A month after Afrazul was hacked to death, a look at his journey from Malda to Rajsamand
HT puts together the struggles, aspirations, life and death of the migrant from West Bengal who was brutally murdered in Rajasthan’s Rajsamand district.
Sayedpur village has no choice but to move on. The nondescript village of roughly 7,000 people in West Bengal’s Malda district has been mourning the death of fellow villager, Afrajul (media reports named him Afrazul) , who became the victim of a hate crime in Rajasthan’s Rajsamand district last month. The fear generated by the death of the 48-year-old migrant is about to get drowned by the issues of survival.
Roughly 200 Sayedpur residents returned to the village from Rajsamand the day after the murder and have been here since. “Rather than being butchered elsewhere during a riot or lynching, we would prefer dying here in our land,” said Masoom Chaudhary, 64, Afrajul’s neighbour in Sayedpur, in anger. “This is why our people have returned.” Chaudhary worked for more than three decades in various states before returning to Malda last year. Akramul Sheikh, former village head, differed with him. “And what will they do here? There are no jobs.”
Men from Malda and neighbouring districts have been migrating for work ever since a large displaced population from erstwhile East Pakistan settled here in 1949. Those who stay find few options: besides farms and odd jobs, Malda is most famous for being a trading hub of counterfeit currency.
In Sayedpur, every family has at least one man working in another state. The money they make is reflected in the village, which is made up of semi-plastered, single-storied houses with refrigerators, DTH connections, budget motorcycles and poultry.
Even though Afrajul’s family has received Rs 8 lakh ( Rs 5 lakh from the Rajasthan and Rs 3 lakh from the West Bengal governments respectively) as compensation, the murder of an exemplary family man and worker has frightened Muslims in the two states, reigniting the debate over the threats faced by the Muslim community, whether in their homes or while trading or travelling. There is no assurance that another Afrajul will not happen. Still, they have no choice except to migrate for jobs.
Someone gave 38-year-old Shambhu Lal Regar the wrong mobile number. But in his mind, it was the number of the man he had vowed to kill. “I have work for you,” Regar told Afrajul, a labour contractor, over the phone early morning on December 6. “Make sure that we meet today.”
They agreed on a time. Their meeting, based on mistaken identity, eventually led to the murder that would shock the country – the killer would film the crime, brag about it and upload the video on WhatsApp.
At 10 am, Afrajul left his small, unventilated room in Dhoinda village in Rajsamand. An hour later, he called his son-in-law, Mohammad Mosharraf, 33, asking him to clear the dues of the labourers he employed. “Don’t delay things. Get it done by today evening,” he told a half-asleep Mosharraf, who used to assist him in managing more than 20 migrant daily-wage labourers from Malda. Mosharraf, who stayed with his father-in-law in Rajsamand, was himself one of them.
A few hours later, Afrajul’s charred body was discovered at an isolated plot of land, three kilometers from his house. Due to deep injuries on his spine and head, he had died on the spot. It was “the day Babri Masjid was demolished 25 years ago”, Regar, the alleged killer, wearing a red shirt, white trousers and muffler, is seen ranting in the video, which was widely circulated on social media.
Regar confessed to the crime in the video as well as before the police. (Shambhu Lal Regar is currently in judicial custody; the chargesheet is yet to be filed). He said that he had to commit the murder to save his Hindu ‘sister’ from love jihad – an alleged conspiracy perpetrated by Muslim men seeking to convert non-Muslim girls on the pretext of romance or marriage.
It was a lean day for Afrajul until he received that phone call. That day, the batch of workers living with him was visiting West Bengal, as construction had come to a halt in the wake of the Supreme Court order in November banning the mining of sand and bajri (gravel) in Rajasthan. After his morning tea, Afrajul got busy tallying the daily log of workers maintained in a brown register.
The same morning, about two kilometres from his house in a neighbourhood of roughly 200 dwellings known as Regar mohalla, Shambhu Nath Regar was getting impatient to kill a migrant labourer named Ajju Sheikh.
More than five years ago, a Hindu girl, Regar’s neighbour and acquaintance, had allegedly travelled with Sheikh to Malda, resulting in an animosity between the two men who never met but spoke over the phone, said the police. Even though the girl eventually returned to Rajsamand, Regar never got over the incident.
In the series of five short video clips that would go viral later that evening, Regar’s rage, according to the police, was directed at Sheikh.
Regar told the police that he ended up getting Afrajul’s number when he was looking for Ajju Sheikh’s contact details at Jal Chakki, a 30-foot-wide road in Rajsamand lined with shops selling construction equipment and machines, big and small. This is where migrants, particularly from West Bengal, spend their leisure time discussing work, politics and life.
Around 9 am, Regar phoned Afrajul thinking he was talking to Sheikh.
