In July 2017, Bharatiya Janata Party member of parliament Shobha Karandlaje wrote a letter to the Union home minister alleging that 23 “Hindu activists” had been murdered by “jihadi elements” in Karnataka since 2014. Listing their names, she claimed that the needle of suspicion pointed at Muslim organisations and accused the Congress government in the state of protecting them.
As reported in the first part of this series, of the 23 names on Karandlaje’s list, one man is alive. The families of two men said they had committed suicide. The police investigation found that two men had allegedly been murdered by their sisters.
One name on Karandlaje’s list is ambiguous – it could have referred to two people. Counting both, the tally went up to 24 cases. Scroll.in travelled across Karnataka to investigate all 24 cases.
In 14 cases, none of the accused were connected to Muslim organisations. Barring one case in which the family of the victim disputed the police version of events, in all others, both the families and the police concurred that the murders had been sparked by personal dynamics, real estate battles and political rivalries.
In 10 cases, however, the police investigation pointed to the involvement of Muslims who were alleged to be members of the Popular Front of India. The organisation, which has been named in Karandlaje’s letter, is active in Kerala and Karnataka. Known for its hardline Islamist politics, it frequently clashes with Hindutva organisations like the Bajrang Dal, Hindu Jagarana Vedike and others. Over the past few years, the clashes have deepened the communal divide along Karnataka’s coast and in districts like Kodagu and Mysuru. Often, they have resulted in deaths.
In August 2015, for instance, in the aftermath of such clashes in Kushalnagar in Kodagu district, a 33-year-old autorickshaw driver named Praveen Poojary was found dead. A member of the Bajrang Dal, the youth wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, he had been hacked to death. His killers were Popular Front of India activists, the police alleged. One of them was Popular Front of India’s district secretary TA Haris.
While Hindutva organisations have highlighted the cases allegedly involving members of the Popular Front of India, the Muslim organisation has also accused Hindutva activists of killing its cadres. On November 10, 2015, for instance, DS Kuttappa, a leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, fell from a building and died in Madikeri in Kodagu district, while allegedly being chased by a Muslim mob. The same day, Shahul Hameed, a member of the Popular Front of India, was murdered in a shootout near the town. The police arrested three men, one of whom, KR Ramesh, was allegedly a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
While the investigation in Kuttappa’s death has dragged on, all the three arrested for Hameed’s murder were acquitted in August 2017.
Both Popular Front of India and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh deny the involvement of their activists in the murders.
“When a murder takes place after a PFI meeting, the accused are invariably treated as PFI members,” said Mohammed Shakif, the president of Popular Front of India’s Karnataka unit. Thousands attend these meetings, he said. “Not everyone who participates is a PFI official.”
Shakif accused the Karnataka police of falsely implicating his organisation. He cited the example of Manjunath, a resident of Shivamogga, who was murdered in the aftermath of clashes between the Popular Front of India and Hindutva groups in February 2015. Initially, the police had registered a case of murder against Popular Front of India activists. Later, evidence surfaced to show Manjunath was allegedly killed by his sister, as the first part of this series reported. “This is how they frame us,” said Shakif.
The spokesperson of the RSS, Rajesh Padmar, also denied the police’s allegations. “Our karyakartas [workers] are never involved in any criminal activities,” he said. Blaming the Popular Front of India for the murders of Sangh Parivar workers, he said the RSS has sought for a ban on the organisation. “All RSS wants is social peace,” he said. “Instead, the Congress government in 2015 dropped hundreds of cases against PFI people. After this, we have seen that attacks on our people have increased.”
The BJP MP Shobha Karandlaje did not respond to Scroll.in’s calls and messages.
Religious polarisation has sharply intensified in Karnataka in recent years. While the coastal areas have seen a swelling tide of divisive politics for over a decade, the communal churn has spread to other districts like Kodagu, Mysuru and Chikmagulur.
