How an 'inflammatory' Facebook post led to a killing and sectarian tension in India

·4 min read
FILE PHOTO: Two sons of Kanhaiyalal Teli, a Hindu tailor, carry a portrait of their father after a prayer meeting in Udaipur

By Saurabh Sharma

UDAIPUR, India (Reuters) - Two weeks before a Hindu tailor in India was hacked to death by two Muslim men who filmed the act, he was briefly detained by police after a rival tailor accused him of an "inflammatory" Facebook post on Prophet Mohammad.

Kanhaiyalal Teli's son told Reuters his father had reposted a Facebook post in support of a now-suspended spokesperson of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist party, whose incendiary remarks about the Prophet in a television debate had led to national and international outrage in June.

"My father was a very good man, he never had any issues with anyone," Teli's 20-year-old son Yash, his head shaven as per Hindu custom after a parent dies, told Reuters. "Just a repost of a post on Facebook, and they killed him. Before this, Hindus and Muslims lived together peacefully in this area."

Modi's pursuit of a "Hindu first" agenda since coming to power in 2014 has added to communal tensions in India, a country with a ghastly history of Hindu-Muslim violence. Many Muslims, who make up 13% of the 1.3 billion population, complain of feeling marginalised due to Modi's policies.

The video of Teli being killed in Udaipur city in northwestern India, posted by his assailants, went viral on social media, shocking many in the Hindu-majority country. Fearing an outbreak of communal violence, local authorities have banned large gatherings for a month and suspended internet services.

A few days after being released from custody, Teli told police that some people were doing reconnaissance of his shop and that he feared for his life.

In a police complaint seen by Reuters, he said he was aware that his photo had gone viral in Muslim community WhatsApp groups and that he be provided protection.

A police officer said on condition of anonymity two constables were deployed in the area after the complaint but they "got relaxed" when Teli did not open his shop for some days.

The tailor reopened his shop at the weekend, his son said, and was killed on Tuesday.

Two Muslim men, who brandished a meat cleaver while claiming responsibility for slaughtering Teli and threatening Modi with the same fate, have been arrested and are facing terrorism charges, police have said. They worked in Udaipur but Teli did not know them, his son said.

Nevertheless, the video showed he seemed unsuspicious as he used a tape to measure the chest of a bearded man just before he was attacked.

'LOOSE TONGUE'

In unusually strong comments, India's Supreme Court said on Friday that spokesperson Nupur Sharma of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was "single-handedly responsible" for creating a situation that led to the killing.

"She and her loose tongue has set the entire country on fire," Justice Surya Kant said, dismissing a petition by Sharma to combine police complaints filed against her across the country into one. "Her outburst is responsible for the unfortunate incident in Udaipur."

Political analysts and opposition parties say tensions between the two communities are beginning to bubble over under the eight-year rule of Modi and the BJP.

The party says it works for all but does not believe in appeasing any community for votes. It has asked people to keep calm following the Udaipur incident.

Teli was reported to police by Muslim tailor Nazim Ahmed on June 11 in a complaint, seen by Reuters, which said: "He has posted an indecent comment on the character of our Prophet due to which there is anger in our Muslim society. Legal action should be taken against the said culprit" for his "inflammatory post".

Reuters could not contact Ahmed as his phone was switched off. His shop, opposite Teli's, was closed.

Police have barricaded the Muslim neighbourhood where Ahmed lives and prevented journalists from approaching his family.

Opposition politicians have condemned Teli's murder and sought swift justice, but they also say the BJP hurt Muslim sentiment by failing to push for legal action against its spokesperson.

Alka Lamba of the main opposition Congress party, which rules Rajasthan state where Udaipur is located, said "eight years of BJP rule have fed and sustained the monster of communalism". Two BJP spokespeople did not answer their phones.

Teli's wife Yashoda, her face partially veiled, blamed the police for her husband's death.

"Had the police helped us he would have been alive," she said. "He had to reopen the shop because we were running out of savings. My husband was friends with everyone, including Nazim, so somewhere in his mind he was not that worried."

(Additional reporting by Suchitra Mohanty in New Delhi; Writing by Krishna N. Das; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)