Not madrasas, not terror camps in Pakistan, India’s blasphemy killers are products of toxic hate

Fairy lights dance across the set, illuminating ducks floating in a pond and fronds of improbably green rubber plants swaying to the beat of the music. With the sound muted, it’s possible to mistake the singers in their generously sequined achkan-sherwani costumes for performers at someone’s wedding. The lyrics, however, are not about love. “There is only one punishment for those who blaspheme the Prophet,” sings pop musician Aftab Ali Qadri, “cut off their heads from their bodies.”

Ten years after the song was released on YouTube – celebrating the assassination of politician Salman Taseer, who enraged religious fanatics by defending a woman accused of blasphemy – its ideas are finding new life in India. There is a song urging believers to “sacrifice themselves to stop the infidels”. Another praises young Indians for “the gleam of swords in their eyes.”

Even though most of India’s Muslim leaders have unequivocally condemned last month’s blasphemous killings – carried out after Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Nupur Sharma criticized the Prophet Muhammad – there is disturbing evidence that they have energized a fringe of the extreme right. There were public calls for Sharma to be killed and ugly videos proliferated online.

The anti-blasphemy campaign in India, however, is not led by clerics manipulating religious passion to gain political power, with armies of seminary-trained fanatics behind them. Few of the blasphemy killers had any form of religious education or ties to right-wing organizations. India’s new blasphemy killers are not made in madrasas or training camps in Pakistan. They are the products of an increasingly strained communal relationship.


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Religion and respectability

Little about the lives of the Udaipur blasphemy murder defendants – gathered from investigation-related documents obtained by ThePrint, as well as interviews with families – sets them apart from their social background. The son of Abdul Jabbar, a member of the Lohar or blacksmith caste, Muhammad Riyaz, born in 1981, grew up in the small town of Asind, in the Bhilwara district of Rajasthan. The youngest of ten brothers and one sister, Riyaz was put to work as a child at his father’s welding factory. He never received a formal education, religious or secular.

In early 2003, Riyaz was married to Naushin Khan. The couple had two children, a son and a daughter, both of whom are now in their early teens. The children, family sources told ThePrint, had to be taken out of school after their father was arrested.

Following his marriage, Riyaz seems to have started to work his way into the petty bourgeoisie. Together with one of his brothers, Sikander, Riyaz started a welding business, servicing trucks and construction equipment in Deogarh, Rajsamand. The company, according to the accounts of local residents, did reasonably well.

With his modest but steady income, Riyaz appears to have sought social respectability, becoming active in religious circles linked to Dawat-e-Islami. He was introduced to the organization, according to investigators, by one of its clients, who runs a temporary taxi business.

The Dawat-e-Islami has been linked to calls for violence against alleged blasphemers, and its members have been convicted of murder in France and Pakistan. Like pietistic groups of other faiths, however, the Dawat-e-Islami serves as a social network, providing its members with opportunities for upward mobility.

In 2019, Riyaz traveled with his family to Saudi Arabia, for the Haj pilgrimage, paying Rs 2.50,000 in fees, according to family sources, by selling a small piece of land he had inherited from his father.


Also read: Blasphemy beheadings in India have a new audience and they’re sitting behind smartphones


Ambiguous motivations

However, there is little evidence to suggest that Riyaz’s religious enthusiasm changed his ideological view of the world. In 2016, he landed a job at a marble company owned by Mitul Chandela, the son-in-law of former Rajasthani minister Gulab Chand Kataria. Riyaz’s presence at BJP events – of which he has previously posted photos on Facebook – has enraged local Islamists. A local leader linked to the People’s Front of India (PFI), according to investigative documents, wrote in Hindi, under the message: “Riyaz is a bastard, not a Muslim”.

Like Riyaz, Muhammad Ghaus, the second accused of blasphemy murder, fought his way out of humble circumstances. Educated up to class 10 in a public school in Udaipur, Ghaus, born in 1984, landed a job as an advertising salesman for local newspapers. Daïnik Bhaskar and Patrika of Rajasthan. The jobs paid barely 3,000 rupees a month. Over time, however, Ghaus got a better-paying job selling investment programs.

Together with his family, Ghaus was able to make the pilgrimage to Mecca in 2013. In December the following year, he traveled 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 accessible online. They sought theological advice on the Dawat-e-Islami website, which offers guidance on an eclectic range of topics, from marriage to convenience to ritual ablutions in bathrooms with attached toilets.

For all the obsessive religiosity, however, nothing in the investigative records suggests that either of the men had contact with jihadists. Instead, the decision to kill the Udaipur tailor was made during multiple meetings at local mosques, investigators claim. The men were on social media where several individuals called for violence against Nupur Sharma, but did not participate in the plot itself.


Also Read: Tangled Threads Link Udaipur Murder to Pakistani Group That ‘Inspired’ Killer of Taseer, the Knife of Paris


Motivated killers

The stories of the seven men arrested for the blasphemous murder of Amravati shopkeeper Umesh Kohle are remarkably similar. None attended a seminary or had institutional ties to a religious order. Five, including the main defendant Irfan Khan, had not completed high school. Like the men killed in Udaipur, Khan had lifted himself out of poverty to start a small business specializing in real estate and used vehicles. He participated in pandemic relief work in 2021.

Interestingly, few Indian jihadists had received a religious education: only two of the ten key members of the Indian mujahideen, Zeeshan Ahmad, who was allegedly involved in the 2008 shootout with Delhi police at Batla House, were pursuing studies in government administration. business. His roommate, Mohammad Saif, a history graduate, was also hoping to earn an MBA. Mohammad Zakir Sheikh was studying for a master’s degree in psychology at Azamgarh.

Sadiq Israr Sheikh, accused of leading India’s mujahideen campaign, spent two years in an Azamgarh madrasa as a child but later enrolled in a computer course and showed little interest for religious studies.

Abdul Karim ‘Tunda’, considered the founding patriarch of the jihadist movement in India, studied in a Christian missionary school until the age of eleven. He was forced to interrupt his studies due to the financial situation of the family, after the death of his father.

Researcher Irfan Ahmad has argued that Indian jihadist groups – as well as organizations like the Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) – were driven by political concerns rather than theology. SIMI literature, as well as manifestos published online by the Indian mujahideen, focused on communal violence against Muslims. Their theological argument for jihad was based on the failure of the state system to protect the community.

For decades, India has seen successive waves of recruitment into terrorist groups, linked to the wider ebb and flow of communal conflict. Since 2016, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) has made more than 100 arrests. The profanity killings suggest Islamist violence may be rooting itself deeper into communities as India’s communal tide grows increasingly toxic.

The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)