The air was gloomy in retired engineer Khursheed Pathan’s two-room apartment in Surat on October 20. Until last week, the family had never dealt with the police. But in the early hours of October 19, the police came looking for three of Khursheed Pathan’s four sons. The family was later told that two of them were implicated in the sensational murder of Hindutva leader Kamlesh Tiwari in distant Lucknow.

Around noon on October 18, Tiwari, the president of Hindu Samaj Party, was found murdered in his house in Lucknow’s Khurshed Bagh area. The postmortem showed he had been stabbed several times and shot in the face by a pistol.

Tiwari’s associate told reporters that two men had come to meet him at 11 am. He left Tiwari in their company to get a cigarette. When he returned, he found Tiwari dead.

Barely 32 hours later, a team of Uttar Pradesh police arrived in Surat. Along with Gujarat police, they landed at Pathan’s house, making the first arrests in the case. By October 22, eight men had been arrested. Four of them, all in their twenties, are residents of one locality in Surat.

The speed of the police investigation has raised eyebrows. But the police claim the killers left a clear trail of evidence.

In Lucknow, the police released CCTV footage showing two men walking towards Tiwari’s office in orange and red kurtas, carrying a box of sweets in a polythene bag. The police claims the box of sweets, recovered from Tiwari’s house, bore the name of a shop in Surat, and had a bill listing the date and time of purchase.

Through surveillance cameras at the Surat sweets shop, the police claim they found the buyer to be 21-year-old Faizan Shaikh, who lives in the building opposite the Pathans.

According to the police, one of the two men in the CCTV footage from Lucknow is the eldest of Pathan’s sons, 28-year-old Moinuddin Pathan. The police claim to have found bloodstained clothes in a hotel room where he had checked in on the night of October 17, with another Surat resident, Ashfaq Shaikh. Both reportedly used their real names and identity cards.

The trail of evidence, the Indian Express reported, has made “some in the police suspicious that the perpetrators may have wanted their identities known”.

But in Surat, there is disbelief among the families of the men, most of whom live in two apartment blocks in the Limabayet area. They say the young men have been framed.

“When Tiwari’s own mother has blamed someone from the BJP for this murder, why has the police not arrested that person?” said Khursheed Pathan, 75, who moved from UP’s Pilibhit to Surat 25 years ago and once worked as an engineer at a textile mill. “Why have the police arrested only our Muslim boys?”

He was referring to the televised allegations made by Tiwari’s mother, Kusum, who told reporters that her son had been killed by a local BJP leader over a land dispute.

A maverick Hindutva leader, Kamlesh Tiwari, was barely known even within Uttar Pradesh, until he was arrested in 2015 for making remarks about the Islamic prophet that angered some members of the Muslim community. He spent one year in jail.

The police claims those remarks, made four years ago, were the provocation behind his murder.

Several times in the past, however, Tiwari had accused BJP leaders of putting his life at risk. In the last video Tiwari posted before his death, he blamed Chief Minister Adityanath for removing the security cover that had been provided to him.

The Pathans and Ashfaq Shaikh live in a building opposite Faizan Shaikh's house on the same street in Surat's Limayat area. The families did not wish to be photographed. Photo: Aarefa Johari

How the arrests happened

Around 2 am on October 19, a joint team of Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat police arrived at Pathan’s house and detained his second and third sons, Saeed and Rashid. After a few hours of questioning at the Surat crime branch, Saeed was let off without any charges. But 23-year-old Rashid Pathan was arrested, along with his neighbour Faizan Shaikh and Surat cleric Maulana Mohsin Sheikh.

The police has accused the three of planning the murder that Moinuddin Pathan and Ashfaq Shaikh are alleged to have executed. Two other Muslim clerics from Uttar Pradesh’s Bijnor district on October 18 and a hardware shop owner from Nagpur were arrested on October 22 as suspects in the case.

Finally, after several days of allegedly being on the run, Moinuddin Pathan and Ashfaq Shaikh were arrested on October 22 at the border of Rajasthan and Gujarat.

A trip to Chandigarh

In Surat, the families of the two men told on October 20 that they had no information about any travel planned for Lucknow.

In the Pathan home, Moinuddin’s family refer to him by his nickname, Fareed. “All I know is that Fareed left home with our neighbour Ashfaq on October 16, saying that they were going to Chandigarh for Ashfaq’s job interview,” Moinuddin’s brother Saeed told on Monday. “We have not heard from him at all since then.”

According to Saeed, Moinuddin had studied up to class 10 and had been unemployed for the past few months after leaving his last job as a Zomato delivery man.

Saeed claimed he had not seen the CCTV footage allegedly showing Moinuddin and Ashfaq walking towards Tiwari’s office. “But whatever the police have claimed and shown me about my brother is completely false,” said Saeed. When shared the CCTV video with Saeed, he declined comment.

