On Wednesday, three days after Abdul Basheer died of stab wounds, friends, relatives and clerics streamed into his home in Akash Bhavana village in coastal Karnataka’s Dakshina Kannada district to offer the customary prayers for the dead.

Around 10 pm on January 3, 48-year-old Basheer was stabbed by a group of four men while he was on his way home shortly after closing up his restaurant, Classic Fast Food, at Kottara Chawki in Mangalore city, some seven kilometres away from his village. He succumbed to his injuries three days later.

The attack was allegedly an act of retaliation for the murder of Deepak Rao, 28, that afternoon. Four men in a car had stopped Rao while he was riding his motorbike in Katipalla and attacked him with sharp weapons. Kottara Chawki and Katipalla are about 15 kilometres apart. Rao, who worked as a SIM card distributor and cash collection agent for a mobile phone shop, died instantaneously.

It was the second set of murders in Dakshina Kannada in recent months. In July 2017, a Social Democratic Party of India worker named Ashraf Kalai was killed in Bantwal. Two weeks later, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh activist Sharath Madivala, who was accused of being involved in Kalai’s murder, was stabbed to death. In December, communal tension flared up in the neighbouring Uttara Kannada district after a Hindu man’s body was found in a pond.

But the murders of Basheer and Rao are different. Neither was an active political worker and both led quiet lives. Basheer, at least, was randomly targeted, the police said.

Clerics lead the prayers at Abdul Basheer's house on Wednesday. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

In Akash Bhavana, Mohammed Imran, the oldest of Basheer’s four children, lamented that his father would still have been alive had he stayed in Saudi Arabia, where he had worked since he was 18. “He wanted to be with the family for the rest of his life so he came back 15 months ago,” Imran said. “But it cost him his life.”

Back home, he bought a stake in Classic Fast Food, run by his friend Aboobaker. “Basheer partnered me in business just 15 months ago but we forged a good business relationship,” Aboobaker said. “I cannot imagine going there again without him.”

His friend’s murder, Aboobaker said, will make Muslims in the area more fearful. “Businessmen from the minority community will now shut their shops and go home early even though it will burn a hole in their pockets,” he said.

Mindful of the ugly political situation in Dakshina Kannada, Imran emphasised that no one should even think about avenging his father. “Our father’s soul will not be happy if anyone takes revenge for the attack,” the 25-year-old said. “We love peace. Attacks and counterattacks will not bring peace and prosperity to our society. Let us pray for my father. That is the best tribute to him.”

Classic Fast Food in Kottara Chawki. Abdul Basheer was attacked not far from this restaurant. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

‘Trusted companion’

In Ganeshkatta village in Katipalla, Rao’s mother Premalatha sat quietly on a bed, while his younger brother Satheesh, 24, who is hard of hearing, walked around the house. Their father, Ramachandra, had died when Rao was three years old.

Extremist Hindu groups have alleged that Rao was killed by a “Muslim gang” out to even the score after a quarrel over festive decorations in December. They also claimed he was a Bajrang Dal volunteer and a member of the Bharatiya Janata Paty’s IT cell.

His friend Sreenath Mane said while Rao was a BJP member, he was “not active”. However, he seemed to believe the theory that Rao had been killed by Muslims. “Unlike many men in our village, Rao enjoyed friendships with Muslims,” said Mane, who identifies as a “BJP sympathiser”. “He worked for a Muslim businessman. How could Muslims kill him?”

As for the quarrel, Mane said, “Muslims wanted to put up buntings on the occasion of the Prophet’s birthday. They knew Hindus decorate the village every December for the temple festival. But it did not become a big issue.”

At the cell phone shop where Rao worked in Katipalla, his employer Abdul Majeed wept in sorrow at the murder. “He was with me for over seven years,” Majeed said. “He was my trusted companion.”

Rao would supply phone recharge coupons to retailers in and around Katipalla and collect the money from them. “Seventy per cent of our clients are Muslim and Rao was very friendly with all of them,” Majeed said. “I went to his house for puja and he came to my home for a few festivals. It [visiting friends from other religions] was quite unheard of in our area.”

Majeed said Rao was fluent in the Beary dialect spoken by Muslims in Dakshina Kannada, which helped him build good business contacts.

Deepak Rao's mother Premalatha at her home in Katipalla. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

Random target

Mangalore City Police Commissioner TR Suresh said his force had not been able to establish whether Rao had any political affiliations. “He was not a troublemaker as no criminal case has been registered against him,” Suresh said.

Basheer too was not associated with any political party. “We have not registered any criminal cases against him,” Suresh said.

The police have so far arrested eight people in connection with the two murders.

Suresh said the four men arrested for Rao’s murder on Wednesday have many police cases against them. “Mohammed Nawaz alias Pinky Nawaz, 23, has 12 cases, including three attempt to murder cases as well as theft cases,” he said. “Rizwan alias Ijju, 24, has one murder and three attempt to murder cases. Mohammed Naushad, 22, has one murder, one attempt to murder, and one attempt to rape case, while Mohammed Irshan, 21, has a case each of murder and attempt to murder.”

The men arrested for Basheer’s murder are PK Sreejith, 25, and Sandesh Kotiyan, 21, both from neighbouring Kerala, and Dhanush Poojary, 22 and Kishan Poojary, 21, from Padil in Mangalore. “The accused decided to avenge Rao’s death and Basheer was a random target,” the commissioner said.

Abdul Majeed's mobile shop, where Deepak Rao worked. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen