Ground Zero | Karnataka

Three murders in a communal cauldron

The chicken shop in front of which Praveen Nettaru was killed on the outskirts of Bellare town in Karnataka.

The chicken shop in front of which Praveen Nettaru was killed on the outskirts of Bellare town in Karnataka. | Photo Credit: H.S. Manjunath

On July 27, as his car drove into Nettaru, a remote hamlet in Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka, Nalin Kumar Kateel, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) State chief, met with a hostile reception. Workers of his party and Sangh Parivar outfits surrounded and pushed his car, raising anti-government slogans.

It took Kateel, the area MP, nearly an hour to pacify the angry crowd after consoling the family members of Praveen Nettaru, 34, his one-time driver and a budding worker of the party’s Yuva Morcha, who was hacked to death by a gang of assailants a day earlier. “What is the use of BJP being in power in both the State and the Centre if they cannot safeguard their own workers?” Praveen’s mother Ratnavati told The Hindu.

Coming close on the heels of another BJP worker, Harsha, 28, being hacked to death in Shivamogga on February 20 this year, the murder of Praveen Nettaru seems to have unleashed a wave of anger and frustration among the Hindutva cadre base across the State. The two murders also come amid a virulent communal campaign against the Muslim community by Hindutva forces in the State – starting from hijab, which eventually expanded to halal meat, azaan, and an economic boycott of Muslims.

Police sources say Praveen was killed to avenge the murder of Mohammed Masood, 19, in Kalanja, allegedly killed by Hindutva activists. The July 26 killing was closely followed by the murder of Mohammed Fazil, 23, in Surathkal, reportedly to avenge Praveen’s death – three murders in 10 days in Dakshina Kannada district, pushing the police into a defensive mode.

Fearing a communal riot or more retaliatory killings, they not only imposed prohibitory orders but also a night curfew, forcing all shops to shut at 6 p.m. They also banned pillion riders on two-wheelers, a measure that drew the ire of the public and was soon withdrawn. The night curfew was in force for over 10 days, exposing the fragile law and order scenario in the coastal region. The political opposition has come down heavily on the government, terming it a “breakdown of law and order”.

Fearing a communal riot or more retaliatory killings, the police not only imposed prohibitory orders but also a night curfew. A road in Mangaluru.

Fearing a communal riot or more retaliatory killings, the police not only imposed prohibitory orders but also a night curfew. A road in Mangaluru. | Photo Credit: H.S. Manjunath

There has been rebellion in units of the BJP, with over 100 local office-bearers resigning, even as Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad activists barged into the residence of Home Minister Araga Jnanendra complaining of inaction against “jihadis”. Even Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai was gheraoed and BJP workers openly called for a “Yogi Adityanath model of leadership” for the State, pushing him to say he would also implement the “U.P. model”, while several leaders called for “encounters of jihadis”, implementation of “bulldozer justice”, and a ban on Islamist outfit Popular Front of India (PFI) and its affiliates. Sources said the heat of the unrest among the Sangh Parivar cadre was so intense that Union Home Minister Amit Shah flew down to Bengaluru for an official event and held talks on the sidelines with various factions to pacify them.

Murder as retaliation

Hours before he was killed, Praveen had got a cost estimation done for installing CCTV cameras at the chicken shop on the outskirts of Bellare town he had opened in October 2021. “He had felt unidentified people had been moving around him,” said Dinesh Chandra B. Hegde, Praveen’s friend and a member of Bellare gram panchayat from the BJP.

On the fateful day of July 26, around 8.30 p.m., Praveen was about to bring down the shutters of his shop when two bike-borne assailants turned up and hacked him to death.

Vithaldas, who runs a hardware and provision store next to Praveen’s and is also a member of the Bellare gram panchayat from the Congress, said most of them closed their shops around 6 p.m. as the area had been tense over the murder of a Muslim boy in Kalanja, a village nearby. It was the footage recorded by a CCTV camera at Vithaldas’s shop that led to a breakthrough in the case.

