Recalling the murders of Abdul Shameer and Harish Poojari in the Hindutva laboratory.
This article was first published by Scroll on 14th November, 2017
Coastal Karnataka has been a laboratory for hate-mongering and communal violence for over a decade. Once celebrated for its communal amity, the region now constantly verges on the edge of hate violence. It was fitting, therefore, that the third state Karwan e Mohabbat visited was Karnataka, specifically the Mangalore Udipi region.
The first evening, we drove to the home of a man who has been permanently disabled by a lynch mob. He cannot walk without support; he is barely able to stumble a few steps with a walker. He speaks haltingly with a slur. But he is grateful that he is still alive.
Abdul Shameer left his home near Mangalore at 13, searching for wage work to support his family. In Mumbai, he spent many boyhood years serving tables and cleaning dishes in a small eatery. As he grew older, he worked many jobs, including a couple of years as a casual worker in the Gulf, and driving an autorickshaw in Mangalore.
Just before he was attacked on August 23, 2014, Shameer had switched to driving a tempo transporting ageing cattle sold by farmers for slaughter. At Rs 1,000 a day, the money was much better. But it was a decision that almost cost him his life.
Twenty days into his new job, he was driving cattle into the heart of Mangalore city. Suddenly, he found his tempo blocked by a yellow bus. From it emerged a contingent of Bajrang Dal volunteers, armed with trishuls and rods, shouting terrifying slogans. He was too petrified to run away as they smashed the windows of his tempo. They pulled him out and attacked him with long rods.
Many were strangers. But he recognised in the crowd a fellow autorickshaw driver. “I ate beef with him on many occasions,” he recalled, speaking to us three years later. He called out to his colleague to save him, but instead the man joined the attackers. The blows got worse until one man pierced his skull with a sharp trishul. He fell unconscious, and remembers nothing after that.
He learnt later that there was a police chowkie just across the road from where he was attacked. The police did arrive at the scene, but only after he was almost dead, and took him to a public hospital. They did not inform his family. But his family, worried because he had not got home, called his mobile phone. A nurse from the hospital answered; that is how they learned where he was.
They were distraught when they found him unconscious and bloodied. He could not afford it, but his father insisted on shifting Shameer to a private hospital to save his life. Over four months, they spent more than Rs 4 lakh on his treatment, raising the money by selling their small house and using up all they had saved for Shameer’s sister’s wedding.
Shameer was unconscious for many weeks and even when he regained consciousness, his body was entwined in tubes and he could not even recognise his children. He could not stand or walk. After his discharge, his wife tended him night and day, carrying him in her arms like a child.
Since then he has survived on extraordinary pubic charity, mostly from ordinary Muslims. Emotive television reports of his predicament spurred donations from all over, and this paid for his repeated hospitalisation, his sister’s wedding and the daily expenses of his family. The autorickshaw union, with many Hindu members, settled one of his hospital bills for over Rs one lakh. Recently, a woman donated almost half the Rs 12 lakh to build a house for him; the rest was collected through crowd funding. We met Shameer in this new house, in a village bordering Kerala.
It appears certain he will be disabled for life. Justice eludes him. The police arrested a few men for attacking him, but they were bailed out soon. The trial is still to begin. But in a pattern the Karwan found recurring around the country, the police also registered a case against Shameer, under the Karnataka Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act, 1964, and he barely escaped arrest by applying for anticipatory bail.
Let’s remember that it is a Congress government in Karnataka.
Mistaken as Muslim
The next morning, we visited a mother unable to come to terms with losing her son to a lynch mob. His name was Harish Poojari. I asked myself, “Is the horror of his lynching greater because the reason for his killing was that he was mistaken to be Muslim, because he was travelling pillion with his Muslim friend Samiullah?”
His father barely made enough money wrapping bidis at their home in Bantwal village, so Poojari dropped out of school, and apprenticed for an electrician. His mother remembers him as a dutiful son, who gave her all he earned to run the household.
On November 12, 2015, Poojari took the day off picnicking with his friends. He came back in the evening, only to go out again to buy milk for the tea his mother was boiling. He never returned. His mother Seethamma was beside herself with worry all night. Her husband was bedridden and her daughter Mithalaxmi away for a family wedding. The next day, her son was brought home dead, stabbed 14 times. She could not understand who could have done this, and why. The family was wrenched further by beautiful photographs of their son on his mobile phone. These pictures, taken by his friend on the day that turned out to be his last, now hang on a wall in his mother’s home. In one of these, he poses with his palms cupped into the shape of a heart.
A picture of Harish Poojari found on his mobile phone.
Initially, they assumed the killers must have been Muslim. But the story pieced together by later investigations is this: Poojari was returning from the shop when Samiullah happened to pass by and offered to drop his friend home on his bike. It was a three-minute ride. But on the way, a bunch of young Bajrang Dal workers accosted them, and fell upon them with knives. Samirullah was badly injured but survived. His friend, stabbed 14 times and his intestines pulled out, did not. The Dakshina Kannada police later arrested Mithun Poojary, Bhuvith Shetty and Achyut, all Bajrang Dal activists in their 20s, for the murder.
When the Karwan met Seethamma and her daughter almost two years later, she was still struggling to comprehend the hate that snatched away her only son, murdered with such brutality by people who did not even know him. His father, heartbroken, died two months after Poojari was killed. His sister works with a travel agency, struggling bravely to hold her family together. What solace could we offer them other than share their incomprehension and pain?
Police as mob
That afternoon, we went to meet a family in Krishnapuda village. Their bereavement was by a different kind of hate violence, which the Karwan was to encounter in state after state – hate attacks not by vigilante mobs but by policemen. This happened on April 19, 2014, a year after the Congress assumed power in Karnataka. His was a family of wage workers, and Kabir, 22, was as a house painter. But he developed an allergy to the paint, his older brother Imtiaz told us, and was looking for other work.
The law in Karnataka permits slaughter of ageing cattle and there was good money in transporting such animals. Kabir took a job as a loader, getting cattle onto and off trucks for Rs 1,000 a day. Farmers sold their old animals in a large cattle bazaar in Shimoga, and trucks transported the animals to the coastal belt. Kabir learnt there was a flourishing bribery racket that went with the trade: cattle trucks couldn’t pass a check post unless the police were paid off.
Kabir’s truck was halted at Tanikot Checkpost in Sangiri by the special police force set up to fight the Maoists. For reasons that are unclear, there was a dispute even after the bribe was paid. A constable fired into the air, and the driver, cleaner and other loaders all managed to run away. But Kabir was shot dead at close range.
There was no way the police could justify killing Kabir in cold blood. Their mandate was fighting Maoist guerrillas, not cow protection. Even if it was, why would they kill a man for it?
Initially, the police tried to protect the murderer, sparking widespread outrage that forced them to chargesheet the constable. Recently, though, the state administration has moved to close the case without even completing the trial.
Like families of victims of hate crimes in every corner of the land today, Kabir’s is also finding the path to justice nearly impossible to traverse.