SINCE WEDNESDAY, Gulbahar Bibi and her three daughters — Joshnara, 25, Rejina, 21, and Habiba, 17 — have not been able to sleep. “Whenever I close my eyes, I see him being killed… I hear his cries. My youngest daughter tries to sleep, but she wakes up screaming. Nobody kills even an animal in that manner,” says Gulbahar.
It’s been three nights since Gulbahar’s husband, Mohammed Afrazul, 47, a migrant labourer from West Bengal, was murdered in Rajasthan by Shambhulal Regar, 36, who also circulated videos of the killing.
In Afrazul’s village of Saiyadpur in Malda district, about 350 km from Kolkata, not many have been able to sleep after watching those videos. Villagers have been making frantic calls to their menfolk working in Rajasthan and elsewhere, asking them to return home. Almost all of them are on their way home.
“I brought back the body of my brother… We were working as labourers in Rajasthan for so many years. We never thought we would encounter such brutality. We don’t understand what is ‘love jihad’. My brother was a married man with daughters and grandchildren,” says Afrazul’s brother, Mohammed Room Khan, 46.
In his videos, Regar had ranted against ‘love jihad’ and Islam. He had referred to a woman he called his “Hindu sister who he had tried to save from love jihad”. That woman, however, has denied any link, saying that she went to West Bengal with one Mohammed Bablu Sheikh, a resident of Malda, in 2010, but returned to Rajasthan in 2013 on her own.
“Villagers are worried after the brutal killing. Everyone is coming back… I have seen the video. They can do that to my son too. I will not let my son die. I called him, told him to leave work and come back. He has already boarded a train,” says Raju Sheikh, 60, whose son Samiul Sheikh, 35, works as a mason in Jodhpur.
In Rajsamand, the 200-odd migrant labourers from West Bengal are worried — and afraid.
“We came here to earn money. Now that one of us has been murdered, we are afraid of meeting the same fate,” says Mohammed Rintu Sheikh, as he answers frantic calls from his relatives asking about his well-being.
“The women in our village in West Bengal earn some income by making bidis. In Rajasthan, we manage to save a little money, as many of our employers also provide food,” says Rintu, who is also from Malda district.
“The murder has come as a shock. Nobody thought that Afrazul’s life would end like this. We have to work here, but what if we are killed too,” says Rafiul Sheikh, another labourer.
While Hindu outfits have been quick to distance themselves from Regar, Hemendra Khatri, an office-bearer of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in Rajsamand, says “a probe has to be conducted by higher officials to ensure that the (Bengali-speaking) labourers are not illegal Bangladeshi migrants.”
“Regar was not part of any social organisation and acted on his own. What he has done is extremely wrong. But from his statements, it appears that he believed in Hindutva ideology,” says Mukesh Jain of the Hindu Jagran Manch, Rajsamand. “It seems that he acted on his own as one knows what’s happening in the country, in places like Kerala where Hindus are being killed,” he adds.
Such statements add to the sense of fear among the migrants.
“I have been working here for the last 14 years, and also have Aadhaar card and other government documents to prove that I am an Indian citizen. But after the murder, we have realised that there is nobody to protect our interests here,” says Mohammed Barkat Ali, 45, also from Malda district.
“We stay here for two-three months at a stretch. We go home after saving some money, and then return a few months later. We don’t get work in West Bengal, so we have to go to other states in search of work,” says Ali. The labourers are usually engaged for road construction-repair work.
“Afrazul never gave me any reason to complain regarding the quality of work or his labourers. His last assignment was road repair work that required two days,” says Madan Singh, a contractor, adding that they had worked together in many projects. “His son-in-law called me, asking for a day’s leave due to the bad weather. The very next day, Afrazul was killed,” says Singh.
Back in Afrazul’s village, over 2,000 men from the 1,200-odd families, mostly Muslims, are estimated to be working as labourers outside the state. They earn about Rs 7,000-10,000 per month, say villagers.
“Our land holdings are small and, traditionally, we work as labourers in different parts of India. The men remain outside the village for most part of the year, except during the mango-growing season. Now, there is panic and everyone is rushing back home. We fear more such attacks,” says Samiul Chowdhury, a villager.
The panic has spread to surrounding areas like Kaliachowk, Sujapur and other blocks of Malda district too, which send a large number of migrant labourers to other states. Most of them have watched the video clips of Afrazul’s killing.
“My father was the only earning member. Our family is finished. We want the man who killed him to meet the same fate. I want to see him hanged. My father had been working there for the last 12 years… We want justice,” says Rejina, Afrazul’s daughter. “What wrong did he (Afrazul) do? He went there to work so that he could feed us. Why was he killed like that? Is it because he was a Muslim,” she adds.