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New Delhi: Once considered the cultural capital of the state, the town of Hubballi in North Karnataka remains tense after incidents of violent protests by the Muslim community were seen following a politically aggressive post by 20-year-old student Abhishek Hiremath.
On the evening of April 16, a mob of Muslims began pelting stones at the police while protesting against what it thought was insufficient action against the accused who had posted a provocative photoshopped picture of a saffron flag hoisted atop a mosque as his Whatsapp status message.
The violence flared up when the mob gathered at the Old Hubballi police station and began to damage police vehicles late at night, even injuring a few policemen. A section of the mob reportedly also pelted stones at a hospital and a temple situated near the police station.
The volatile situation was brought under control after the police imposed Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) which prohibit gatherings of more than four people.
Police officials informed reporters that Hiremath had been arrested when the violence first started, but the mob wanted more stringent action against him.
The offensive Whatsapp post was possibly created by a member of the Ram Sena, who describes himself as ‘Ram Sena Shiva Hindu Huli‘ (Ram Sena Shiva, the Hindu tiger) in the post. The police has made no mention of any action against him as yet.
The politically-threatening Whatsapp status posted by the Hiremath, a Hindutva supporter, was first circulated as a screenshot by his Muslim classmate. As the screenshot was shared widely among the town’s Muslims community, some of its leaders lodged a police complaint against Hiremath.
However, according to a senior Hubballi-based reporter with whom The Wire spoke, All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) and Popular Front of India (PFI) activists allegedly mobilised a section of the community to agitate against the police and pressed the forces into taking stricter action against the accused. This led to further tensions in the community, following which the protests turned violent
Speaking with reporters, Hubballi-Dharwad police commissioner Labhu Ram said, “Around 40 people have been arrested and some first information reports (FIR) have been registered. 12 of our officers-on-duty were injured and some police vehicles were damaged. We have taken all precautionary measures so that such incidents do not occur again. We will not spare those who have taken law into their hands.”
He added that the police have already acted upon the complaint received against the controversial Whatsapp post and had called the Muslim community leaders to apprise them of the police action against the accused when the agitation turned violent.
The commissioner said that a bunch of protestors had been persuaded to disperse from the scene earlier in the evening but another bunch of people had gathered at the police station around midnight and went on a rampage, even as the Muslim community leaders attempted to control the flare-up. As violence escalated, the police used tear gas to disperse the gathering. About a dozen police officers have sustained injuries, the police commissioner said.
The police have also arrested Hiremath’s classmate who circulated the screenshot of his Whatsapp status.
In the aftermath of the violence, youth Congress leader Shahjama Mujahid appealed to restore peace and allow the police to take action as per law from a nearby mosque’s loudspeaker, the Hindu reported.
Former chief minister and Janata Dal (Secular) leader H.D. Kumaraswamy condemned the incident and said it was not proper for vested interests to create rift between communities for their personal gain.
In a series of tweets, the JD(S) leader said those who took law into their hands should have reposed faith in the system.
Incidents from Kundapur to Hubballi reflects an abject failure on the part of the State government. Remaining idle instead of taking a strict action is the reason for such incidents. Chief Minister & Home Minister should take the Hubbali incident seriously. 7/10
— H D Kumaraswamy (@hd_kumaraswamy) April 17, 2022
However, chief minister Basavaraj Bommai, speaking in Hosapete, called the incident an “organised attack”, although the police officials in Hubbali did not mention any possibility of the attack being planned.
“I want to tell very clearly that whoever takes law into their hands, our police will not hesitate from taking stringent action against them (rioters). Whoever they may be… Hence, whoever is behind it and instigated the mob will be punished. I want to tell the organisations behind such incidents, not to break the law. Karnataka state will not tolerate it (sic),” the chief minister said.
“If a large number of people gather outside the police station, certainly it means that it was an organised crime,” Bommai continued.
Echoing his view and fuelling further tensions between Hindus and Muslims, state home minister Araga Jnanendra said, “A police officer is in a serious condition. Some people involved in the attack have been arrested. It was a pre-planned attack. The miscreants wanted to create Devara Jeevanahalli and Kadugondahalli like the incident in Hubballi.”
The home minister was referring to the 2020 Bengaluru riots where about 4,000 Muslims had torched the residence of R. Akhanda Srinivas Murthy, the Congress MLA from Pulakeshi Nagar assembly constituency, and his sister over a similar social media post by one of his family members. The mob also torched many vehicles and set the DJ Halli and KG Halli police stations on fire. In that incident, four people were killed, including three in police firing.
Following the April 16 violence in Hubbali, several senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders of the state have upped the ante. BJP MLA Basanagouda Patil Yatnal demanded that the government act tough against the miscreants so that they never think of repeating the incident.
Karnataka has been in news for the last two months for multiple incidents of Hindutva aggression, from the ban on hijabs in educational institutions in the state to the more recent ban on halal meat.
Communal conflagrations have frequently flared up over the last two months, even as Hindutva leaders and activists have attempted to fuel animosity between communities amidst highly polarising political narratives around the state government’s push to ban Hijab in schools and Halal meat during the holy month of Ramzan.
The BJP-led state administration has largely been seen as siding with the Hindutva aggressors and provocateurs, and at the same time, creating bigger controversies out of minor issues.
Last month, 25-year-old Muslim woman Kuthma Sheikh was arrested and charged with several Indian Penal Code (IPC) sections in Mudhol in the Bagalkot district for merely wishing the people of Pakistan on their Republic Day.
Sheikh had posted a picture on Whatsapp with the caption ‘Allah Har Mulk me Ittihaad…Aman…Sukoon…Ata Farma Maula’ (may Allah grant unity, peace, and harmony in every country), following which a Hindutva activist named Arun Bhajantari filed a police complaint against her.
Curiously, the police charged Sheikh under IPC sections that deal with “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence”.
(With PTI inputs)