The setting sun was blazing down on Coimbatore on Wednesday afternoon as The News Minute's team made its way down the dusty lanes of South Ukkadam. Ahead of us, at a distance of 500 metres, was a young man in a white shirt, riding a bike. He stopped every ten minutes to ensure we were following him, surreptitiously surveying the road to make sure that our entry did not raise any kind of alarm.
We had just passed the Ukkadam bypass road, when our guide came to a halt opposite a bare patch of land. The young man stood on the other side, looking away, even as we approached the plot. There, marked by stones, was an oval space on the patch, just long enough for a human body to fit into. We had arrived at the spot where atheist and Dravidar Viduthalai Kazahagam member (DVK) M Farooq had been murdered on March 16. Across the road, keeping a tense watch on the bypass was Farooq's 27-year-old brother-in-law, Shah Jahan.
It was here, that the 31-year-old scrap merchant was hacked to death, allegedly by six residents of Coimbatore who were enraged by his atheist ideology. The police, who are investigating the case, told The News Minute that the Dravidar Vidudhalai Kazhagam member's social media posts had drawn the ire of the accused, who believed his writings and pronouncements to be 'anti-Islamic'. Of the six accused, three of them - Ansarth, Sadam Hussain and Shamsuddin - had surrendered before the court. Two others - Munaf and Akram - surrendered at the local police station. The sixth accused, Jaffar, was handed over to the police by his own father.
The accused were all residents of Ukkadam and adjacent areas. Three of them were Farooq's 'best friends', a revelation made by the atheist's family.
Killed by his best friends?
It was close to 1pm when Shah Jahan arrived at the Aroma hotel, near the collector's office in Coimbatore, to meet us. He had brought with him the District Secretary of the Dravidar Vidudhalai Kazhagam as well. The young man had denied our request to visit his home and the opportunity to meet Farooq's wife and parents. "The neighbours are all watching and the family is bereft. I will come meet you," he had said tersely over the phone.
So, it was with little hope of visiting Farooq's home that the interview began. Shah Jahan spoke softly at first, describing how the threats had all begun. "Close to a year back, my brother-in-law got a phone call from an unknown person. They said that if you remain an atheist and broadcast such views, we will make sure you don't last in Ukkadam much longer," he recalls. "The person calling him was threatening to kill him from the very beginning. Machan (Brother-in-law in Tamil) did not tell my sister, as he didn’t want to worry her. He felt nobody would dare to kill him and considered it an empty threat," Shah Jahan says.
But, the warnings didn't end there. Farooq, over the course of the year, allegedly received multiple threats in the form of Facebook messages and phone calls. This even as Farooq's friends circle saw drastic changes, Shah Jahan says. "One of the main accused in the case, Munaf, started getting close to Farooq only in December. It was obvious that Munaf was doing everything to get into my brother-in-law's good books. He even claimed that he was beginning to see the truth in atheism and wanted to join the Dravidar Vidudhalai Kazhagam," says Shah Jahan.
But according to the District President of the DVK, Farooq was not fooled. "Farooq has been a member of our group for 5 years, from the time it was founded. He was an atheist even before he joined us," says Nehru Das who describes DVK as an organisation that believes in atheism and fights against discrimination based on religion and caste.
"He told us about Munaf wanting to join the group but he was sceptical. Farooq made it clear that he would observe Munaf before inducting him in the group," he says.
According to the police, the last phone call that Farooq had received was from Munaf. He had allegedly claimed that his bike had stopped and asked Farooq to help.
"Farooq rushed out of the house to help him," says Shah Jahan. "They knew that he would always help a friend, and when he went there, they killed him," he says, his voice quivering.
Who are the 'they' that Shah Jahan was referring to? And how do 'they' know Farooq so well?
"Amongst the accused are two good friends of Farooq - Jaffar and Ansarth," says Shah Jahan. "We don't know why the other three have been arrested. We don't know who they are at all. But Jaffar bhai and Farooq were doing business together for a while," he explains.
