Bagalkot (Karnataka): Despite blatant attempts by Hindutva groups in the region to deny legal support to 25-year-old Muslim woman Kuthma Sheikh, who was arrested March 24 in Mudhol for allegedly sharing a “problematic” status on her private WhatsApp account, she was released on bail on March 26.
According to her family members, she is unfazed by her experience as a target of Hindutva antagonism and confident that she will prove her innocence in the matter.
Kuthma had been arrested on March 24, a day after Arun Kumar Bhajantri, allegedly a Hindutva activist, was allegedly offended by her private status on WhatsApp and filed a complaint at Bagalkot police station. In her WhatsApp status on March 23, Kuthma had wished peace and prosperity to all nations of the world on the eve of Pakistan’s Resolution Day.
Kuthma’s family alleges that a group called Mudhol Hindu Organisations’ Forum had, through a memorandum, appealed to the Bar Association to refuse to represent Kuthma Sheikh in court. It was only with the help of local community leaders and close friends that the family was able to appoint a lawyer who helped the woman secure bail.
Later, when Kuthma’s bail application was heard, a few members of the Hindu forum were physically present inside the court premises, creating such a hostile environment for the Sheikh family that the lawyer who appeared for Kuthma had to advise them to leave the court. court and ask for bail the next day.
The offense and the arrest
Since Kuthma’s parole requires him to refrain from interacting with the media, his brother Salman explained to Thread that Bhajantri was able to see Kuthma’s WhatsApp status due to the fact that his wife provided Kuthma with tailoring services and the two women exchanged phone numbers.
“Something as insignificant as a private WhatsApp status wishing peace and prosperity to all nations was deliberately made viral by the Complainant and his network of people. This was used to file a nonsensical complaint against Kuthma. In Mudhol area, the different communities interacted peacefully and things were relatively normal until this news surfaced,” Salman said. Thread.
Rizwan Sheikh, another brother of Kuthma, was present at their residence when police arrived on the night of March 23.
“Two female gendarmes knocked on our door around 8 p.m. on March 23. When I opened the door, they asked if there were any women in the house. After calling my mother, the female gendarmes spoke to my mother and my sister, showing them a screenshot of the status message uploaded by my sister,” Rizwan recalled.
According to Rizwan, there were six policemen in total: four men and two women. “They didn’t have a warrant on hand but insisted they were there to keep us safe because the status message my sister uploaded rubbed people the wrong way,” Rizwan said. “We cooperated with them and answered their questions. The gendarmes remained in our residence that night while the four gendarmes remained outside. The women officials even took photos of Kuthma in our residence.
At around 5 a.m. the next morning, the six policemen escorted Kuthma to the circle police inspector’s office, accompanied by Rizwan, where they waited until 10 a.m.
“After 10 a.m. we were taken to the police station, where my sister was questioned by different officers. Since her WhatsApp status was a prayer for all countries, my sister explained her point of view and also said that she didn’t know that the message would become this kind of issue. She made it clear that she had no other intention than to wish peace to all nations,” Rizwan said.
At the police station, Kuthma was again photographed and asked to sign several documents. At around 1:00 p.m., police personnel took her for a medical examination at the government hospital.
“I was not allowed to accompany him to the hospital,” Rizwan said.
At no time during this process did any family member present an arrest warrant for Kuthma, according to Rizwan.
Kuthma’s brothers are also surprised that photos taken of Kuthma by police during his arrest and interrogation have ended up on social media.
“Kuthma had not posted any of his photos on social media. However, when the police took her for questioning, they had taken her photo, which later went viral on WhatsApp groups in the city,” Salman said. Thread.
Kuthma was first brought to court on March 24 and then taken into custody, according to Salman.
“We had hired a lawyer and tried to get him released on bail earlier on March 24, but it was rejected by the court. The next day, March 25, I was in court with his lawyer, asking for bail for Kuthma. But about 10 to 15 members of the Hindu Sangatanegala Okkota, Mudhol (Forum of Hindu Organizations, Mudhol), had gathered at the court. It was this group that had asked the Bar Association not to take on Kuthma’s case,” Salman said. Thread.
With the presence of the Hindu group members in court, the atmosphere turned hostile and Kuthma’s lawyer asked Salman to leave, stating that he would file the bail application the next day.
“The court granted my sister bail on March 26,” Salman said. “We received the bail order around 4:30 p.m. and she was released at 7 p.m. that day.”
The memorandum submitted by the Hindu Organizations of Mudhol to the Bar Association reads: “Regarding the above matter on 23-03-2022 Kuthma Sheikh urf Khrthujabi of Mudhol, a Muslim woman implicated (sic) in anti-national activity, as she took a stand against India by uploading a Pakistani flag as her WhatsApp status. In this regard, we have registered a complaint against her at Station (sic). There are chances that she will apply for bail, so we Hindu organizations in Mudhol are asking members of the association to show their patriotism by not helping her to pursue her bail application.
While Thread obtained a copy of this memorandum from the Bar Association itself, we learn that the document has also been widely distributed on social networks.
Kuthma’s lawyer, Lakappa Avardhi, said Thread that he had been under no pressure from anyone and that he had only fulfilled his duty as a lawyer by representing her in court. Meanwhile, VD Katti, the president of the Bar Association, did not respond to Threadrepeated attempts to comment on the memorandum.
When Thread asked Arun Kumar Bhajantri if he was prompted by any group or organization to file the complaint, he said it was his own decision to file it. When asked if he was affiliated with any organization, he declined to comment.
The police perspective
Bagalkot Police Superintendent Lokesh Bharamappa Jagalasar said Thread that the case against Kuthma Sheikh is still under investigation.
“The woman in question had posted a post related to Pakistan Resolution Day. We received a complaint that the post was provocative and intended to cause friction in society. Since the uploader’s intent is undetermined, we are still investigating the matter,” Jagalasar said.
Kuthma was charged with Sections 153(A) and 505(2) of the Indian Penal Code. These articles concern the creation or promotion of enmity, hatred or ill will between groups on the basis of religion, race, etc.
“Our role is to mitigate the escalation of situations between disputing parties. As police officers, we have witnessed provocative displays on both sides of the spectrum and we have taken all of this into consideration. We are investigating all parties involved. Our goal is to maintain peace, law and order in the country. We will investigate accordingly,” Jagalasar added. When asked for a copy of the First Information Report (FIR) based on which a case was filed against Kuthma, Jagalasar said that the FIR was uploaded on their website, but he forgot his number.
Mohammed Irshad H is a freelance journalist. He tweets at @Shaad_Bajpe.