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Tangled threads tie Udaipur murder to Pakistan group that ‘inspired’ Taseer killer, Paris knifeman

New Delhi: Eleven years ago, as Salman Taseer emerged from lunch at a chic Islamabad restaurant into a sun-bathed winter afternoon, a man in a blue anorak and wool hat emptied his machine-gun’s magazine into the body of the then governor of Pakistan’s Punjab.

Taseer had earned global acclaim, and death threats, for defending Aasiya Noreen — sentenced to death on charges of blasphemy in 2010. “The punishment for a blasphemer is death,” said the assassin, one of Taseer’s police bodyguards, confessing to the killing with a smile on his face. 

Karachi-headquartered missionary group Dawat-e-Islami, blamed for inspiring Taseer’s killer, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, may have also had a role in the murder of a tailor in Udaipur, Rajasthan police sources have told ThePrint.

The group — whose name means ‘Invitation to Islam’ — was also linked to Zaheer Hassan Mahmoud, who stabbed two people with a meat cleaver on the streets of Paris in 2020. The attack, Mahmoud’s father said, was meant to avenge Charlie Hebdo’s decision to republish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. It was carried out days ahead of the trial in the 2015 terrorist attack at the satirical magazine’s offices, which resulted in the deaths of 11 staffers.

Ghouse Mohammad, one of the two men who videotaped themselves beheading Udaipur tailor Kanhaiya Lal Teli, visited Pakistan in the last week of December 2013, Rajasthan Police chief Mohan Lal Lather said Wednesday.

Ghouse, police sources said, spent a month-and-a-half at the Dawat-e-Islami’s centre, as part of a religious delegation of some three dozen Indian nationals affiliated with the Barelvi religious order.

Sources told ThePrint that Ghouse remained in contact with several Pakistani nationals he met during the visit. In the past few weeks, they alleged, Ghouse had discussed his anger over suspended Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) functionary Nupur Sharma’s purportedly blasphemous remarks on the Prophet Muhammad, and his decision to kill Kanhaiya Lal for posting social media messages in her support.

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A shadowy organisation

Following Taseer’s assassination, Dawat-e-Islami denied any connections to the murderer.

Dawat-e-Islami spokesperson Mahmood Ahmed Attari told Agence France Presse in 2011 that the group was “non-violent and non-political”. 

Its official website, however, now hosts a video tribute describing Taseer’s assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, as “A Prince of Spiritual Fragrance” and a “Holy Warrior”. Two Pakistani journalists who covered Qadri’s trial told ThePrint that Dawat-e-Islami leaders regularly joined protests demanding his release.

Led by a powerful Barelvi cleric, Dawat-e-Islami runs large-scale charitable operations in Pakistan, providing food and medical aid to underprivileged communities. The group also has branches in several cities in the United States and Europe.

The operations of its European franchises haven’t been free of controversy — in 2019, clerics at a Dawat-e-Islami meeting in the German city of Offenbach were reported to have praised Taseer’s assassin, while calling for other blasphemers to be killed.

Like other neo-fundamentalist groups, the Dawat-e-Islami is bitterly opposed to polytheists, who it says will be cursed in the afterlife by having “the birds tear up their flesh into small pieces or the wind separate their body parts and throw them into a distant valley”. 

The group’s literature also includes harsh language about Jews.

The organisation was founded in 1981, as part of a Barelvi response to the patronage given by military ruler General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s regime to rival Deobandi and Salafi groups; the military’s patronage was to lead to the group’s proliferation. 

There is no evidence, though, that Dawat-e-Islami either recruits for terrorists groups or funds violence.

Large numbers of Dawat-e-Islami cadre, though, have been linked to the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, which has led multiple violent mass movements on the issue of blasphemy since 2011. 

The organisation was banned by the Pakistani government last year, after an agitation seeking the expulsion of the French ambassador. The ban was, however, revoked after the TLP and the government reached an agreement.

Fundamentalist leanings

Few biographical details have emerged that mark out Ghouse Mohammad and Riyaz Attari, the two men who videotaped themselves beheading Kanhaiya Lal from others in their social milieu, or identify them as potential terrorists. Both men come from underprivileged backgrounds, and have several siblings.

Riyaz, who worked as the caretaker of a local mosque, moved to Udaipur from Bhim in Rajsamand district, some years ago, a local resident familiar with the family said. 

Ghouse, who made a living as a welder, also moved to the city from Asind town in Bhilwara district more than two decades ago, after he married a local resident. 

A resident of the Khaja Pir neighbourhood, where both men lived, told ThePrint that they were well known for intense fundamentalist religious leanings. The men, and other members of their small circle, he said, had hectored some local residents for irreligious behaviour, like drinking.

Local communal tensions, fuelled by religious disputes and tensions sparked off by inter-religious marriages, helped the circle expand its influence.

The videotape made by the two men also blames some Muslims for intimidating members of their own community, instead of helping them defend themselves.

The reference, the Khaja Pir resident said, could be traced to a recent brawl between Ghouse and a local small-time criminal involved in the property businesses.

The two men, police sources claim, told interrogators they had met at the Anjuman Talim-ul-Islam mosque, a Barelvi-affiliated institution in Udaipur’s Mukherjee Chowk, to share their assassination plan hours before Kanhaiya Lal’s murder. Their confessional testimony — which cannot, in Indian law, be used as evidence in their trial — has led to several arrests for questioning.

Intelligence sources also told ThePrint they are investigating if Ghouse had links to one of several Rajasthan men held earlier this summer on allegations of participating in an Islamic State-inspired plot to set off bombs. The alleged bombers included at least one man who is thought to have travelled to Pakistan in 2013, for the Dawat-e-Islami tour.

The police have claimed that the terror cell in Rajasthan is centred around one Imran Khan, who investigators have alleged formed the first Islamic State-linked terrorist cell in India after a failed attempt to join IS fighters in Syria.

Khan had joined Ahl al-Suffah, an Islamic proselytising and charity group, after the communal riots in Muzaffarnagar in 2013, working to distribute relief among Muslim victims of the violence. He was, however, later expelled from Ahl al-Suffah for his extremist beliefs. 

Following Khan’s release on bail, police claim, he once again recruited former members of Ahl al-Suffah to join his cell. But the men so far arrested in the Udaipur killing, intelligence sources said, had not identified Ghouse and Riyaz as members of the group.

(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)

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Source: The Print

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