Murder and mischief in Hubballi

Neha Hiremath, a 23-year-old student, was stabbed to death on a university campus by her former classmate, Fayaz Khandunayak. The BJP leadership has been alleging that this is a case of ‘love jihad’, while the Congress has argued that the incident was the unfortunate result of a personal tiff. Girish Pattanashetti reports on the State-wide protests and the different accounts of Neha and Fayaz’s relationship

May 04, 2024 01:47 am | Updated 08:30 am IST

The ABVP protests in Hubballi seeking the death penalty for the accused in the Neha Hiremath murder case. Neha, a first-year MCA student, was stabbed to death in Hubballi.

The ABVP protests in Hubballi seeking the death penalty for the accused in the Neha Hiremath murder case. Neha, a first-year MCA student, was stabbed to death in Hubballi. | Photo Credit: PTI

It is the 13th day since Neha Hiremath, 23, was killed in Karnataka’s Hubballi. People trickle in and out of the Hiremaths’ compact two-storey house in Bidnal, a middle-class locality populated with people of various faiths. Some carry food in steel boxes: it is a tradition in north Karnataka to visit bereaved families with food and eat meals with them after offering condolences.

The visitors — friends, relatives, and acquaintances — all express horror that a young woman, the daughter of Congress municipal councillor Niranjan Hiremath, 50, suffered such a gruesome end. Neha was stabbed to death on a college campus by her former classmate, 23-year-old Fayaz Khandunayak, on April 18.

Also read | Parents of accused apologise to family of student murdered in Hubballi and people of Karnataka, seek strict punishment

It has been an exhausting day for the Hiremaths. The death of their daughter has occurred in the midst of the Lok Sabha elections and has turned into an important election narrative. Earlier, the Leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Assembly, R. Ashoka, who belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), accompanied by former Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai and MLA Mahesh Tenginakai, visited their home to offer condolences. As they streamed out, journalists gathered around them, close to two air coolers, under a shamiana, with a huge banner paying tribute to Neha in the backdrop.

Neha Hiremath with her father and municipal council member Niranjan Hiremath. Photo: Special Arrangement

Neha Hiremath with her father and municipal council member Niranjan Hiremath. Photo: Special Arrangement

Addressing the media, the BJP leaders spoke of lapses in police action. They promised to pressure the State government to act without delay and ensure stringent punishment to the accused. They emphasised the need for an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to “bring out the truth about this case of ‘love jihad’” — a conspiracy theory propounded by Hindutva groups which claim that Muslim men are luring Hindu women into marriage on false pretences, in order to convert them to Islam. Niranjan, 50, who had already said he was satisfied with the progress of the investigation by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), listened in silence.

After they left, Niranjan’s staff informed him that a minister would be visiting soon. An aide consulted him about the drafting of a letter seeking permission for a gun licence. The distraught father did not have a moment to grieve.

As Niranjan goes downstairs in the evening to see more visitors off, a gunman, provided by the Hubballi-Dharwad police, stands guard at the front door. Inside the hall, Niranjan’s wife Geeta, 43, sits on the sofa staring at her daughter’s garlanded portrait. Neha’s younger brother, Nihal, stays back to take care of his mother. “Although she was older, she was my friend,” says Nihal.

Murder in broad daylight

On the blistering afternoon of April 18, Neha, a first-year Masters-degree student of Computer Applications at KLE Technological University, was getting ready to leave the college campus. Her mother was sitting in a car outside, waiting to pick her up. “Her class was to end at 4.30 p.m. I had gone five minutes earlier. After coming out of the classroom, she called me to say she was coming out,” recalls Geeta.

Neha Hiremath had few friends and preferred spending time with her family, according to her mother Geeta. Photo: Special Arrangement

Neha Hiremath had few friends and preferred spending time with her family, according to her mother Geeta. Photo: Special Arrangement

CCTV cameras show what happened next. A masked man intercepted Neha and repeatedly stabbed her. Students stood frozen in horror as he fled the scene, leaving her bleeding profusely. A security officer on campus was the first to lift her up with the help of a few students. “We immediately rushed her to a hospital nearby in a university car. But the doctors declared her dead on arrival,” the security officer says.

