The road to Uppara Hatti is so bumpy that its residents ask visitors to simply cut through the agricultural fields. But motorcycles and cars tend to skid in the mud. The only reliable way of reaching the village, which lies in Karnataka’s Kalaburagi district, on the border with Maharashtra, is by riding a tractor.

One morning in March, Vandana Mahadev was lying on a thin, torn mattress in a small hut in the village. Mahadev is the sarpanch of Ramnagar gram panchayat. In November 2016, her husband Mahadev Kale was found murdered on the outskirts of the village.

Kale was one of the 23 men killed by “jihadi elements” starting from March 2014, according to allegations that Bharatiya Janata Party member of parliament from Udupi-Chikkamagaluru constituency Shobha Karandlaje made in a letter to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh on July 8, 2017. In the letter, she identified the 23 men as being either “Hindu activists” or members of the “BJP/RSS”, referring to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the parent body of the BJP. Karandlaje, a close aide of former chief minister BS Yeddyurappa, claimed that the needle of suspicion for the deaths pointed to the Popular Front of India and the Karnataka Forum for Dignity, both Muslim organisations. She accused the Congress government in the state of shielding them.

“It is a blood bath in Karnataka,” the letter declared, with the words marked in bold capital letters and underlined.

With this letter began a concerted effort by the Sangh Parivar to use the deaths as fodder for its campaign for the assembly elections scheduled for May. Yeddyurappa sought a National Investigation Agency inquiry into the deaths. At a public meeting on February 5 in Bengaluru, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said even as the BJP government at the Centre was trying to facilitate “ease of doing business”, there was “ease of doing murder” in Karnataka.

But in the village of Uppara Hatti, when Vandana Mahadev was asked about her husband’s name featuring on the list, she expressed shock. “That is not correct,” said the frail woman in her fifties. “We do not have any problems with Muslims here.”

Her husband had been killed by his political rivals, she said. He was a member of the BJP and had been a sarpanch before her. His attackers, she alleged, were aligned with the Congress. The police first information report names the accused as Amoghsidda alias Bhimasha Yadave, Nyanu and Gopu. It alleges that they waylaid Kale on the morning of November 3 and smashed his head with a large object.

The three men were residents of the same panchayat area and belonged to the same Adivasi community as Kale did. “They wanted to become the sarpanch,” said Mahadev. “My husband scuttled it.”

Vandana Mahadev, wife of Mahadev Kale who was killed in Uppara Hatti in Kalaburagi. Photo: Sruthisagar Yamunan

In late February and early March, this reporter travelled across Karnataka to meet the families of all the 23 men featured in Karandlaje’s letter. One name on the list was ambiguous – it could have referred to two people. Counting both, the tally of cases went up to 24.

As it turns out, one of the men on the list is alive. The families of two men said they had committed suicide. Another two were allegedly murdered by their sisters, said the police. Rivalries over real estate, politics, elections and romantic affairs had sparked most of the murders, investigations revealed. In only 10 out of 24 was there evidence to connect the murders to Muslim organisations.

In three cases, the victims had no association with Hindutva organisations – until they died. Within days of their deaths, the leaders of BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh showed up at the homes of the dead. Protests were arranged, money was given to the family by Sangh Parivar organisations as compensation and an effort was made to convince them of an underlying communal angle. But once it was clear to the Hindutva groups that some of the cases did not have the potential to be made part of a larger campaign, the leaders stopped visiting the families.

Many families are now bitter. Some say it was futile for their relatives to have been members of the Sangh Parivar.

But there is anger against the Congress as well – for the ruling party’s ineptitude at bringing the guilty to justice. Regardless of the community to which the accused belong, most cases have dragged without convictions. The accused are out on bail, with the families of the dead living in fear of further violence.

The fallout of the Sangh Parivar’s campaign can be felt most acutely in the coastal districts of Karnataka, which have experienced a swelling tide of divisive politics over the past decade. A survey of media reports by People’s Union for Civil Liberties found that 741 communally-charged incidents had taken place here between 2013 and 2017, ranging from moral policing to desecration of places of worship and cow vigilantism.

