How India’s first blasphemy murderer became Pakistan’s model citizen
Eetched on the pages of history in elegant cursive script, the confession recorded the story of the sensational 1929 murder that tore apart post-colonial Punjab: rejected by his teenage sweetheart, a young carpenter from Lahore had entered a shop in the Anarkali bazaar, and sought redemption by plunging his knife into a man’s heart. In a move likely to delight Freudian forensic psychologists, the killer took a rupee from his mother to buy the dagger, which he hid in the nefaor waist fold, its shalwar.
Today, the murder is remembered a little differently. A mausoleum in the Miani Sahib cemetery in Lahore celebrates the sacrifice of Ghazi Ilm-ud-Din Shahidthe holy warrior martyred to avenge the blasphemy against the prophet Muhammad.
A large number of blasphemous murderers in Pakistan – among them the assassin of Punjab politician Salman Taseer – have invoked the memory of Ilm-ud-Din. His father, the leftist poet Muhammad Din Taseer, was among those who led the funeral procession that buried Ilm-ud-Din in Lahore.
As India struggles to make sense of the murder of Kanhaiya Lal Teli, the confession contains an important lesson: the spirit of the religious fanatic inhabits a dark wasteland, bordering on passion and madness.
For decades, the puzzling Punjab police diary – recorded by police inspectors Said Ahmad Shah, Sardar Partab Singh and Jowahar Lal – has remained in the Punjab archives in Lahore and is also available online. It is hard to imagine that none of Ilm Din’s many hagiographers discovered this document, the only legal document in which the voice of the illiterate blasphemy-murderer can be heard.
In a masterful essay on the myth-making of Ilm Din, scholar Hashim Rashid noted that there are good reasons for hagiographers to ignore this text. “From a political point of view”, he suggests, their content “would cause a scandal”. It’s true: the bizarre story, involving homoerotic passion, hijacks cherished beliefs about the revered national martyr.
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The murder scene
Few things in the confession of Ilm-ud-Din present him as being involved in the great community currents which were unleashed after Rangila Rassoul – an inflammatory tract attacking the sexual morality of the Prophet – was published in 1924. Five months before communal riots broke out in Lahore in 1927, following the author’s acquittal by the High Court, Ilm-ud-Din said he had left for Multan, to help his father making furniture for a hospital. Then, after a brief break of a week in Lahore, he left again, this time to work in Kohat.
Ilm-ud-Din returned to Lahore at the end of 1928. Nothing in the confession suggests that he encountered any religious instruction or movements before or after this period.
The author of Rangila Rassoul, Mahashe Rajpal, was arrested in 1924 after Muslim protests. The case, however, dragged on until 1927 when he was acquitted by the High Court. In response to large-scale communal violence, the government enacted Section 295A, which outlawed speech with “the willful and malicious intent to outrage the religious sentiments of any class”. Former Section 153A only prohibited the promotion of enmity between communities.
Hindu politicians, according to historian Julia Stevens, were less enthusiastic about the new law. Lala Lajpat Rai supported it, but only as a “temporary measure” to “satisfy some hypersensitive people”.
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Ignore the blasphemer
A slew of pop stories – blogs, books and movies, beginning with a 1978 hit starring the stunningly handsome Haider as the carpenter of Lahore – all insist that Ilm-ud-Din had passionate religious convictions since childhood. These accounts uniformly learned of the blasphemy in 1929, and immediately decided to take revenge. In his confession, however, there is evidence that Ilm-ud-Din had been aware of the blasphemy issue for a long time and even met Rajpal personally, but was not particularly interested.
During a visit to Lahore in 1927, Ilm-ud-Din recalled hearing that “a Hindu merchant from Anarkali had published a book entitled Rangila Rassoul against the Holy Prophet for whom he was prosecuted but acquitted, which excited the feelings of the entire Mohammedan community. This information, however, did not move Ilm-ud-Din to act.
“About a year and a half ago,” continued Ilm-ud-Din, “I heard a news item in a newspaper, that Khuda Baksh, [a] Kabab seller from Lahore, attempted to murder this Hindu, who had escaped and Khuda Baksh was convicted. Again, this information does not seem to have had a significant impact on Ilm-ud-Din’s life.