The man was later identified as Fayaz, her classmate from an undergraduate course. A resident of Munavalli in Saundatti taluk of Belagavi district, Fayaz was nabbed the same evening by the Karnataka Police, reportedly with the help of people who chased him after seeing him running away from campus.

The Police Commissioner, Renuka Sukumar, says Fayaz, in his initial statement, claimed that he and Neha were friends from pre-university and were in love, but that she started avoiding him later. “He said he was unable to bear this ‘insult’ and killed her,” Sukumar says, adding that his statement needed corroboration.

Initially, Neha’s parents categorically denied Fayaz’s statement that the two of them were in love. Later, they said that the two were friends. “She first met him during some project work, and treated him like a friend. But she distanced herself from him after coming to know of his intentions,” says Niranjan.

Neha, from several accounts, was reserved and preferred to be with family. “Unlike other girls her age, Neha never invited her friends home. She didn’t go out with them either. In fact, she had very few friends. I was like her older sister and constant companion,” says Geeta, her face wet with tears. “Even if she wanted to go out to eat a snack, she would force me to accompany her. She would never go alone.”

Niranjan says Neha was deeply religious. He calls his daughter their “lucky charm”. He says, “She would not drink a drop of water without doing puja. We prospered after her birth.”

Widespread protests

News that a Hindu woman was killed by a Muslim man spread like wildfire in the district. As leaders and religious heads rushed to console the victim’s family, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) began protesting the same night. The protests quickly spread across Karnataka. Home Minister G. Parameshwar termed the brutal murder “aakasmika”, which roughly translates into accidental and unexpected.

Chief Minister Siddaramaiah said the murder was committed for personal reasons. The BJP immediately called these statements attempts to hush up a case of ‘love jihad’. Niranjan also condemned the remarks of the Home Minister and Chief Minister, providing further ammunition to the BJP’s attack. The Home Minister then apologised for his remarks, saying he regretted issuing his statement if it had hurt the parents.

While protests by right-wing organisations continued, the powerful Veerashaiva-Lingayat community, of which the Hiremaths are a part, also began protests seeking the death penalty for the accused. This was followed by a call for a State-wide college bandh by the ABVP.

The next day, Muslim organisations including the Anjuman-e-Islam also began protests against the accused. In Hubballi-Dharwad and Munavalli, Muslims came out in large numbers to condemn the act. “We stand with Neha’s family and we as a community strongly condemn this brutal murder. We want the government to ensure that he gets the death penalty. As a tribute to Neha, we will name one of the blocks of the Anjuman-E-Islam complex in Dharwad after her,” said the president of the Anjuman-E-Islam, Dharwad Ismail Tamatgar. These protests forced Siddaramaiah to hand over the case to the CID. Subsequently, the government also issued an order to set up a special court.

The BJP sent a host of leaders to visit Neha’s family at regular intervals, organised candlelight vigils, and a public meeting. During his visit to the region, BJP national president J.P. Nadda visited Neha’s family. Union Home Minister Amit Shah, who was in Hubballi to attend an election rally, also met the family backstage after his campaign. Both Nadda and Shah alleged that the Siddaramaiah-led government was trying to dilute the case. “On April 18, Neha Hiremath was murdered. Whose responsibility is it to provide security? But they (Congress) say it is a personal matter. If you can’t protect women, leave it to us. We will make Karnataka safe for women,” Shah said, while addressing a rally in Hubballi.

Also read | Seer accuses Joshi of using ‘death of Lingayat’ for election

Prime Minister Narendra Modi too has been mentioning the murder in his speeches across Karnataka. He brought up Neha during election rallies in Belagavi, Sirsi, Davanagere, and Hosapete and appealed to the people to reject the Congress for its “vote bank politics”.

ABVP protests in front of the KLE Technological University in Hubballi seeking the death penalty for the accused in the Neha Hiremath murder case.

ABVP protests in front of the KLE Technological University in Hubballi seeking the death penalty for the accused in the Neha Hiremath murder case. | Photo Credit: The Hindu

The State government has been trying hard to prevent the BJP from building a Hindu-Muslim narrative and has blamed the saffron party of politicising the issue for electoral gains. Congress leader Santosh Lad countered the BJP saying the party was playing “politics over death” and said the BJP would not have bothered if the killer was a Hindu man.

Allegations and counter allegations

The incident once again led to discussions and debates on ‘interfaith love’ with social media flooded with hate speeches. As Karnataka became a tinderbox, the police provided protection to Fayaz’s parents in Munavalli in the neighbouring district of Belagavi. They strongly condemned the incident and apologised for their son’s act before going incommunicado.

In her lone interaction with the media, Fayaz’s mother, Mamtaz, a teacher, empathised with Neha’s family. But she categorically denied that this was one-sided love. “This was great injustice to Neha and her family. What he has done is completely wrong. He left home five days ago (April 13) saying he was fed up of sitting at home and was going to find a job. I came to know about the ghastly incident after an acquaintance called me asking me to switch on the television,” she said.

According to Mamtaz, Fayaz and Neha were in love. “He had told me that Neha was in love with him, and they were ready to get married, but I had told him to first focus on building a career. My son was intelligent and so was Neha. I wanted him to study for the Indian Administrative Service. But he has made us hang our heads in shame,” said Mamtaz, who remembers speaking to Neha once over the phone.

Fayaz’s father, Babasaheb, who is also a teacher, apologised too. He believes that Munavalli, his hometown, has got a bad name because of his son. “Strict punishment should be given to my son for what he has done so that it will be a lesson even for those who think of committing such acts,” he said. Babasaheb and Mamtaz live separately; Fayaz lived with his mother.

Babasaheb recalls Neha’s father calling him once. “He asked me to keep Fayaz away from his daughter,” he said. “But Fayaz fought with him saying they were in love and wanted to get married.” Neha’s parents refute this story. They claim that Fayaz kept pursuing their daughter. What happened on April 18 was a planned act, they say. They also believe that it involved a few others.

A change in routine

The incident has left the university administration in shock. The institution has imposed restrictions on the entry of outsiders. At KLE Technological University, people say they didn’t know Neha well as classes began only three months ago and she rarely attended class.

The ABVP protests in Hubballi seeking the death penalty for the accused in the Neha Hiremath murder case.

The ABVP protests in Hubballi seeking the death penalty for the accused in the Neha Hiremath murder case. | Photo Credit: PTI

During the investigation, the university authorities informed the CID that they had called Neha’s parents to inform them about her poor attendance. The parents, they said, told them that a health issue had prevented her from attending class. She later appeared for tests in college.

On April 18, Neha had to gone to university to write an internal assessment test. After the CID began its investigation and took him to the university campus for ‘mahazar’ (inspection of the crime spot), Fayaz told them that he had spent a few hours on campus waiting for Neha to come to college, sources say.

In BCA college, adjacent to KLE Technological University, where Fayaz and Neha studied together, neither their classmates nor the teachers witnessed anything unusual. Fayaz was well known on campus during his second year as he was chosen to represent the university in bodybuilding and earned the title ‘University Blue’.

“In his final year, however, he lost interest in sport and also academics. He failed in one of the subjects during the fifth semester,” recalls a lecturer who did not want to be named. Another lecturer says, “Fayaz nearly vanished from college after the fifth semester and did not write his final semester examination.” He also stopped bodybuilding, the lecturer adds.

Meanwhile, the CID’s six-day custody of the accused has ended and Fayaz is back in judicial custody.

Neha’s parents are demanding a new law to ensure speedy delivery of justice and stringent punishment in such cases. “We want a special law to be enacted just like in the case of Nirbhaya. We don’t want the accused to get away with some minor punishment because of inordinate delays in the courts. While we welcome the setting up of a special court, we want the government to take steps to formulating a separate law which will ensure the most stringent punishment that will act as deterrent,” says Niranjan.

Although the family is disturbed by the fact that they are suddenly in the limelight and at the centre of a political slugfest, they see a message in their daughter’s departure. “She has left us in grief, but she has made us stronger. We don’t want other parents to suffer like this. We will pursue the matter as far as we can. We hope the government will listen to us,” Niranjan says.

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