A hardworking and kindly man from Udaipur became the target of a brutal attack by Islamic fundamentalists that has left the nation shocked. The life and death of Kanhaiya Lal Teli
Policemen stand guard outside Kanhaiya Lal Teli’s closed shop in Udaipur, July 2, 2022 (Photos: Ashish Sharma)
IT WAS LATE in the afternoon when a 15-year-old boy lying in his bed first felt the rumble of a commotion somewhere below. The boy lives with his family on two floors of a small three-storey building in Udaipur’s crowded Hathipole bazaar. This is an old part of the city, its many narrow lanes brimming with the shops of tailors, cloth merchants, grocers and more, and the air redolent with the sound of scooters negotiating tiny passageways and the chatter of people stopping for tea and haggling for bargains. The boy’s house stands on a slope on the edges of this old bazaar, the floor below given out to shopkeepers on rent. The day had passed like any other when suddenly he felt a disturbance in one of the shops downstairs, followed soon by piercing cries.
He sat upright and gripped the edges of his bed. A moment passed as he considered what this could be, and then he popped his head out of a small window on the first floor that directly overlooked the lane. Just a few metres below was a body, a pool of blood forming around it, especially the neck. The blood flowed out, down the slope and into the bazaar, filling the lane’s drains.
That’s when he recognised the body. It was that of Kanhaiya Lal Teli, the tailor who had been renting one of the shops below for over a decade, and who, until four years ago, even rented the house where the boy currently lived.
People began emerging from their shops and homes and, in a short while, a huge crowd had gathered. The police arrived to take the body away, but the incensed crowd would not allow it, the standoff continuing till about 10.30 PM. All through that period, the body just lay there. The slight drizzle that had been falling all afternoon became heavy. Someone covered the body with a plastic sheet. After some time, two large slabs of ice were pushed to the body’s sides, so that it would not decompose.
The boy stands today behind a small gate on the ground floor. The gate has been closed from the inside. There is a large padlock and a steel chain wrapped around some bars as reinforcement. The boy is 15 but he looks much younger. Four days have passed since the incident, but he still looks shaken.
“You see it in the movies,” he says, after a considerable silence. “But it is nothing like that.”
Outside the gate, the whole lane is empty today, except for a large number of policemen standing guard. When asked, the boy points with his eyes to the spot where Teli had collapsed, but quickly moves his gaze away.
There is a styrofoam box that has been fashioned into a dustbin lying at the spot, a few bricks placed as though to mark the spot of Teli’s death and, nearby, a small black cap.
Examining the cap, I realise it is the same one Teli was seen wearing in the video when he was attacked. It is as though even four days after two men partially beheaded Teli, no one in the neighbourhood has managed to work up the courage to pick up this cap.
There have been terrorist attacks and targeted executions before. But the brutality of this attack, where two men tried to behead another on allegations of defaming Prophet Muhammad, and recorded and uploaded it online, in the way it has occurred in some Islamic and Western countries to push others to do the same, is a new brutal moment. While investigators have found that at least one of the two killers had visited Karachi in 2014 and had spent over a month with a conservative religious group, they haven’t yet suggested that the two were working on the instructions of an organised foreign group. It appears at this moment that the two were acting like ‘lone wolves’, perhaps a group (a few more people who allegedly helped the two have been arrested) whose radicalisation happened online and within the country’s borders, and who had put it in their heads that they must defend their faith against blasphemy.
“The whole purpose of recording the killing was to strike fear in everyone’s heart. They might have been fleeing, but they didn’t care if they got caught,” says a senior police official in Udaipur, who requests anonymity.
Teli knew about the threat to his life. It had begun last month when, during the controversy around Nupur Sharma—the now-suspended Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson who, in a TV appearance, had made what many Muslims claimed were profane remarks about the Prophet and his youngest wife—Teli put up a Facebook post supporting her. He would later claim that the post had been accidentally uploaded by some child using his phone.
Nobody in the family is sure who this child could be. According to Teli’s eldest son Yash, a man named Nazim Ahmed, who runs a shop opposite Teli’s, barged into Teli’s shop one day, threatened him and had him delete the Facebook post. Later, upon the complaint of Ahmed and a few others, Teli was held by the police on June 10 and let off the next day. By then, according to the police, Teli’s photographs were doing the rounds of several WhatsApp groups. “And it wasn’t just Teli,” the police official says. “The details of some five or six people in Udaipur who had made online remarks supporting Sharma were being spread on WhatsApp.”
In the days after his arrest, people, often unknown to Teli, would threaten him. Rajkumar Sharma, who worked for Teli and was present at the store when Teli was killed, recalls a woman in a burqa arriving on a scooter with her husband and child in tow and threatening Teli. Teli knew his photos were being circulated on WhatsApp groups and had noticed some individuals conducting recces of his shop. “It was just very bad those days,” Sharma says. “Kanhaiya Lal was under a lot of stress.”