Since 2014, celebrations by the state government of the birth anniversary of Tipu Sultan have emerged as a flashpoint. Tipu Sultan ruled Mysore between 1782 and 1789, before he was defeated by the British. Many people respect him as a pioneering freedom fighter for opposing the British, but the Sangh Parivar has claimed that he was an enemy of Hindus.
Every year since 2014, the days leading to November 20, the birth anniversary, have seen clashes between members of Hindutva organisations and radical Muslim organisations. Two murders took place in the background of such clashes.
“The PFI and the Sangh Parivar feed on each other’s hate,” said Suresh Bhat Bakrabail, member of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties in Karnataka. “But I should mention here that the reach and strength of the Sangh is greater than PFI or any other organisation in Karnataka.”
Bakrabail asked for the murder cases to be investigated swiftly. “We cannot afford for these cases to drag on for years,” he said. “A strong statement will go to criminals if the trial concludes quickly.”
The larger plot
Beyond the seemingly communal nature of these murders, however, senior officials in the police and administration say they notice a pattern. Both Hindutva organisations and the Popular Front of India claim to champion the welfare of their communities but several of their members have criminal backgrounds. The Popular Front of India’s district secretary arrested for Poojary’s murder, for instance, was already listed as an accused in another attempt to murder case in 2012, the police said.
In another instance, an RSS worker K Raju was killed in Mysuru in March 2016 by Abid Pasha, a man believed to be part of Popular Front of India. The police investigations threw up no discernible reason for the murder. Pasha is a hardened criminal, said the police, and had been charged in six serious cases, three involving murder.
A district collector, who requested anonymity, said religious conflict provided a cover for criminal activities. “It is a potent immunity given the political game being played,” he said.
These illegal activities range from land grab to unauthorised sand mining. “Rather than calling it communal politics, we should be calling it land-sand politics,” said another officer. “How do you think they pay for their communal agenda? Nothing works without money.”
In chronological order, here are details of the ten cases in which the police has alleged that members of Popular Front of India killed Hindutva activists in Karnataka.
February 2015: Killed after rally
On February 19, 2015, the Popular Front of India organised a rally in the Shivamogga town. It 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. Hours after the rally, a young Hindutva activist named Vishwanath Shetty was allegedly killed by a group of people.
According to the police, Shetty was returning to Shivamogga from nearby Gajanur with two other friends when a group attacked him with deadly weapons. 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 13 people accused in the case, one of them – Abu Baker – was allegedly associated with the Popular Front of India.
August 2015: Hacked to death
On Independence day in 2015, the body of 33-year-old Praveen Poojari was found near his autorickshaw. The driver had been an active member of the Bajrang Dal, the youth wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. He had marched in a parade staged by the organisation, which Muslims groups alleged resulted in stones being thrown at a mosque. The police maintained the stones had actually landed on a textile shop near the mosque building.
Praveen’s father Chandappa Poojari said a group of men had pushed his son into the autorickshaw and hacked him to death. Investigations by the police revealed the involvement of Popular Front of India members. Ten men including the Popular Front of India district secretary TA Haris were arrested in the case. “All the accused are on bail,” said Chandappa Poojari, holding a portrait of his son in his hands. “I cry every time I see them.”
The father said no one from the Congress government had visited the family. The Bajrang Dal gave him money after his son’s death and is now funding the construction of a house for the family.
October 2015: Cow violence
On October 9, 2015, Prashant Poojary, 29, was attacked outside his flower shop in Moodabidri town market in Dakshina Kannada. “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.
According to his family, Prashant Poojary was attacked in retaliation for his cow vigilantism. “He had stopped the 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 over 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?”
November 2015: An 18-foot fall
On November 10, 2015, Hindu and Muslim groups clashed in Madikeri in Kodagu district in the run-up to Tipu Jayanthi. A worker of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a 60-year-old man named DS Kuttappa, fell 18 feet from a building and died. He was running to escape a Muslim mob, the police said.