Ahead of the Karnataka assembly elections, the Sangh Parivar’s drive has sparked a counter campaign by the Popular Front of India. The Muslim organisation fights elections through its political wing, the Social Democratic Party of India. Its presence in Karnataka is most pronounced in the state’s coastal region. In the cases that do have a communal background, the police have alleged that the accused were mostly activists of the Popular Front of India and Social Democratic Party of India. Some of them are “history-sheeters” – people with criminal records – and have previously been on the police’s radar. One man, for instance, was convicted for dacoity just weeks after committing a murder.

The vast majority of the families of the dead men are poor and belong to lower-caste communities. While the BJP has derived political mileage from their tragedies and attempted to enlist them as footsoldiers in its attempt to regain power in Karnataka, the Congress has ignored them.

A town on the boil

It would be quite an exaggeration to say Ashok Poojary is dead.

Confined to his small home on the outskirts of Moodabidri town, about 35 km from Mangaluru, Poojary is the first name on the list of 23 in Karandlaje’s letter. On the morning of September 20, 2015, he was walking back home when six men allegedly attacked him with lethal weapons.

“I have severe pain in my arms,” Poojary said, showing marks from the injuries he sustained in the attack.

The police chargesheet identifies three of his attackers as Mushtafa, 28, Hanif, 36, and Kabeer, 28. Poojary said they were members of the Popular Front of India, who mistook him for a man named Prashant Poojary, who the police say was a member of the Bajrang Dal.

Ashok Poojary said he too was a member of the Bajrang Dal but was never “very active” in the organisation. He made a living by playing instruments in music bands engaged for temple events.

After the attack, he was hospitalised for three months, racking up a bill of about Rs 8 lakh, he said. Hindutva organisations partly took care of the expenses. Last July, Poojary was shocked to find his name among the list of dead prepared by Karandlaje, the BJP MP.

Reporters from TV channels came to his home to interview him. Karandlaje later called him to apologise.

According to the police chargesheet, the same PFI members who allegedly attacked Ashok Poojari went on to murder shopkeeper Prashant Poojary, two weeks later, on October 9.

Prashant Poojary, 29, used to run a flower store in Moodabidri town market. “A six-member gang came in three bikes,” said the police chargesheet. They used “sharp-edged weapons and attacked him from behind” as he emerged from a storeroom where flowers of all the shops were kept.

According to his family, Prashant Poojary was attacked in retaliation for his cow vigilantism. “He had stopped transport of cows in the area and was involved in skirmishes with local Muslim traders,” said his father Anand Poojary. With his son’s picture looming large in the living room of the house, the old man raised his voice every time the PFI was mentioned. “Most of the accused are out on bail,” he said. “Is this justice?”

A few days before Prashant Poojary was killed, a middle-aged man named Mohammad Akhlaq had been dragged out of his house and lynched in Dadri in Uttar Pradesh by a mob that alleged he had beef in his fridge. Sangh Parivar organisations used Prashant Poojary’s killing as a counterpoint, accusing liberals of selective outrage. They moved in swiftly to take over the narrative over the attacks in Moodabidri. A virtual bandh was imposed in the area and a huge crowd was mobilised to demonstrate outside the police station.

As the communal politics was playing out, on October 15, another death was reported in the town – that of Vaman Poojary, who ran a coconut shop next to Prashant Poojary’s flower shop. Like Ashok and Prashant, Vaman Poojary belonged to a sub-sect of the Billava caste, which is counted among Other Backward Classes in Karnataka.

Prashant Poojary’s father claimed Vaman Poojary had witnessed his son being murdered. Karandlaje’s letter lists him as one of the people killed by “jihadi elements”.

But Vaman Poojary’s family and the police maintain that he actually hanged himself in a shed. His wife Sarojini Poojary said he was agitated after Prashant Poojary’s murder. “He constantly spoke about it and did not even eat properly,” she said. She said that though some neighbours had wanted her to raise the question of a possible communal motivation in her husband’s death, she had refused to do so.

