Dakshina Kannada: Hindutva’s lab in South India

NL Sena Project: Left Vs. Right Part 4. The southernmost district in Karnataka is the RSS-BJP gateway into Kerala and leaders from the district wield substantial heft in state politics

ByAmit Bhardwaj
Dakshina Kannada: Hindutva’s lab in South India
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Lying between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats, the coastal city of Mangaluru could have been an ideal location to live in. But, the city, described as the most cosmopolitan non-metro cities, has been slowly turning into a communal tinderbox since the 1990s.

People readily give way to ambulances, but are also ready to kill each other over communal issues. Don’t be surprised if a small fight snowballs into a full-blown communal riot.

According to the District Crime Records Bureau (DCRB), 239 communal cases were registered in Dakshina Kannada between 2007 and 2016. Mangaluru is the district headquarters of Dakshina Kannada. In 2017, till July, 40 communal cases were lodged by the police.

There is a reason why Mangaluru is being discussed in the Kerala NL Sena project. It is the “cross-border” violence. The nature of violence and modus operandi in the neighbouring Kasargod, the northernmost district of Kerala, has its roots in Mangaluru. The organisations involved, too, are, more or less, similar.

The fight is between Hindu and Muslim organisations. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliates are at loggerheads with the Popular Front of India (PFI), a radical Muslim organisation, and its associates.

Welcome to Kalladka country

RSS leader Prabhakar Bhat Kalladka is a powerful figure in Dakshina Kannada district. The Bajrang Dal and Hindu Jagarana Vedike (HJV) draw their power from him.

The Kerala-based Muslim organisation Popular Front of India (PFI) and its political wing Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) and the Campus Front of India (CFI) don’t have a popular face like Kalladka to counter him, but their cadre base makes them strong.

Bakrabail’s diary

“In the course of the decades-long violence, Muslims were pushed to the wall. With the rise of organisations like the Karnataka Forum for Dignity (KFD), Muslims started retaliating,” said Suresh Bhat Bakrabail, the district president of the Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum.

Bakrabail blames the fringe groups from both sides for the present crisis. Communal clashes in Dakshina Kannada date back to the 1990s with riots making an appearance after the Babri Masjid demolition in December 1992.

“After LK Advani’s Rath Yatra in 1990, things have picked up,” Bakrabail told Newslaundry. “The pace of violent activities has gone up. After Babri Masjid’s demolition, things have really turned worse. From then onwards, communal clashes and riots have become common,” he added.

For years, Bakrabail has been maintaining a record of the communal incidents in Mangaluru by keeping a close track of media reports and police records.

The numbers recorded by him are alarming. Bakrabail, who also records cases of moral policing by Hindu and Muslim vigilante groups, claims that, in 2017, till September 10, 86 communal incidents have been reported.

“It is likely that there could be quite a number of unreported cases too,” he said.

A closer look at the numbers reveals that between 2007 and 2013, the trends have varied. In 2007, a year before the Assembly poll, there was a spike in the number of communal incidents. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won four of the eight Assembly seats in the highly polarised district.

The BS Yeddyurappa-led BJP government came to power in 2008. The Lok Sabha poll was the year after. The number of communal incidents dwindled in the next three years, and in the 2013 Assembly poll, the BJP won only one seat.

The BJP is completely dependent on the RSS and other Hindu right-wing groups, which are much stronger organisationally. The BJP has started preparations for the 2018 Assembly poll, and, obviously, it will be assisted by these groups.

This means Mangaluru is in a volatile state right now. The BJP has already written to the Central government that its workers are not safe in Dakshina Kannada under the present Congress regime. On July 4, 2017, when RSS worker Sharath Madiwala was attacked in his laundry shop in the BC Road part of the district, Dakshina Kannada was taken to ransom. Hundreds of RSS workers took to the streets in protest. On July 7, Madiwala was declared dead. The procession by the RSS and other right-wing organisations was led by Kalladka.

Why did they kill my son?

A man in his late 60s is yet to overcome the grief of Madiwala’s death. Thaniyappa M, 68, told Newslaundry: “While some took political mileage from my son’s murder, others took communal advantage.” He is still wondering why “did they choose to kill” Sharath.

Madiwala (30) took charge of his family’s laundry shop five months before his death. Though his family has been part of the RSS for generations, even Muslims in Sajipa Munnur village respect them. While the RSS claims that radical Muslim organisations are behind the murder of Madiwala, his father blames the government.

“The government is responsible. I am not ready to blame anyone, I cannot say whether Muslims murdered him,” said Thaniyappa.

Barely 15 days before Madiwala was murdered, SDPI leader Ashraf Kalai was hacked to death. Dakshina Kannada Superintendent of Police (SP) CH Sudheer Kumar Reddy confirmed to this correspondent that both murders were political.

The police arrested 10 persons, including main accused, 20-year-old Sharief, in the Madiwala case. Sharief reportedly is a member of the PFI.

Madiwala’s funeral procession was attacked allegedly by radical Muslim groups. Around 5,000 RSS supporters were on the street and “there would have been more damage had the police not acted in a proper manner,” Reddy said.

A press conference sparks a row

The murder of Madiwala and Kalai were part of a series of communal incidents which started from the first day of Ramzan. On May 26, three Muslim youth - Mohammed Ashir, Mashooq and Jamal – were attacked by Mithun [Poojari], Yatheen and Amith right in front of a mosque under the Bantwal police station limits.

Following this, Section 144 was imposed. Mithun is the main accused in the murder of Harish Poojari in November 2015 and was out on bail. Mithun was associated with the Bajrang Dal.

Bajrang Dal Karnataka president Sharan Pumpwell said that the fight was personal. On May 28, RSS strongman Kalladka held a press conference arguing that Yatheen, who was also accused in the case, was actually the victim and he was being framed by the police.

This press conference became even more important a month later – when Kalai was hacked to death. Kalai was killed at Benjanapadavu in Bantwal on June 21.

The main accused in this murder was Bajrang Dal leader Bharath Kumdel, who sat right next to Kalladka during the May 28 presser. This pointed a finger of suspicion at the RSS leadership in Dakshina Kannada. Despite Newslaundry’s repeated attempts to contact him, Kalladka kept deferring the requests, citing his busy schedule.

Memorials spring up

The murder of Kalai led to the imposition of Section 144 in the entire district. The SDPI later demanded the arrest of Kalladka and Pumpwell.

While the RSS put up posters of Madiwala in Bantwal, in Kalai’s native village, the SDPI renamed several public amenities after him. Water coolers, roads, a bus stop and even a street light had Kalai’s name on it.

“Kalai stood with others in their moment of crisis and has helped many. That is why the locals here decided to create his memorial,” said his friend Imtiyaz Ashraf, also a PFI member.

This 40-year-old PFI member, along with Kalai, used to carry out social work like the construction of roads and blood donation camps in Sajipa village. Both were auto drivers.

Idhar ek murder hua tha Rajesh Poojari, jo Sangh Parivar se juda hua tha, uske shak mein isko mara esa batate hai abhi (We were told that the attackers believed that Kalai was involved in the murder of Rajesh Poojari, and hence they killed him,)said Ashraf. Kalai is survived by his wife.

On the day of his murder, Kalai was overseeing the construction of a kuccha road in the neighbourhood. That road has now been named after him.

Threats, counter-threats and a court ruling

A few days before Kalai was killed, a riot-like situation had broken out near the mosque under construction in Kalladka town. Even a month-and-a half after that incident, local residents were tight-lipped. On July 13, a fight in a nearby hospital escalated into a communal clash. The two groups pelted stones at each other, and damaged vehicles and shops.

Locals told Newslaundry that the stones were pelted from inside a mosque and a temple. All this happened with Section 144 in place.

Soon, a tape was leaked in which Karnataka minister and local MLA Ramnath Rai was allegedly heard pressuring the SP to arrest Kalladka. This rocked the Assembly and the BJP demanded the removal of Rai from office. Kalladka’s enormous power in Dakshina Kannada can be sensed from the kind of statements made by the saffron party’s leadership.

BJP state chief BS Yeddyurappa threatened that the entire state would go up in flames if Kalladka was arrested. Later, the Karnataka High Court stayed his arrest.

The jihadi charge

As members of both groups blamed each other, Hindu groups tried to tag Muslim radical groups as “Islamic jihadis”.

When Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s (VHP) Dakshina Kannada president Jagadish Shevana was asked about the coastal city turning into a war zone, he said: “Radical Muslims are strengthening the PFI and the KFD. They have killed so many of our karyakartas.”

He cited the murder of Bajrang Dal leader Prashant Poojari and RSS’s Madiwala as examples. “There were as many as 15 attempts on a karyakarta’s life,” he said.

For him, the attack by Hindu fringe groups is a mere “retaliation” or an act of “protection”. “Muslims are powerful here and hence they are attacking us…We can’t keep our hands tied. Naturally, we will retaliate.”

“Onslaught by Muslim fundamentalists and Islamic terrorism, conversion and ‘love jihad’ are all modern-day realities in India and elsewhere,” was BJP MLC Ganesh Karnik’s defence when asked about the violence in Mangaluru.

“Around 20,000 Hindu girls are missing from Dakshina Kannada,” said Karnik. An ex-serviceman and now a BJP leader, Karnik could not substantiate his claim.

Defending the Hindu fringe groups and RSS, the MLC said, “RSS doesn’t preach this venom.”

Both the BJP and the RSS tried to take advantage of the murder of Hindu activists. After the murder of Hindu activist Karthik Raj in October 2016, the BJP accused that he was murdered by “Islamic jihadists”. Yeddyurappa met the bereaved family and attacked the Congress government.

In January 2017, BJP MP Naleen Kumar Kateel threatened to set the district afire if the murderers of Raj were not arrested in 10 days. But the police took seven months to crack the case. His own sister, Kavyashree, 25, was made accused in the case along with three of her associates. According to the police, she planned Raj’s murder.

PFI, a radical Muslim organisation, was formed in February 2007 after the National Democratic Front of Kerala, the Manitha Neethi Pasiray of Tamil Nadu and the KFD joined hands at a conference in Bengaluru.

Subsequently, on the line of the RSS, they launched their political outfit – the SDPI in 2009. With the expansion of the organisation, especially in Kerala and South Karnataka, controversies started marring their image.

The previous Kerala government, led by Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, had submitted that the PFI was a “resurrection” of the banned SIMI. According to The Print, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) has submitted a report to the home ministry seeking a ban on the organisation as it is a “threat to national security”.

However, PFI’s leadership says that the RSS and the Sangh Parivar are targeting them. From 1992 to 2002, “there was so much threat by the RSS that even the Congress didn’t speak against it,” PFI secretary Aburrazak Kemmara told Newslaundry.

“The PFI openly started speaking against the RSS in its speeches and writings. Hence they started plotting cases against us.” Kemmara said that in the past three to four years, their organisation’s name was associated with love jihad in South Karnataka. “Repeatedly, lies are being spread against us...Propaganda is being driven against us in the local as well as national media.”

According to him, their members like Mustafa, accused in the murder of Bajrang Dal worker Prashant Poojari, and Kalai were eliminated by those associated with the Hindu fringe groups. Kemmara said the murders in Dakshina Kannada are political killings similar to that in Kerala.

“The killings started in the 1970s when Congress leader Ismail was killed by Sangh Parivar members. Several Congress leaders have been killed over the years. However, now the Congress is trying to dub this violence as the RSS vs PFI fight,” the PFI secretary added.

Referring to the series of communal clashes and murders, the Dakshina Kannada Superintendent of Police told Newslaundry: “All the cases are at different stages of investigation. In murder cases, the main accused have been arrested. It turns out some of the miscreants from a couple of organisations are involved.”

However, riots in Kalladka despite prohibitory orders, and Sharath Madiwala’s murder and the funeral procession being attended by about 5,000 RSS workers are proof that the Congress government failed to check communal forces

Bantwal becomes a power centre

Dakshina Kannada, along with Udupi area, remains communally tense. The Bantwal taluka of Dakshina Kannada has been the centre of a power struggle. While RSS leader Kalladka belongs to this taluka, Congress veteran and Karnataka minister Rai represents the Assembly constituency.

A local senior police officer said: “Even many PFI leaders come from Bantwal taluka. Hence, it has become a centre of power.”

The communal divide in places like Kalladka is quite evident. “Hindu- Muslim clashes are common here. I have been seeing this since my childhood,” Abdul Razak, 32, said. Razak, an auto driver, regularly contributes to the PFI. “Prior to the formation of PFI, the bus owners, all Hindus, didn’t let us commute in the area freely. Now, the PFI fights for us – legally and even physically. Ab sahi hai (Now, it’s easier to drive the auto.)”

