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A pharmacist, a tailor and the Prophet remarks row

A pharmacist, a tailor and the Prophet remarks row

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A pharmacist, a tailor and the Prophet remarks row

The targeted killings of Umesh Kolhe and Kanhaiya Lal Teli in towns far apart have left their neighbourhoods stunned. Shoumojit Banerjee and Devesh Pandey visit the sites of murder in Amravati and Udaipur, respectively, and piece together the events

The targeted killings of Umesh Kolhe and Kanhaiya Lal Teli in towns far apart have left their neighbourhoods stunned. Shoumojit Banerjee and Devesh Pandey visit the sites of murder in Amravati and Udaipur, respectively, and piece together the events

June 21 marked the beginning of a long night for the Kolhe family. At around 10 p.m., veterinary pharmacist Umesh Kolhe, his son Sanket, and his pharmacist daughter-in-law Vaishnavi shut their drugstore ‘Amit Medicals’ in the bustling heart of Amravati city to head home, just 2 km away, after a busy working day.

Three men on a bike were lying in wait at the corner of a turning, all in black with their faces covered. Two of them were carrying knives. Three others reportedly signalled the men after Kolhe closed his shop in Rachna Shree Mall. As Kolhe neared the corner and slowed his scooter, one of the assailants lunged at the 54-year-old and stabbed him.

“I saw my father falling. I spotted the knife in the hands of one of the assailants and started running towards him, but it was all over in barely half a minute,” says a devastated Sanket.

Vaishnavi and Sanket frantically appealed to passers-by to help them. After a while, a stretcher appeared to take Kolhe to the hospital. But the popular pharmacist, who was known in the city for being “generous to a fault”, according to his brother Mahesh Kolhe, was dead by then.

“Umesh’s shirt and personal belongings were covered in blood. What a tragic irony for a family which has nothing to do with blood, crime or police investigations. Our contact with the police till now had been limited to visits to the passport office,” says Mahesh Kolhe.

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The police later said that an attempt on Umesh Kolhe’s life had been planned on June 20, but he had escaped as he had either taken a different route home or had gone home early that day.

A twist in the tale

Kolhe was known in the business community in Amravati, Maharashtra, for being helpful. “He lent money to anyone who asked him for help, regardless of caste, creed, religion. After his death, the police looked through his cash register. The first thing they asked me was how he had managed to run his home given that so many people owed him money,” says Mahesh Kolhe. A police official, requesting anonymity, says he was struck by the fact that no one had anything ‘negative’ to say about Umesh Kolhe.

And yet, Umesh Kolhe’s fate was apparently sealed by the simple act of forwarding a WhatsApp message in support of suspended Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson Nupur Sharma, who had recently attracted widespread censure for her controversial remarks on Prophet Muhammad.

Following the murder, the Amravati police arrested seven people in connection with the case. Irfan Khan, 35, was the alleged mastermind of the murder plot. Khan, who was nabbed from Nagpur, runs a helpline-cum-NGO in Amravati called Rahbar, which had reportedly carried out relief work during the pandemic. Mudassar Ahmed alias Sonu Raza Sheikh Ibrahim (22), Shahrukh Pathan alias Hidayat Khan (25), Abdul Taufik alias Nanu Sheikh Taslim (24), Shoaib Khan alias Sabir Khan (22) and Atib Rashid Aadil Rashid (22) were also arrested. The police identified Shoaib Khan as the one who had stabbed Umesh Kolhe. He has been charged with purchasing the murder weapon, reportedly from a friend for ₹300.

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But the most startling twist in the tale came when the police arrested Yusuf Khan Bahadur Khan (44), a local veterinarian affectionately known as ‘doctor sahab’ in Amravati’s Muslim-majority area. By all accounts, Umesh Kolhe and Yusuf Khan, who began their association in 2006, had a professionally fruitful and generally friendly relationship. So, how did this amicable relationship, an exemplar of Hindu-Muslim harmony in Amravati, turn sour?

According to the police, Umesh Kolhe had forwarded a WhatsApp post in support of Sharma to a group titled ‘Black Freedom’. This group comprised pharmacists, veterinarians and individuals connected to their business. Yusuf Khan allegedly took a screenshot of the forward and sent it to other groups whose members were mostly Muslim. The authorities believe that the other accused were irked by the forward and began plotting Umesh Kolhe’s murder.

BJP workers attend a condolence meeting for chemist Umesh Kolhe in Amravat on July 4, 2022.

BJP workers attend a condolence meeting for chemist Umesh Kolhe in Amravat on July 4, 2022.
| Photo Credit: PTI

“While the WhatsApp group was formed more than eight years ago, it wasn’t titled ‘Black Freedom’ then. Someone gave this name later, and no one knows why. Both Umesh and Yusuf were part of it. A few days after my brother was murdered, the police asked us what the motive may have been. It was then that our suspicions turned towards Yusuf,” says Mahesh Kolhe.

Yusuf Khan’s family contend that he did not forward Umesh Kolhe’s message envisaging such a gruesome end. They say he may have felt hurt over Umesh Kolhe’s message and forwarded it to others with the intent of boycotting the pharmacist’s business. “When he learnt of Umesh bhaiyya’s death, doctor sahab wept. He attended the funeral the next day and cooperated with the police in their probe. He was called a couple of times by the Kotwali police. He gave all the help needed,” says a close relative of Yusuf Khan, requesting anonymity.

While the Khan family says the accused had given substantial business to Umesh Kolhe, the kin of the deceased say that the pharmacist had generously helped out Yusuf Khan on many occasions. “Yusuf used to visit our house. Umesh helped him out financially. But over the past year or so, Yusuf has been avoiding us as he owes Umesh more than ₹1.5 lakh,” says Mahesh Kolhe.

Soon after Umesh Kolhe’s death, a theory gained currency that Yusuf Khan had plotted the pharmacist’s murder as he owed Kolhe a substantial sum of money. However, Yusuf Khan’s relatives insist that the doctor and his wife had personally repaid the loan. They acknowledge the fact that Umesh Kolhe had helped Yusuf Khan. “Doctor sahab used to exchange Diwali greetings with the Kolhe family. Many false theories have unfortunately gained ground after the crime,” says Yusuf Khan’s relative.

Both families speak of how both men were hardworking. Umesh Kolhe’s shop, set up in 1998, was a novelty as medicines for animals were a rarity in the district. “He used to open his shop at 7.45 a.m. and close it at 10 p.m. Several people used to affectionately call him ‘Amit bhai’,” recalls Mahesh Kolhe.

Yusuf Khan worked 16 hours a day, say his family members. “He was a role model; an honest, gentle and caring person. He was the sole breadwinner for his mother and four sisters, one of whom is divorced. His twin children have just turned three,” says Khan’s relative.

The relative is at pains to stress that Yusuf Khan had no connection with the alleged mastermind, Irfan Khan. “Yusuf has never met Irfan socially, nor has he anything to do with his NGO Rahbar. We are educated, respectable, law-abiding citizens. We find it appalling that Yusuf should be clubbed with the other accused,” he says.

Political changes

Umesh Kolhe’s murder took place during a tumultuous time in Maharashtra. The Uddhav Thackeray-led Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition of the Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress collapsed like a pack of cards following an intra-party rebellion within the Sena aided and abetted by the BJP. Soon after the killing, the BJP, now in power at the State, swung into action in conjunction with the Centre. The Union Home Ministry handed over the investigation of the murder to the National Investigation Agency (NIA), which has taken custody of the seven accused. Calling Umesh Kolhe’s killing “barbaric”, the new Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, in a thinly veiled warning directed at the MVA coalition and the police machinery under the State Home Department (which had been held by the NCP), said the reasons for initially portraying the murder as “a case of theft” would be investigated.

National Investigation Agency officers at Kothwali police station in Amravati.

National Investigation Agency officers at Kothwali police station in Amravati.
| Photo Credit: S. Sudarshan

Following the murder, a battery of politicians, including the pro-BJP political duo of Amravati MP Navneet Rana and her husband, Badnera MLA Ravi Rana, descended on the Kolhe family home to convey their condolences. The local press claimed that Umesh Kolhe was a deeply religious person. His brother refutes the claims: “We have no connections with any political party. So, there’s no need to give a religious spin to Umesh’s death.”

The BJP demanded to know why the Amravati Police Commissioner Aarti Singh took 11 days to file an FIR into the murder, while allegedly treating the crime as a robbery despite the fact that none of the pharmacist’s personal belongings had been stolen by the assailants. Refuting the allegations that the police had treated the Kolhe murder as a possible robbery case, Singh says: “Since the day the crime occurred, we have been probing every angle by taking statements from witnesses. We never invoked any robbery sections in the FIR. Arrests were made from the day of Kolhe’s murder.” She says they took time to establish a motive and the suspicion that Umesh Kolhe was murdered because he had forwarded posts supporting Sharma was a prima facie one. Singh says Irfan Khan had given ₹10,000 to the other accused. This has led the police and the NIA to investigate the source of the funding of Irfan Khan’s NGO. According to the authorities, Irfan Khan, a school dropout, became “extremely religious” a few years ago and took up social activities with a zeal.

‘No ill-will’

The Kolhe and Khan families don’t care about theories as they struggle to cope with loss.

“We bear no ill-will towards Yusuf’s family. I recently chanced upon a mobile phone picture of Yusuf holding his two children. One can only imagine what they must be going through. His family is devastated by his arrest. Many of our Muslim friends called me to say that they are ashamed of what happened and regret that they have lost face as a result of this crime,” says Mahesh Kolhe.

The Khan family is quick to distance the veterinarian from any larger conspiracy owing to the police’s assumption of his associa­tion with Irfan. A relative is hopeful that the doctor will get justice in the NIA probe and that the investigations will be concluded quickly.

“There is no doubt that the guilty in Umesh Kolhe’s murder must be punished. But we sincerely hope for Yusuf’s early release and justice for his family. This is a fight for the doctor’s dignity,” he says.

A tense aftermath in Udaipur

On the afternoon of June 28, in Bhoot Mahal, Maldas Street market of Udaipur, Rajasthan, two assailants strode into Kanhaiyya Lal Teli’s shop posing as customers. As Lal, a tailor, took measurements for one of them, the other attacked him from behind. When Lal’s assistants, Rajkumar Sharma and Ishwar Gour, attempted to rescue him, Gour sustained severe head injuries. The killers slit the tailor’s throat and one of them recorded the gruesome act on a mobile phone. They kept the weapons in a bag and fled the spot.

A crowd gathers outside the mortuary of Ravindra Nath Tagore Medical College as the body of tailor Kanhaiya Lal Teli is brought out to be taken to his residence.

A crowd gathers outside the mortuary of Ravindra Nath Tagore Medical College as the body of tailor Kanhaiya Lal Teli is brought out to be taken to his residence.
| Photo Credit: V.V. KRISHNAN

Hearing about the incident, shops in the area immediately closed for the day. Angry locals gathered in large numbers and prevented the police from removing Lal’s body till the assailants were arrested. Within an hour, a video showing the perpetrators claiming responsibility for the murder and also issuing a death threat to Prime Minister Narendra Modi went viral on social media. The district administration issued prohibitory orders and suspended mobile Internet services. Following an announcement that the police had nabbed the killers in Rajsamand’s Bhim, the crowd dispersed. The next morning, Lal’s body was handed over to the family after postmortem at a government hospital mortuary. Senior police officers, led by Additional Director-General of Police Dinesh M.N., reached Lal’s residence to offer their condolences.

But Udaipur remained tense. On June 29, despite curfew orders in large parts of the city, hundreds of protesters walked in a 4-km-long funeral procession shouting slogans. When Lal’s body was being taken to the cremation ground, some of them hurled stones at a graveyard located close by. The police intervened and brought the situation under control.

Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot met the victim’s relatives the next afternoon and assured them of all assistance. “We have demanded government jobs for my younger brother, Tarun, who is doing his B. Pharma, and me,” says Lal’s eldest son Yash. “The police have now provided us security. Many have given us monetary assistance. BJP leader Kapil Mishra met us and promised ₹1 crore [raised through crowd-funding].” Mishra later tweeted a screenshot showing that the payment had been made to Lal’s wife Yashoda.