Indeed, the confession suggests that Ilm-ud-Din had seen his victim several times before the murder – and was unmoved by the sight. In 1928, Ilm-ud-Din had met his friend Bassa Jatt, who had come to the Anarkali Bazaar to have posters printed advertising a wrestling competition at the Chiraghan fair of that year. “Bassa pointed out to me this Hindu sitting in his shop where gendarmes were present to keep watch,” he recorded.
Ilm-ud-Din saw “the Hindu” again several times: on the evening of Shab-i-Baraat in 1928, on his way to a visit to the zoo in Lahore, and when he visited the workshop of Girdhari Lal, with Deen Muhammad, to be photographed. The thought of violence never seems to have crossed his mind.
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A crime of passion
Ilm-ud-Din’s confessional account instead centered on his “friendly terms” with Sadiq Kasab, nicknamed Haji, a teenager living in Lahore’s Siranwali Bazaar. A few days before Eid, Haji stopped talking to Ilm-ud-Din and also refused to accompany him to the famous Chiraghan Fair, held to mark the death anniversary of medieval Punjabi and Sufi poet Shah Hussain. . Much to his dismay, Ghulam Nabi, another carpenter living in Siranwala, claimed “he committed sodomy on Haji”.
The next day, Ilm-ud-Din said, he confronted Haji and Ghulam Nabi in a paan shop owned by his friend, Din Mohammad. “Ghulam Nabi denied telling me such a story, whereupon I slapped him [sic., thoughout]recalls Ilm-ud-Din. A fight broke out.
“After the quarrel took place, Haji told me that he couldn’t stand my sight anymore, even though he didn’t want to talk to me. It shocked me a lot and I felt tired of the world.
The next morning, Ilm-ud-Din and his friend Jatta, a painter, hired a tonga, or carriage, “with a red horse belonging to a Muslim of emaciated body.” They visited the Golden Mosque in Lahore. Next, the two men visited Hira Mandi, the sex work district of Lahore, “from where we met a person named Fauji from Yaki Gate, Lahore, who had also called us.”
During the tonga back home, Ilm-ud-Din told Jatta that he was considering suicide, as well as Haji. Although Jatta supported the idea of killing Haji, he observed that “people would say that I destroyed my life for the sake of a bad guy”.
“The same night when I returned home, I felt tired of life,” Ilm-ud-Din told police. “I thought that if I had to end my life, I had better do it to claim the honor of the Holy Prophet by suppressing the said Hindu (and thus obtaining martyrdom).”
In the morning Ilm-ud-Din washed, went to the barber to shave, washed and drank a glass of tattoo for breakfast. He met Din Mohammad and Haji in the bazaar. “I told them I was going to Kohat and they should excuse me if anything wrong was said by me.”
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The making of a martyr
“That young carpenter’s son,” Pakistan’s Poet Laureate Muhammad Iqbal would lament, “has passed us, O learned ones”: Ilm-ud-Din, however, proved a reluctant martyr. At his trial, the carpenter pleaded innocence and his defense focused on contradictions in witness statements. Local notables hired Muhammad Ali Jinnah for Rs 18,000 to argue the appeal in the High Court, but their case was that Ilm-ud-Din had been wrongly accused of the crime.
In the months following the passage of Section 295A, communal tensions had subsided and many feared that Rajpal’s murder could reignite violence.
After the hanging of Ilm-ud-Din, however, the blasphemy-murderer was appropriated by intellectuals who supported the Pakistani movement. The era of Islamist-leaning military leader General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq saw the reinvention of Ilm-ud-Din as a model citizen of the Islamic Republic, with his faith at the center of his being.
“When Ilm Din’s body was exhumed from his tomb”, asserts a modern hagiography, bestowing on him the miraculous bodily attributes of the martyr, “it turned out to be intact without any change”.
For centuries, asylum doctors and medical writers discussed bizarre crimes they believed to be motivated by “moral insanity”: the acts of otherwise lucid individuals driven by their afflictions to desperate acts, beyond beyond their voluntary control. Today, a criminal defense lawyer might well have pointed to the burden of sexual guilt and depression carried by Ilm-ud-Din, to argue that he was mentally ill.
The disease, however, would be one that would involve an entire society: Ilm-ud-Din’s act would ignite fires that, a century later, still rage.
Praveen Swami is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)