THE FAMILY KNEW about some of these episodes, but Teli did not let them in on the extent of the threats. He shut his store out of fear. At home, he remained withdrawn, his appetite diminished, and he always appeared on the edge. “One night he told me, ‘What will happen to us? We can’t go on like this,’” Teli’s wife Yashoda recalls.
Five days after his arrest, Teli made a police complaint about these threats. The now-suspended station house officer of the Dhanmandi police station responded by brokering peace between Teli, Ahmed and a few others who had made the threats. He also got Teli to set up a CCTV camera outside his shop (whose footage is currently in the possession of the police, according to Yash) so that any suspicious movement could be recorded.
“It got better after that,” Yash says. Teli still stayed home for another week, but he was more relaxed now. Soon he reopened the shop, although he returned home much earlier than usual.
On June 28, he left home at 10AM on his scooter, carrying a tiffin of chappatis and a vegetable curry. The day moved at its own languid pace. Most of Teli’s business came from the nearby cloth shops and there were ample orders to be completed that day. Teli stood at the counter of his tiny shop, facing the road. To his right sat his workers, both at their tables facing the wall, with Rajkumar Sharma closer to the exit and Ishwar Singh farther inside. They had finished their meals and even their afternoon cups of tea. The radio had been tuned like every weekday at 3PM to the songs on Vividh Bharti’s programme Sakhi Saheli.
That’s when two men walked in with requests to have a suit altered. One of them was carrying a bag.
The two eyewitnesses to the killing, Sharma and Singh, have remained largely missing since the incident. They have been available to investigators and are under police protection but have avoided the media. They refuse to answer calls, stay away from speaking with friends, and mostly remain locked indoors.
Singh was in hospital for about five days, treated for wounds suffered to the back of his head during the attack, but Sharma had escaped without any injury.
Under a pouring sky, we follow a man who takes us through tiny lanes and the private homes of people in an old residential quarter of Udaipur till we reach a stone building painted blue. Climbing narrow steps in the dark corridors of this building, we reach a room with a large bed when the man who has brought us here declares: “Here he is.” Seated on the bed is Sharma.
Sharma, whose brother-in-law has guided us here, had been working with Teli for several years. Like Singh, he was paid according to the number of orders they completed, and in a good month, could make anywhere between ₹ 10,000 to ₹ 5,000. Sharma supplemented this income by working as a delivery partner for a food delivery app. He is still visibly jumpy. For several days, his wife says, he stopped sleeping and eating. He fears he will be targeted next, doesn’t step out of his home anymore, panics whenever his children and wife are out for long, and even when he agrees to be photographed, he does it with his face entirely covered.
Landlord Mohammad Umar uses expletives while referring to Riyaz. Umar works as a truck driver and he was away on one of his long trips when his wife was approached by Riyaz’s wife to rent out the rooms. Despite claiming they would pay the rent a month in advance, they never did. When he returned in the evening on June 28, someone showed Umar the video of the killing. ‘I rushed to the house but by then his family had fled,’ he says
“If they could kill Kanhaiya Lal, who was such a nice person, I feel they could kill anyone,” he says.
Unlike Teli’s family and Singh, who have been visited by politicians and promised financial help, no one has offered such help to Sharma. And he worries now that with his name linked to the murder, he may not find employment again. The police protection, whereby batches of two cops provide round-the-clock security, has brought with it its own woes. The cops stand right outside his bedroom, and Sharma fears they will never leave him. “If I go out, everybody is going to think I’m some criminal arrested by them. And how will I take these two along to make food deliveries?” he asks.
On June 28, as always, Sharma was the first to arrive at the store. Teli came in next. And Sharma recalls feeling how much more relaxed he seemed. “It was like back to the old days, where we listened to songs on the radio, while we went about our tasks.” Unlike the rest of the bazaar, which is perennially crowded, Teli’s shop ‘Supreme Tailors’ lies in a lane that slopes upwards and stays a bit aloof from the rest of the market. It usually tends to have fewer people. When Ghouse Mohammed and Mohammed Riyaz Attari arrived on the latter’s bike—the last four digits of the number plate ‘2611’ being a reference, investigators believe, to the Mumbai terror attacks of 26/11—neither Sharma nor Singh paid any attention to the visitors. Nor did they notice that Riyaz was carrying a bag and that Ghouse had started filming their visit on his mobile phone.
Riyaz claimed to want some clothes altered and once Teli completed his measurements, as is visible in the video, Riyaz reached for the cleavers in the bag and began attacking him.
