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Communalism

An Accused in the Murder of a Muslim Cow Trader in Karnataka Is a Familiar Name

Punit Kerehalli, one of the five accused in the murder of Idris Pasha, is the president of a well known Hindutva group which had earlier been vocal about stopping Muslim vendors from selling wares outside temples.

New Delhi: On April 1, 2023, a dead body was discovered in the Ramnagar district of Karnataka. The deceased was identified as one Idris Pasha who worked as a cattle trader and transported cattle from the state to Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Pasha’s family has alleged that he was murdered by cow vigilantes.

According to reports, the incident took place on the night of Friday, March 31. A day later after the news of the alleged murder spread in the area, videos of massive protests by community members against the accused surfaced online.

Locals alleged that despite Pasha and his accomplices having  the necessary documents to prove that they were not involved in illegal cattle smuggling, Pasha was attacked and fatally injured by a local Hindutva leader Punith Kerehalli and his associates.

A first information report registered by Sathanur Police on the basis of a complaint by Pasha’s relatives and accessed by The Wire mentioned that Pasha was transporting cattle with two others when their lorry was intercepted by self-styled cow vigilantes near the Sathanur Police Station in Ramnagar.

Kerehalli and his associates, who are the accused in the case, allegedly claimed that Pasha and his co-travellers were illegally transporting cattle and asked them to pay a “fine” of Rs 2 lakhs. When Pasha refused to pay the amount, he was allegedly assaulted so grievously that he died on the spot, the FIR notes the complainants having said.

In another FIR filed on the basis of a complaint by Pasha’s driver and co-traveller, Syed Zaheer, it is mentioned that they had loaded 16 cows onto their container vehicle in Mandya to transport them to Tamil Nadu on March 31. This account is similar to the previous one and notes thats they were stopped by people in a car at the Santhemala Circle in Sathanur. Five people were in the car, Zaheer says. He also noted that the now deceased Idris Pasha and the third co-traveller, Irfan, ran away and that Zaheer was taken to the Sathanur police station by the men who had stopped them. The container Zaheer was driving was also taken to the police.

Punith Kerehalli is said to be one of the five accused who have been booked on charges of murder, wrongful restraint, and intentional insult with intent to provoke a breach of the peace in the above two FIRs.

Pasha’s younger brother Yunus told The Wire that his brother was being targeted for his identity.

“He was just a driver who carried rice and wheat from one place to another. This time he was transporting cattle from one market to another. They were chased, threatened to give money and my brother was told to go to Pakistan. Why would we go to Pakistan? If you love Pakistan so much then why don’t you go to Pakistan? I don’t want this to happen to any other family. This should stop. Who will look after my brother’s children, now?” he told The Wire.

Meanwhile, based on a complaint by the accused Kerehalli, a third FIR case was registered against the driver Zaheer and others under sections of the Karnataka Prevention of Cow Slaughter and Cattle Act, Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, Animal Transport Act, and Motor Vehicles Act, Indian Express has reported. Karnataka’s anti-cow slaughter law came into effect in 2021 with provisions for stringent punishment.

Punit Kerehalli is the president of a far-right Hindutva outfit called Raastra Rakshana Pade (literally, ‘national security organisation’). This same outfit was involved in the campaigns against halal food and boycott of Muslim vendors from the vicinity of Hindu temples in Karnataka.

After reports of his involvement in the murder case, social media was flooded with his photographs with prominent leaders of the ruling BJP including Tejaswi Surya, Kapil Mishra, K. Annamalai, and C.T. Ravi.

The Wire found Punit’s name to have been featured in other cases of communal incitement and vandalism in the past. In September 2021, Karnataka police had nabbed three people for allegedly vandalising  posters of Tipu Sultan. In this case, which had grabbed massive media attention, the name of Punit Kerehalli had also propped up amongst those arrested. He was also detained as a preventive measure after his protests against the decision to allow Muslims to do business in the vicinity of a prominent temple.

On social media, there are also videos of Punit harassing and intimidating people he believes are “cow smugglers.” in one video with over a million views, he can be seen hurting a man with what seems to be an electric taser.

Frontline had reported that Kerehalli and his team were also responsible for unveiling a Shiva statue on an illegally constructed artificial island on the Begur lake in Bengaluru.

A Karnataka high court bench of Chief Justice Abhay Shreeniwas Oka had asserted in its order: “By filing the memo, a shocking incident of unveiling of the idol of Lord Siva installed by the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) on an artificially created island in Begur lake has been brought to the attention of this court.” 

According to the order, the decision to create islands in the lake was prima facie unlawful. The previous orders noted that the decision to install Shiva’s statue on the island was also prima facie illegal. However, the case does not have a communal link.

A spate of murders and violence by cow vigilante groups have been reported from various states across India in recent times. In January 2023, two Muslim men were allegedly charred to death by cow vigilantes in Haryana. The key accused remain at large despite protests by the victims’ families. 

In 2018, the Supreme Court had issued guidelines to prevent mob lynchings and since 2021, the top court has made critical comments and interventions against communal hate speech from time to time but these reprimands have had little effect.

In a recent scathing attack on the state’s inability to check hate crimes and speech, the Supreme Court commented that people are getting away with  hate speech because the state is impotent, powerless and “doesn’t act in time” and that it will stop “the moment politics and religion are separated”.