National

Split Wide Open: Old Scars, Fresh Wounds Put Udaipur On The Edge

The City of Lakes is bristling with anger. Communal faultlines buried deep in the past have cracked open in Udaipur after the killing of Kanhaiya Lal.

Family in mourning: The widow and sons of slain Kanhaiya Lal
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The faint twangs of a rusty morchang—a Rajasthani folk musical instrument—breaks the uneasy silence that hangs like miasma over the still waters of Lake Pichola in Udaipur. The chaotic strains come from a wandering musician, invisible in the moonless night. The dismembered twanging creeps up the steep alleys to reach the old gate of Chand Pole that leads to the Old City of Udai Singh II, in search of cracks and crevices in doors and windows. But those who live in the maze of these once-royal lanes are not in the mood for music tonight. Not many hours ago, volleys of ‘Jai Shree Ram’ had rung out in these streets when thousands of indignant bodies meshed into each other to form an enormous monolith dyed in countless shades of saffron. And the monolith is demanding justice. Justice for Kanhaiya Lal.

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Udaipur. The ever-smiling host to lakhs of tourists who visit the Rajasthan city awash in history and hedonistic heroism. It is also a historical example of the state’s distinct brand of secularism and pan-­culturism where Hindus and Muslims have danced the centuries-long waltz of coexistence, twirling and bowing between battle and peace. But today, the City of Lakes is bristling with anger. Communal faultlines buried deep in the past have cracked open, and Udaipur finds itself on edge of an abyss of hate.

And it all started on June 28 when a tailor Kanhaiya Lal Teli, 44, was killed by two men inside his shop on Maldas Street, allegedly for sharing a social media post in support of former BJP spo­kesperson Nupur Sharma, who is herself in the dock for mocking the Prophet. The acc­used, Mohammad Riyaz Akhtari and Ghaus Moham­mad, are currently in custody of the NIA, which is probing the case for suspected Pakis­tani terror links. The brazen communal murder, committed on camera, has stirred anger and led to dem­ands for death penalty for the perpetrators.

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Mounting anger A banner demanding capital punishment for the killers of Kanhaiya Lal. Photo: Tribhuvan Tiwari

The balmy July afternoon, heavy with the weight of imp­ending rain, lay hot and heavy across the town, as if emulating the mood of the residents. The anger is palpable—roadside tea stalls, corner-meetings at offices and living rooms have been abuzz with heated discussions about the “attack on Hindus”. The violent act has led to religious polarisation and mobilisation of ‘Hindu unity’ in Udaipur, driven largely by Hindu groups like the Shiv Dal, Hindu Maha­kal Sena, Sarv Hindu Parishad and others that have become active in recent times.

“Justice for Kanhaiya” has become the catchphrase for Hindu organisations across Rajasthan. Even on the annual festival of Jagannath Rath Yatra, calls for “Kanhaiya ke hatyare ko phansi do”—hang the killers of Kanhaiya—were repeatedly shouted. A devotee watching the festivities remarked to another that this year Lord Jagan­nath had been overshadowed by an earthly Kanhaiya, another name of Lord Krishna.

“What happened to Kanhaiya Lal was not just a killing, it was jihad. We Hindus don’t feel safe in Rajasthan despite being the majority,” Kundan Chauhan, a local Hindu leader tells Outlook. Des­pite clamping of Section 144 and mobile internet shutdown across Rajasthan, nearly 3,000 protesters took part in a ‘silent march’ protesting alleged police laxity to a “minority threat”. The agitation culminated in a pumped-up group of agitators pelting stones at a mosque in the Dilli Ghat area. Communal slogans were also raised outside the collectorate office the day before Rath Yatra and throughout the procession.

“In the name of tourism, anti-nationals enter Udaipur and start living here. We want raids in these minority areas so that the jihadis can be identified,” Chauhan says, adding that the Raja­sthan Police must crack down on “fundamentalist rackets” and “sleeper terror cells” that he claimed have been operating in and around the city. Sarv Hindu Samaj, of which Chauhan is a part, is an umbrella body of organisations, including VHP and Bajrang Dal, leading the protests across Rajasthan. Advocate and fellow Udaipur resident Ganesh Chauhan also alleges that the number of “illegal immigrants” has increased in the Old City where “many Bangladeshis and Rohingyas were pretending to be living as Bengalis”. “We have complained to prashasan several times but they did nothing. Now the community must unite to take action themselves,” Chauhan says.

Kanhaiya’s family too has demanded capital punishment for the accused. “We want the two men to be hanged,” Kanhaiya’s elder son Yash Lal Teli, 20, tells Outlook, soon after meeting Chief Minister Ashok Geh­lot. “CM saab offered Rs 50 lakh ex gratia and one job. But we are two brothers, he should promise jobs for both,” Yash says. A third-year student who was in the middle of his exams, Yash says he felt like he had aged many years since the mutilated body of his father arrived home a few days ago. Kanhaiya’s wife Jashoda Bai looked tired as she held onto a shirt that was sewn by Kanhaiya. “My family has been destroyed, all for a social media post.”

