“All my son did was love a girl from another community. Is that a crime in this country,” asked a tearful Najeema Shaikh after learning that her son’s killers had been caught on Friday.
For Shaikh, a 46-year-old teacher at Karnataka’s Khanapur taluk, the arrests of 10 people by the police in connection with Arbaz Aftab Mullah’s murder came as small consolation. Two of them were the parents of his Hindu girlfriend.
“The last time when we met (September 26), we had said that he would not speak to the girl again, but they still took his life,” she told The Indian Express. Shaikh was referring to a meeting with some of the accused people—including Sri Rama Sene Hindustan leader Pundalika Maharaj—that took place two days before the killing of her son, 24.
During that meeting, she said, Pundalika took a payment of Rs 7,000 through a digital wallet and demanded more. The Hindu outfit leader, according to the police, had been extorting “protection” money from Mullah for well over a year, much before being hired to kill him. While the police are yet to arrive at the amount, Shaikh said it runs into several lakhs of rupees.
Shaikh lost her husband, a tailor, three years ago. With her savings, she is building a house in Khanapur. She said she was forced to move to Belagavi city as there were threats to Mullah’s life. “I had taken a loan of Rs 15 lakh from the bank and Arbaz had transferred it to his account saying he would oversee the house construction in Khanapur. While the money from the account was getting deducted, nothing was really happening on the ground. Eventually, I realized he was being extorted by Pundalika and his gang,” Shaikh said.
“He was fearful and they took advantage of it. I informed my daughter who then took over the responsibility and we restarted the construction work without involving Arbaz. He never answered the question of what he did with the money, about Rs 14 lakh,” she said.
Shaikh lamented that her eldest daughter, who stays in London with her husband, was unable to see her brother for the last time. “She is eight months pregnant and is unable to travel. With the loss of her brother, she is suffering every minute.”
On the day of murder, Mullah is said to have paid Rs 75,000 to Pundalika by selling his car. Police said the Pundalika, the outfit’s Khanapur taluk chief, is a habitual offender and has multiple cases against him, including extortion.
Ramanath Konduskar, chief of the Sri Ram Sena Hindustan in Belagavi district, tried to distance the outfit from the murder. “It might be Pundalika’s personal doing and the organisation never encourages killings or unlawful activities,” he told The Indian Express. But he added: “I feel Pundalika has been targeted because he became ‘famous’ for his work during the Covid-19 situation.”
Shaikh said: “Now, I want to ask. What did Pundalika or even the parents of the girl get from killing my son?”