At the entrance to Kuttappa’s house, visitors are greeted by a portrait of MS Golwalkar, the second sarsangchalak of the RSS. His son, Dali, said his father was a senior Hindutva leader in the area, respected for his decades of activism.
Weeks after he died, the police arrested six men, all allegedly associated with the Popular Front of India. While the FIR booked the case under Indian Penal Code Section 302 for murder, it was later amended in the chargesheet to IPC 304 for culpable homicide not amounting to murder.
Meanwhile, according to Karandlaje’s letter, the same day that Kuttappa died, a man named Raju was also killed in Madikeri. She described him as a “Hindu activist”. But in the town, even Hindutva activists did not know anyone of this name.
Eventually, Kuttappa’s son Dali, who is active in Hindutva circles, identified the dead man as Raja. The unnatural death records at the Madikeri Town police station corroborated this: on November 10, 2015, a 55-year old man, V Raja, fell from the third floor of a hospital building and died instantly.
Soon after his death, Hindutva organisations had mounted a campaign to claim that he too had been pushed from the building by a Muslim mob. But the police complaint filed by his son R Vivek did not mention a communal angle. Instead, he said his father was being treated for alcohol addiction and had been admitted to the hospital on November 8. The police investigation concluded that he had committed suicide.
Even Dali conceded Raja’s death had been mistaken for a murder.
March 2016: No reason for murder
In a narrow street in Udayagiri in Mysuru, K Raju ran an electrical shop and was well known in the area for arranging speakers for temple festivals. A member of the RSS, he was a regular at the local shakha and helped organise events for the organisation.
On March 13, 2016, Raju asked his uncle to man the shop and stepped out to have a cup of tea. Five men allegedly threw chill powder in his eyes and assaulted him. According to the police chargesheet filed on February 2, 2017, the main accused in the case was Abid Pasha, a criminal with alleged links to the Popular Front of India. It is unclear why he targetted Raju.
A joint commissioner of police in Mysuru said Pasha, who hails Hunsur, used to commit the crimes and go underground for several months in Kerala and Tamil Nadu and also went by the names of Usman and Ibrahim. “He has now been charged in at least six serious cases,” said the officer. Three of them involve murder, the officer claimed.
The Popular Front of India’s Karnataka president Mohammed Shakif has denied that Pasha is a member of the organisation.
April 2016: Violence on the shore
In the fishing hamlet of Moogaveera Patna, Rajesh Kotian’s house is referred to as the “martyr’s house”. Standing near the famous Ullal beach in Mangalore, the house has stickers of Narendra Modi’s 2014 election campaign pasted on the entrance wall.
Kotian, a fisherman, was found dead on April 12, 2016. The police said his head had been crushed with a heavy stone.
Kotian was an active BJP member and was a skillful organiser for the party, said his family. This placed him in constant opposition to local Muslim groups.
Rajesh’s brother Jagadesh alleged that the police tried to cover up the case at the behest of a leader of the Congress. But protests by fishermen forced them to act. A total of six Muslims were charged in the case. According to the police, all had links to the Popular Front of India and its political wing, the Social Democratic Party of India.
Jagadesh claimed the incident has left a deep scar on the community, which is now waiting for the BJP to come back to power. When the BJP was in power, he said, incidents of this kind did not happen. “I am not issuing a threat,” he said. “I am just saying we will be able to live in peace.”
August 2016: Daylight murder
Charan Poojary of Moodushedde near Mangaluru was a member of the Bajrang Dal until early 2016. With a criminal record that included a murder charge, Poojary left the organisation because he could not move up the ladder, said his family. He then formed a unit of the Hindu Jagarana Vedike, a fringe Hindutva organisation that is active in coastal Karnataka.
On August 19, 2016, the autorickshaw in which he was travelling with his wife Vidya and their child was intercepted by a group of men. They pulled him out near a petrol pump and hacked him to death in front of his family, the police chargesheet states. Six men associated with the Popular Front of India were arrested in the case. One, Rizwan, was out of jail on bail facing charges in a dacoity case. Weeks after this murder, he was sentenced to eight years imprisonment in this case.
Poojary’s wife Vidya said her husband had been killed because he confronted Muslims selling ganja or cannabis in the area. However, the police said he was involved in a turf war – Poojary was peddling cannabis himself, they claim. However, the police acknowledge the rivalry was exacerbated by these religious divisions.
Vidya now ekes out a living selling cotton wicks. She said the family was left in the lurch by Hindutva organisations after the murder. The Hindu Jagarana Vedike members gave them Rs 37,000 for the funeral expenses. But since then, no one has visited the small, one-room house they now live in. “My husband’s life was wasted working for these organisations,” she said, advising youngsters not to join such outfits and focus on building their families. “Could you imagine how it feels to see your husband butchered in front of you?”
October 2016: ‘Act of terror’
Another murder in which investigations that pointed to a communal angle occured in October 2016, when RSS worker Rudresh was killed in Bengaluru’s Shivajinagar neighbourhood. His wife Vidya said the murder happened when Rudresh was returning from an RSS parade.
The protests that followed the murder, and initial investigations prompted the state government to transfer the case to the National Investigation Agency in December that year. The chargesheet filed by the NIA states that the murder was a “clear act of terror” – Rudresh was picked as a random target by alleged Popular Front of India members, who wanted to strike fear in the minds of Hindu activists.
In addition to murder, the five accused – Irfan Pasha, Waseem Ahmed, Mohammad Sadiq, Mohammed Mujeeb Ulla and Asim Sheriff – have also been charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act for being part of a terrorist organisation, even though the Popular Front of India is not banned in Karnataka.
The National Investigation Agency also claimed that the accused were planning to kill two more RSS workers in Bengaluru. Petitions by the accused to be discharged from the case have been dismissed by both the NIA court as well as the Karnataka High Court. The Popular Front of India has called the investigation a sham enacted by the Centre ahead of the state assembly elections.
Rudresh’s wife said the family now feels insecure. “We have covered the house entrance with CCTV cameras,” she said.
July 2017: ‘A cover-up’
At around 9.30 pm on July 4, 2017, Sharath Kumar Madiwala was attacked by three men at his laundry shop on the busy Buntwal Cross Road market junction in Dakshina Kannada district.
According to the police, Madiwala was an RSS member and was actively campaigning against the transport of cows and “love jihad”, the conspiracy theory formulated by Hindutva organisations suggesting that Muslim men enter relationships with Hindu women merely to convert them to Islam.
At the small shop, Thaniappa, Madiwala’s father, pointed to the exact spot where the attack had taken place. He alleged that the police rushed Madiwala to the hospital and then blocked the family from meeting him for three days. This, he claimed, was because Chief Minister Siddaramaiah was about to visit the area on July 6 for an event. “The police did not want to declare his death,” he alleged. He suspects his son died on July 4 itself.
Investigation Officer M S Prakash rejected this claim, stating that hospital records establish that Madiwala was given treatment for three days. But Madiwala’s family alleges a cover-up.
Thaniappa said his son’s postmortem report does not state anything about the time of death, which members of the BJP and RSS have told the family is important. The report, which Scroll.in accessed through the police superintendent’s office, details the wounds on the body and said Madiwala died of “complications consequent upon heavy sharp cutting edge weapon”. The report reproduced the time of death mentioned in the hospital records as 12.30 am on July 7.
According to the police chargesheet, 10 people have been arrested, whie eight accused are still absconding. All the accused are alleged to be members of the Popular Front of India. The chargesheet said two of the accused hailed from Tirupur in Tamil Nadu. They have been booked for giving shelter to the other accused after the murder.
Read the first part of this investigation here.