Mohammed Rizwan, 23, had fallen asleep in his home in Thirubuvanam in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur district in the wee hours of February 6, after playing games on his cell phone when the doorbell rang.

The engineering graduate pulled on a shirt. There were three policemen on his doorstep. They had first gone to his uncle’s house, opposite his, to find only women and children there. Pointing a torch at Rizwan’s home, they noticed a bike parked outside. The police asked Rizwan to get into their jeep. It was 1.30 am.

Over the next three hours, the police went on to detain four other men – businessman Nizam Ali among them – from other neighbourhoods nearby.

The next morning, the media reported that the five Muslim men had been arrested for the murder of V Ramalingam, 42, a former worker with the Pattali Makkal Katchi. The PMK is a political party that is popular with the state’s backward Vanniyar community. The party has also been accused of inciting communal violence.

Ramalingam had been attacked by four unidentified men wielding choppers as he and his teenaged son were returning home after work on the night of February 5. He was grievously injured on his right hand and bled to death on his way to hospital.

The police told The News Minute that they suspected that the murder was related to an argument that had broken out earlier that day between Ramalingam and some Muslim men who had being going from door to door in a Dalit colony in Thirubuvanam to preach about Islam. The murder prompted the authorities to deploy 150 police personnel to the area, to contain any possible spread of religious tension.

On February 9, three days after the initial detentions, the police arrested three more Muslim men in their late 20s. All the eight men have been charged with murder, attempt to murder, unlawful assembly and also under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

On February 12, the Hindu reported that one more person had been arrested for the murder and that Hindutva groups and the Bharatiya Janata Party had called for a bandh in Thanjavur district on Tuesday.

Son is sceptical

However, Ramalingam’s son, 17-year-old R Shiyamsundhar, who was with his father when he was attacked, told that none of the arrested men had been in the group that had killed his father. “I saw the pictures of those arrested,” said Shiyamsundhar. “They did not attack my father. I have never seen the persons who attacked him before. They were not from this town. They were outsiders and smelled of alcohol.”

The police, though, are certain that they are on the right track. “There are reasons to believe that the arrested men were involved in the plotting of murder,” said Deputy Superintendent of Police TV Ramachandran, who is monitoring the investigation. He said that the authorities decided to file a case against the men under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act because they had aimed to promote enmity between the Hindu and Muslim communities.

‘Islamic terror groups’

Hindutva parties were also quick to echo the claim that the murder was an attempt to instigate communal trouble. On February 7, Bharatiya Janata Party National Secretary H Raja blamed the murder on the Popular Front of India, a Muslim organisation that describes itself on its Facebook page as a group that works for equal rights, freedom, justice and security for all Indians. However, a report by the National Investigative Agency in 2017 accused the group of attacking critics of Islam, organising arm training camps and plotting terror activities.

The same day that the BJP’s Raja made his statement, the Hindu Munnani, an organisation that claims “to defend Hinduism and protect Hindu religious monuments” held a press meet at which it alleged that Ramalingam had been murdered by “Islamic terrorist groups” because he was opposed to religious conversions.

Right-wing social media users alleged that the killing was being ignored.

A crowd-funding campaign set up on Saturday for Ramalingam’s family had raised just over Rs 31 lakh by Tuesday morning. The appeal note said that Ramalingam had encountered “a group of men who had no regard for communal harmony. Sri Ramalingam being a rational and brave Indian dissented with this group in a respectful manner for he did not want people to be divided. However, his peaceful dissent was met with a violent rebuttal that ended in his murder at the hands of his dissenters.”

Meanwhile, the Popular Front of India protested that it had nothing to do with the murder. It held a demonstration in Chennai on Thursday to demand the release of the men.

Mohammed Rizwan's home in Thirubuvanam in Kumbakonam. Photo credit: S Senthalir

Proselytisation drive

The argument that allegedly resulted in Ramalingam being murdered occurred at 8.15 am on February 5, when a group of men including businessman Nizam Ali were on a proselytisation drive in the Pakkanamthoppu locality, in which Dalits live.

The residents of Pakkanamthoppu are quite familiar with Muslim preachers. It has been a long tradition for a group from the Arivagam Trust in Theni district, about 230 km away, to visit Thirubuvanam once a year to preach about Islam. They are given shelter by the local Jamaat or mosque committee.

“They come here once a year, talk about Islam and walk away,” said one resident of Pakkanamthoppu colony, requesting anonymity. “We have been listening to them for several years. Not once have they forced us to convert.”

Ramalingam owned a business in Thirubuvanam called Tamizhan Catering, which supplied chairs, vessels and food and erected pandals for weddings or deaths in the village. As a result, in times of celebration or mourning in villages in the area, he was the one-point contact person. Residents remember him as a kind man who was given to bursts of anger.

A member of the Vanniyar community, Ramalingam was familiar to most people in the town’s Dalit colonies too. He would frequently visit these areas when he needed workers for his events. “When there was excess food in any occasion, he would come here to distribute it for free,” said a 70-year-old woman, who asked to remain unidentified.

Ramalingam began his political career with the Marumalarchi Dradiva Munnetra Kazhagam in 2013. From 2015, he spent two years as town secretary for Pattali Makkal Katchi party in Thirubuvanam town but drifted away from the party after it replaced him with another community member without informing him. Said his brother, “Once he lost his post, people knew he was not powerful anymore.”

On February 5, when he saw the Muslim preachers, Ramalingam picked an argument with them. He told the men they were “terrorists” who were out to destroy Hinduism. He referred to Hindutva fanatic Nathuram Godse, who had murdered Mahatma Gandhi in 1948, as his brother. Gandhi, Ramalingam added, was a fraud. A five-minute video of this altercation, which Ramalingam’s son shot on his phone, soon spread through the area on WhatsApp.

