Administrative Inaction Contributing to Impunity for Groups Like Shri Ram Sena, Says Fact-Finding Report

In light of the grave reports of the brutal murder of 25-year-old Arbaz Mulla in Belagavi on September 28, 2021, a team of seven people from Bengaluru and Davangere visited Belagavi on October 7, to conduct a fact-finding into the incident and express solidarity with the family of the deceased. The team consisted of Akash Bhattacharya (All India People’s Forum), Avani Chokshi (All India Lawyers’ Association for Justice), Nizamuddin (Fraternity Movement), Shaik Zakeer Hussain (a journalist associated with The Cognate), Siddharth Joshi (Independent Researcher), Syed Junaid (an activist associated with All India Students Association), and Tanveer Ahmed (Movement for Justice).

The team met the family of Arbaz Mulla as well as the Superintendent of Police (SP) and Deputy Commissioner (DC) of Belagavi, local journalists, lawyers, and activists. The team was struck by the fact that the police had made no arrests despite the clear role of the Hindutva nationalist vigilante group Shri Ram Sena (Hindustan) in the murder. However the next day, on October 8 as many as 10 persons were arrested for their role in the incident.

When asked about the incident, the SP denied any information till the completion of the investigation. Even when asked about compliance with Supreme Court directions for the creation of a 24-hour helpline to assist inter-caste / inter-religious couples, he again stated that he would respond to the same only after completion of the investigation, while the DC denied any knowledge of the incident.

In the eight days that had passed since the murder, the family received little solidarity from local politicians, journalists and citizens, including those not belonging to Hindutva nationalist parties and groups. The silence and inaction on the part of the administration and politicians are what contributes to the impunity of groups such as Shri Ram Sena.

A few days prior to the murder, Pundalik Maharaj, a member of the Sena, had openly threatened the victim’s mother with acid attack and had warned that he could murder her son, asserting that there were already 40 police cases against him and that he had nothing to fear. Pertinently, Maharaj has now been arrested by the jurisdictional police.

Talking to the family, especially the victim’s cousin, aunty, and mother (Nazima Shaik), the team got a sense that the family had anticipated trouble once the alleged inter-faith love affair between Arbaz and his neighbour became visible and known in Khanapur. Yet there was little social and community support that they could call upon and thus considered agreeing to a “settlement” proposed by Pundalik Maharaj and Prashant Birje of Shri Ram Sena with the hope that the situation would not escalate.

This brings forth the helplessness of the local Muslims and Christians who have been repeatedly targeted with threats, occasional attacks, and boycotts by the Shri Ram Sena over the last decade. Thus, this incident comes in the wake of sustained efforts by Hindu nationalist organisations, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to divide communities along religious lines, and their growing political clout in the region.

The citizens’ team has appealed to all citizens of Karnataka to extend solidarity to Arbaz’s family and friends, to demand a speedy and fair investigation and trial in the case to ensure justice, and to make proactive efforts to build bridges between communities and rebuild communal harmony in the state as well as the country. The team has demanded that action be taken by the Government to ensure such communal incidents are prevented.

The team has further demanded:

  1. The Government should take steps to ensure communal harmony including comprehensive compliance of the Supreme Court judgment in the Shakthi Vahini vs. Union of India case.
  2. The Belagavi administration must ensure the safety of Arbaz’s family.
  3. The government must acknowledge that Belagavi is a communally sensitive area and take requisite steps to prevent such incidents in the future.

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