Ashfaq Shaikh, 33, worked as a medical representative at a pharmaceutical company and had risen to the post of an area manager over the years. “For the past few months his salary was not coming in on time, so he was looking out for jobs in other companies,” said Mehjabeen Shaikh, a school teacher and Ashfaq’s wife. While Ashfaq’s parents live in Ahmedabad, he and Mehjabeen have been living in the same building as the Pathans since they got married in 2011. The couple does not have children.

Ashfaq Shaikh.

Since Ashfaq frequently travelled out of Surat for work, his wife said she did not find anything amiss when he told her he would be travelling to Chandigarh with Moinuddin for a job interview. On October 16, hours before he was supposed to leave, Ashfaq told his wife that his train ticket to Chandigarh was “almost confirmed”. Soon after the two men left Surat, Mehjabeen said she spoke to Ashfaq on the phone. “He told me they were on a bus to Baroda [Vadodara], from where they would take the Chandigarh train,” she said. “He said he would call me when they got on the train, but it was very late night by then so I fell asleep.”

On the morning of October 17, Moinuddin’s brother Rashid told Mehjabeen that Ashfaq had called him from a stranger’s phone, to say that he had lost his phone and would find a way to call his wife once he reached Chandigarh. “Since Fareed [Moinuddin] did not have a phone, I was not expecting to hear from Ashfaq for a while, so I was not really worried,” said Mehjabeen.

The next thing that Mehjabeen heard about her husband was from the police, who claimed that Ashfaq and Moinuddin had committed murder in Lucknow in conspiracy with Rashid Pathan, Faizan Shaikh and Maulana Mohsin Shaikh, who Mehjabeen knew of as “Hafiz sahab”. “I do not really know this Maulana but Ashfaq was friends with him and would sometimes say he was going to meet Hafiz sahib,” she said.

Mehjabeen has been in shock ever since she heard the police’s allegations about Ashfaq. “My husband has always had a very modern outlook,” she said. “In the past two years or so he did become more particular about praying namaz and wearing a beard and cap, and he asked me to start wearing a burkha too. But he is the most friendly and helpful person in this area – everyone knows him. It is impossible to believe he could do something like this.”

A Dubai-returned salesman

The Pathans, as well as the families of Faizan Shaikh and Maulana Mohsin, find it just as impossible to believe that their sons planned a murder.

Since 2017, Rashid Pathan had been working in Dubai as a sales and repairman at a computer store. He returned to Surat two months ago to renew his visa and to prepare for his brother Saeed’s wedding, which had been scheduled for November 3. According to the police, Rashid planned the entire attack on Tiwari while he was in Dubai, but his family cannot fathom how.

“Firstly, how can a 23-year-old be a mastermind of anything?” said his father Khursheed Pathan, who described Rashid as a mild-mannered, soft-natured person. “Besides, when the police came to arrest him, they did not even bother to inspect any of Rashid’s things in the house.”

Saeed Pathan holds up his brother Rashid's picture. Photo: Aarefa Johari

Faizan Shaikh, the son of a paan shop owner, was working as a salesman at a Bata store in Surat and lived with his parents in a building opposite the Pathans. On the night of October 18, his mother said Faizan received a call from his manager after midnight, asking him to go to the store for some work. “When he did not return home till 2 am, I got worried and called up his manager,” said his mother Farzana, a school teacher. “That is when the manager told us that the police had come to the store and asked for Faizan so they could arrest him,” said Farzana.

Faizan’s parents spent the night and the next morning outside the Surat crime branch office, but were not allowed to meet their son. In bits and pieces, they were given an understanding of why their son had been arrested. “I am still confused about everything,” said Farzana, who has been having sleepless nights since Faizan’s arrest. “What is the big deal if he went and bought sweets from a mithai shop? That does not mean anything.”

In a low-income Muslim-dominated colony in Surat’s Umarwada area, Maulana Mohsin’s mother Mairajbi, a widow, is also confused and shaken by her son’s 3 am arrest on October 19. “We are a simple joint family of labourers, and my Mohsin was the only one who studied and became a hafiz,” said Mairajbi, referring to her son’s memorising of the Quran.

Mohsin, 24, would teach children at a local madrasa in the mornings and sit at his uncle’s clothes shop in the evenings. “I had never heard him mention this Tiwari person or any of the other boys arrested in the case, and I don’t know what to do or think any more,” said Mairajbi.

The Gujarat police shifted the three alleged planners from Surat to the Ahmedabad Anti-Terrorism Squad headquarters on October 19. The next day, all three families were asked to visit Ahmedabad if they wished to meet their sons. Faizan Shaikh’s parents were the only ones who managed to reach Ahmedabad early enough to meet Faizan. The other two families reached the city at night, only to be turned away.

“By the time we got there, the police told us we were too late, and that our boys had already been taken to Lucknow,” said Mairajbi. “All I know is that my son has been framed in this whole case and I just want him to come back home.”

Mohsin Shaikh's mother Mairajbi (left), his aunt and his grandmother at their home in Surat's Umarwada area. Photo: Aarefa Johari