A photograph of college students: One assaulted, another in hiding, families shattered

A photograph of college students: One assaulted, another in hiding, families shattered
A photograph of college students: One assaulted, another in hiding, families shattered
Written by:

Anisha Sheth | The News Minute | February 25, 2015 | 7.16 pm IST

(Last updated: February 26, 2015 | 12.20 pm IST)

Twenty-year-old college student Mohammed Swali has been in hiding for six days, fearing for his life after he took a photograph with his female friends.

Mangaluru Police have given him protection and have housed him at an undisclosed location, fearing that he would also be assaulted like Mohammed Riyaz, another boy in the photograph, for posing for the photo “with Hindu girls”.

The photograph Swali and his friends took of themselves in a happy go lucky atmosphere found its way to Facebook and WhatsApp the day after it was taken on February 18. In the photograph, Swali can been seen lying down on the laps of five girls who are sitting on a wooden bench in a classroom, all of them smiling into the camera. Also in the photograph are two boys, one of whom is sitting in a corner and the other behind the girls.

On Sunday, the boy sitting on the side, Mohammed Riyaz was assaulted by unidentified people, who allegedly kidnapped him from near his house in Suratkal, around 20 km from Mangaluru, and then assaulted him at an isolated spot for “taking photographs with Hindu girls”. They also wanted him to tell them where Swali was.

When this reporter attempted to contact Swali’s family, his father refused to say anything. Wary of journalists, Swali’s uncle repeatedly maintained that they did not know where he was. The man said that he had last seen Swali on Saturday afternoon, a day after the photo began to be circulated on social media and the whole episode began to make news.

Asked if they did not go looking for him when he did not come back on Saturday night, Swali’s uncle would only say: “Our neighbours consoled us, told us that he would be all right. Our kids have never had a single blemish (on their character) until now. Everybody knows that. We don’t want any communal (incident).”

Other people who spoke to this reporter, however, had a different story to tell. A young man in his twenties claimed that he and some others had whisked Swali away on February 19, the day after the photograph had been taken. “Who else is there to protect? It’s us only, the Popular Front (of India). Whenever there is injustice, we will be there. If something happens to you tomorrow, we will be there to help.”

The young man has been with the Popular Front of India since the days of its Karnataka Forum for Dignity avatar. The PFI itself has been known to perpetrate the kind of assault that groups such as the Hindu Jagrana Vedike and Bajrang Dal have been accused of carrying out. He continued: “We took him away on 19th itself. Who else is there for our protection? We have kept him. He is in a safe place. Do you want to talk to him? We might arrange it for you.”

While Swali cannot return home, and as Riyaz recuperates at home, the girls who were also in the photograph and their families appear to be tense and under immense stress. The mother of one of the girls appears to have taken ill because of the strain, another has also been very deeply affected by what has happened.

A third girl, whom this reporter managed to contact, said in a strained voice: “We are being punished for no wrong, for no fault of ours. We only took that photograph for fun. We did not have any other intention.” She refused to say any more.

The police are in a fix over the case. On Wednesday, police were questioning two suspects who they believe were among those who assaulted Riyaz. A mid-ranking police officer said that the suspects were boys who “run around with Hindu Jagrana Vedike activists” and added that it was difficult to categorise them as such when there was no official list of members. They have identified a third person, but are yet to locate him.

Asked about Swali’s situation, a senior police officer said: “We are giving him protection, but unofficially.” Asked what he meant by that, he said: “How long can we give him protection officially? We are already under-staffed and we cannot give him an armed gunman for a year. What if, after we withdraw protection, something happens to him?”

When asked how the police were unofficially protecting Swali, he said: “I cannot tell you that. Nobody knows where he is, and nobody will know where he is.”

To a question on whether this did not indicate the boldness of anti-social elements, the officer said: “It is not a question of anti-social elements. The problem is that Mangaluru is filled with communal goondas. We can take action if we know which people are likely to do something. But in Mangaluru, every Tom, Dick and Harry is a potential anti-social element.”

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