Love jihad and Cyanide Mohan

While the urban areas in Mangaluru witness a real-estate boom, the rural households are in fairly good economic condition. Still, what makes Dakshina Kannada a dangerous district is its “communal hatred.”

One example was the tagging of a rally as an assembly of anti-nationals where Pakistan flags were raised. In 2005, leading Kannada daily Udayavani reported that Pakistani flags were hoisted in a rally in Udupi. Later, the daily accepted its mistake and published a corrigendum. However, the damage was done.

The concept of “love jihad” too would be a decade old. Those like BJP MLC Karnik have been attacking Muslim groups for the so-called “jihad”.

In 2009, the Anitha murder case became a mystery for the police. Hindu fringe groups declared it to be a case of “love jihad”. Eventually, investigations exposed a serial killer, Prof Mohan, now known as Cyanide Mohan. Anitha and 19 other girls were killed by Mohan. He would pass off a cyanide pill as a contraceptive after having sex with his victims.

Cow vigilante groups have also struck terror in the hearts of cattle traders. Along with cow vigilantism, Mangaluru, in the past one decade, has witnessed a rise in moral policing by self-proclaimed vigilantes. In the January 2009 pub attack, women were beaten up by Sri Ram Sene members. In July 2012, around 50 goons from Jagarana Vedike attacked a party in a house and thrashed men and women. The city, which was aiming to be a distant cousin to Mumbai, has lost the plot somewhere in between. Even the real estate boom and Gulf money cannot cover up the dirt.

As per Bakrabail’s data, both Hindu and Muslim groups actively participate in moral policing. Between 2013 and 2016, there were 156 cases of moral policing. Pumpwell says, “We act upon parents’ request.”

The principal of a government college, who didn’t want to be identified, says: “Muslim girls and Hindu boys prefer not to be friends with each other. It might land them in trouble. During college trips, I have seen students feeling affectionate towards each other. But it will never turn into a relationship because of fear.”

Now, the turn of the burqa

More and more Muslim women in Mangaluru are now in burqas. “Till 2002, very few students came in burqas. The real change started somewhere around 2005 when KFD members started coming to the campus. They would snub and scold the girls for not wearing burqas,” the principal said. “Even parents were called and asked to ensure that their daughters followed Islamic culture.”

PFI secretary Kemmara refuted this. “This could be an act of a few from the Muslim community but PFI has no role to play in it.”

However, Muslim journalists and activists such as Kemmara said this burqa culture has become a fashion in Dakshina Kannada. “This is a Gulf influence. People from here work in the Gulf. They see women in burqa there, which is also a fashion statement in that region. Hence, the culture of burqa increased here too,” Kemmara said.

Feeling the scars

Dakshina Kannada is the headquarters of banks like the Canara Bank and Karnataka Bank. While Tulu is the common language, different groups speak their own dialects. For instance, Muslims speak Beary. Kannada is limited to textbooks. Non-upper caste Hindus and Muslims form the majority of the population. Those like Bakrabail say the RSS wasn’t strong there until it caught the fancy of non-upper caste Hindus.

Today, the RSS is strong in Bantwal, Kalladka, and Puttur. Saffron flags, along with flags of Shivaji, are a common sight. Interestingly, Shivaji flags have the imprint “Janata Raja” on them as in Kerala.

The RSS here operates from a huge campus – Sangh Niketan -- and runs around 130-150 shakhas. Every year, they adopt children from the Northeast states and educate them. The Bajrang Dal operates from a big building in a posh locality in Mangaluru. The leaders of these groups work in close association with the RSS.

“The members and leaders of all these groups have been part of our shakhas, That is why it appears that we work in coordination,” said a senior RSS office-bearer.

With elections barely months away, the state government has indicated a crackdown on communal forces in the state. The funding and activities of PFI and SDPI are becoming a major concern for the police in Karnataka and Kerala, according to sources.

But the experiment of spreading communal hatred to garner political benefits has already left its scars on Dakshina Kannada.

  • Artwork: Anish Daolagupu

  • Picture Credit: Amit Bhardwaj

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