The cause of death of a teenager, whose body was found floating in a lake in Honnavar town in the communally sensitive Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka on December 8, two days after he had gone missing following a communal clash in the town, remains unclear although the opposition BJP has staged violent protests around the district alleging it was a communal murder.
Paresh Mesta, 18, a school dropout who earned a living by helping his father sell fish, disappeared on the evening of December 6. He had left home around 7.30 pm, telling his mother he was going to the Shani Temple, which is located on a disputed site at the centre of the coastal town. He was to begin preparations for a pilgrimage to Sabarimala in Kerala the following day.
He never returned home and his family and friends spent a day and a half searching for him, until his body floated to the surface of Shettykere Lake, a few yards from the makeshift Shani Temple, in front of the town’s main bus stand.
With the death leading to further violence and the BJP staging protests, the Congress government in Karnataka has decided to hand over the probe to the CBI, as sought by the youth’s family.
“The BJP is making many allegations with an eye on the state elections . They adopted similar tactics in the IAS officer D K Ravi case but the CBI proved the allegations wrong,” state Home Minister Ramalinga Reddy said Thursday. “I have discussed the issue with CM Siddaramaiah and we have decided to hand the case over to the CBI.”
Arrest & violence
Based on a complaint by Paresh’s father Kamalakar Mesta, who named five persons, police arrested three of them the day the body was found. One of these was Azad Annegeri, a Muslim, who runs Good Luck Hotel in the town centre and is a claimant to the disputed land with the temple on it.
The family names Annegeri because he and others had been seen wielding sticks and swords during a communal clash in the town centre the evening Paresh disappeared. The family claimed also that a motorcycle belonging to a friend of Paresh, parked near Good Luck Hotel, was found damaged and abandoned near a property belonging to Annegiri.
Although the funeral of Paresh on December 8 — attended briefly by BJP leaders including Union minister Anantkumar Hegde, the local MP — passed off peacefully , trouble erupted on December 11 in Kumta town, 20 km away, after purported images of Mesta’s body were circulated on social media with the suggestion that he was brutalised, tortured and killed. A mob set on fire the car of IGP (western range) Hemanth Nimbalkar.
The following day, the violence spread to Sirsi town, 40 km away, as mobs pelted stones on shops owned by Muslims. Prohibitory orders are in place until the weekend in the entire region.
A preliminary autopsy report by Shankar M Bakkannavar, an associate professor with Kasturba Medical College in Manipal, has indicated there are no visible external injuries on Paresh’s body. An independent forensic expert consulted by police, too, has stated there were no external injuries.
“The question now is whether the youth died due to antemortem drowning, that is death due to drowning, or whether the drowning occurred after the death. This needs to be established along with the cause of death,” said the forensic expert consulted by police. “Many of the signs that have perturbed people, such as blackening of the body, are typical postmortem features and cannot be attributed to torture. There were no signs of mutilation on the body as is being alleged.”
IGP Nimbalkar said “the cause of death is not yet known since viscera examination and other serological reports are pending”.
Such technical arguments, however, have failed to convince people of Honnavar and neighbouring towns, where many believe that it was a communal murder.
Family & neighbours
“My son was a fisherman, he knew how to swim; he could not have drowned. We only want justice, nothing else,” Kamalakar Mesta said at his one-room home in the fishermen’s colony of Tulasinagar in Honnavar.
“We don’t know what happened that day, except what people have told us,” he added. I was at work and when I returned Paresh was not home. I had heard on the way that there had been trouble in the town. When he did not come until 11 pm I went out to look for him.”
Paresh was the youngest of Kamalakar’s three children. His eldest son, Rahul, is a school dropout and works as a guard at a cooperative bank, while his daughter is a BA student.
Some locals said Paresh was involved with right-wing youth outfits such as Hindu Jagaran Vedike. An autorickshaw driver and others said Paresh had hoisted a Hindu flag on a tree near the Shani Temple on December 2 and that this may have led to him being targeted during the clashes on December 6.
Kamalakar, however, said: “Paresh turned 18 this year and had not even voted yet. How could he have been involved with politics? He is not part of the BJP or any party.”
“There was a small accident on the main road that evening. It took a communal turn and there were clashes,” said Paresh’s paternal uncle Bala Mesta. “These clashes then spread to the town centre to the government land where the Shani Temple is located and which is claimed by Azad Annigere.”
According to K Arvind, editor of a Kannada news publication in Honnavar region, the disputed land was erroneously shown as private land but has now been reclaimed as government land after verification of records by the deputy commissioner.
“Paresh Mesta was my good friend,” said Rahul, a neighbour. “We were together when the clash happened. Initially we were outnumbered, then some Bajrang Dal activists came. I did not see what happened to Paresh. When we went home, we heard he was missing. The next day we found a friend’s bike, which Paresh had reportedly gone to retrieve, abandoned near a property belonging to Annigere.”
Though police have arrested Annigere and two of his associates, there are questions over their involvement in the death. They are spotted in the company of policemen in video footage where they are seen brandishing sticks and swords. Many injured in the clashes also bear knife or stick injuries, unlike Paresh who had no visible injuries.
According to Kamalakar Mesta, none of his son’s friends have been able to tell him what happened to him the night he disappeared. “There were no phone calls,” he said.
“My son was attacked and killed. They mutilated his body after that,” said Kamalakar, who admitted he did not see his son’s entire body when it was recovered, or later.
“There were many people who saw the body. It was mutilated,” claimed a BJP worker, Suresh Sarang, who is advising the Mesta family. “Police are trying to hush up the matter. They will pass the preliminary postmortem report as the final postmortem report.”
“The probe is on and we are awaiting more forensic reports. It could take a couple of weeks to ascertain what exactly happened,” said a police officer conducting the probe.
“We will not let up until justice is done,’’ said a local BJP leader, Tukaram Shetty. “The reason for all this is land and Annegire is trying to grab government land. This dispute was also responsible for communal clashes in 1993,” said another leader, Lokesh Mesta.
MP Shobha Karandlaje, while leading a protest this week, has also alleged Annegiri has links to the Islamic State.
The BJP has accused district minister R V Deshpande (MLA from Haliyal of the district) of ignoring the Mestas. “A Union minister was able to pay his respects. Congress leaders did not offer condolences until the last rites were over,’’ alleged BJP worker Suresh Sarang.
Deshpande had offered Rs 1 lakh as solatium but Kamalakar Mesta turned it down demanding a CBI or NIA probe. This was a day before the CBI probe was announced. Earlier, the BJP had submitted a memorandum to Governor Vajubhai Vala urging him to direct the government to order an NIA probe.