Amid allegations that Lal’s requests for security were not heeded, two area policemen were suspended and 32 others, including senior officers, transferred out. Gehlot held a meeting with senior officials to review security arrangements for the Jagannath Rath Yatra to be taken out on July 1. The same day, thousands of Sarva Hindu Samaj supporters organised a procession demanding justice for Lal.

A post and threats

Reconstructing the sequence of events leading up to the murder, the investigators found that a message supporting Sharma was posted on Lal’s Facebook page on June 8. Two days later, some persons went to his shop, got hold of his phone and deleted the post, says his family. On June 11, the tailor received a call from the Dhanmandi police saying that an FIR had been lodged against him over the post, based on a complaint from Nazim, who earlier ran a tailor shop nearby. Subsequently, he was arrested and released on bail after a day. After being told that some persons were seen loitering about under suspicious circumstances, Lal stayed away from his shop. It is suspected that his name and phone number had been circulated on some WhatsApp groups.

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Lal had complained to the police on June 15 about the threats he had received over phone. The police brokered a compromise between him, Nazim and Nazim’s supporters and also advised him against opening the shop for a few days. He was told to install a CCTV camera, which he did. On June 19, he opened the shop and a police constable came to check on him. But he again started getting threats. On June 25, according to his relatives, a woman and a man went to his shop and threatened Lal with dire consequences. “He would not share all the details with me, but I could sense that he was under tremendous stress,” recalls Yashoda.

A National Investigation Agency team alone with the local police team visits the shop of tailor Kanhaiya Lal Teli.

A National Investigation Agency team alone with the local police team visits the shop of tailor Kanhaiya Lal Teli.
| Photo Credit: V.V. Krishnan

In his complaint to the police, Yash referred to another video created by one of the accused, Mohammed Riyaz Attari, on June 17 declaring that he was going to decapitate a person who had committed blasphemy.

Preliminary police findings suggest that after committing the murder, Riyaz and Ghous Mohammed drove to S.K. Engineering Factory in Sapetia village. There they made the video claiming responsibility for the murder and brandished bloodstained weapons. The two then left for Deogarh in Rajsamand, but were intercepted by the police in Bhim. The police suspect that the weapons were made in the factory where Riyaz worked as a welder.

The police found that Riyaz, from Asind in Bhilwara, lived on rent in the Khanjipeer area of Udaipur with his wife and two children. They had shifted to the room on June 12 and left it a day before the incident. Ghous, who is from Bhim, also lived in a rented room with his family in Khanjipeer. The police say that in February 2014, Ghous had visited Karachi in Pakistan and got affiliated with Pakistan-based outfit Dawat-e-Islami. Based on the investigations, the police arrested two other alleged conspirators, Mohsin Khan and Asif Hussain.

On June 29, the NIA took over the case on the Home Ministry’s directive. It has taken custody of all the four accused till July 11. Another accused named Mohammed Mohsin has been arrested by the NIA and is now in custody for eight days.

Besides the FIR against Lal, FIRs were also registered against at least two more persons, including Nitin Jain who runs a tyre shop, on the same charge. He too received threats and people came looking for him at his shop, after which he has gone underground. His relatives have sought police protection. The police have arrested four young men for allegedly issuing threats to the third person.

Lal’s murder has caused anxiety about communal fault lines deepening. “For centuries, communities have been living here in harmony,” says Manu Rao of Udaipur News. “No one had ever imagined that such a brutal crime would be committed here. All sections of society have condemned the incident. Representatives of the Muslim community have also met and thanked the Collector for restoring peace.”

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For others, the incident has caused not just fear but brought about a likelihood of reduced earnings. Akshay Singh Rao, a tour guide who also runs a hotel, says tourists have been asking whether it is safe to travel to Udaipur. “For two and half years, our businesses were badly impacted by the pandemic. Now this incident has only added to our woes,” he says.

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