NEW DELHI — A grainy smartphone video shows the final moments of Kanhaiya Lal Teli’s life: The tailor is seen measuring customers in his shop, but when he turns his back, they suddenly attack him.
Indian authorities on Wednesday voiced fears about spiraling violence after the grisly murder of the Hindu man — and the chilling videos filmed and posted online by his apparently Muslim attackers — sent shock waves through a country already struggling to contain religious tensions.
The killing in the lakeside city of Udaipur is the latest flash point in a month-long controversy that began when a spokeswoman for India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Nupur Sharma, criticized the prophet Muhammad for marrying underage women. Sharma’s comments, made during a May 26 appearance on a TV talk show, were condemned by more than a dozen majority-Muslim countries, but Sharma became a hero to many on India’s right wing.
Teli’s social media posts supporting Sharma angered two local Muslims, Gaus Mohammad and Riyaz Attari, police officials said Tuesday as they locked down parts of Udaipur with a curfew and cut internet access across Rajasthan in an effort to prevent protests from spreading through the state. Local authorities vowed to punish internet users for sharing videos and photos of the killing, but by late Tuesday, videos and photos had circulated widely, and snippets of video were played repeatedly on television news.
“We have beheaded the tailor,” Attari says in one of the videos. “We are living for our God and we shall die for him. Listen to me, Narendra Modi. You started this fire. We will douse it.”
Mohammad and Attari did not link themselves to any extremist group in their videos, but Indian officials were treating the killing as a terrorist attack and signaled that the men were not acting alone. The pair were arrested at a highway checkpoint late Tuesday while allegedly trying to flee Udaipur on a motorcycle and have been questioned about their alleged ties to two militant groups based in Pakistan, the Hindustan Times reported.
Ashok Gehlot, the Rajasthan chief minister, who belongs to the Indian National Congress, an opposition party, said Wednesday on Twitter that investigators have collected information about the killers’ foreign contacts but did not divulge details. The murder was “beyond imagination,” he said, while urging Modi to address the nation and appeal for unity.
“There is a need to improve the atmosphere,” Gehlot said. “There is an atmosphere of tension all over the country.”
India, which is roughly 80 percent Hindu and 15 percent Muslim, has a long history of religious conflict. But over the past year, increases in hate speech and communal unrest — which have so far resulted in relatively few deaths — have raised fears about tensions tipping into large-scale bloodshed.
Hindu preachers have held large rallies where they openly call for the mass killing of Muslims. Hindu mobs have waved swords menacingly outside mosques, prompting Muslims to pelt them with rocks. When those clashes erupt into riots, local officials in several cities have called in bulldozers to demolish Muslim homes and shops, a move critics say is a form of collective punishment. On Indian social media, conspiracy theories accuse Indian Muslims of waging “jihad” against Hindus by seducing their women and spreading the coronavirus.
“We are looking at a cycle of unending violence if substantial numbers of people from both communities manage to convince themselves that their differences can no longer be politically resolved,” said Debashish Roy Chowdhury, a political commentator and author. As Muslims become increasingly marginalized in Indian society, he added, there is a danger of “self-radicalization.”
On Wednesday, Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, one of India’s most prominent Islamic organizations, condemned Teli’s murder as “against the law of the land and our religion.” The group’s leader, the cleric Hakimuddin Qasmi, called on all Indian citizens to “restrain their emotions and maintain peace.”
In the weeks leading up to Teli’s killing, the controversy surrounding Sharma’s comments about the prophet Muhammad had provoked widespread condemnation in the Islamic world, leading the Indian government to apologize, but the episode also triggered a complex debate in India over the BJP’s political identity — and whether there should be limits on free speech.
BJP critics say prominent party members frequently stoke religious tensions by making provocative statements, and critics of the party supported its decision to fire Sharma. But her removal enraged many in the BJP’s Hindu nationalist political base, who argued that Sharma only cited what was in Islamic scripture and accused her detractors of intolerance.
Teli, one of Sharma’s defenders, wrote about the controversy on social media, which angered his Muslim neighbors, according to a police complaint they filed in early June. The complaint, which was seen by The Washington Post, did not specify what Teli allegedly said in his post, which was later deleted, but it prompted local police to arrest him briefly.
Teli then complained of being monitored by men in his neighborhood and of receiving death threats over the post, according to a document he submitted to the police. The tailor closed his business for several days until reopening this week.
On Tuesday, Mohammad and Attari walked into Teli’s shop, posing as customers before attacking him, police said. He was hacked multiple times and repeatedly stabbed in the neck but was not decapitated, police said.
Authorities banned large gatherings in Rajasthan on Wednesday, but small protests organized by hard-line Hindu groups were beginning to pop up across the country.
“There is chaos, anarchy and no rule of law,” said Apoorvanand, a professor at Delhi University who goes by one name. “If we don’t make a collective effort and bring down the temperature, then we’re headed for disaster, or are already there.”
Anant Gupta contributed to this report.