According to the family and members of the DVK, Farooq and Jaffar were running the scrap dealing business together. While Farooq had reportedly developed the business, Jaffar had invested in it. "They got to know Ansarth also through the business," says Nehru Das. "It was all going fairly well till over a year ago. That is when the tension between them increased and the business split," he adds.
As it turns out, Farooq, Jaffar and Ansarth reportedly went on a tour to Goa together with several other friends, close to a year-and-a-half ago. "Over there, my brother-in-law and the other two had a huge debate on religion and Islam. Things didn't go too well and they returned on a bitter note. After that their friendship began to deteriorate," says Shah Jahan.
"Jaffar began distancing my brother-in-law from the business. But Farooq was too mild a person to say anything, so he understood and moved away from the business and that group," he explains.
Shah Jahan and Nehru Das claim Jaffar had been by Farooq's side even during family problems and helped sort out personal issues. While they were explaining how shocked they were by the turn of events, the waiter brought our bill. By now, Shah Jahan had visibly relaxed and was clearly more comfortable talking to this reporter. It was perhaps this long conversation, with lingering statements and unanswered questions that prompted him to get up and say, "You can come with me to our area (Bilal estate) and I will check if my sister will talk to you. If she is alright with it, you can come into the house."
The pain of betrayal
Ukkadam has a high density of Muslim population and the advertisements mounted on top of buildings screamed who the advertisers were catering to. Most billboards had a burqa-clad woman. The houses were a multi-coloured array of buildings and there were large tracts of land with half-finished constructions.
We turned into one of the streets, ensuring that we were at least a 100 metres behind Shah Jahan before halting in front of a parrot green house. A young girl, around seven years old, sat on a red chair in the corridor. She was busy sketching, oblivious to the cries from the hallway. A young woman, Farooq's sister, came out to call the little girl to eat. She refused to even look up and all she said was, “I will eat when Amma eats."
"My sister is refusing to even eat," Shah Jahan explains, looking at his niece who was still sketching. "The family is not able to get over the shock at all,” he says, before going in to find out if she will talk to the media.
After close to fifteen minutes, Shah Jahan beckons us into the bedroom. There, seated on the bed, was 29-year-old Rasheeda, and Farooq's mother, Nafeesa. Other women in hijabs were seated on the floor.
She sat there slumped against the wall and spoke with a sense of resignation. "My husband didn't want me to know about the threats because it would worry me, but one week before his murder, he looked very agitated. I would keep asking him why and he wouldn't tell me," she says. Rasheeda doesn't mince her words when it comes to her husband's associations. "I don't know why he had to be friends with that Munaf. I kept warning him. Do you know he is a murderer? Why would he associate himself with a murderer?" she asks.
According to the police, Munaf had a case of murder registered against him in connection with a 2010 highway robbery.
But it was not Munaf who the family was most angry at. "If a third person was involved, we may have been able to take it," says Nafeesa, Farooq's mother. "But this Jaffar, he literally stabbed my son in the back and he betrayed our trust. These wounds of betrayal will never heal," she says.
Rasheeda confirms Shah Jahan's revelation on the tour that Farooq took with two of the accused. "I don't know where they went exactly, but yes, I know that they had huge arguments during the trip and my husband came back disturbed. He thought they were friends, and obviously, you speak your mind when you are with your friends," she says angrily.
So, was it this debate that sparked the end of their friendship?
"No, it actually began to sour when Farooq was released from jail on December 7 last year," says Rasheeda, looking away.
A murky past
In September 2016, a 36-year old Hindu Munnani spokesperson named Sasikumar was riding his bike back home in Coimbatore, when four men chased and hacked him to death. According to reports, the murder led to religious tensions in the city. Miscreants reportedly threw petrol bombs at mosques causing panic, following which police protection was provided to all places of worship.
