Fairy lights dance over the set, illuminating ducks bobbing on a pond and improbably green rubber plant fronds swaying in time to the music. With the audio turned off, it’s possible to mistake the singers in their generously spangled achkan-sherwani suits for performers at someone’s wedding. The lyrics, though, aren’t about love. “There is just one punishment for those who blaspheme against the Prophet,” the pop-musician Aftab Ali Qadri sings, “cut their heads from their bodies.”
Ten years after the song released on YouTube—celebrating the assassination of politician Salman Taseer, who enraged religious fanatics by defending a blasphemy-accused woman—its ideas are finding new life in India. There is one song exhorting believers to “sacrifice yourself to stop the infidels.” Another praises young Indians for “the glint of swords in their eyes.”
Even though most Indian Muslim leaders have been unequivocal in condemning last month’s blasphemy murders—carried out after Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Nupur Sharma made remarks critical of the Prophet Muhammad—there is disturbing evidence they’ve energised a far-right fringe. There have been public calls for Sharma to be killed, and ugly videos have proliferated online.
The anti-blasphemy campaign in India, though, isn’t being led by clerics manipulating religious passion to gain political power, with armies of seminary-educated fanatics behind them. Few of the blasphemy killers had any form of religious education, or ties to right-wing organisations. India’s new blasphemy killers aren’t being manufactured in madrasas or training camps in Pakistan. They’re the products of an increasingly fraught communal relationship.
Religion and respectability
Little in the lives of the Udaipur blasphemy-murder accused—assembled from investigation-related documents obtained by ThePrint, as well as interviews with families—marks them out from their social milieu. The son of Abdul Jabbar, a member of the lohar or ironsmith caste, 1981-born Muhammad Riyaz grew up in the small town of Asind in Rajasthan’s Bhilwara district. The youngest of ten brothers and a sister, Riyaz was put to work as a child at his father’s welding-works. He never received any formal education, religious or secular.
Early in 2003, Riyaz was married to Naushin Khan. The couple had two children—a son and a daughter—who are now both in their early teens. The children, family sources told ThePrint, have had to be withdrawn from school after their father’s arrest.
Following his marriage, Riyaz seems to have set about clawing his way into the lower middle-class. Along with one of his brothers, Sikander, Riyaz set up a welding business, serving trucks and construction equipment at Deogarh, in Rajsamand. The business, according to the accounts of local residents, did reasonably well.
Empowered by his small but steady income, Riyaz seems to have sought out social respectability, becoming active in religious circles linked to the Dawat-e-Islami. He was introduced to the organisation, investigators believe, by one of his clients, who runs a tempo-taxi business.
The Dawat-e-Islami has been linked to calls for violence against purported blasphemers, and its members have been found guilty of murders in France and Pakistan. Like pietist groups of other faiths, though, the Dawat-e-Islami serves as a social network, giving members opportunities for upward mobility.
In 2019, Riyaz travelled with his family to Saudi Arabia, for the Haj pilgrimage—paying Rs 2,50,000 in costs, family sources said, by selling off a small plot of land he had inherited from his father.
Little evidence exists, though, to suggest that Riyaz’s religious enthusiasm changed his ideological worldview. In 2016, he landed a job at a marble business owned by Mitul Chandela, the son-in-law of former Rajasthan minister Gulab Chand Kataria. The presence of Riyaz at BJP events—which he once posted photographs of on Facebook—enraged local Islamists. A local leader linked to the Popular Front of India (PFI), investigation documents show, wrote in Hindi, below the post: “Riyaz is a bastard, not a Muslim.”
Like Riyaz, Muhammad Ghaus, the second blasphemy murder-accused, clawed his way up from modest circumstances. Educated until Class 10 at a government school in Udaipur, the 1984-born Ghaus landed a job selling advertising for the local newspapers Dainik Bhaskar and Rajasthan Patrika. The jobs brought in barely Rs 3,000 a month. In time, though, Ghaus secured better-paying work selling investments schemes.
Together with his family, Ghaus was able to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca in 2013. In December the next year, he travelled for a Dawat-e-Islami gathering in Karachi, Pakistan.
Like other members of Dawat-e-Islami, police officials familiar with the investigation say the two men spent hours watching the Madani channel, banned in India since 2012 but easily available online. They searched theological guidance on the Dawat-e-Islami’s website, which offers advice on an eclectic range of subjects, from marriage to the propriety of ritual ablutions in bathrooms with an attached toilet.
For all the obsessive religiosity, though, there’s nothing in investigation records to suggest either man was in touch with jihadists. Instead, the decision to kill the Udaipur tailor was made in the course of multiple meetings at local mosques, investigators claim. The men were on social media networks where several individuals called for violence against Nupur Sharma, but did not participate in the plot itself.
The stories of the seven men arrested for the blasphemy murder of Amravati shopkeeper Umesh Kohle are remarkably similar. None attended a seminary, or had institutional links to a religious order. Five, including main accused Irfan Khan, had not completed high school. Like the men in Udaipur killing, Khan had clawed himself out of poverty to set up a small business that dealt in real estate and second-hand vehicles. He participated in pandemic-related relief work in 2021.
Few Indian jihadists, interestingly, had religious education, either: Just two of the Indian Mujahideen’s ten key members Zeeshan Ahmad, alleged to be involved in the 2008 shootout with the Delhi Police at Batla House, was pursuing a business administration degree. His flatmate, Mohammad Saif, a history graduate, also hoped to secure an MBA. Mohammad Zakir Sheikh was studying for a Master’s degree in psychology in Azamgarh.
Sadiq Israr Sheikh, accused of leading the Indian Mujahideen campaign, spent two years in an Azamgarh madrasa as a child—but later enrolled himself in a computer-education course, and showed little interest in religious studies.
Abdul Karim ‘Tunda,’ considered the founding patriarch of the jihadist movement in India, studied at a Christian-run missionary school until he was eleven years old. He was forced to discontinue his education due to the family’s financial circumstances, after the death of his father.
The scholar Irfan Ahmad has argued that Indian jihadist groups—as well as organisations like the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI)—were driven by political concerns, rather than theology. SIMI’s literature, as well as manifestos released online by the Indian Mujahideen, centred around communal violence against Muslims. Their theological case for jihad drew on the failure of the State-system to protect the community.
For decades, India has seen successive waves of recruitment to terrorist groups, linked to the wider ebb and flow of communal conflict. Since 2016, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) has made over a hundred arrests. The blasphemy killings suggest Islamist violence may be enmeshing itself more deeply in communities, as India’s communal tide turns ever more toxic.
The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)