IS KARNATAKA the new Gujarat, the second “laboratory of Hindutva” for the BJP and the broader Sangh Parivar? As the BJP government in the state enters the final year of its first term in power — it had earlier ruled in alliance with the JD(S) — that disturbing question comes up again and again. Behind the morality and hypocrisy, the humbug and corruption that the BJP establishment in Bengaluru has been charged with is a harder, harsher truth: the scary distortion of an entire society.
Two weeks ago, the so-called ‘porngate’ controversy rattled the country, when three BJP ministers were caught in the Assembly watching a pornographic clip — later explained as the recording of a woman being raped — while the House was in session and discussing poverty. While that controversy claimed the headlines, it also forced the RSS and its affiliates in the state to hurriedly cancel plans of the extended session of the Hindu Shakti Sangama. A Hindu show of strength, as the name implies, the Sangama was supposed to be held across the state after the opening convention in Hubli. Chief Minister DV Sadananda Gowda turned up in Hubli, wearing the RSS trademark khaki shorts — perhaps the first time a chief minister has been seen thus clad at a public event. If pictures tell a story, this one spoke volumes of the saffronisation of Karnataka.
The Sangama may have been interrupted by the Sangh Parivar, embarrassed and still recovering from the shame of porngate. Nevertheless, as TEHELKA travelled through Karnataka, spending a week journeying from urbane Bengaluru to northern and coastal Karnataka, what became apparent was that right-wing Hindu attacks on Muslims and Christians were now a regular feature. This reporter came back with accounts, incidents and testimonies that were so brazen, it was shocking.
Take a small example. On 22 January, there was uproar in Uppanangadi, a hamlet near Mangalore. Kalladka Prabhakar Bhatt, a senior RSS leader known for his proximity to Sadananda Gowda and his predecessor BS Yeddyurappa, was addressing a crowd and resorted to extreme and undignified imagery. “Lift the veils of Muslim women,” Bhatt told the throng, “and glimpse what they have to offer.” His listeners cheered; policemen listened too, but strolled casually, as if nothing were happening.
Soon after, the local minorities — a mix of Muslim and Catholic organisations — approached the police, which reluctantly filed an FIR against Bhatt. Yet it refused to arrest him, arguing there was no basis for taking him into custody. Rather, as if to compensate, the local police then filed an FIR against the president of the Muslim Central Committee, Mohammad Masood, under Section 153(a) of the Indian Penal Code — “Promoting communal enmity between classes” — as well as Section 505(2) — “Making statements that create or promote communal enmity”.
What was Masood’s fault? He had called a press conference to condemn Bhatt’s despicable one-liner. When contacted, Mangalore SP Abhishek Goyal suggested that there were “grey areas” and the police would certainly “study” the case. While the police was still studying the footage of Bhatt’s public meeting, the man himself inaugurated the new building of the Mangalore Police Commissionerate! Sitting with him in the VIP row was none other than the chief minister.
It was the sort of moment and photo-op the media just waits for. Yet the presence of Bhatt so soon after the unseemly incident found no mention in the media coverage of the inauguration of the new building. It was almost as if there was a conspiracy of silence. Only one plucky local newspaper broke the Omerta: Karavali Ale.
At one time, Karavali Ale was Karnataka’s most popular newspaper. Part of the reason it is not any longer may have to do with the stance of its editor, BV Sitaram, who has been one of the few voices in the state warning against the rising tide of religious bigotry. For two decades, he has documented each and every communal incident, big and small, in the state — and has suffered for it.
In 2009, Sitaram was arrested when a case was filed against him for defamation. Twenty-five policemen turned up and surrounded him. “It seemed like they had come to arrest a terrorist,” he exclaims. His fault was he had written about the exploits of a local Bajrang Dal leader.
Sitaram points to the newspapers stacked in his office. Picking up some of them at random, from the previous month’s pile, almost every day one finds mention of an attack on Muslims and Christians, on churches and mosques. Sitaram is distraught: “They go around shouting ‘Pehle qasaai, phir Isaai’ — First butchers (Muslims), then Christians.” According to official figures, a church has been attacked almost once every 10 days in the past three years. In some cases, the very presence of a Muslim boy with a Hindu girl has caused a riot.
The opposition to Hindu girl-Muslim boy romance is part of a peculiar phenomenon that the Sangh Parivar labels “love jihad”. This paranoia began in Kerala and alleges that Muslim men are being trained to woo and then indoctrinate Hindu girls, to win converts to Islam.
Bhatt is an exponent of theories of love jihad. In December 2011, the Hindu Nagarika Samiti held a massive protest meeting in Sullia, where Bhatt attacked the police for its supposed anti-Hindu sentiment and spoke of how love jihad, terrorism and cow slaughter were rampant in the state.
He was joined by others, notably Satyajit Suratkal, regional convener of the Hindu Jagran Vedike, who said: “Whenever the Muslims provoked us, we have given a suitable response. If they want more, then there might be a recurrence of earlier happenings. If the police join hands with traitors we will teach them a lesson too.”
Other speakers were equally inflammatory. Some wanted cases booked against Sub-Inspector Ravi Kumar and action to be taken against the SP and the ASP because of alleged bias against Hindus. Soon all three officers were transferred. Ravi Kumar was “shifted back” to his earlier posting in Puttur town a day after his suspension was formally sought by the BJP district unit.
WHICH DIRECTION is Karnataka taking? In many senses, it seems to be a replay of Gujarat, with a shorter time-span. Like in the western state, there is a manipulation of class and commerce for religious ends. In Gujarat it took religious riots beginning with the bloody killings of 1969 — and extending from the 1970s to the 1990s — for the Sangh Parivar experiment to mature. Karnataka saw a similar surge with the Ayodhya movement in the late 1980s, and escalation with the Suratkal riots of 1998, which killed 18 people. In the process, relatively peaceful Mangalore, Suratkal, Bhatkal and Ullal became the fulcrum of the Hindutva movement.
The rise of the Sri Ram Sene, Hindu Jagran Vedike, Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, Sanathan Sanstha and Bajrang Dal were part of this radicalisation project. So was exploitation of socio-economic conditions, says Suresh Bhatt of the PUCL. The current communal tensions in Dakshina Kannada and Mangalore have their roots in the region’s rapid development since the 1970s.
Land reforms created new spaces for different castes and communities to operate in and compete with each other. Dominant social groups like Konkani Brahmins, Bunts and Christians found opportunities in new ventures like banking, education, tile manufacture and cashewnut trade. Many Bunts moved to Mumbai to establish Udupi eateries.
As studies done by fact-finding missions show, traditional backward castes like Mogaveeras and Billavas, who were freed from dependent tenancy, moved into small businesses like fishing. Here they had to contend with the Bearys, a Muslim community with a sizeable (15 percent) presence in Dakshina Kannada, and a heavy concentration in districts like Mangalore, Bantwal, Belthangady and Surathkal. All these areas are today communally sensitive.
The Gulf boom of the 1970s and the new industrialisation enabled the Beary community to prosper in petty business (textiles and groceries) as well as mid-level ones such as hotels and the spice trade. All this led to disgruntlement among the newly-empowered backward castes. It created room for religious mobilisation.