But after both parties left the place, Ramalingam was said to have apologised to several of his Muslim friends over the phone for the “angry outburst”.

A long day

Ramalingam and his son Shiyamsundhar went back to their shop in Thirubuvanam. It was a long day: they had received orders for chairs, food and a pandal for a wedding and had to get their vehicle serviced. It wasn’t until 11.30 pm that they finally wrapped up work.

As they neared their home, a group of four in a car blocked their Ashok Leyland Dost mini truck. “They threw chilli powder and salt and attempted to attack me when my father intervened,” said Shiyamsundhar. “He was hurt. When he tried to pick up the keys and start the vehicle, another blow chopped off his right hand, leaving it dangling.”

Ramalingam was bleeding profusely. Despite this, he was refused treatment at the private hospital in Kumbakonam to which Shiyamsundhar took him refused. The authorities there did not offer a reason for this. “The doctors did not even give him first aid,” said Shiyamsundra. “They asked us to go to a government general hospital.”

But when they got to the government hospital in Kumbakonam, 3 km away, the doctors asked Shiyamsundhar to take Ramalingam to a hospital in Thanjavur, 40 km away. The businessman died in the ambulance. “Profuse bleeding and delay in treatment led to his death,” said Shiyamsundhar. “He would have survived if he was provided treatment on time.”

Ramalingam’s family admits that they are not sure who exactly murdered him. In fact, businessman Nizam Ali, one of men arrested for the murder, is a friend of the Ramalingam family. Ramalingam’s brother Rajaram even showed off a picture he had taken with Ali when they studied together in school. However, the family is convinced that the attack was motivated by the argument about religious conversions. “We cannot think of any other reason,” said his 36-year-old wife R Chitra. “He was attacked on the same evening.”

The family of Ramalingam, who was murdered in Thirubuvanam. Photo credit: S Senthalir

Criminal charges

Despite the family’s claims, Thirubuvanam residents say that the theory Ramalingam may have had other enemies should not be brushed aside. Some people mentioned that he frequently got into fights. Despite this, said one man, who works as a mason at construction sites, “Even if he was angry, it would not last for more than three days.”

He added that both Ramalingam and Ali were good friends of his. “We are not sure what led to his death,” said the man, who did not want to give his name.

A senior police official in Thiruvidaimarudur confirmed that Ramalingam had several petty criminal complaints filed against him. However, the official refused to divulge any details. “His community members will be angry with me if I share these details,” he said.

The deserted look in the streets of Thirubuvanam. Photo credit: S Senthalir

When the police began to work on the murder, though, they had clearly decided that the argument between Ramalingam and the Arivagam Trust members was at the root. A senior police official on condition of anonymity said that the video shot by Ramalingam’s son made it evident that the Muslim men were inciting communal enmity by preaching Islam.

Thirubuvanam is a medium-sized town, which attracts many pilgrims to its Kampaheshwarar temple dedicated to Shiva. It is also famous for the silk saris woven in its workshops. Thirubuvanam consists of 15 wards, of which wards number 2, 3 and half of ward 4 are dominated by Muslims. It is estimated that at least 50% of the men in these wards work in the Gulf countries.

The arrests in the aftermath of Ramalingam’s murder have spread fear among residents of these localities. The stories of how the men were picked up by the police all have a similar ring to them. For instance, like Mohammed Rizwan, Nizam Ali was asleep when the police came to take him to the station. Like all the Muslims in ward number 3, Ali lived in a joint family. He earned his living by selling and repairing UPS batteries in Kumbakonam.

His neighbour, Y Sarbudeen, who was also woken and detained by the police, was a member of the Jamaat. Sarbudeen is well-respected in the town and would be often called on to resolve disputes. Last year, he took over the responsibility of the Thirubuvanam branch secretary of Social Democratic Party of India, which is the political wing of the Popular Front of India. Ali is a member of the party.

Sarbudeen had allowed the Arivagam Trust members to stay in the mosque that night. Ali was with the team when the argument broke out. Five other arrested men are members of Popular Front of India. Only Mohammed Rizwan is not linked to these organisations.

Mohammed Ibram Shah, a member of Social Democratic Party of India, claimed that the police had arrived at the mosque in Thirubuvanam hours after the first five arrests with a proposition for community members. “They told us that if we hand over two persons whose mobiles were switched off and not present in the town, they would release the five arrested,” he said.

Both the Popular Front of India and the Social Democratic Party of India have been functioning in the town for the last 10 years, Shah said. He added: “Never has there been a complaint of communal violence or riot.”

The police action has left Muslim residents of Thirubuvanam town in a state of panic. A few young Muslim men have fled their homes, fearing that they too could be arrested. The neighbours of the arrested men were wary of speaking to reporters.

Police deployed in Thirubuvanam, following the murder of former PMK functionary Ramalingam. Photo credit: S Senthalir

Among those who was willing to speak, though asking for the name not to be published, was the 45-year-old mother of Mohammed Rizwan. She has barely eaten since her son was arrested. She had even stopped her daughter, a Class X student, from going to school, afraid that something might happen to her. Her brother, whose home the police also visited that night, had fled, fearing arrest. His three children had not attended school since then. “We do not know what is happening,” said Rizwan’s mother. “We have never caused trouble to anyone.”

She said that Rizwan had been planning to travel to Dubai to join his father and elder brother and hunt for a job. “All his dreams are shattered now,” she said.