The man in the footage was the first arrest in the case – Mohammed Shafiq, 27, president of the Bellare unit of the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), regarded as the PFI’s political wing. To date, 10 persons have been arrested in the case, all of them reportedly associated with the SDPI.

Shafi Bellare, secretary of the SDPI’s Karnataka unit, acknowledged that all those arrested in the case were party members but said they were being framed. Bellare police have invoked the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the National Investigation Agency (NIA) has joined the probe.

Interrogation of those arrested has revealed that Praveen’s murder was a retaliation for the murder of Masood, multiple police sources confirmed. However, Alok Kumar, ADGP (Law and Order), said the motive for the murder was still under investigation.

The area where Mohammed Masood, 19, was allegedly killed by Hindutva activists, in Kalanja in Sullia taluk, in Dakshina Kannada.

The area where Mohammed Masood, 19, was allegedly killed by Hindutva activists, in Kalanja in Sullia taluk, in Dakshina Kannada. | Photo Credit: H.S. Manjunath

Masood died of an alleged assault by a gang of Hindutva activists and history-sheeters in Kalanja on July 19, which the police have consistently claimed is not a “communal case” but the result of a trivial fight. “The gang wanted to kill some Hindutva activist in the Kalanja-Bellare belt. Praveen Nettaru was a random target. They first recced Santosh, the elder brother of Abhilash, who was the person who banged a soda bottle on Masood’s head leading to his death. They recced more people and finally zeroed in on Praveen,” a senior police officer overseeing the probe said.

“Shafiq’s [accused of Praveen’s murder] father Ibrahim came to our house asking for a job and Praveen gave him a job in his chicken shop. I even asked Praveen why he had taken a Muslim on board and he said they were poor,” said Lokesh Poojary, Praveen’s uncle, who is also an RSS activist.

Ibrahim no longer worked at Praveen’s shop ostensibly due to an eye surgery but it is rumoured that he was sacked during the campaign against halal meat earlier this year. “Most of the [six] chicken shops in Bellare were owned by Muslims, which changed only recently with Praveen starting his,” said his friend Dinesh Hegde.

Police also said Praveen played a key role in getting the contract of a fish shop in the Bellare market to Hindus, which had traditionally been run by Muslims. According to the police, he was probably chosen as a target to avenge Masood’s killing as his activism had hit the Muslim community economically.

‘No communal angle’

Mohammed Masood was from Kasaragod, Kerala and had been staying at his grandfather’s house in Kalanja for nearly a month, painting walls with his uncle, before he was killed.

Trouble started for Masood when a Brahmin family gave him a three-month-old sick male calf that he brought home to rear, according to his elder brother Mohammed Mirshad. “He loved animals and was passionate about rearing them. He got medicines for the calf, built it a warm home, spending money when we are struggling to make ends meet,” he said.

People who rear cows in the region usually give away male calves mostly to Muslims in the area, who rear them and sell them to farmers or slaughterhouses. However, there is a ban on cow slaughter in the State now, with the BJP government enacting a stringent law in 2021.

“As he took the calf to graze in the evenings, Sudhir and Shivaprasad, who lived nearby, used to taunt him, [asking] if the calf would be slaughtered during Bakrid,” said his aunt Asma. The duo are associated with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal.

On July 19, Masood went to the shop in the village square to buy milk, where Sudhir, 29, was reportedly in an inebriated state. “Sudhir bumped into Masood and picked up a quarrel, claiming Masood hit him. Soon the two came to blows. I separated the two and sent Masood home,” said Khader, the shopkeeper.

Around 11 p.m., Sudhir had gathered his associates at the village square. Muhammed Shanif, 24, a resident of the village, saw his neighbour Sunil Kalanja among them. Kalanja, a Gau Raksha Pramukh of VHP, Sullia Prakhanda (Sullia taluk), convinced Shanif to get his friend Masood for a “settlement”.

“As soon as we came, they started beating him up. I tried to shield Masood from the blows but in the melee Abhilash [a local VHP office-bearer] smashed an empty soda bottle on Masood’s head,” a visibly shaken Shanif recounted.

The injured Masood fled from the scene even as the attackers dispersed. “After nearly two hours of searching, I found him lying unconscious near a well,” Shanif said. “I woke up Sunil and Sudhir and asked them to accompany me to the hospital. They came to a clinic in Bellare but dropped out as a crowd of Muslims gathered. We shifted Masood to a bigger hospital.” Masood succumbed to his injuries two days later, on July 21.

The police make arrests in connection with Mohammed    Fazil’s murder, in Mangaluru.

The police make arrests in connection with Mohammed Fazil’s murder, in Mangaluru. | Photo Credit: H.S. Manjunath

Bellare police have arrested eight persons in the case, including three rowdy-sheeters and two office-bearers of the VHP, Sullia Prakhanda. However, local police say there was no intention of murder and the accused in fact took the victim to the hospital themselves. “The unfortunate incident has happened due to personal animosity between two individuals and there is no communal angle to it,” Karnataka State Police said in a statement.

However, that is not how the Muslim community and activists from the area perceive the case. “Masood’s case was clearly a case of communal attack by Hindutva activists. But the police investigation refuses to see the context of the altercation,” said the SDPI’s Shafi Bellare.

The third murder

Following outrage over him not visiting Praveen Nettaru’s family, the Chief Minister landed in Mangaluru on July 28, two days later. While he was in the city, a gang of masked assailants in a car hacked Mohammed Fazil, 23, to death in Surathkal, on the outskirts of Mangaluru. This was the third murder in less than 10 days in the district.

Mangaluru city police have arrested a gang of seven members led by Bajrang Dal member Suhas Shetty for the murder. The police claim that a gang of disparate people came together to avenge the murder of Praveen and chose a random target in Fazil. All seven are either members of the Bajrang Dal or the Hindu Jagarana Vedike, police sources said.

Fazil had completed his MBA degree and a course in fire safety and was looking for a job in the Gulf. Meanwhile, he often went as a daily wager to Mangalore Refinery and Petrochemicals Ltd where his brother Adil worked as a driver. Police have evidence to show he had participated in several SDPI conclaves and put up social media posts claiming allegiance to the party. They suspect some of the accused in the case knew Fazil personally and he may have become a target for his SDPI links.

His father Umar Farooq, a driver, is inconsolable. “This is what they do before every election. The BJP doesn’t have anything to show for their work in government and before elections, they resort to communal murders to cover up their failures. This time, the menace snatched my son. He was an innocent boy,” he said as he broke down.

Violence and bias

The BJP had made the alleged murders of 24 Hindutva activists during the previous Congress regime under Siddaramaiah one of its main poll planks in the 2018 Assembly election. It had accused the Congress of supporting the PFI and the SDPI as the government had withdrawn 176 cases against their workers.

The then Home Minister, Ramalinga Reddy, had released a fact sheet in which he said that of the 24 Hindutva activists the BJP claimed had been killed, one was still alive; only 12 of the killings were of a communal nature, and in nine cases the accused were PFI and SDPI activists. The fact sheet also listed 11 murders of Muslims allegedly by Sangh Parivar activists.

“The BJP and the media often highlight the murders of Hindutva activists alone, trying to build a narrative of Muslims killing Hindus. But this is a cycle of violence between Sangh Parivar and PFI-SDPI, like that between Left parties and the RSS in Kerala. There is an ecosystem to get the accused to surrender, support them in jails and their families outside and legally fight the cases,” said Reddy.

Recently, a video clip of a speech of A.K. Ashraf, the PFI’s Karnataka secretary, has gone viral. In it he is heard as saying large-scale communal riots had stopped in Dakshina Kannada, the laboratory of Hindutva, as they had “taught” RSS families the pain of Muslim families that lost their dear ones to violence.

Many police officers who have served in the coastal region told The Hindu there is an overlap between the criminal underworld and the rank and file of Hindutva organisations. “Name any rowdy on the coast and he will be associated with some Hindutva group. It has now become aspirational to claim to be a Hindu don,” a senior police officer said.

Mangaluru police officials said Suhas Shetty, who had no rivalry with Fazil, killed him to “come to [the] limelight”. “Once he comes out on bail, he will capitalise on this case to emerge as a Robin Hood-like figure for Hindus. It never fails to work on the coast,” said a senior police officer.

Praveen Nettaru’s mother at Nettaru, in Sullia taluk, in Dakshina Kannada district. Chief Minister Bommai went to Praveen’s house and handed over a compensation cheque of ₹25 lakh

Praveen Nettaru’s mother at Nettaru, in Sullia taluk, in Dakshina Kannada district. Chief Minister Bommai went to Praveen’s house and handed over a compensation cheque of ₹25 lakh | Photo Credit: H.S. Manjunath

The BJP, once it came to power in 2019, withdrew over 200 cases against Hindutva activists. The State government now faces accusations of bias in handling these three cases. While it invoked the UAPA and handed over the probe into the murders of Praveen and Harsha to the NIA, no such probes were ordered for the Muslims killed.

Further, no representative of the State government visited Masood and Fazil’s homes, even as Chief Minister Bommai went to Praveen’s house and handed over a compensation cheque of ₹25 lakh. Opposition leaders have visited all three victims’ houses. “Basavaraj Bommai seems to have forgotten that he is the Chief Minister for the entire State and not just BJP workers and voters,” said Farooq, Fazil’s father.

“The Sangh Parivar and the PFI and the SDPI are playing competitive communalism in collusion to derail the peace and progress of the coastal region,” said Muneer Katipalla, secretary, Democratic Youth Federation of India, Karnataka, a Left organisation.

While the BJP has always targeted the Congress for supporting the PFI and the SDPI, the party is now facing tough questions from its cadre as to why the State and Union governments have not been able to ban the organisations.

Strained social engineering

On the face of it, the rebellion brewing within the Sangh Parivar ranks seems like a demand for “hard Hindutva”. However, the BJP’s social engineering in the coastal region has also come under strain ahead of State elections next year. While Vokkaligas and Lingayats have dominated the caste politics of Karnataka, the coastal region – Uttara Kannada, Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts constituting 18 Assembly seats – is dominated by upper caste Bunts and Brahmins, Billavas and Mogaveeras (both OBC communities) apart from a significant population of Dalits, Muslims and Christians.

The BJP has support among Brahmins and Bunts along with Billavas (traditionally, a toddy tapping community), who constitute the muscle of Hindutva organisations like the Bajrang Dal and the Hindu Jagarana Vedike in the coastal region. However, the Billavas have begun asking uncomfortable questions.

“If you analyse the communal murders of the last 15 years in the region, Billavas will dominate the list of both murdered and murderers. But there is no upward mobility. Instead, we are the foot soldiers who pay a heavy price for other communities to remain in power. We have realised this… that is why there were no retaliatory murders for the deaths of Sharath Madiwala and Deepak Rao in the region (in the run-up to the 2018 elections), which was unthinkable before,” said a senior Sangh Parivar leader, a Billava himself.

With the Congress aggressively trying to woo back Billavas, a political constituency the party lost in the early 2000s, the BJP is in firefighting mode. “The BJP’s politics is clear: to keep Bunts and Billavas united, playing up their Hindu identity against Muslims, while Congress tries to break Billavas from Bunts and build a vote bank clubbing them with Mogaveeras, Dalits and Muslims. In this context, it is important that Suhas Shetty, a Bunt, has avenged the killing of Praveen, a Billava. The message is explicit and deliberate,” said a senior police officer.

But no one dares hazard a guess about where this cycle of retaliation will end.

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Printable version | Sep 16, 2022 11:13:29 pm |