Sarojini Poojary was aghast at the claim made by Hindutva organisations that her husband had any links with them. “He was a quiet man,” she said. “[Karandlaje] should have asked us before putting his name on the list.”

The police said they had not found anything suspicious about Vaman Poojary’s death.

Of the three people the BJP claimed were murdered in Moodabidri, one is alive and one committed suicide. But the narrative that Vaman Poojary had been killed to stop him from taking the witness stand against the killers of Prashant Poojary has taken deep root in the area. From autorickshaw drivers to traders to whom this reporter spoke, many seem convinced about this theory.

Ashok Poojary at his home in Moodabidri. Despite the claims of the BJP, he is not dead. Photo: Sruthisagar Yamunan

Sister’s wrath

Karthik Raj, 26, was a fitness enthusiast who loved dogs. The resident of Konaje village in Mangaluru district had trained to be a mechanical engineer and had just joined a firm in Mangaluru city when he was killed in October 2016.

His father Umesh Ganiga said he got a call on the morning of October 23 that his son, who was out for a jog, had met with an accident and had been taken to a local hospital.

After Karthik was declared dead, Hindutva organisations mobilised a large crowd for the funeral, alleging the young man had been killed by Muslim radicals because his father was a BJP member. Even Yeddyurappa visited the family to console them. But everything changed weeks later, when the police came asking for Raj’s sister.

“The police said they were taking my daughter to the station to look at a video to identify suspects,” he said. His daughter never returned that evening. She was arrested for conspiring with two men who murdered Raj.

According to the chargesheet, her husband was abroad and she was allegedly having an affair with one of the assailants, a fact that her brother had discovered. She asked her lover to put her brother in place without her husband or her parents getting to know.

“They threw chilli powder in his eyes and beat him to death,” said Ganiga, plucking a tender coconut from a tree that Raj had planted years ago. The teary-eyed father believes that the two assailants might have misunderstood his daughter, who had perhaps simply asked them to warn his son against embarrassing her.

A member of the BJP between 1995 and 2000 who represented the party in the local taluk panchayat, Ganiga said he had withdrawn from politics long ago. Raj had never been associated with any Hindutva organisations, he said, adding that he had never believed the claims that Muslims had killed his son.

“Our neighbours are Muslims,” he said. “We live in peace here.”

Karthik Raj was allegedly murdered at the instigation of his sister.

Family feud

About 200 km from Konaje, another fatal family dispute had also unfolded against the backdrop of communal clashes in Shivamogga in February 2015.

The Popular Front of India organised a rally in the town on February 19 that quickly turned into a clash with Hindutva groups. There was arson and stone-pelting, which forced the administration to issue orders prohibiting crowds from gathering. Vishwanath Shetty, a 35-year-old Hindutva activist, was allegedly killed by a gang hours after the rally.

Two days later, a 33-year-old man named Manjunath was also found dead. The BJP and other Sangh Parivar organisations immediately declared both the men had been murdered by Muslim radicals.

Karandlaje’s letter, however, does not list either of the names – it says a Hindu activist by the name Venkatesh was killed in Shivamogga on February 19.

According to the police, Shetty was returning to Shivamogga from nearby Gajanur with two other friends when a gang attacked him. When a police patrol vehicle reached the spot, the gang fled. But by the time Shetty was taken to hospital, he was dead. Of the 12 people accused in the case, one of them – Abu Baker – was allegedly associated with the Popular Front of India.

On February 21, the police found Manjunath’s body in the town’s Gopala locality. The BJP and other Sangh Parivar organisations immediately declared this too was a murder related to the communal clashes the day before. Like in other places, a sizeable crowd gathered for Manjunath’s funeral.

Three years later, asked about his murder, Manjunath’s wife Lakshmi burst into tears. “For a piece of land, they destroyed my life,” she said, as she held the arm of her little son.

Lakshmi's husband Manjunath was killed by his own sister over a property dispute. Photo: Sruthisagar Yamunan

According to the chargesheet, Manjunath’s sister had invited him to her home to discuss a compromise in a dispute they had been having. She had allegedly taken huge loans by pledging Manjunath’s land documents without his knowledge. He had asked her to return the documents, failing which he would go to the police.