At 10.30 am, Regar met Afrajul over tea and asked him to reach the ‘site’ where he wanted a boundary wall constructed.
Having laid the trap, Regar went to fetch a pick-axe, scimitar, petrol and his 15-year-old nephew who would film the killing, blow by blow, steadily, on a smartphone.
After killing Afrajul, sometime between 11.30 am and 1 pm, Regar escaped to his relative’s house in Rajsamand from where he was arrested the following day.
Some passersby alerted the police to the foul fumes and charred remains of flesh lying on wet grass at the narrow entrance leading to an empty plot. The registration number of Afrajul’s motorbike, parked at the spot, ended with the numbers 786, sacred to Muslims. The police informed Mohammad Rafiq Khan, a social activist in Rajsamand, expecting some leads. Khan reached the spot. He could read three letters “…jul” on the partially burnt Aadhaar card. With these two clues, Khan began dialling every number of the Bengali community that he had in his phone book.
Around the same time when the police was trying to identify Afrajul’s body, his son-in-law, Mosharraf, and 28-year-old nephew, Inamul Sheikh, were about to cook a meal on the earthen stove in the compound outside their rooms.
“If he was not back for lunch, we assumed that he would eat outside,” said Mosharraf. Around 3.30 pm, the police phoned Mosharraf and said that Afrajul had met with an accident. Mosharraf and Inamul rushed to the spot.
Afrajul was seeking upward economic mobility – a dream shared by millions of poor migrants. And he was about to achieve it.
The third among two daughters and three sons born to an agricultural labourer Hafijuddin, Afrajul married Gul Bahar in 1989 when he was 20.
He liked vegetarian food – daal bhaat – more than fish, the staple diet in his native region, his wife said. He would bond with acquaintances, friends and fellow workers over tea. “Aa tujhe chai pilaata hun (come, let me get you a tea),” he would tell them, wrapping his arm around their shoulders.
At first, he wanted to stay in Sayedpur. But working on farm land as a labourer, he couldn’t afford to raise their three daughters. Eight years after his marriage, he moved to Rajsamand, the Rajasthan town synonymous with marble.
“He struggled for the first five years. He didn’t get regular work,” said his wife.
“When he first arrived in Rajsamand, he was a quiet young man, there was nothing distinctive about him,” said Mohammad Yunus who had been Afrajul’s landlord for eight years. While working on projects outside Rajsamand, he lived in makeshift accommodation near construction sites along with fellow labourers, observing them and the way they worked. Slowly he won the trust of local transporters, traders and mechanics such as Mohammad Rafeeq who operates auto-rickshaws in Jal Chakki. Rafeeq used to take Afrajul and his workers to various sites. “He was a simple, straightforward man. I don’t remember him having an argument with anyone,” he said.
Afrajul rose to become a contractor who would supply labour for construction work, especially the raising of reinforced concrete roofs across the Mewar region.
“As a contractor, he was very particular about paying the dues of his workers on time,” said his nephew Inamul Sheikh. Gradually, things began looking up.
Earning Rs 15,000-20,000 a month depending on the work he got, Afrajul was determined to improve the living standard of his family back home. “Sansaar maintain ho raha hai,” he would respond when someone asked how he was faring.
He would visit Sayedpur once every three months. Last October, he was home for Muharram. “It was his ritual to get us sweets and murabba. He got them last time too,” said his daughter Rezina Khatoon. “All my cousins used to eagerly wait for him as he would bring gifts for everyone,” she said.
Lately, he had been saving money for the marriage of his daughter Habiba Khatoon, 18, the closest to her abba (father), among the three sisters.
Last year, Afrajul bought a motorcycle, his first brand new vehicle.
In September, he bought his first smartphone.
The murder had a spiralling effect.
More than two dozen fellow villagers, including his younger brother, cousin, both his sons-in-law and a nephew were dependent on Afrajul for work and accommodation in Rajsamand.
The day following the murder, Rajsamand witnessed an exodus. Bengalis boarded the earliest trains available to leave the district. “Even locals are scared,” said Khaleel Mohammad, who runs Rajsamand Motors, and routinely rented machinery to Afrajul. He estimated that 500 workers had left.
In early December last year, Muslim groups rallied in Udaipur to protest against the killing. On December 14, there were counter protests in Udaipur in violation of Section 144 resulting in clashes between the protesters and the police. More than 200 people were arrested for arson and rioting. Organisers said that they were against the inflammatory slogans raised by Muslim bodies while condemning Afrajul’s killing.
When Afrajul’s brother Rum Khan completed an arduous 48-hour road journey to take the corpse back to Sayedpur, more than 1,000 people participated in Afrajul’s funeral, wondering “Why him”?