Amravati: A picture of a poster with the words ‘I Support Nupur Sharma’ shared on a WhatsApp group is believed to have set in motion a chain of events that ended in the death of Umesh Kolhe on 21 June.
According to the police, the post forwarded by Kolhe, a 54-year-old chemist who lived in Maharashtra’s Amravati city, was further forwarded by a friend of the victim, Dr Yousuf Khan, to other WhatsApp groups, one of which included Sheikh Irfan Rahim Khan, alias Irfan Khan — a 35-year-old who then allegedly plotted to kill Kolhe.
Irfan Khan, who the Maharashtra Police are calling the “mastermind” behind the incident, allegedly stabbed Kolhe to death for supporting the comments on the Prophet Muhammad made by Nupur Sharma, a former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson, during a national TV debate in May.
According to a senior Maharashtra Police officer, Khan planned the killing with five of his colleagues and then carried it out. Khan runs an NGO, Rehbar, which helps Muslims living in the city.
The incident took place days before the brutal killing of a tailor in Udaipur, Rajasthan, over a social media post in support of Nupur Sharma, but the details of Kolhe’s death were kept under wraps by the police for almost two weeks.
According to Mahesh, Kolhe’s brother, the chemist was well-liked in the community, and “apolitical”. Speaking to ThePrint, Mahesh said that Umesh would often “casually” forward posts on WhatsApp. “At times, I even told him not to forward some of the posts that were inappropriate,” he said.
An independent MP, Navneet Rana, has accused Maharashtra’s former Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition government of trying to hide the matter from the public.
Rana visited the family Sunday and said to members of the media, “Police tried not to disclose the real reason earlier because of political pressure from the MVA. An investigation should also happen into why police commissioner Arti Singh and Amravati’s guardian minister, Yashomati Thakur, hid the facts from the public.”
Amravati police commissioner Arti Singh spoke to the media Monday, saying, “These allegations are all false. It was a sensitive case. In such cases, we can’t say anything or issue official statements before gathering all evidence. If we wanted to brush it under the carpet, why would we solve it by arresting seven people?” she said.
BJP MP Anil Bonde organised a tribute programme in Kolhe’s honour Monday.
Irfan Khan, who was arrested from Nagpur on 2 July, has been remanded in police custody by the district court till 7 July. His alleged aides were arrested over the first week after Kolhe’s death. Dr Yousuf Khan, too, is already in judicial custody.
All the accused have been given transit remand for four days and have to be presented before the NIA court in Mumbai on or before 8 July.
The senior Maharashtra Police officer quoted earlier said he doesn’t think Yousuf Khan plotted the murder. However, he was the one who sent Kolhe’s forwarded post to others, and that is how it reached Irfan Khan, the officer claimed.
Murtuza Azad, the lawyer representing Irfan Khan, told ThePrint, “He has been falsely implicated. There is nothing concrete in the investigations against Irfan Khan.”
Who was Umesh Kolhe?
Kolhe, who sold medicines for pets and other pet materials at his shop Amit Medicals, was one of three brothers and is survived by his wife, son and daughter-in-law, according to his brother Mahesh.
His shop, which he had been running since 2002, was located near the city’s Axon Hospital.
Every day, Kolhe would open the store’s shutters by 8-8.30 am and would return home at around 10-10.30 pm, Mahesh said.
“He was extremely busy during the day. How could he have found the time to do any radical things? He would hardly even get time to eat lunch. Maybe half an hour here or there, and during that time he would scroll through his phone,” Mahesh told ThePrint. “He identified himself as Hindu. But what’s radical in that?”
According to his family, Umesh Kolhe was “soft-spoken, polite and calm”.
“Anyone who knew him would tell you that even in the mornings Umesh would be smiling, and after a hectic day he would still be pleasant. He was a very jovial person. His clients were never treated as clients but as friends,” said Mahesh.
The shopkeepers of stores near Amit Medical had similar things to say.
“We can’t believe this has happened to Umesh. He was very nice. Every morning we would greet each other and later, whenever we would get time, he would chat pleasantly with everyone around,” a shopkeeper who did not wish to be named told ThePrint.
“Even that day [21 June], Umesh met us like usual and we exchanged smiles. He has been in the area for around 20 years. We came just half a decade ago, but we were good neighbours,” said another shopkeeper, requesting anonymity.
