Dispatches of Harsh Mander who is on a journey across India to raise awareness about lynchings.
Before you read my post on the sixth day of the Karwan, in coastal Karnataka, I request you to look first at the picture of the young man that I attach here. His palms are cupped into the shape of a heart. This photograph was taken by his friend on a day that turned out to be the last day of his life. His distraught family found it in his mobile phone on his savaged lifeless body that night.
His name was Harish Poojari. 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 on the bike of his Muslim friend Samiullah?
Harish’s father barely made enough money, wrapping bidis at their home in Bantwal village, therefore their only son Harish dropped out of school in Class 9, and apprenticed and learned the trade of an electrician. His mother remembers him to be a dutiful son, who gave her all he earned to run the household. The finances of the family became even more precarious after his father fell to cancer.
On November 12, 2015, Harish took the day off picnicking with his friends. He returned home that evening, and set out again only for a few minutes to buy some milk to add to the tea that 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 out of the village 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 to him, and why.
The story that was pieced together by later investigations was that when he was returning from the shop, his close friend Samiullah, a Muslim, happened to pass by and offered to drop him home on his bike. It was a three-minute ride. But on the way, a bunch of young men, allegedly of the Bajrang Dal, accosted them, and fell upon them with knives. Samirullah was badly injured but ultimately survived. His friend, stabbed 14 times and his intestines pulled out, did not.
When the Karwan met Seethamma and her daughter almost two years later, Harish’s mother was still uncomprehending of the hate that took from her their only son, and that too with so much brutality. By strangers who did not even know him. His father, heartbroken, died two months after his son was killed. Mithalaxmi works in a travel agency, struggling bravely to hold her family together. What solace could we offer them except that we shared their incomprehension and their pain?
Heavy of heart, we drove from their home to Mangalore where many people had gathered for an Aman Sabha or peace meeting, to welcome the Karwan. We paid homage to Gauri Lankesh, and her courageous battle against communal politics. We reflected together on how coastal Karnataka, long known for its communal amity between people of diverse faiths, had developed into a communal cauldron, a laboratory for Hindutva politics, including lynching that went back to 2004. We stressed the need to speak out and respond; and the meeting hearteningly resolved to set up an Aman Insaniyat Citizen Council to respond quickly to prevent and record hate crimes, ensure legal justice, and support the families shattered by hate violence.
In the afternoon, the organisers took us in a smaller group to meet a family in Krishnapuda village that had been bereaved by a different kind of hate violence. This was not by mobs but men in uniform, in the name of cow protection.
This happened on April 19, 2014, a year after the Congress government assumed power in the state. Theirs was a family of wage workers. The dead man’s brother Imtiaz told us that Kabir, his 22 year-old youngest brother, was a house painter. But he developed an allergy to the paint, and began to look for other work. The law in Karnataka permits the slaughter of old cattle and there was good money in transporting these animals. He was employed as a “loader” in these cattle trucks for a thousand rupees a day.
Farmers sold their ageing animals in a large cattle bazaar in Shimoga, and their trucks transported the animals to the coastal belt. He learnt that there was an established flourishing racket by which at every check-post police had to be paid off, and they would let the trucks with cattle cargo proceed. The truck with Kabir was halted at Tanikot Checkpost in Sangiri, by a special police force established to fight Maoist Naxalites.
For reasons that are unclear, there was a dispute at the check-post even after money was paid. A constable fired into the air, and the driver, cleaner and other loaders all managed to run away. But he shot Kabir dead at close range. It was impossible to claim credibly that the man was killed because he was a Naxalite, cow protection was not the mandate of the force, and even if it was, why should a man be killed for this?
There was large-scale outrage, and the police finally have charge-sheeted the constable for murder. But recently there are moves in the state administration to close the case without even completing the trial