Nazima Mohammed Shaik remembers the events of September 26 quite vividly. It was the day she accompanied her son, Arbaaz, to meet members of Sri Ram Sena Hindustan, a Hindu group, in Khanapur in Belagavi district of Karnataka to broker a ‘compromise’ because Arbaaz was in a relationship with a Hindu woman. TNM has accessed call records to prove that Arbaaz received several calls on September 26, in the hours leading up to this meeting, from Pundalik Mutgekar, a Khanapur taluk level member of Sri Ram Sena Hindustan — an offshoot of the Sri Ram Sene. “I went along with Arbaaz and we were told over the phone that there were 1,000 people waiting there to hit us,” Nazima says, “but when we reached there, it was just three people,” recalls Nazima — Pundalik, Prashanth Birje (another Sri Ram Sena Hindustan Member), and Ali Rangari, a Muslim man who had no connection to Arbaaz and Nazima, and who had been approached by the SRSH to ensure that Arbaaz did not pursue the relationship.
That day, 47-year-old Nazima thought the worst of their troubles were over. However, two days later, she came back to Belagavi to the news that her son, 24-year-old Arbaaz Aftab, was dead — decapitated, his hands tied with a rope. And so far, no one has been arrested in the case.
“When we met the Sri Ram Sena Hindustan men on September 26, there was a heated exchange,” Nazima tells TNM. The men snatched Arbaaz’s phone, deleted photos of him and his girlfriend, and broke his SIM card. “They also demanded a Rs 7,000 bribe, of which Arbaaz paid Rs 500 on that day. They gave us their phone numbers and asked us to make an online payment for the rest of the amount,” recalls Nazima. “(Pundalik) also said that he has 40 cases against him, and that one more will not make a difference to him. He threatened that he would use acid on Arbaaz if he did not do as he was told,” Nazima alleges.
“What he was told” was to break off his relationship with his girlfriend — a Hindu woman — and pay the money. A day later, Nazima left for Goa for some passport related work — and that was the last she saw of her son. Meanwhile, there was a significant increase in the amount being demanded for the bribe amount, says Arbaaz’s cousin Sameer Pareshwari (31). “We know that they asked for Rs 90,000 more, which is why he sold his old Vento car for Rs 90,000 cash on September 27.”
Nazima, mother of Arbaaz, at her residence in Belagavi, Karnataka.
Around 7 pm on September 28, Nazima was on a train from Goa back to Belagavi. Arbaaz had told her earlier in the day to come straight home from the railway station, and she was anxious. By the time she reached Belagavi, Nazima received a call from her son’s number, and a railway official told her that a body had been found.
Arbaaz was found dead, his body decapitated, on the railway track near Raja Tiles in Khanapur, close to Belagavi. Though the case was made to appear like a suicide, investigating officers say the evidence found close to the body, and the chain of incidents leading to Arbaz’s death, indicate that it was a premeditated murder, after which attempts were made to dispose of his body.
“He had been living in fear for the past year since his relationship became commonly known in Khanapur. He used to check my phone often to see if anyone had called us,” says Nazima.
Threatened for love
It was a year ago that Nazima had found out about her son’s relationship with a Hindu woman. Her husband had been a tailor but he had died in 2017, and the mother and son lived together in Khanapur, a town located 26 km from Belagavi on the highway leading to Panaji in Goa. Nazima’s daughter Tarzila Aftab, 25, lives in the United Kingdom with her husband. Arbaaz worked as a secondhand car dealer in the town while Nazima worked as a Urdu teacher in a government school in Belagavi.
When Nazima discussed the idea of moving from Khanapur to Belagavi to take care of her ailing mother, she was met with resistance from Arbaaz. Nazima soon discovered that her son was reluctant to leave Khanapur because he was in love with a woman who had grown up in their neighbourhood. “I spoke to the woman’s family, and they took the woman away saying they will not allow this. By this time, the public in Khanapur came to know about the couple, and despite what parents advised them, they continued to find ways to meet each other,” Nazima says. Over the next year, the couple was told at many points by people across religious lines to break off the relationship. In this time, Arbaaz and his mother changed houses three times, moving between Khanapur and Belagavi.
Arbaaz’s friends and family describe him as a silent man who divided his free time between his friends and his girlfriend. Both friends and family members said he had spoken very little with them in the month leading up to his death. They all agreed that he was under tremendous pressure.
The day of the death
Sameer says Arbaaz handed two of his phones to his grandmother before leaving the house on Tuesday evening, the day his dismembered body was found. He feared that his phones would be snatched away again. “He had a low-end phone with him when he left home, and that is a critical piece of evidence now,” says Sameer.
A CCTV camera spotted Arbaaz turning the corner from their house around 6 pm and Sameer says that it was to meet the members of the Sri Ram Sena Hindustan again, and work out a final 'solution'. “He had sold a car to arrange for the money for the meeting, and was also considering selling his iPhones,” says Sameer. That Tuesday night around 8 pm, Sameer rushed to the spot and saw that Arbaaz’s body was decapitated. “I could not bear to look at him like that,” says Sameer. The cousin has also poked holes in the preliminary claim that Arbaaz's death was a suicide case. Sameer said he saw his cousin’s severed head lying on the track, while his torso was chest down. It was only later when they turned the body over did Sameer realise that the hands were bound together in rope. Though the police asked Sameer not to take any photos, he was able to take some, and he hopes to use the pictures as proof that Arbaaz did not die by suicide, but was murdered.
According to Sameer, the fact that his hands were tied by rope and that his body was found in an obsolete area on the railway tracks suggests this was a pre-meditated murder and the police should invoke section 120 (B) (criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The police have so far invoked sections 302 (murder), 201 (destruction of evidence) and 34 (common intention) of the IPC based on a complaint made by Nazima on September 29, a day after the body was found.
Arbaaz Aftab was allegedly murdered over his relationship with a Hindu woman.
Group confirms they’re love vigilantes
Ramakanth Konduskar, President of the Sri Ram Sena Hindustan in Belagavi, confirms that Pundalik and Prashant are members of his organisation. "In the past SRSH has been involved in many such cases where we advised the woman, working with the (police) department. In this case, it was our Khanapur taluk members and they have been taken for questioning over doubts. But they have not been arrested and there are many question marks over this case," Ramakanth Konduskar says.
Founded in 2006, the Shri Ram Sena notes that its objective is to “organise,” “consolidate” and “serve” the Hindu society, according to the Facebook page for the Belgaum wing of the organisation. It currently has a little over 11,000 followers on the social media platform. The ‘About’ page also notes that it has a presence outside of Karnataka, in states such as Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Delhi. “With an increased Hindu activity in Karnataka, a strong & self-confident Hindu organisation is slowly taking shape,” the page reads. The group often posts on Facebook with photos and descriptions from events attended by their various members in other districts and taluks of north Karnataka.
Belagavi Superintendent of Police (SP) Laxman Nimbargi told TNM that eight people were questioned including Pundalik, Prashanth and the girlfriend's family. "We have taken over the investigation on October 3 from the Railway Police and we are confident we will crack the case soon," says Laxman Nimbargi.
Nazima says that she has faith in the police, that they will find justice for Arbaaz. “I don’t want any other family to go through what we have. This is why I am speaking up about my son’s death. Arbaaz was courageous and I want the police to ensure his death finds justice,” says Nazima.
TNM's reporter @prajwalmanipal shares his experiences reporting from Belagavi on the murder of a 24-year-old man allegedly killed over an interfaith relationship.— TheNewsMinute (@thenewsminute) October 7, 2021
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