
“After the quarrel had taken place, Haji had told me that he could not now bear my sight, even he did not want to speak with me. This shocked me very much and I felt myself tired of the world.”
The next morning, Ilm-ud-Din and his friend Jatta, a painter, hired a tonga, or horse-cart, “with a red horse belonging to a Mohammedan of emaciated body.” They visited Lahore’s Golden Mosque. Then, the two men visited Hira Mandi, Lahore’s sex-work district, “whence we met with a person named Fauji of Yaki Gate, Lahore, who had also called to us.”
In the course of the tonga ride home, Ilm-ud-Din told Jatta he was considering killing himself, and Haji. Although Jatta backed the idea of killing Haji, he observed that “people would say I had destroyed my life for the sake of a villain.”
“The same night, when I went home, I felt tired of life,” Ilm-ud-Din told the police. “I thought that if I were to put an end to my life, I should better do it to vindicate the Holy Prophet’s honour by doing away with the said Hindu (and thus get martyrdom).”
In the morning, Ilm-ud-Din washed, went to the barber for a shave, washed, and drank a glass of sattoo for breakfast. He met Din Mohammad and Haji in the bazaar. “I told them that I was going to Kohat and that they should excuse me if anything bad had been spoken by me.”
The making of a martyr
“This young son of a carpenter,” the poet-laureate of Pakistan Muhammad Iqbal would lament, “has surpassed us, O educated ones”: Ilm-ud-Din, though, proved a reluctant martyr. At his trial, the carpenter pleaded innocence, and his defence focussed on contradictions in the statements of witnesses. Local notables hired Muhammad Ali Jinnah for a fee of Rs18,000 to argue the appeal in the High Court—but their case was that Ilm-ud-Din was wrongly-accused of the crime.
In the months since Section 295A was passed, communal tensions had stilled—and many feared Rajpal’s murder would ignite violence again.
Following the hanging of Ilm-ud-Din, though, the blasphemy-murderer was appropriated by intellectuals who supported the Pakistan movement. The era of Islamist-leaning military ruler General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq saw Ilm-ud-Din’s reinvention as a model citizen of the Islamic Republic, with his faith at the centre of his being.
“When the body of Ilm Din was exhumed from its grave,” one modern hagiography claims, vesting in him the miraculous corporeal attributes of the martyr, “it was found to be intact without any change whatsoever.”
For centuries, asylum doctors and medical writers had discussed strange crimes they thought were driven by ‘moral insanity’: the acts of otherwise clear-thinking individuals impelled by their afflictions into desperate acts, beyond their voluntary control. Today, a criminal defence lawyer might well have pointed to the burden of sexual guilt and depression borne by Ilm-ud-Din, to argue he was mentally-ill.
The illness, though, would be one that implicated an entire society: Ilm-ud-Din’s act would ignite fires which, a century on, still rage.
Praveen Swami is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)