Dakshina Kannada, Bengaluru: Seven years ago, when her son Vishwanath Shetty was allegedly killed by members of the Popular Front of India (PFI) in Karnataka’s Shivamogga, Meenakshamma was assured of all assistance by Hindutva organisations. The BJP, then in the Opposition in the state, highlighted the murder as an assault on Hindutva workers and Shetty’s name featured in their list of “Hindutva martyrs”.
Today, Meenakshamma collects plastic trash to eke out a living, lives in penury and is the sole caretaker of her grandson.
Most of the Rs 5 lakh given to her as compensation by the then Congress government in 2015, Meenakshamma said, was spent on the treatment of Shetty’s wife, who eventually passed away. After her plight was highlighted following the murder of another Hindutva worker in Shivamogga, a citizens’ group consisting of Muslims, Christians and Hindus came forward to repair her house and pay utility bills.
United in misery with Meenakshamma is Yashoda Poojary.
Seven years after losing her only son, Yashoda continues to be angry. Her son, Prashanth Poojary — a flower vendor and member of the Bajrang Dal — was hacked to death by alleged members of the PFI in 2015.
Yashoda now lives alone in Moodabidri town in Dakshin Kannada after Prashanth’s father Anand passed away in June 2018, and survives on the rent she receives from their flower shop — where her son was killed — and a widow pension of Rs 600.
“When my son was killed, the Congress was in power (in Karnataka), and now the BJP is in power. But what difference has it made for us?” the 60-year-old asked.
In July 2019, the BJP came to power in the state vowing action against the killers of Prashanth Poojary as well as party workers murdered in alleged ideological violence, which is also suspected to have claimed several victims on the other side.
But three years later, little progress has been made in the cases, and one more Hindutva worker — Bajrang Dal worker Harsha — was killed in Shivamogga last month.
Sources in the BJP admit there is disappointment in the party regarding the pace of the cases, but the party says efforts have been made to fast-track them.
Poll pitch — and victory
The BJP had made the murders of Hindutva workers its poll pitch in 2018, ahead of the Karnataka state elections.
Two months before the polls, the party launched a four-day rally — Jana Suraksha Yatre — deeming the then Congress government led by Siddaramaiah “anti-Hindu” and highlighting the cause of “protecting Hindutva workers”.
In a poll campaign speech made in Karnataka in February 2018, then BJP national president Amit Shah said the killers of Hindutva workers won’t be spared. “As the party president, I would like to assure you… let this Siddaramaiah government try to protect (killers) however much they want. Their countdown has begun… their time to go has come near. Yediyurappa government (of the BJP) will find the killers and bring them to justice,” Shah had declared.
He also visited the homes of some of the workers who had been killed, such as the RSS’ Raju Kyathamaranahalli, who was hacked to death in Mysuru in March 2015. The prime accused in the case — Abid Pasha — has been identified as a member of the PFI and a contract killer by police.
The Jana Suraksha Yatre was focused on highlighting the deaths of 23 alleged Hindutva workers and was strategically held in the state’s communally sensitive regions of Karavali (coastal) and Malnad (Western Ghats).
“We have lost our 23 karyakarthas (workers) in the last four-and-a-half years of Tughlaqi Congress rule in the state. To create awareness about the CM’s anti-Hindu policies, we will embark on a 4-day Jana Suraksha Yatre, starting from Ankola and Kushalnagara from today,” Karnataka BJP’s official Twitter handle said on 3 March 2018, sharing a video of BJP MP Anantkumar Hegde.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath was invited to address the concluding ceremony of the Jana Suraksha Yatre.
In the assembly election that followed, of the 6 seats in Uttara Kannada, the BJP won four and took its tally to five when Shivaram Hebbar joined the party from the Congress. In Udupi district, the BJP bagged all five seats and in Dakshina Kannada it won seven of eight seats, leaving the Congress with just one.
In the 2013 election, the Congress had bagged three seats in Udupi, seven in Dakshina Kannada and three in Uttara Kannada — all coastal districts. The Jana Suraksha Yatre had had the impact it intended to in the region.
The 2018 Karnataka state election, however, led to a hung assembly with the Congress-JD(S) coalition eventually forming a government. In 2019, the BJP came to power under Yediyurappa after the H.D. Kumaraswamy government collapsed in a floor test amid rebellion by MLAs.