Taking advantage of the communal clashes taking place in the town, Manjunath’s sister and her associates allegedly murdered him, wrapped his body in a gunny bag and dumped it on a public ground, the police claimed.

Manjunath’s wife confirmed there was a long-running feud between members of the family. She said she found the police’s version convincing.

After the first few days of her husband’s death, Lakshmi said no one from the BJP had visited them. The government gave the young woman Rs 5 lakh as compensation but most of it was taken away by family members who paid for her husband’s funeral, and by debtors to whom Manjunath owed money.

Lakshmi’s neighbours said the story of Muslims killing Manjunath was probably cooked up by the accused people in an attempt to escape suspicion. The police said Manjunath’s sister had lodged a complaint at the Tunganagar station immediately after the murder, claiming that her brother had been killed in the communal clash. “The police called me for a compromise meeting with that woman,” alleged Lakshmi, accusing the police of later trying to protect the accused people.

Lakshmi, who is unable to work regularly due to ill health, has stopped following the case as every trip to the police station and courts costs her several hundred rupees.

Gangs and politics

There was palpable sense of fear among the residents of Guggarahatti in Ballari district when this reporter asked for directions to Bandi Ramesh’s home. One shop owner flatly refused to help. “They will ask who told you and I will be in trouble,” he said. This was indeed the first question that Ramesh’s relatives asked when reporter arrived to enquire about his death. A large German Shepherd guarded the house, which was located right opposite the shop.

Ramesh was the district vice-president of the BJP’s Scheduled Tribes Morcha and had several criminal cases against him, including one relating to attempt to murder, according to the police records. The area’s residents alleged that he was a land grabber in the garb of a real estate trader.

On the afternoon June 22, 2017, Ramesh was having lunch at a stall called Pawan Dabha when 20 men killed him with deadly weapons.

The chargesheet showed that of the 21 people accused of his murder, one was a Muslim –he was alleged to have been the driver of the car that carried the assailants. However, none of the accused had any connections to the PFI. The police said at least eight of the accused were “known criminals” and that it was a revenge murder. The main accused is a member of the BJP, a man named Jagadish alias Jagga, with whom Ramesh allegedly had a long-standing rivalry. The residents of the area said weeks before the murder, BJP leaders had tried to mediate between the two and establish peace. This did not seem to have worked.

Ramesh’s relatives, who did not wish to be identified, said they were living in fear as the accused have been released on bail. “First, they released three women-accused on medical grounds,” they said. “Later, all others were released.”

A similar case took place about 240 km away in Govanagoppa village on the outskirts of Dharwad. Yogish Goudar, a member of the BJP and the local Zilla Panchayat, was hacked to death in front of his gym in June 2016, according to the police first information report.

Like Bandi Ramesh, Yogish Goudar too was involved in land transactions, say residents.

Six accused were arrested. None of them are Muslims. The main accused is Basavaraj, a worker of Congress.

In November 2017, more than a year after his death, the family accused Congress leader and minister of mines and geology Vinay Kulkarni of conspiring to get Goudar killed. Yogish Goudar’s brother Gurunath Goudar released a video in which he was allegedly seen talking to Kulkarni over the phone. Kulkarni allegedly asked Gurunath Goudar to strike a compromise with the accused.

However, the minister denied these accusations and blamed BJP leaders of trying to drag him into a murder case ahead of the elections. The family too refused to answer any questions about the video clip.

Yogish Goudar’s wife Mallamma left the BJP and joined the Congress in December last year. Their house is now protected by a police constable around the clock.

Closed doors

Chikka Thimme Gowda was murdered by contract killers.

In Haggenahalli in Bengaluru, 30-year-old Kalpana Gowda does not open the door unless her relative running a garment shop downstairs confirms that the visitor is legitimate. The family had moved into the new house on November 9, 2016, and was getting ready for the housewarming ceremonies, when Kalpana’s husband Chikka Thimme Gowda was hacked to death by contract killers the night before.

The next morning, riot police were posted outside the house, Kalpana Gowda recalled. Hindutva activists came to visit her and told her that they believed that radical Muslim groups were responsible for the killing.

But Gowda’s family had other suspicions. Just a few months earlier, the family said Chikka Thimme Gowda had been attacked outside their old home. According to the police first information report, unidentified people had used pepper spray on him. His screams had brought neighbours to his rescue. The assailants fled.

The police said investigations revealed that Chikka Thimme Gowda’s murder was the result of a political rivalry.

Until 2015, Chikka Thimme Gowda was part of the Janata Dal (Secular) and was close to a local leader named Govinde Gowda. But Chikka Thimme Gowda soon joined the BJP, and even campaigned against Govinde Gowda’s wife in the civic elections. She lost. Govinde Gowda’s family had allegedly spent a huge amount on her campaign and were said to be irked. According to the police chargesheet, Govinde Gowda and his wife paid contract killers Rs 30 lakh to murder Chikka Thimme Gowda.

Months later, Govinde Gowda was murdered himself. Kalpana’s brother-in-law was arrested as the main accused.

An emotional Kalpana Gowda alleged that the BJP had completely ignored her. She said she had huge debts as the new house had been built on a large loan. With two children, she had no support – her family had abandoned her because her husband was from another caste. After the initial days, no BJP member had visited her to even show solidarity. Displaying pictures of her husband campaigning along with Yeddyurappa in 2015, she said: “I request people to not join any political party. They will use you and then throw you away.”

Kalpana Gowda and her daughter at their home in Bengaluru. Political rivals killed her husband Chikka Thimme Gowda. Photo: Sruthisagar Yamunan

Real estate rivalries

In March 2014, CN Srinivas was found murdered in Bengaluru’s KR Puram area. His wife Manjula Devi was a BJP leader and councillor of the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike. With the murder taking place in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls, the BJP took the matter to HR Bharadwaj, who was the state’s governor at the time. Top leaders including Sadananda Gowda accused the Congress government of supporting fundamentalist elements who were terrorising voters. The BJP went to the extent of stating that all senior officers of six police stations around the area belonged to a particular community.

Karandlaje’s letter listed Srinivas’s murder as having been committed by “jihadi elements”. But the police say their investigations show that political and real estate rivalry were behind it.

The police chargesheet says Srinivas was killed by contract killers hired by HK Prathap, an emerging real estate dealer who had several criminal cases against him. There was growing rivalry between Pratap and Srinivas over land deals, said the police. According to Srinivas’s family, Pratap had the support of local Congress leaders. When contacted, Manjula Devi refused to speak. Her mother said that she had joined the Congress in December 2017.

CN Srinivas was killed by a rival land dealer, the police say.

Court case

Srinivas Prasad was taking his morning walk in Kithaganahalli on the outskirts of Bengaluru on March 14, 2017, when a car intercepted him. A five-member gang attacked the BJP member, killing him on the spot.

At the entrance of the street on which his home is located, visitors are welcomed by a large poster of Prasad adorned with a garland. Prasad’s wife Shailaja, a member of the Bengaluru Urban Zilla Panchayat, said that her husband’s death was the consequence of a political and real estate rivalry.

Prasad was also involved in real estate deals. Shailaja said he had made several enemies in the process, including a rival Congress leader and municipality member, Sarojamma, whose Dalit identity he had challenged in court.

Thirteen people, including Sarojamma, have been arrested in his murder case. None of them is Muslim and no Muslim organisation is involved in the murder, the police say.

Feud over fish

In the Anekal Taluk on the outskirts of Bengaluru, R Harish, a BJP Yuva Morcha member, was found murdered in June 2017. His brother-in-law Venugopalan is the president of the local municipality.

The police say that though the incident was projected as a communal murder, it was in fact a murder of rage. According to the case files, Harish got into a fight with a relative, who was a worker of the Congress, over a fishing contract for local water bodies. The accused was fishing in a nearby lake when Harish confronted him and his associates. This resulted in a skirmish, with Harish allegedly slapping the accused Raju.

