The fatal beating of a 24-year-old Muslim man by Hindu radicals in western India has sparked fresh fears of communal violence two weeks after a right-wing Hindu party swept to power in national elections.
Seven members of a fundamentalist Hindu group have been arrested for the murder of Mohsin Sadiq Shaikh, an information technology worker, which came after doctored pictures of Hindu gods and other figures circulated on Facebook and other social media over the weekend, police officials said Wednesday.
After the derogatory pictures went viral, Hindu protesters destroyed more than 200 public buses and private vehicles, pelted mosques with stones and set fire to buildings in two days of chaos in Pune, a fast-growing industrial city 100 miles southeast of Mumbai.
Shaikh was not believed to be connected with the pictures, but friends said he was targeted because he had a beard and was wearing an Islamic skullcap. He was returning to his home in the Hadapsar section of the city around 9 p.m. Monday after attending prayers at a mosque when the assailants struck, according to a friend, Riyaz, who spoke to the Indian Express newspaper.
“I ran from the spot and called his brother, Mobin, for help. However, by the time Mobin came, Mohsin was badly beaten up and the assailants were about to leave,” Riyaz said.
Seven men belonging to the Hindu Rashtra Sena, a radical Hindu group active in the large western state of Maharashtra, were arrested in the incident and have been charged with murder, the deputy police chief in Pune, Manoj Patil, told The Times. The suspects are ages 19 to 24, he said.
The head of the Hindu Rashtra Sena, Dhananjay Desai, denied responsibility for the violence in Pune. Desai was called in for questioning and then arrested in connection with a separate incident involving the distribution of objectionable pamphlets at a police station earlier this year, Patil said.
The controversial photos also included derogatory images of the revered 17th century warrior king Chhatrapati Shivaji and the late Bal Thackeray, former head of the Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena. Cyber-crime investigators were still trying to determine the origin of the photos, Patil said.
Communal violence is not uncommon in India, a predominantly Hindu nation with a large Muslim minority. But the violence in Pune marked the first significant sectarian clashes since the Bharatiya Janata Party, a conservative Hindu political organization, won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections last month.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the leader of the BJP, has been accused of not intervening to stop deadly Hindu-Muslim riots in his home state of Gujarat in 2002, when he was the state’s chief executive.
A spokesman for the BJP in Maharashtra, Madhav Bhandari, condemned the fatal beating.
“Nobody should patronize this sort of bigotry,” Bhandari said in an interview. “On the other hand, whoever is behind these pictures should be identified and put behind bars.”
Parth M.N. is a special correspondent