“Won’t Rest Until Those Behind My Ordeal Are Punished Severely. Else There Will Be Countless Harish Bangeras Who Pay A Price For Just Being Hindu”
Harish Bangera was locked in a jail in Saudi Arabia on false charges of blasphemy.
Back at home in India after a long struggle, Bangera tells Swarajya that his priority now is to make sure that those who conspired against him are punished.
He fumbles as he recounts those moments he spent alone. Locked in a prison in Saudi Arabia for a crime he had not committed. The pain and trauma turn to a strong resolve when he starts talking about the ones responsible for it.
“I will not rest until they are punished and that is when my battle for justice will be complete,” says Harish Bangera. Bangera returned to India finally on 18 August 2021 after spending around 20 months in a Saudi jail over false charges of blasphemy.
“They spent just two days behind bars and are out on bail, while I suffered for one year eight months in jail, not knowing if I would see the outside world ever again. I didn’t know if I would ever make it back alive, for the crime that had I been accused of was such. And to be charged with blasphemy that involves Mecca and the royalty of that country was not a small issue. My life was almost over,” says Bangera, whose ’release’ has been nothing short of a ‘miracle’.
The story behind the story
In December 2019, a Facebook profile with his name and photograph was seen posting a picture of the Kaaba at Mecca with a caption that read 'All my Hindu Brothers ...next Ram Mandir in Mecca...be reddy for fight...Jai Sri Ram...Modi with us'.
This post not just elicited hundreds of responses but also went viral to the extent that it got the attention of the Saudi authorities as many social networking groups shared screengrabs of the post.
What followed was nothing short of a nightmare. Bangera was sacked from his job in Saudi Arabia, put behind bars, and tried for blasphemy for months on end. He tried explaining that it wasn't his profile at all, but it was in vain.
Bangera suffered all this just for having shared a post about the anti-CAA protests, which led to riots in Mangalore in 2019.
"They called me, threatened me, sent messages. They started posting my photos on WhatsApp and Facebook and spreading rumours about me. I had taken down the video already, yet local Muslim folk from our coast who knew where I work turned up at my work place to attack".
Bangera then made a video in which he apologised and also swore to never ever share such content. But 'they wanted to take revenge and created a fake profile and posted some derogatory stuff and posts about making temple in Mecca. This is when I began to fear for my life. I felt my life was over,' he says as he tries to recover from the trauma.
"In that land there is no one we can call ours," says Bangera. Which is when began the battle for 'freedom and truth'.
Bangera's wife, backed by his friend Lokesh, activist Ravindra Shanbhag, Abhimata and other various local organisations filed a complaint where she said she suspected conspiracy against her husband.
Udupi police investigations pinned down two culprits who did create the fake profile and post those messages. Local leaders followed up and the Government of India sent a message to the government of Saudi Arabia and sought his release.
"It is only God's grace that I have returned despite the forces being against me and the case being of such a stature," says Bangera, having just returned from a 'padayatra' or a pilgrimage by foot from the Anegundi temple.
His friends and organisations who rallied for his release, supported his wife and child when he was away and protested for justice, had walked to the temple when he was imprisoned and vowed that they would have him walk back home from the temple when he is released. "That Ganapathi has made it happen," he says, recalling the nightmare that those 600 days had been.
"Imagine being in a cell with no contact with the outside world, no TV, no phone, no books, no nothing. I dreaded each time the door would open as they came at all times of the day to enquire. The first 7-8 months were hell as fear was the only constant," reminisces Bangera.
Hailing from Koteshwar in coastal Karnataka, Bangera was working in Saudi Arabia's Al Ahsa and had left his hometown post-vacation in the summer of 2019. "That is when I saw my wife and daughter last," says Bangera, indebted to his family and friends for having fought for him.
From talking to his then two-year-old four times in a day over video calls to not hearing anything from them for the first three months that he was behind bars, life came full circle for Bangera.
"The first request I made was just that - that I be allowed to talk to my wife and child - that is when they granted me three minutes of audio talk time - they cut at exact 3 minutes," he says, remembering the conversation.
Those that spread the rumours there in Saudi have been booked for defamation/false rumour and have proceedings going against them. "I think four of them have already been arrested. The law there doesn't make room for any 'influence' you see. It is not India," he adds.
As he speaks to Swarajya, he has not 'recovered yet' from what unfolded. Bangera wants to rest for a few days, bring life on track, but after that, ensure that justice, in this case, goes on to set a precedent for those who 'put a Hindu through hell and get away with it'.
He has to return money to a lot of people who supported his family in all this, he says, has loans to repay, has lost the money that his last employer was supposed to pay him, but amidst all this, his priority would be to pursue the case he says. "Even financially, will these two make good my losses, or will those who support such activities? I haven't earned a penny from December 2019," he states, reiterating the demand for severe punishment.
Member of Parliament from Udupi and MoS Agriculture and Farmer's Welfare, Shobha Karandlaje, was among those who helped Bangera return, had tweeted welcoming him and assured him of continued support.
"Shobha ma'am has assured me that she will definitely ensure that the culprits are punished. Else there will be many more Harish Bangeras who may not have the support and resources I was fortunate to get", adds Bangera.
As reported by Daijiworld, Karandlaje had written to the Secretary of the Ministry of External Affairs through the Home Department of Karnataka and also sought that the then head of intelligence, Kamal Pant, pace up investigations.
The investigations of the Udupi police had revealed the Facebook post in question to be the handiwork of two Muslim brothers from Moodabidri, Karnataka. They had arrested Abdul Huyez and Abdul Thuyez in October 2020, but both 'are out on bail' and that's what is hurting Bangera the most upon return. The case against the two is still before the trial court.
Even as he is thankful to all the leaders who fought for his case, he wishes that our 'system makes room for justice that serves as a lesson and doesn't let the guilty be roaming free on bail '.
"Enquiries were endless as so many attempts were made to have me 'confess' my crimes," says Bangera, as he compares the Indian legal system with those of the Arab country. "It was bound to be so harsh given that the crime they had implicated me in was such", he adds.
Bangera doesn't wish to return to Saudi Arabia, for he can't imagine living away from his family after what they have gone through and especially because his 'wife literally got him back from the clutches of death'.
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