Both Sharma and Singh turned around when Teli began screaming. They saw that Riyaz was striking Teli with a cleaver, mostly in the region of the neck, but also inflicting deep wounds on the hands and torso every time he tried to defend himself. Startled, Sharma and Singh dashed for the door. Ghouse swung his cleaver at Sharma but missed, and because the latter was closer to the exit, he was able to jump out uninjured. Singh wasn’t so lucky. Sharma saw Ghouse deliver a strike, a deep long gash to the back of Singh’s head, as he escaped. “Neither of us was thinking. There were just screams coming out of our mouths and our legs were trying to take us to safety,” Sharma says.
As he supported Singh with one arm and fled, Sharma looked back for a moment at the shop. He scrunches his face in revulsion at the memory of that moment. Sharma and Singh dashed out and hid in a nearby chemist’s store. After wrapping a cloth he found around Singh’s head to stop the bleeding, Sharma went back to the scene of the attack after a few minutes. The attackers had escaped on their motorbike and Teli, who had managed to get out of the shop, now lay dead right outside.
As Sharma approached the body, he recalls seeing a woman who had stepped out of one of the shops to check on the body, turning around and vomiting. The attackers had tried to severe Teli’s head.
“I cannot get that image out of my mind,” Sharma says. “How can one man do such a thing to another?”
THE AREA OF KHANJIPEER in Udaipur which has arisen and expanded around Kishanpole—one of seven historic gates that once served as the only points of entry and exit for the city—is today a largely Muslim locality.
Riyaz, who had moved from Asind in Rajasthan’s Bhilwara district several years ago, lived in various rented apartments in this locality with his wife and two children. Most people in the locality shy away from talking about him, but some are slightly more forthcoming.
Employed at a local welding workshop (the police claim he had made the cleavers used in the murder here, some months ago), neighbours and acquaintances of Riyaz paint the image of a man who was both deeply conservative and frequently got in trouble. According to a relative of the landlord whose house Riyaz had rented for about six months earlier this year, he would often not pay rent. Earlier this year, according to this man who requests that his name be withheld, Riyaz had his wife level charges of sexual harassment against the landlord with the police so he could get away with not paying rent. “The police got involved and it got so messy that my relative just cut his losses and let Riyaz go,” he says. “This fellow was just a big nuisance in the area.”
Riyaz released about four videos right after the killing. One of these was of the execution, another one claiming responsibility, and two more that had been shot much earlier.
For all his talk about acting in defence of Islam and his hatred for Narendra Modi in his videos, Riyaz was often seen attending local BJP events in 2018 and 2019. After the killing, several photos emerged that show him with others at BJP events, including those with Gulab Chand Kataria, a former BJP minister in Rajasthan and the current leader of the opposition. “He wasn’t a party worker. He was just someone who came to events,” says Irshad Chainwala, a member of BJP’s minority cell in Udaipur who is seen with Riyaz in several photos. When asked if this showed Riyaz’s radicalisation had occurred recently, Chainwala says, “People change. You can’t tell what a person you meet today will become a couple of years after. Maybe that happened to him too.”
No one has offered any help to Sharma. And he worries now that with his name linked to the murder, he may not find employment again. The police protection has brought with it its own woes. ‘If I go out, everybody is going to think I’m some criminal arrested by them. And how will I take these two along to make food deliveries?’ he asks
After the fracas with his previous landlord, Riyaz had moved along with his wife and two children into two small dingy rooms at the far end of the ground floor of a partially constructed building last month. His new landlord, Mohammad Umar, a portly 48-year-old man who lives on the floor above with his wife, uses expletives constantly while referring to Riyaz. Umar works as a truck driver and he was away on one of his long trips when his wife was approached by Riyaz’s wife to rent out the rooms. Despite claiming they would pay the rent a month in advance, they never did.
According to him, Riyaz was always aloof. He kept late hours, often showing up after 1AM at the house. “He had two small children, and a wife who was always in a burqa. And you rarely heard his voice in the house,” Umar says.
When Umar left in the morning of June 28 for work, he noticed that Riyaz’s family, and possibly Riyaz too, were still at home.
When he returned in the evening and stopped by for a cup of tea nearby, someone showed him the video of the killing that had just begun to circulate. “I rushed to the house but by then his family had fled,” he says.
In comparison, Ghouse Mohammed, who lived in another lane close by, was respected in the neighbourhood. “You didn’t find him sitting outside chatting with friends. He was a quiet sort, always respectful of others. Whenever he crossed anyone on the road, even someone he didn’t know well, he offered salaams to them,” says a male neighbour in his thirties, who is seated today with two friends inside a stationary autorickshaw. “He was a simple guy. So when we saw his face [in the videos], we were all just very shocked,” says another person in this group.