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Ringing echoes of “Jai Shree Ram” have made their way to Udaipur’s Muslim-majority neighbourhoods such as Chand Pol, Kaharwadi, Imli Ghat and Khanjipeer, where the fear of retaliatory attacks led to sleepless nights for the residents. On the night of the killing and the day after, mobs went on a rampage in nearby Muslim localities like Kaharwadi, where locals claim the two communities pelted stones at each other. Some shops and properties were also set on fire and mobs rep­ortedly tried to raze a dargah on the outskirts of Udaipur with a bulldozer. Kaharwadi resident Riyaz Hussain tells Outlook that mobs tried to set fire to his property on June 29 and managed to damage one shop. A dargah and cemetery were also desecrated.

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The Kanhaiya Lal murder will become another chapter in the long history of Hindu-Muslim relations in Udaipur, a city that was birthed and grew out of years of rivalry and then coexistence. While the city was built by Rajputs in the 16th century, Rana Amar Singh became a vassal of Mughal emperor Jahangir in 1615. According to historical accounts, Mughal horses with their heavy arm­our were unable to traverse the complex terrain of  the Aravalli hills that surround the lake town, meaning that even under Mughal vassalship, Udaipur managed to ret­ain relative autonomy, its own culture and art and a “Hindu way of life” instead of minutely adapting and integrating with Mug­hal customs, as happened in other Mug­hal­-aligned states. The royal bloodline of Udaipur lives on in the frail frame of Maharana Mahendra Singh Mewar, the 76th custodian of the Mewar dynasty, who also attended the Rath Yatra.

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Saffron surge A Muslim couple looks on as Hindu activists ride past during a protest rally. Photo: Tribhuvan Tiwari

On the day of the Yatra, mosques remained empty at the time of Friday prayers. Mohammad Hanif, a contractor from Chand Pol, says, “We moved our prayers to 1 pm to avoid clashing with the Rath procession.” Hanif recalls that earlier, Muslims too participated in the Rath Yatra festivities and Hindu neighbours were invited to Muslim houses on Eid for sweets. “Udaipur has alw­ays been a secular city. All that seems to be changing now,” Hanif says.

Rukhsana Khan aka Pinky, who lives on a lane between the houses of the two accused in Kha­njipeer, says the murder has stripped Muslim children of their access to education as the madrasas in the area have been closed since the incident following accusations of them being the source of radicalisation of Muslim youth and children. Former Union minister Arif Mohammad Khan also came down heavily on madrassa education as a “deeper disease”.  But for Pinky and others in her neighbourhood, madr­asas are often the only affordable way of educating children.

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Earlier, Muslims participated in Rath yatra festivities, and Hindu neighbours were invited to Muslim houses on Eid. “Udaipur has always been a secular city. All that seems to be changing now,” Hanif says.

Shoaib Khan, 32, still can’t believe that Ghaus Mohammad was a terrorist and a killer. Shoaib had worked with Ghaus from 2009-2012 at a local newspaper. According to reports, Ghaus went to Pakistan in 2014 and received training from Dawat-e-Islami, which is being probed by the NIA. “I lost contact with him after 2012 so I don’t personally know if or why he went to Pakistan. But Dawat-e-Islami is not a terror outfit. Several Muslims are followers of its founder Quadri Illyasi and travel to Pakistan to fulfill their murad and to receive religious education,” Shoaib says. Jaipur-based professor and political commentator Rajiv Gupta, a former dean at Rajasthan University, says that Kanhaiya’s killing was a classic case of minority communalism in a “religious majoritarian democracy”.

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While the medieval period was marked by the riv­alry between Rajput kings and the Mughals, British rule saw a period of enforced peace when both parties became colonial subjects. Gupta says that since Independence, however, politicians have often tried to veer the state toward the politics of polarisation for electoral gains.

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Rains brought relief to police on the night of the Rath Yatra as the heavy clouds finally burst at sundown, scattering the raving crowd alternating bet­ween DJ trance and “Justice for Kanhaiya Lal”. A light breeze blew over the precarious peace that the administration and police had managed to impose. Restrictions will soon be lifted and the town will slowly inch back to normal. But Shoaib will remember that night. A few stray tourists who had dared to stay back during the curfew had ventured out to get a whiff of the lake air in the touristy side of Udaipur to salvage the fag end of their vacation and Sohail, who drives an auto, had found them at just the right moment.

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While the protests had largely been contained within the Old City, tourists and locals dependent on tourism have borne the brunt across the city. Sohail says that communal incidents are not good for business. “Rath Yatra is one of the busiest times of the year for us. This time, I didn’t even earn Rs 300 as there were no tourists due to the curfew.” He adds that lack of income was not the only problem. “The fact that I am Muslim has not mattered till this day. But now, I stay attentive on the streets at night. There’s a lot of fear on both sides. I don’t want any trouble,” he adds.

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The night wind carried a soulful tune played on a morchang, like a dirge on the death of the soul of a city.

(This appeared in the print edition as "Split Wide Open")

Rakhi Bose in Udaipur  

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