By now, most people in this country, and many beyond its shores, have read and heard about Afrazul Khan, a migrant labourer from West Bengal’s Malda district who was working as a mason in Rajasthan. Khan was hacked and burnt alive by one Shambhulal Regar at Rajasamand in Rajasthan. The brutal murder was captured on camera by Shambhulal’s teenaged nephew. Like many Indians, I woke up last week to chilling news reports about the savagery in Rajasamand, and ghoulish video clips, with the killer shouting into the camera about Hindu girls in danger, revenge and so on.
Shambhulal has been arrested but the clip, filmed by his 14-year-old nephew and uploaded on the social media, has gone viral. There have been condemnations galore. Worryingly, there are also reports about a torrent of online support and WhatsApp group posts hailing the killer. “This is no country for Afrazul’s wife Gulbahar, for his daughters Joshanara, Rejina and Habiba. Indeed, this is no country for the 200- plus migrant labourers from Malda who work here,” wrote Syeda Hameed, women’s rights activist, educationist, writer and a former Planning Commission member, in a moving newspaper article. The murder of Afrazul Khan is the fourth such barbaric hate crime reported from Rajasthan in recent times. One still remembers the killing of Pehlu Khan, a dairy farmer, by self-styled gau rakshaks earlier this year. Those taken into custody by the police for the dastardly crime are now free on bail.
As a citizen of India, miles away from the site of crime, how should one react to a brutal murder where the killer not only commits a heinous act but is keen on filming it and sharing his triumphal reactions? How should one deal with what is perhaps India’s first execution video where technology and terror come together? Should one deal with the immediate set of issues that the Rajasamand killing raises, or should one instantly go into the cataloguing mode, listing similar incidents elsewhere in the country, where the victim may or may not have been a Muslim?
I wrestled with these questions for the better part of last week. It is not easy to watch a video clip of a man being hacked and burnt alive, hear his screams for plea. It is also not easy to ignore it. So I watched a part of the video clip of the murder, because I believe one should not run away from the truth, no matter how harsh it may be, and because facing the magnitude of the horror could be the first step towards a collective realisation of what we are up against and what we need to do. Remember the photograph of the “Napalm Girl”? Photographer Nick Ut was barely 21 when he captured what would go down as one of history’s most iconic images — a naked Vietnamese girl screaming and running down a road, after South Vietnamese planes hunting for Viet Cong insurgents attacked with napalm from the air. Ut’s 1972 image of Kim Phuc, now known as the “Napalm Girl”, jolted the world. The image was horrific, but one needed to see it. It contributed towards a pathway to peace.
Clearly, we are living in extraordinary times when the theme of “revenge” resonates with so many. But in my view, just focusing on the killer is not enough. What is far more important is to focus on the climate that is nurturing such killers and strengthening vigilante groups organised around a whole range of issues from caste, cow protection, community pride, perceptions of historical injustices, and so on. Many of these gruesome acts are not just the handiwork of deranged individuals or psychopaths, but of those who have been brainwashed and those who believe that nothing much will happen to them eventually, no matter how heinous their crime is.
Where does that kind of confidence come from? And what is the State’s role in dealing with this phenomenon? Can a chief minister get away by merely condemning a brutality? Who is in charge of ensuring that an environment, in which hate crimes are seen increasingly as legitimate, does not develop?
As a firm believer in a liberal, pluralist India, I also believe that we must not give the advocates of “whataboutery” a chance. It is vital to come out strongly against mob violence and ghoulish murders fuelled by sectarian passions no matter where it happens and no matter which political party is in power. It is vital to demand that state governments uphold the rule of law no matter what shade its ideology is.
One brutal murder doesn’t cancel out another. But the savagery in a village in Karnataka — the burning alive of a 21-year-old pregnant Muslim woman by her family members for marrying a dalit man — is as reprehensible as what happened in Rajasamand in Rajasthan. The principle applies to every such incident, no matter which communities are involved. The latest in the tale of horrors — the brutal murder of Afrazul Khan in Rajasamand and the graphic execution video that followed — is a dangerous marker in these polarised times. The aim of such videos is clearly to horrify a segment of the population and simultaneously radicalise other segments.
This can’t be allowed to happen. If this trend continues, it will mean a deathblow to the idea of India as a modern nation. Hate crimes are serious; they are getting more serious when they are aided and abetted by technology. Ad hoc measures after a hate crime is committed simply won’t do. A government has to act to prevent fomenting and spreading of such hate. So here’s my fervent end-of-the-year plea: can all those who love this country come together and commit to end hate crimes once and for all? The Rajasamand horror could be our “Napalm Girl” moment. Hopefully, it will pave the pathway to peace and a less polarised India....