"After the mosques were attacked, several residents of Ukkadam began protesting near the toll gate. My brother-in-law at that time had gone to fetch milk. He was just standing on the sidelines and watching, but when the police came, they detained him with over 1000 other people," claims Shah Jahan. "He was kept in Salem jail under the Goondas Act," he explains.
The police, however, have another version to offer. A police officer handling the Farooq murder case says, "He was arrested because he was damaging vehicles at the protests."
Farooq's family and the DVK however deny the charge. "He was an atheist," says Nehru Das. "Why would he participate in the protest? In fact, we used his posts on social media to prove his innocence and help secure his release in December," he adds.
Following the DVK's efforts to bring him out of jail, Farooq reportedly began propagating his atheist ideology even more. "He would ask his friends, what is the point of God and Islam? He would say the DVK has helped him more in a state of crisis," says Rasheeda. "This used to really annoy his friends and after this incident everyone came to know he was an atheist," she adds.
But lawyer Zakaria, who is defending Sadam Hussain, Ansarth and Shamsuddin in court, claims that they have no connection to the murder. "The police harassed their parents and found them to be easy targets to close the case," the lawyer claims. He, however, admits that Sadam has 5 assault cases and one theft case against him. "But as far as this case is concerned, they are not involved and we will prove their innocence in the court of law. The three were close friends of Farooq, why will they murder him?" he asks, not willing to comment on Jaffar or Munaf. All the accused are currently being interrogated under police custody.
The contradictions that arise
While media and police have stated that Farooq's Facebook statuses and messages on a Whatsapp group called ‘Allahu Murdhath’ are what led to the murder, his family dismisses it.
"You can see his Facebook statuses and you will immediately know that there is nothing harsh or anti-Islamic in them,” claims Shah Jahan, as he scrolls through Farooq's profile. He extends the smartphone to show Farooq's praises for Periyar and his ideologies. "Farooq never even forced us to renounce God. He respected other people's beliefs. All his arguments were level headed and logical. That is what scared these murderers, the fact that he was so convincing," he adds.
On March 20, the Indian Express reported that one of the reasons that could have led to Farook’s murder was a photo the rationalist had posted on the Allahu Murdhath WhatsApp group 15 days ago. The group reportedly has 400 members from different districts of Tamil Nadu. Farooq allegedly posted a picture on the group, in which his child was seen holding a placard with the slogan 'Kadavul illai, Kadavul illai, illai (There is no God, There is no God, There is no God)'.
Nehru Das, however, says this was a practice undertaken by all members of DVK. "Farooq regularly brought his children to our meetings and gatherings. Several of our members make their children hold such placards. It is meant to symbolically tell them to at least listen to the next generation," he explains. "It was a common sight and couldn't have been the reason for this murder. We staunchly believe that another organisation is behind this whole murder and they instigated Farooq's friends. Why did Munaf have to befriend him?" he asks.
Just as the family claims that three of the accused were well-known to Farooq, the police also states that all 6 of the accused are Farooq's friends.
"The family may not be aware, but by the accused's own confessions, they were all close to Farooq and hatched this conspiracy," says DC Lakshmi, who is currently handling the murder case. "As far as Farooq's posts on Facebook are concerned, several of them were indeed harsh and anti-Islam. His friends warned him multiple times, but he did not listen. Using his children in this propaganda was the last straw," she adds. The police custody of the six accused ends on Friday evening.
But even as the investigation continues, the family remains defeated. They claim that even the truth behind the murder is of no consequence now. "When my son was leaving to help Munaf, I stopped him. I had this gut feeling that he shouldn't be going out so late and look what happened," says Farooq's mother, her voice breaking. "If these fellows murdered him for religion then they are in the wrong. The Quran says that we must love everyone. My son was caring and affectionate. Even in the end he went to help a friend. He is the real Muslim, not the ones who killed in the name of Islam," she says between sobs.