Belagavi: At around 5 pm on 28 September, Najima Sheikh got a call from her son to inquire what time she would return home. “Bring Niyaaz biryani while coming. We’ll eat together,” her son Arbaz Aftab Mullah told her.
At around 7 pm, when she arrived at their apartment in Belagavi city’s Azam Nagar, Arbaz had gone missing. She waited for an hour and a half before dialling his number. Between 8:30 pm and 8:53 pm, Najima dialled her son’s number five times, but received no response.
Her calls were returned some time after 9 pm. But it wasn’t her son on the line.
“Someone called me from his phone to say that there was a severed body lying on the railway tracks at Khanapur and this phone was near the body,” Najima told ThePrint, recalling the horror of what she deems the worst night of her life.
“If you go by the Islamic calendar, he died on the same day that he was born,” Najima said.
Arbaz was allegedly murdered over his interfaith relationship with a Hindu woman. His mutilated body was found on the railway tracks in the city on 28 September. The alleged murder was made to look like an accident, his family has claimed.
An initial case registered as “unnatural death” by the Railway Police Force (RPF) was later changed to suspected murder, following Najima’s complaint on 29 September. It has been nearly a week, but the police are yet to make formal arrests.
Pundalik Mutagekar and Prashant Birje, two members of the Sri Ram Sene Hindustan — an offshoot of the Pramod Muthalik-fronted Sri Ram Sene — were questioned by the police in connection with the case. Both are among the three accused named in the FIR for Arbaz’s alleged murder.
ThePrint tried to contact Mutagekar for a comment, but his phone was out of reach.
Sri Ram Sene Hindustan chief Ramakant Konduskar earlier distanced his organisation from the alleged murder, saying the members had been targeted for “being Hindutva workers”. The original organisation’s Muthalik too denied any connection with the accused.
His mistake was falling in love, says Najima
Najima, a 46-year-old Urdu teacher at a government school for girls in Belagavi, lost her husband in 2017 to cancer. Her elder daughter lives abroad, so Najima lived with her son.
Najima and Arbaz moved to Khanapur, a town around 30 km from Belagavi city, three years ago. It was then that Arbaz met the girl, a neighbour.
“His biggest mistake was that he fell in love with a girl from another religion,” Najima insisted.
The moment she got a whiff of the interfaith relationship, Najima pestered her son to move back to Belagavi city, which they did in February this year.
“But both of them couldn’t stay away from each other. My son forced me to move back to Khanapur in March. It was in the month of Ramzan that I told the girl’s family about them,” the mourning mother said.
What followed was a barrage of abuses and threats, Najima claimed.
In May, the families sat together to convince the couple to break up. “We kept getting threats but my son wouldn’t listen. I forced him to shift back to Belagavi in July,” Najima said.
When that too didn’t deter the couple, Najima alleged Pundalik Mutagekar and his fellow activists began harassing Arbaz. On 25 September, three days before Arbaz was found dead, Najima caught him pleading with Mutagekar on the phone to spare him.
“He asked us to meet him on 26 September to ‘settle’ the matter at Khanapur. He called us when we were on the bus and asked us to get down one stop earlier, if we wanted to avoid thousands of people waiting to beat us up,” Najima said.
In her complaint to the RPF filed on 29 September, Najima alleged that Mutagekar, Birje and the woman’s father intimidated Arbaz into deleting all photos, texts and chats between him and the woman.
“He (Mutagekar) claimed that Arbaz had told the girl that he would share their photos on Instagram if she broke up with him,” Najima said, adding that they even pestered Arbaz to pay them Rs 7,000 for “chai paani” — cost for their service of ending the relationship. When the mother-son duo said they didn’t have cash, they were asked to make an online transfer.
“For the next two days, my son kept checking my phone to see if I had received any threatening calls or messages. He asked me to go to work and come back only in an auto since Pundalik had threatened to throw acid on us,” Najima claimed.
Family pushes for conspiracy charges to be added
Currently, the three accused in the FIR have been booked under sections 302 (murder) and 201 (causing disappearance of evidence of offence), to be read with section 34 (group of people committing a crime) of the Indian Penal Code.
But the family has demanded that charges of premeditation and conspiracy should also be added.
“They killed my son and then threw him on the tracks to destroy evidence. They timed it to perfection and chose the time when express trains pass on those tracks. They had planned this all along,” Najima alleged.
While she held the woman responsible as well, other members of Arbaz’s family disagreed. “The girl was willing to marry him immediately but her mother and father are the culprits here. She loved my brother dearly,” said Sameer Mullah, a cousin of Arbaz.
Sameer was part of a delegation that approached the Khanapur tehsildar to file a memorandum demanding speedy justice for Arbaz. The memorandum seeks for charges of conspiracy to be added to the FIR.
Irfan Thalikota, a district Congress leader who led the delegation to the tehsildar’s office, said people from all communities came together to file this memorandum.
“We have convinced the youth to not take law into their hands. We are maintaining peace and have faith in the police department,” Irfan said.
Ever since the gruesome murder came to light, citizens have been taking to social media pages to demand justice for the victim. However, an equal number of baiters are questioning the need to highlight this specific case.
Arbaz’s alleged murder comes at a time Karnataka has been witnessing outrage over moral policing incidents of communal overtures.
Speaking to ThePrint, Karnataka Home Minister Araga Jnanendra said no organisation must take the law into their hands.
“Irrespective of the identity of the culprits, they will be punished. If members of an organisation are taking law into their own hands then the police will monitor such activities,” he said.
Belagavi police sources said the matter is being investigated in a careful manner to ensure that no flare-ups take place.
“Everybody is talking about this case on social media with inflammatory statements on both sides. That makes this case very sensitive,” said a senior police officer involved in the investigation who didn’t wish to be named.
(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)