Ghouse, according to neighbours, had worked as a collection agent for one of Sahara India’s companies, and after that for Adarsh Credit Cooperative Society, both of which are alleged to have floated fraudulent investment schemes. Although many in the neighbourhood lost their money, because he was well liked, nobody held any grudge against him.
In the last few years, he had been working with his father who owns a small grocery store, and helping out at the local mosque where he did odd jobs. According to a woman living in the house facing Ghouse’s, he is also educated (with a BCom degree), and married with two children.
But according to the police, it was this well-liked man, who helped out at the local mosque and offered salaams to everyone, who had taken the lead in the planning of Teli’s execution. “Ghouse was the real mastermind of the two. Riyaz just went along,” the policeman says. The two, with the possible help of a few more, the police say, planned the murder several days in advance. “They had earlier considered killing him in his house, but they couldn’t locate it, so they picked the shop instead,” he says.
Ghouse was deeply religious, according to his neighbours, and travelled abroad sometimes, at least one of which was for Hajj. The police also claim that he spent over a month in Karachi in 2014, where he would visit the office of the religious group Dawat-e-Islami (DeI). DeI is a Sunni Barelvi group in Pakistan which has grown in prominence in recent years. Although it claims to be moderate in approach, its connections to those who have committed violent acts have raised eyebrows.
Ghouse lived with his wife and children, along with his parents, in a house his father built over 30 years ago. The house stands in a lane on a small hill a little distance from Riyaz’s place. We knock several times on the door but nobody answers. “They won’t open the door,” a neighbour says. “They have stopped coming out. They can’t show their faces anymore.”
Udaipur is on edge. For nearly a week since the killing, it has resembled a city under siege. A curfew and a mobile internet ban were imposed for several days. All one can see in its bazaars are the hordes of policemen in riot-control gear and OB (outside broadcasting) vans that prowl empty streets. People refuse to talk, and when they do, rarely give out their names.
“You won’t see a single [identifiable] Muslim person on the road,” a city resident says, and for the first four days, it remained largely true, with many worried about a reprisal after Teli’s execution. There have been some protests and some communally charged demonstrations. But so far an uneasy peace has remained.
Udaipur is on edge. For nearly a week since the killing, it has resembled a city under siege. A curfew and a mobile internet ban were imposed for several days. All one can see in its bazaars are the hordes of policemen in riot-control gear and OB vans that prowl empty streets. People refuse to talk, and when they do, rarely give out their names. ‘You won’t see a single (identifiable) Muslim person on the road,’ a city resident says, and for the first four days, it remained largely true
The killing also feeds into the contemporary political debates around religious identity in India. To some, it indicates the radicalisation of many Muslim youths in India, and the alleged appeasement policies of Ashok Gehlot’s Congress government towards radical Islam. To others, the attack took place partly because of the fraught political climate wherein Muslims have come to feel increasingly marginalised. No one is ignorant of the fact that with state elections due next year, this brutal execution is becoming a hot political issue.
It is easy in such moments to forget that at its heart this is also a personal tragedy. The killing took away the head of a family, someone who appears to have been well liked among his acquaintances, and who had started with nothing but had toiled for a better life.
The Telis live on the outskirts of the city, in a house he purchased after taking a loan four years ago. Despite the curfew, the lane the house stands in is filled with onlookers and policemen. Every couple of hours, politicians from both Rajasthan and far away come visiting. Outside the house, TV reporters conduct their pieces-to-cameras with theatrical flourish.
Teli’s two sons, Yash and Tarun, both pursuing college degrees, sit on the floor with a large portrait of their father, meeting every visitor with hands pressed together. In a room above, Yashoda, mourning with a large group of women, is inconsolable.
“He had so many dreams. What happens to them?” she asks, dressed in her red wedding sari, as is the local custom for women mourning their husbands before the rituals of the thirteenth day after death are completed. She avoided watching the video, she says, but a few days ago someone switched on the TV where a news channel was playing it.
Teli hailed from Nandi Ahada in Rajasthan’s Dungarpur district where he had worked as a petrol pump attendant while still attending school. Among the first men in his family to leave the village for a life in the city, he had first travelled to Delhi and learned how to become a tailor, before moving to Udaipur where he worked in someone else’s shop and then established his own. Teli never taught his children anything of the tailoring business because he, according to his wife, wanted them to be educated and have stable careers. “He worked hard all his life. He wanted us to have the life he never could,” Yashoda says.
The following day, a rainy morning is transforming into a hot afternoon as we sit in an office conversing with a senior police officer. Avoiding answering questions about the case, he turns his mind to the city instead.
“There are some bad fruits in both communities like there are everywhere else. The question is: Can these few bad ones get everyone else to follow them? I think I know Udaipur well. And I don’t think that will happen,” he says. “But this incident has made it very hard.”