Finger points at Hindu fanatics after cartoonist's savage murder

Click to follow
HIS LINE was clean and sharp, his wit cut close to the bone. Irfan Hussain was resident cartoonist on Outlook, the best and fastest- growing Indian political weekly. A Muslim, he did not hesitate to lampoon the Indian Muslims' most long-standing adversaries, the Hindu nationalist extremists of organisations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the World Hindu Council.

Now he is dead, murdered in an attack in which he was strangled, had his throat slit and received 27 other wounds, 17 severe enough to have killed him outright. He was so disfigured that a colleague, brought to identify him, could only go by his shoes.

Was Irfan Hussain the victim of a political attack? A police investigation, notable for an ineptitude worthy of Inspector Clouseau, has produced many questions but no answers. Mr Hussain was apparently tortured before he was killed, perhaps for four or five hours. He was also robbed - his newish car, mobile phone, and other possessions are missing.

The level of violence, however, suggests personal enmity. Certainly Hussain's cartoons pulled no punches. A typical recent one, published when Hindu-Christian antagonism was running high, showed a demonic little VHP figure squatting on a cross being dragged by a ragged, Christ-like figure inscribed SECULARISM: foretelling the end of secular values in an era under the sway of Hindu extremists.

Yet friends and colleagues of the softly-spoken artist insist that he had no enemies. He was intercepted by his killers while driving to his home on the eastern outskirts of Delhi, after an evening at the Press Club. He disappeared on Monday, 8 March, shortly after ringing his wife, a homeopathic doctor, on his mobile, to say he would be home within 15 minutes. His fate remained a mystery for five days. But after three days, another Delhi cartoonist, Paresh Nath of the National Herald, received an anonymous call saying that Mr Hussain had already been killed and that he and a third prominent Delhi cartoonist, Sudhir Tailang, would be next.

The caller claimed to belong to Shiv Sena, the Bombay-based party which takes Hindu nationalism to a crypto-fascist extreme. Shiv Sena has denied all involvement in the killing but can it be believed? The party's hands cannot be said to be lily-white: it and its leader, Bal Thackeray, were implicated by an official inquiry in the deaths of hundreds of Muslims in 1992, in communal riots that followed bomb explosions in Bombay caused by Islamic terrorists. Recently the party has campaigned ferociously against imagery that offends them. Its "Seniks" - "warriors" - wrecked the studio of India's most famous living artist, M F Hussain (another Muslim) in protest at his "lascivious" depiction of a Hindu goddess. They attacked and invaded cinemas showing a recent film, Fire, which revolved around a lesbian love affair, forcing it to be withdrawn from screening.

The stars of the film included a famous Muslim actress, Shabana Azmi, and the film took satirical sideswipes at Hinduism. But these protest actions involved symbolic force and were in the nature of publicity stunts: vulgar demonstrations of political muscle. Brutal murder has not been Shiv Sena's style - so far.

Indian journalists have been vociferous in their protests at police incompetence in the investigation of Irfan Hussain's death, and cartoonists have held a one-day strike. But few are ready to accept that the political climate has turned quite this frightening.

They raise an obvious objection, too, to the suggestion that Shiv Sena were involved: its founder and leader, Bal Thackeray, was himself a newspaper cartoonist. If any politician were to have natural sympathy with Mr Hussain and his tribe, it surely ought to be Mr Thackeray.

n DELHI (AP) - The body of a freelance journalist was found yesterday in his home with stab wounds and strangulation marks on his neck, police said.

Anil Rattan, 42, was lying in his blood in the bathroom, said his brother. He had worked for various domestic and foreign news organisations. His maid discovered his body after finding the front entrance open when she came to work.