According to Mahesh, Umesh rarely discussed current affairs or politics. “That’s why it’s so shocking that he would get killed over just a single WhatsApp forward,” said Mahesh.
The sequence of events
According to Mahesh, Kolhe received a message in support of Nupur Sharma on 11 June, which he proceeded to forward to other WhatsApp groups that also included his Muslim clients — like Dr Yousuf Khan, 44, who had known Kolhe for almost 16 years, according to Kolhe’s family.
“He is a veterinarian and had been Umesh’s client for a long time,” said Mahesh. “Even I had good relations with him, so you can imagine our surprise.”
“In fact, he even came for the last rites. While leaving, he touched my feet and left, so I remember him being there very clearly. I was, in fact, planning on asking him to look out for Umesh’s son who would be taking over the shop. I cannot believe he is involved in this,” said Mahesh.
After the post reached Irfan Khan, he allegedly planned to kill Umesh along with five aides. According to a police report ThePrint has a copy of, these men were: Muddasir Ahmed alias Sonu Raza Shaikh (22), a resident of Bismillah Nagar behind Abuzar Mosque; Shahrukh Pathan alias Badshah Hidayat Khan (25), a resident of Sufiyan Nagar; Nanu alias Abdul Taufiq (24) of Lalkhali area near Imam Hussain Mosque; Atib Rashid (22) of Maulana Azad Nagar; and Shoaib Khan (22) alias Bhurya Khan, a resident of Chaya Nagar.
“They all work for Rehbar. Irfan assigned tasks to each one of them and gave them Rs 10,000 and a four-wheeler [to flee the city in] after executing the murder,” said the Maharashtra Police officer, adding that Irfan also gave them a “Chinese knife” to execute the murder. The weapon was later recovered by the police, he said.
On 21 June, while on his way home on his scooter at around 10.30 pm, Kolhe was stopped by three men on a bike and allegedly stabbed in the neck by the person named Shoaib.
Kolhe’s son and daughter-in-law, who were following on a separate two-wheeler, rushed him to the nearby Axon Hospital.
While filing the police complaint, Kolhe’s son said that his father bled profusely and was immediately rushed to the hospital, but was declared dead on arrival, the police officer told ThePrint.
Who is Irfan Khan?
Irfan Khan is a resident of Pathan Chowk’s Kamela area and, according to his neighbours, had helped many people secure ambulances during the pandemic, and performed the last rites for those who succumbed to Covid.
“We cannot believe this. This is wrong. There is definitely some misunderstanding,” one of Khan’s neighbours told ThePrint on condition of anonymity.
Another person said, “They are all calling him a mastermind. But for him to be a mastermind, he needs to have some criminal background. Where is that? This is all politics. It is totally shocking.”
As per the senior police officer quoted above, none of the accused has any prior criminal record. Irfan Khan and Abdul Toufiq have minor complaints against them for issues such as a scuffle.
Some of Khan’s neighbours believe that Khan was arrested because of the “influence” he wielded through his social service networks.
ThePrint found that Khan’s family had left for Nagpur after the incident and was unavailable for comment.
The investigation so far
The case was officially handed over to the NIA Saturday. The agency has registered all seven accused under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), applying sections 16 (punishment for terrorist act), 18 (punishment for conspiracy) and 20 (punishment for being member of terrorist gang or organisation) against them.
They have also been charged under IPC sections 153 (a) (punishment for committing offence by promoting enmity between different groups), 153 (b) (imputations, assertions prejudicial to national-integration), 120 (b) criminal conspiracy, and 302 (murder), the Maharashtra Police officer told ThePrint.
According to Irfan Khan’s lawyer Murtuza Azad, the police have taken Khan’s mobile phone, bank account details, his two-wheeler, and the four-wheeler he allegedly used to flee Amravati. The NIA also plans to investigate Rehbar’s funds, said Azad.
According to the post-mortem report, the stabbing heavily damaged Kolhe’s brain nerves, oesophagus, and eye nerves, sources in the police told ThePrint. The knife used was, they added, five inches broad and seven inches long, and was buried five inches deep in his neck.
The police officer added that they have been hearing murmurs of other people receiving threats for their social media posts and WhatsApp forwards, but not many have come forward or made a complaint.
“However, after we went to them, one person was ready to file an official complaint. But we are keeping the details confidential as of now.”
(Edited by Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri)