The anguished parents of Mohsin Sadiq Shaikh, the 28-year-old IT manager beaten to death by a mob, said they had never thought their son would come to harm because he was a Muslim in a city like Pune. Their trust was in the promise that all cities hold out — the promise of mobility and growth, of freedom from communal, divisive identities, and the opportunity to remake oneself. A campus town which every year welcomes thousands of students from various states and countries, and an information technology hub that employs people from across India, Pune’s allure, especially, is of a young city, impatient to get on with the work of forging a better life. That a young professional could be beaten to death here because his beard and cap singled him out to be a Muslim is a blow to that promise.
But this is also a city where an organisation like the Hindu Rashtra Sena (HRS) has struck roots — all 17 of its members accused of murdering Shaikh are young men from impoverished backgrounds. Its leader, Dhananjay Desai, has been named in 23 cases, from extortion to rioting, and his muscular message of Hindutva has found a following. Ten years ago, another obscure rightwing organisation had launched an attack on the city’s Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, in its protests against an American author’s book on Shivaji. Shaikh’s death on Monday capped a series of violent protests in the city since Saturday against a Facebook post that allegedly mocked Shivaji and Bal Thackeray. While the Congress government in Maharashtra clearly failed in reining in the lawlessness, the BJP MP from Pune, Anil Shirole, did no better in describing the murder as a “natural repercussion” of what appeared on Facebook.
Shirole’s intemperate remarks and incidents like Shaikh’s death could fuel insecurities in minorities, especially Muslims, especially in the aftermath of a decisive general election verdict that needs to be guarded from any associations with majoritarianism. This is the moment, perhaps, for the new government, headed by a leader who is a masterful communicator, to speak to those concerns.