List of ‘23 slain Hindutva workers’
In 2017, now Union Minister Shobha Karandlaje shot off a letter to the then Home Minister Rajnath Singh, accusing the Congress government in Karnataka of being “anti-Hindu”. In her letter, Karandlaje listed the names of 23 Hindutva workers who she said were killed since Siddaramaiah took charge as CM in 2013.
Among the 23 names listed, one — Ashok Poojari — was still alive.
In January 2018, the Karnataka Congress released documentary evidence to fact-check Karandlaje’s claims and deemed that, of the 23 names she had listed, only 9 were victims of communal incidents, while the others died by suicide, accident or were killed by kin and business rivals over personal issues.
By March 2018, the BJP had come up with a fresh list of 23 “Hindutva workers” allegedly killed for their Right-wing activism. Several names that were originally listed by Karandlaje had been omitted and fresh names added, including that of Paresh Mesta and Deepak Rao. A brochure that the BJP shared among its supporters, however, listed 16 slain purported Hindutva members.
Bajrang Dal worker Harsha’s murder this year has brought the focus back on these cases. Ten people have been arrested so far in connection with the murder, which VHP and BJP leaders have alleged was committed by PFI members.
As far as the other cases are concerned, while those charged for murder have been acquitted in two instances, the accused in some other cases have been let out on bail.
“When Siddaramaiah was the chief minister, murders of Hindutva activists were common. For many years, such incident hadn’t taken place,” C.T. Ravi, national general secretary of the BJP, told ThePrint.
“With Harsha’s murder, it is clear that an attempt has been made to disturb peace and harmony. The police need to not just investigate the case properly and punish the guilty, but also ensure this doesn’t become a trend and spread.”
Reached for comment, Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) working president and former state home minister Ramalinga Reddy said the “BJP indulged in politics over dead bodies to win elections”.
“After they came to power, they have neither cared for those they claimed to be their workers nor their families. We have always maintained that the BJP was lying about 23 Hindutva workers being killed under Congress rule and have even provided documentary evidence. It is clear the BJP wanted to benefit out of unfortunate deaths,” he added.
A look at the murders
Praveen Poojari, an auto driver and Hindu Jagarana Vedike member, was killed by alleged members of the PFI on 14 August 2016 in Kodagu. In November last year, the principal district and sessions court acquitted all nine persons arrested for the murder. Tufail, Nayaz, Afrin, Mohammed Mustafa, Iliyas, Irfan Ahmed, Mujeeb Rehman, Sharief and Haris were acquitted after the prosecution failed to prove their involvement.
In 2015, D. Kuttappa, an organising secretary of the VHP, fell 18 feet to his death while trying to escape stone-pelting during a communal flare-up between Hindus and Muslims on Tipu Jayanti in Kodagu. In February 2016, the Madikeri police filed a preliminary chargesheet against nine accused, including leaders of the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) — PFI’s political wing — for alleged culpable homicide.
“The trial in the case is under way,” Appachhu Ranjan, MLA from Madikeri, told ThePrint. But he was not aware that the accused in the Praveen Poojari case had been acquitted last year. “We can’t criticise the verdict since it will be contempt of court. But the process to appeal against the verdict should begin,” Ranjan added.
Florist Prashanth Poojary was hacked to death for his purported cow protection activities in 2015 in Dakshina Kannada. “Nothing has moved forward in the case. His father used to appear as witness in the case but since he passed away, I have no one to keep track of what is happening. When will I get justice for my son? His killers are on bail and free,” his mother Yashoda said.
The trial in the case is under way but proceeding at a snail’s pace, Prashanth’s friends and fellow members of the Bajrang Dal told ThePrint.
‘Only 2 cases yet to go to trial’
Sharath Madiwala — an RSS worker — was killed allegedly in retaliation to SDPI leader Ashraf Kalayi’s murder in Bantwal in 2017. The 15 accused in the case were released on bail in 2018.
“The public prosecutor tells us that there is not enough evidence to nail the accused. One of them is still absconding,” an RSS worker who is helping Sharath’s family with the legal case in Mangaluru told ThePrint. While charges have been framed in the case, trial is yet to begin.
“Just like the case of Praveen Poojari, Sharath’s killers too will get away because the witnesses have turned hostile,” the RSS worker said.
