Bengaluru: What started as opposition to an interfaith relationship by family members of a Hindu woman slowly escalated into intimidation, then extortion, and eventually led to a barbaric ‘murder’ — this is what the Belagavi police investigation into the death of Arbaz Aftab Mullah has revealed.
The police Friday announced the arrest of 10 persons involved in the alleged murder of the 24-year-old Muslim man, whose decapitated body was found on 28 September on railway tracks in Khanapur, a town about 30 km away from Belagavi.
Those arrested include parents of the woman — Eerappa Kumbhar and Susheela Kumbhar — and two of their relatives. Pundalik Mutagekar, the Khanapur Taluk president of Sri Ram Sene Hindustan, a breakaway faction of extremist Hindutva outfit Sri Ram Sene, and four of his accomplices are also among those arrested.
According to the police investigation, the Kumbhars first tried to intimidate Arbaz and his mother Najima Mohammed Ghouse Sheikh with the help of the Hindutva activist.
“On 26 September (two days before the murder), Arbaz and his mother were called by Pundalik (Mutagekar) and the girl’s father for a meeting to put a full stop to his interfaith relationship once for all,” Belagavi Superintendent of Police Laxman Nimbaragi told reporters.
“They snatched Arbaz’s phone, deleted all the photos and videos and even broke his SIM card. They extorted money from him and warned him against contacting the girl again. But the couple continued to correspond… And (then) parents of the girl hired Pundalik to murder Arbaz over this interfaith relationship,” Nimbaragi said.
The Kumbhars allegedly hired the Hindutva activists for Rs 5 lakh to to execute the murder.
Pundalik and his friends called Arbaz to Khanapur again, two days later. “They intimidated Arbaz and took more money before assaulting him, causing fatal injuries and murdering him. In an attempt to cover up their crime, the accused laid out Arbaz’s dead body on the railway tracks to make it look like he died after a train ran over him,” Nimbaragi said.
According to a senior police officer involved in the investigation, while Pundalik is “an office-bearer of a Hindutva outfit, we are yet to ascertain if his accomplices too are”.
“Since these organisations don’t register or provide ID cards for members, there is no way of ascertaining it,” the officer said, adding that except the parents of the woman and two more of their kin, everyone else got involved through Pundalik.
What led to the events on 28 September
After being allegedly threatened and extorted by Pundalik and the woman’s father on 26 September, Arbaz and his mother returned to Belagavi shaken.
Najima had earlier told ThePrint that the accused asked for Rs 7,000 that day but Arbaz gave them only Rs 500. “They gave us their phone numbers to send money via GPay or PhonePe,” Najima had said.
Over the next two days, Arbaz kept getting phone calls from Pundalik and his associates demanding money, Najima said.
A second senior police officer said on 28 September, Arbaz “sold his car and got Rs 90,000, of which he paid brokerage of Rs 15,000. He had Rs 75,000 on him when he left his home Tuesday and went to meet Pundalik on Bepari’s assurance that no harm would be done to him if he paid the money”.
The officer was referring to Qutub-ud-din Allahbaksh Bepari, a Muslim man whose role was allegedly instrumental to the crime. He is among the 10 arrested in the case.
“It was only because Bepari assured Arbaz of safety that he set out to meet Pundalik Mutagekar on the day of his murder. Arbaz would have never left Belagavi if Mutagekar had called him instead. Bepari told Arbaz that he belongs to the same ‘jamaat’ and would ensure his safety,” the second officer said.
Najima had earlier said that Arbaz left two of his expensive phones with his grandmother, fearing they would be snatched when he met Pundalik.
According to police sources, Arbaz was called from Belagavi to Khanapur, where he met Pundalik, who was allegedly waiting with his associates.
“Arbaz’s hands were tied up even before he was forced into a Maruti Omni. The killers took money from him and proceeded to assault him till he died. They later took his body to the railway tracks in the same vehicle and laid it out to make it look like an accident or suicide,” the first police officer quoted above said.
The Sri Ram Sene Hindustan had earlier converted this Maruti Omni into a makeshift ambulance during the Covid-19 pandemic to provide free funeral services to Covid victims, as told to ThePrint by its founder Ramakant Konduskar.
Other details found in investigation
Pundalik Mutagekar, sources in the police said, has a criminal history of petty cases and communal rioting, among other charges. He has never been involved in a crime of such a severe nature in the past.
The police have ruled out the Hindu woman’s involvement in the matter after thorough investigation revealed that she was kept in the dark about her parents’ plan.
Belagavi SP Nimbaragi said the police are yet to access complete details of financial transactions between the woman’s parents and the hired killers. Other aspects of the case like criminal antecedents of each of the accused are being probed.
While an FIR in the case was first filed on 29 September based on Arbaz’s mother Najima’s complaint to the railway police, a fresh FIR was filed on 4 October when the case was transferred to the Belagavi police.
In addition to sections 302 (murder) and 201 (causing disappearance of evidence of offence) read with column 34 (acts done by several persons with common intent) of the Indian Penal Code, the Belagavi police have added additional sections of 341 (wrongful restraint), 120(b) (criminal conspiracy), 384 (extortion), 388 (extortion by threatening) read with column 149 (crime committed by any member of unlawful assembly) IPC and section 27 (using any prohibited arms or prohibited ammunition) of the Arms Act.
‘All of them must hang’
Speaking to ThePrint after the arrests were announced, Arbaz’s mother Najima said she was looking forward to a speedy trial and execution of punishment.
“All of them must be hanged till death. They killed my son in the most barbaric manner and they must pay for it with their lives. I will not rest until all of the accused are given the death sentence,” Najima said.
The 47-year-old has been ill since her son’s murder and has been in and out of hospital twice in this period.
(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)