'No Lawyer' for Muslim Woman Jailed Over WhatsApp Status on Pakistan Resolution Day

A forum of Hindu organisations in Karnataka attempted to prevent lawyers from taking Kuthma Sheikh's case and created a hostile atmosphere in court.

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Bagalkot (Karnataka): Despite blatant attempts by Hindutva groups in the region to deny legal support to the 25-year-old Muslim woman, Kuthma Sheikh, who was arrested on March 24, at Mudhol for allegedly sharing a “problematic” status on her private WhatsApp account, she was released on conditional bail on March 26.

According to members of her family, she is unfazed by her experience as a target of Hindutva antagonism and confident that she will prove her innocence in the matter.

Kuthma had been arrested on March 24, a day after Arun Kumar Bhajantri, allegedly a Hindutva activist, was reportedly offended by her private WhatsApp status and registered a complaint at the Bagalkot police station. In her WhatsApp status on March 23, Kuthma had wished peace and prosperity to all nations across the world on the eve of Pakistan Resolution Day. 

Kuthma’s family alleges that a group named the Mudhol Hindu Organisations’ Forum had, through a memorandum, appealed to the Lawyers’ Association to refuse to represent Kuthma Sheikh in court. It was only with the help of local community leaders and close friends that the family was able to appoint a lawyer who helped the woman secure bail.

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Later, when Kuthma’s bail petition came up for hearing, a few members of the Hindu forum were physically present inside the court premises, thereby creating such a hostile environment for the Sheikh family that the lawyer who appeared for Kuthma had to advise them to leave the court and apply for bail the next day.  

The offence and arrest

Since Kuthma’s conditional bail entails her to refrain from interacting with the media, her brother Salman explained to The Wire that Bhajantri had been able to see Kuthma’s WhatsApp status due to the fact that his wife had provided Kuthma with tailoring services and the two women had exchanged phone numbers.

“Something as inconsequential as a private WhatsApp status wishing all nations peace and prosperity was purposely made viral by the complainant and his network of people. This was used to file a preposterous complaint against Kuthma. In the Mudhol region, the various communities have been interacting with each other peacefully and things were relatively normal until this news surfaced,” Salman told The Wire

Rizwan Sheikh, another of Kuthma’s brothers, had been present at their residence when the police arrived on the night of March 23. 

“Two women constables knocked at our door at around 8 pm on March 23. When I opened the door, they asked if there were any women in the house. After I called my mother, the women constables spoke to my mother and sister, showing them a screenshot of the status message uploaded by my sister,” Rizwan recollected.

According to Rizwan, there were six police personnel in total: four male constables and two women constables. “They did not have a warrant at hand, but insisted that they were there to ensure our safety as the status message uploaded by my sister had rubbed people the wrong way,” Rizwan said. “We cooperated with them and responded to their questions. The lady constables stayed in our residence that night while the four male constables stayed outside. The women officials even took Kuthma’s pictures at our residence.” 

At about 5 am the following morning, the six police personnel escorted Kuthma to the Circle Police Inspector’s Office, accompanied by Rizwan, where they waited till 10 am. 

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“After 10 am, we were taken to the police station, where my sister was questioned by different officers. Since her WhatsApp status was a prayer for all countries, my sister explained her point of view and also said she had not known that the message would become this kind of an issue. She clarified that she had had no intention other than wishing all nations peace,” said Rizwan. 

At the police station, Kuthma was photographed again and asked to sign several documents. At about 1 pm, police personnel took her for a medical test at the government hospital. 

“I was not allowed to accompany her to the hospital,” said Rizwan. 

At no point in this process was any member of the family shown a warrant for Kuthma’s arrest, according to Rizwan. 

Kuthma’s brothers are also startled by the fact that the photos taken of Kuthma by the police during her arrest and questioning have found their way to social media.

“Kuthma had not posted any of her photos on social media. However, when the police took her for interrogation, they had taken her photo, which later went viral on WhatsApp groups in the town,” Salman told The Wire

The bail applications

Kuthma was first presented before the court on March 24 and then sent to judicial custody, according to Salman. 

“We had hired a lawyer and tried to secure her bail earlier on March 24, but it was rejected in the court. The next day, March 25, I was at the court with her lawyer, seeking bail for Kuthma. But around 10-15 members of the Hindu Sangatanegala Okkota, Mudhol (Hindu Organisations Forum, Mudhol), had gathered at the court. It was this group that had appealed to the Lawyers’ Association to not take up Kuthma’s case,” Salman told The Wire

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With the presence of the members of the Hindu group at the court, the atmosphere turned hostile and Kuthma’s lawyer asked Salman to leave the premises, stating that he would file the bail application the following day.

“The court granted bail to my sister on March 26,” said Salman. “We received the bail order at around 4.30 pm and she was released by 7 pm that day.”

The memorandum

The memorandum submitted by the Hindu organisations of Mudhol to the lawyers’ association read: “With regards to above subject on 23-03-2022 Kuthma Sheikh urf Khrthujabi of Mudhol, a Muslim Woman has involved (sic) in the anti-national activity, as she took a stand against India by uploading a Pakistan flag as her WhatsApp status. With regards to this, we have registered a case against her in Station (sic). There are chances that she might apply for bail, so we the Hindu organisations of Mudhol are requesting the association members to show their patriotism by not helping her in proceeding with her bail application.” 

While The Wire acquired a copy of this memorandum from the Lawyers’ Association itself, it is learned that the document was also widely propagated through social media. 

Kuthma’s lawyer, Lakappa Avardhi, told The Wire that he had been under no pressure from anyone and that he had only fulfilled his duty as a lawyer by appearing for her in court. Meanwhile, V.D. Katti, the president of the Lawyers’ Association, did not respond to The Wire‘s repeated attempts for a comment on the memorandum.

When The Wire asked Arun Kumar Bhajantri whether he had been instigated by any group or organisation to file the complaint, he said it had been his own decision to lodge it. Asked if he was affiliated with any organisation, he refused to comment.

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The police perspective

Lokesh Bharamappa Jagalasar, superintendent of police in Bagalkot, told The Wire that the case against Kuthma Sheikh is still under investigation.

“The woman in question had uploaded a post related to the Pakistan Resolution Day. We received a complaint that the post was provocative and aimed to cause friction in society. Since the uploader’s intent is not determined, we are still investigating the matter,” said Jagalasar. 

Kuthma has been charged with sections 153(A) and 505 (2) of the Indian Penal Code. These sections relate to the creation or promotion of enmity, hatred or ill-will between groups on the basis of religion, race and so on. 

“Our role is to mitigate escalating situations between parties that are in disagreement. As police, we have witnessed provocative postings from both sides of the spectrum and we have taken all of this into consideration. We are investigating all the sides involved. Our focus is to maintain peace, law, and order in the land. We will investigate accordingly,” Jagalasar added. When asked for a copy of the first information report (FIR) on the basis of which a case was registered against Kuthma, Jagalasar said the FIR had been uploaded on their website, but that he had forgotten its number. 

Mohammed Irshad H is an independent journalist. He tweets at @Shaad_Bajpe.