Another Hindutva worker, Deepak Rao, was murdered in Katipalla in Dakshina Kannada in January 2018. As many as 12 people, including PFI members, were arrested in connection with the case. Abdul Basheer, a resident of the same district, was killed the same evening, in alleged retaliation by those connected to RSS leaders.
“When Deepak was killed, the BJP was in the Opposition (in Karnataka) and Sunil Kumar — who is now a minister — had demanded that the government provide a job to Deepak’s sister. Now, our own party is in power but there is no sign of a job for her,” a VHP leader who coordinates with the family and follows up on the case told ThePrint.
While the family had rejected compensation of Rs 5 lakh from the then Congress government, Union Home Minister Amit Shah had in January 2018 handed over a cheque of Rs 10 lakh to the family.
Four years down the line, Rao’s murder case is on trial now. “An accused in the case, Pinky Nawaz, who was accused of threatening witnesses in the trial, has been arrested under the Goonda Act,” N. Shashi Kumar, Mangaluru Commissioner of Police, told ThePrint.
Rajesh Kotian, a fisherman from Ullal in Dakshina Kannada, was killed in 2016 and featured in the BJP’s list of Hindutva workers who were slain. Within weeks, the Dakshina Kannada police arrested six accused. All were acquitted in 2021, according to Dakshina Kannada Superintendent of Police Sonawane Rishikesh Bhagawan.
December 2017 saw widespread violence in Uttara Kannada following the death of Paresh Mesta. Although not a member of any Hindutva organisation at the time of his death, Mesta was counted among slain Hindu workers by the BJP in its Jana Suraksha Yatre.
Paresh’s body was found floating in a nearby tank two days after communal riots broke out in Honnavar town in 2017. Shobha Karandlaje was among the BJP leaders who claimed that Mesta was tortured and killed by Muslims. The state police investigation concluded that Mesta had fallen into the tank while attempting to flee from the riot.
The then Congress government, owing to protests by the BJP, transferred the case to the CBI. Four years later, the agency is yet to file a report.
“The state police said my son’s death was accidental but we don’t believe that. Finally, the case was handed over to the CBI but we are still awaiting a report. I hope the CBI inquiry gives us justice and nails my son’s murderers,” Kamalakar Mesta, father of Paresh, told ThePrint.
“A CBI officer told us that the report is ready but he has to wait until he gets a nod from his superior officer to submit it officially,” Kamalakar said. The accused in the case are out on bail.
RSS worker Rudresh was killed in October 2016 in Bengaluru. Following protests by the BJP, the case was transferred to the National Investigation Agency (NIA), especially after the Union Home Ministry instructed the agency to take over.
The Bengaluru Police had already arrested five people — all members of the PFI — for their alleged connection to the murder. The special NIA court in Bengaluru has repeatedly rejected the bail plea of the accused in the case and also upheld charges of terror against them. The trial in the case has, however, seen delays, leading to further bail petitions from the accused on that ground.
The trial in Raju’s murder case is under way, Mysuru Police said.
In the Vishwanath Shetty case mentioned earlier, the Shivamogga police said the trial is under way and the court is in the process of admitting evidence.
Meanwhile, many other names in the BJP’s list were deemed as murders for personal or business rivalry by police following investigation.
ThePrint reached Karnataka’s Home Minister Araga Jnanendra via phone calls but there was no response. Union Minister of State for Agriculture Shobha Karandlaje too refused to comment on the matter.
“Ours is a political party, naturally we can’t keep tab on all the cases. Our allied organisations are taking care,” said BJP Karnataka spokesperson Mahesh G.
“Only two cases are yet to go to trial, but the verdict is out on all other cases and justice has been given to the concerned. The whole Hindu community has helped the families compassionately in all cases,” he added.
Ganesh Karnik, another Karnataka BJP spokesperson, said efforts had been made to fast-track trials. “When our government came to power, I personally went to B.S. Yediyurappa and then Home Minister Basavaraj Bommai (now chief minister) to take up the cases on priority,” he added.
Sources from the BJP’s state unit said the party was disappointed with the pace at which the cases were moving forward or acquittals were being ordered.
“The longer a case takes for trial, the risk of witnesses turning hostile increases. We plan to write a memorandum to Home Minister Jnanendra asking for all cases to be clubbed together and re-investigated by an SIT, and a fast-track court to be set up for hearings,” a former senior office-bearer of the BJP told ThePrint.
This report has been updated with a quote from Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee working president
(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)