According to the police, Harish, was later intercepted by a gang. Chilli powder was thrown in his eyes and he was beaten to death. Venugopalan, however, said the fishing contract was only part of the story. The accused was a political rival and there was a long-standing feud. “Who will kill for fish?” he asked.

None of the accused in the case is Muslim.

R Harish.

Civic elections

On the outskirts of Anekal Taluk near Bengaluru lies the village of Chikkadasarahalli. The lane leading to CM Ashwath Kumar’s residence is dotted with several CCTV cameras fitted on trees and lamp posts. His family installed them after he was murdered in April 2014.

Kumar’s was the only family of those murdered and listed in Karandlaje’s letter that could not meet. When this reporter visited the house, the residents were away. Neighbours said the family could have gone to a relative’s house as the building was being painted and some repair work was underway.

According to prosecutor’s office in Bengaluru, the police chargesheet said Kumar was attacked and killed by a gang led by Keshavamurthy, a political rival who was defeated by Kumar in civic elections. Kumar was the local gram panchayat vice president and was rising swiftly in the local BJP unit.

Many villagers said there was nothing communal about Kumar’s murder. The demand to arrest Keshavamurthy was made on the day of the death itself, when the villagers held a flash protest and refused to take the body for hours.

A poster of Ashwath Kumar in Anekal Taluk near Bengaluru. Photo: Sruthisagar Yamunan

Alcohol and affairs

About 30 km from Tiptur in Tumkur district lies the quiet village of Magenahalli. In October 2017, S Thippesh, a local BJP worker, was found dead. According to the police, a boulder was thrown on his head, killing him instantly.

In the initial weeks, neither the family nor the police had any clue about the accused since Thippesh had no criminal background. However, a chance conversation between villagers led to the arrest of Mallikarjuna, a resident of the same village. It was later found that Thippesh had been drinking with a gang of friends when he was returning back to the village from a wedding. A heated conversation led to a skirmish with Mallikarjuna and then to the murder. The police and the villagers said Thippesh was having an affair with Mallikarjuna’s wife.

Thippesh’s brother Naveen said the village has never had a Hindu-Muslim problem and all communities live in peace. “I do not know why Muslims are being blamed,” he said, accusing alcohol for taking his brother’s life.

Hit and run case

In November 2016, a BJP Yuva Morcha member Magali Ravi was found dead with head injuries in Periyapatna in Mysuru district. According to the police first information report, Ravi was returning from a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh protest against Tipu Sultan Jayanti celebrations. Every year since 2014, the Karnataka government has celebrated November 20 as the birth anniversary of Tipu Sultan, who ruled Mysore between 1782 and 1789 before being defeated by the British. Many people consider him a freedom fighter for taking on the British. But the Sangh Parivar has projected him as an enemy of Hindus.

After Magali Ravi’s body was found, the BJP had called for a bandh in Mysuru. Hindutva activists gathered at the hospital and the police station, demanding the arrest of Popular Front of India leaders who they alleged were responsible for the murder.

The police initially filed a case of murder under Section 302 of IPC, but later revised the charges to IPC 304 (A) for causing death by negligence. Explaining the change, a police officer said forensic analysis and postmortem showed that Ravi had been killed in a hit and run case. The injuries sustained to the head and ribs were consistent with this, he added. But he refused to share the postmortem report. contacted the office of the Director General of Police in Bengaluru, which refused to share the report as well.

No arrests seem to have been made in the case. The police officer said the area had no CCTV cameras.

Ravi’s mother Gauramma refused to believe the police’s version. “The bike and Ravi’s cell phone are still with the police,” she claimed. The family had not been allowed to check the extent of damage to the bike and phone.

Ravi’s parents and two sisters survive on the food they grow on a small plot of land measuring less than an acre, and on the meagre earnings from farm labour. “This is how the life of a poor man is treated by the government,” Gauramma said.

The second part of this series looks at the cases in which the police allege Popular Front of India activists were involved.