By SHEIKH SAALIQ and KRUTIKA PATHI
NEW DELHI, India (AP) — Tensions were high in India’s western Udaipur city in late June, a day after police arrested two Muslim men accused of slitting a Hindu tailor’s throat in a brutal attack that highlights a dramatic escalation of communal violence in a country riven by deep religious polarization.
The Hindu man, Kanhaiya Lal, was stabbed multiple times on June 28 inside his tailoring shop by two cleaver-wielding men who also filmed the attack and posted it online, police said, warning that the incident could inflame religious tensions and lead to violence. The video showed the tailor taking measurements of one assailant before he attacks Lal from behind and stabs at his throat with a cleaver.
TV reports aired video of Lal lying on the ground with his throat slit. The two men later claimed responsibility for the killing in another video and accused Lal of blasphemy. They also threatened to kill Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the same manner, brandishing the blood-stained weapons they used to attack Lal.
Local media reported the victim had purportedly shared a social media post supporting a suspended spokesperson for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party who made controversial remarks on the Prophet Muhammad in May.
The killing comes after months of rising tensions between Hindus and Muslims, as well as a spate of attacks by Hindu nationalists on minority groups—especially Muslims—who have been targeted for everything from their food and clothing style to interfaith marriages. More recently, Muslim homes have also been demolished using bulldozers in some Indian states, in what critics call a growing pattern of “bulldozer justice” against the minority group.
These tensions escalated in May when two spokespeople from Modi’s party made speculative remarks that were seen as insulting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad and his wife Aisha. Both were later suspended by Modi’s party after it led to severe diplomatic backlash for India from many Muslim-dominated countries. The controversy also led to protests in India that turned violent in some places after demonstrators pelted stones at police. At least two people were killed.
Experts worry that the latest incident could worsen India’s religious fault lines that critics say have deepened since Modi came to power in 2014.
“This gruesome incident could lead to escalated religious tensions across India, especially with the ruling party espousing a very strident Hindu majoritarian cause,” said Sushant Singh, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, a public policy think tank.
“It is unlikely that this government or leadership would go out of its way to tell supporters to not get provoked, to urge for calm and peace,” he said.
Attacks on people accused of alleged blasphemy are common in neighboring Muslim majority countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan. But in India, where religious tensions often boil over into sporadic riots and deadly protests, incidents of brutal killings of this nature are rare.
In May, a Hindu man in the southern city of Hyderabad was stabbed to death in public by his Muslim wife’s relatives. Last year, a Muslim man was beheaded by members of a vigilante group on orders of his girlfriend’s Hindu family because they didn’t approve of their interfaith marriage. In Rajasthan state in 2017, a Hindu man brutally killed a Muslim laborer and shared a video of the victim being hacked to death and then set on fire.
Police said both accused were arrested within hours of Lal’s death, but in a bid to calm frayed nerves in parts of the city, authorities suspended internet services in Rajasthan state and banned large gatherings. Authorities also rushed additional police into the city to counter any religious unrest.
India’s home ministry has dispatched a team of its anti-terror agency to Rajasthan to investigate whether the killing had any links to terrorist groups. So far, the state police have not charged the two arrested men with terrorism.
Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot ensured a speedy investigation into Lal’s killing. He said the criminals will be punished and urged people not to share the video on social media because of its highly inflammatory content.
“I again appeal to all to maintain peace,” Gehlot said in a tweet.