As tragic as the gruesome murder of Kanhaiya Lal was, we are making matters worse by using the unfortunate tailor’s sad demise to make political points that advance our own pet causes.
If you have been following television commentary and social media debates—not that there is any difference between the two these days—you will know that the horrific nature of the Udaipur killing has been seized by the usual suspects to reinforce their positions.
The nonsensical responses
Position one comes from supporters of Nupur Sharma. Bizarrely, they treat the murder as a way of retrospectively justifying what she said. “See,” they argue, “we told you that she was up against murderous and dangerous jihadis and yet, liberals did nothing to defend her. Instead, they hounded her.”
This is disingenuous nonsense. I believe that Nupur Sharma had every right to say what she did. It wasn’t really liberals who objected (most of them don’t watch the channel where she made her comments anyway), it was foreign governments. And the people who disowned her, called her ‘a fringe element’ and then tossed her overboard were not liberals either. It was the government of India that cast her out into the wilderness; a move enthusiastically endorsed even by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leadership.
Besides, even those liberals who criticised her for her comments did not support violence or advocate violent reprisals against her. When a few motor-mouths did go down this road, they were also criticised by liberals.
In a sense, the response of the Hindu Right with its air of aspirational victimhood is not surprising. Nor, I guess, are some of the liberal responses we have heard in the aftermath of the Udaipur tragedy.
A liberal response goes as follows: “Of course, this is a terrible crime. But you know, when the government pushes Muslims to the wall and makes them feel that they will never get justice, then of course some people will take the law into their hands.”
This is errant nonsense. And it is doubly dangerous because it mischaracterises the Muslim community’s response to discrimination. I doubt many Muslims are happy with the way things are but to suggest that they have given up on the Indian system and are turning to violence is completely wrong. In fact, the majority of Indian Muslims have always rejected violence—a reason why India has remained immune, over the last two decades, to the waves of pan-Islamic radicalisation that have rocked the world.
Blueprints of terrorism
Judging by what we know about Kanhaiya Lal’s murder so far (leaving open the possibility that the picture may change), this is what they call a copycat lone wolf operation.
In the West, young Muslims who have been radicalised, either by the internet (the usual culprit) or by following the teachings of some Islamist outfit (in this case, it has been suggested that they may have followed a Pakistani fundamentalist organisation) take it upon themselves to commit acts of violence following the ISIS pattern. They are almost by definition a little unhinged and come off, in the videos they usually post, as deranged maniacs.
The Udaipur murder seems to fit that pattern. The murderers were locals. They had previously threatened the victim. Their ambition exceeded their ability (they tried to behead the victim but did not know how to do it) and they seemed even more delighted about posting the video than they were about the horrific act of terror they had committed.
So far, at least, there is no evidence that they were part of any organised terror cell or were seeking revenge for the condition of Muslims in India. They were two dangerous Islamist fanatics, which is terrible. But it is not particularly unprecedented: attacks in the United Kingdom and the United States have frequently been carried out by men who fit this profile. However, some liberals will argue that the men in Udaipur took to violence only because of the discrimination Muslims face. This view is at odds with the global reality.
Most terrorist organisations (and the terrorists themselves) turn to murder and mayhem not in situations where Muslims are a persecuted minority but where Muslims are the majority. The terrorists who have wreaked havoc inside Pakistan are not protesting Hindu oppression. And al-Qaeda and ISIS have, historically, always been at their strongest in Muslim countries.
Terrorism is a complex business. There are many reasons people are drawn first to fundamentalism and then to fundamentalist violence. It is too simplistic to say that it occurs only because Muslims are an oppressed minority.
Just take one celebrated instance from history: the first country to ban Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was India. But the first fatwa emerged from Iran, a Muslim majority country. And the people who sent bombs to publishers, murdered translators and tried to kill Rushdie were not Indians, but Muslims from other parts of the world.
Focus on human tragedy
So, let’s not try and immediately draw too many general conclusions from the Udaipur incident. It does, in no way, negate the criticisms of either what Nupur Sharma said or the response that came from her own party when it threw her under the bus. And it does not prove that Indian Muslims are so frustrated that they have reached a point of no return and turned to violence because of state persecution.
Let us focus instead on the human tragedy of Kanhaiya Lal, a citizen of India who was murdered for saying what he believed, and who, it seems, was subjected first to threats from his murderers and then had his calls for protection ignored by the local police.
And let’s not allow activists of any political persuasion to hijack this tragedy. It does not prove that all Muslims are fanatics, ready to pull out their daggers at any slight to Islam. And it does not prove that the Narendra Modi government has driven Muslims to violence.
The men who did this deserve exemplary punishment. We must check if they have any links with others and investigate whether they were acting alone. And we must resist the temptation to turn the poor tailor’s death into a political opportunity and more fodder for partisan night-time debates.
The author is a print and television journalist, and talk show host. He tweets at @virsanghvi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)