PUNEETH Kerehalli, who is facing charges of murder for the killing of a man transporting cattle in a district near Bengaluru on Friday night, is known to have built his profile over the past few years raising religious issues, racking up multiple cases, and hanging around the fringes of Sangh Parivar-affiliated outfits in Karnataka.
The younger brother of Idrees Pasha, who was found dead after the attack on a vehicle in which he was transporting cattle by a gang led by Kerehalli, on Monday alleged that Idrees was electrocuted. Speaking to The Indian Express, Yunus Pasha said Idrees’s body bore “burnt marks on the chest and back” and that he appeared to have been assaulted.
Ramanagara district SP Karthik Reddy said they are waiting for a postmortem report, and that Kerehalli and his associates are yet to be arrested. “We have formed teams to catch them.” Police have booked a case against them under IPC Sections 302 (murder), 341 (wrongful restraint), 504 (insult with intent to provoke breach of peace), and 324 (voluntarily causing hurt with dangerous weapons or means), etc.
In the FIR lodged by him, Yunus has also accused Kerehalli and gang of demanding Rs 2 lakh from them to release the vehicle, and attacked them when they refused.
Police sources said the accused might have used a stun gun to prevent Idrees from escaping, like his two associates. Kerehalli has posted videos in the past posing with a baseball bat and stun gun while intercepting vehicles carrying cattle.
In a series of tweets, former chief minister and Congress leader Siddaramaiah called Idrees’s killing “an orchestrated act to light up communal flares & polarize the electorate ahead of the elections”, and held Home Minister Jnanendra Araga “directly responsible”.
Asked about the killing, BJP spokesperson M G Mahesh said: “Let the investigation reveal the facts. Some are also saying it was a natural death.”
On allegations of Kerehalli’s links to the BJP, Mahesh said: “I have been associated with the BJP for the last 40 years. There are a lot of people who work for the party and I am not sure about Puneeth Kerehalli’s association.”
A police officer said Kerehalli, who is in his 30s, worked as a taxi driver in Bengaluru when he became a member of associations representing drivers. It was while raising their demands during rounds of political party offices that he reportedly first came in contact with BJP leaders.
A fellow driver who knew Kerehalli says he built his social profile with targeted attacks on known influencers and local activists, usually giving the same a caste or religious angle, and posting provocative videos. “People started following him. He started attending RSS events subsequently,” the driver says.
One of the first campaigns Kerehalli picked up was for renovation of temples. Then, in July 2021, he released a video alleging a plot by Christian missionaries when activists sought the removal of a Shiva statue from Begur Lake citing ecological harm. This led to one of the first FIRs against Kerehalli, under 153A (promoting enmity between different groups), among other IPC Sections.
In September 2021, a gang led by Kerehalli was alleged to have disrupted a Christian prayer meeting claiming conversions. Eventually, the municipal corporation issued a notice to stop the prayer meetings citing Covid-19 restrictions.
With Kerehalli’s campaigns aligning with the Sangh’s Hindutva agenda, these appear to have ensured him access to pro-Hindutva leaders, which in turn kept his social media following growing.
Some of the leaders with whom he posted photos on social media include BJP Yuva Morcha national president and Bengaluru South MP Tejasvi Surya, BJP MP Pratap Simha, Tamil Nadu state president K Annamalai, controversial Sri Rama Sene chief Pramod Muthalik, apart from BJP state ministers C N Ashwath Narayan and B C Nagesh.
In April 2022, around the time that he faced questions regarding the donations he had received, Kerehalli launched a campaign seeking boycott of halal meat in Bengaluru.
In August last year, Bengaluru’s Halasurgate police booked a case against Puneeth under the Prevention of Insult to National Honors Act, 1971, and of hurting religious feelings, over the alleged vandalism of an image of Tipu Sultan, which contained the national flag, put up by the Congress. He was arrested in this case and got out on bail.
In November last year, Kerehalli and his associates were detained after they threatened to stage a protest against authorities for allowing Muslim traders to participate in a religious festival at Visveswarapuram. Kerehalli even took on local BJP MLA Uday Garudachar over the matter.
In December last year, Kerehalli launched a forum named the Rashtra Rakshana Pade and a YouTube channel named Adhva. Here he specifically posted videos of cattle traders being intercepted. Since then, there have been allegations against Kerehalli of extorting money from cattle traders.
A senior police officer said they were collecting information regarding the previous cases against Kerehalli, and that at least a few were in the trial stage.