With Modi's Blessing, BJP's Communal Agenda Gets a Boost in Coastal Karnataka

Fuelled by Modi's recent speech in Mangaluru, BJP’s last-minute push to further polarise the political space comes on the back of a few campaigns that failed to get traction.

Mangaluru: It takes only 15 minutes for Mangaluru (Mangalore) to transform, Sriniwas Poojary, a 22-year-old engineering student, said. “In whatever time I have spent here, I only know that the friendly and peace-loving appearance of the city, the vibrant, cosmopolitan community spaces, can all turn into rabid communal spaces in a matter of time.”

“In such times, we cannot even trust our friends if they have a different religious identity. It does not take long for friends to turn into foes in this city,” he added.

Human relationships didn’t always work this way in the beautiful coastal Karnataka town. Previously a part of the South Canara district of the Madras Presidency, Mangaluru is one of the most prosperous towns in Karnataka. But over the last few decades, the city and its adjoining regions have garnered national attention because of various incidents of political murders, communal riots, moral policing by right-wing vigilante groups and a Sangh parivar-led campaign on ‘love jihad‘.

The steady growth of Hindutva and militant responses to it by Muslim groups like the Popular Front of India (PFI) have derailed the region’s stability. Even a short trip to the Dakshin Kannada district, of which Mangaluru is a part, indicates that communal issues trump developmental concerns in dictating people’s political preferences.

Credit: Amazon

It was against this backdrop that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his recent election speech at Mangaluru, set aside his much-publicised development agenda and chose to focus on one Hindu religious symbol. He lauded Karan Acharya, who in 2015 had created the now-viral saffron Hanuman image. Now known as the “Angry Hanuman”, the digital portrait of the Hindu god has become so popular that it can be widely seen as motifs on smartphones, car windshields, t-shirts, posters and also the Sangh parivar’s campaign material.

The image, in recent times, has transformed into another polarising factor across the country, with feminists and civil society activists criticising the portrayal of Hanuman as a symbol of Hindu hyper-masculinity.

Modi, however, spun the criticism as one of Congress’s intolerance towards this “magnificent art”.

“I want to applaud artist Karan Acharya whose Hanuman portrait has captured the imagination of people across India. This is a laudable achievement and is the power of his achievement, talent, and imagination. This is the pride of Mangaluru. All TV channels queued up for his interview,” Modi said at the Mangaluru rally.

In perhaps the only time he has appreciated art, Modi derided the Congress for pushing Hanuman’s image into a controversy. “Unable to digest its success, the Congress tried miring it in a controversy. There is no iota of democracy in the minds of the Congress members,” he said.

Credit: PTI

What Modi said may have immediate repercussions on the elections in coastal Karnataka. By pitching the Congress as an anti-Hindu party, not only did he fuel an already polarised society, but also gave a green signal to BJP activists to run the party’s last-minute campaign largely on communal lines.

Mohammed Ibrahim, a resident of Mangaluru who follows politics keenly, thought that the conversation around Hanuman’s image may have been controversial in certain intellectual circles but was not a matter of electoral discussion among the public at all. “With the prime minister invoking the controversy, ground-level BJP activists have suddenly made that a talking point just ahead of the elections.”

Immediate backdrop

The BJP’s last-minute push to further polarise the political space in coastal Karnataka, according to many political observers, came as the last few recent campaigns that the saffron party led did not find much traction. One such campaign is prominent.

In July last year, BJP MP from Udupi-Chikmagalur Shobha Karandlaje stirred a controversy when she stated in a letter to the Union home minister, Rajnath Singh, that 23 BJP-RSS activists were killed by “Jehadi elements” since 2014, most of whom were in coastal Karnataka districts.

Since then, state-level BJP leaders and its Central leaders like Adityanath have often used the letter to attack the Siddaramaiah government for protecting the “Jehadis”. This played into the usual BJP tactic to brand the Congress government in the state as one that had a “Muslim appeasement” policy.

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However, subsequent investigations, both by the media and the state police, revealed  that only ten of these murders had connections to groups like Popular Front of India or Karnataka Forum for Dignity.

Of that controversial list of 23, one, Ashok Poojary, was found to be alive, two had in fact committed suicide and two, the police claimed, were killed by their own sisters. The rest of the murders were because of village-level personal rivalries arising out of clashing interests in real estate and illegal sand mining prevalent in the area. The police claimed that in many of these murders, Hindutva elements communalised the murders to cover up the criminal activities of the assaulted persons. 

Later, when chief minister Siddaramaiah released data to show that adequate action has been taken in genuine cases and that a significant number of Muslims had been arrested in cases of political assaults, it became clear that the allegations of bias that the BJP made against the state government had little merit. As a result, the BJP campaign fizzled out over time.

Political murders have become a norm in this coastal region that spreads from northern Kerala to Dakshin Kannada, Uttara Kannada and Udupi districts of Karnataka. All active parties – Congress, BJP and the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), the political wing of Popular Front of India – have often been party to violent clashes that have lead to murders and serious assaults.

Said Shettigar, a senior journalist in Udupi, “The people know that the nature of political violence is not necessarily communal in the area. However, parties like the BJP, which is an equal participant in such violence, often make it communal to gain politically. It wants to alienate Muslims – a substantial section of population in the region – from the political mainstream.”

Although the BJP’s one-sided campaign against the Congress did not hold much ground, a series of such political murders over the last year has managed to keep the communal tensions alive. The most prominent ones were the killings of Hindutva activists Prashant Poojary, Deepak Rao, Sharath Madiwala and SDPI activists Ashraf Kalayi and Abdul Basheer.

Alongside, the BJP has been running its nationwide campaigns on ‘love jihad’ and cow protection quite aggressively in the region. “Whenever a Hindu girl went missing, the BJP and its front organisations like Hindu Jagaran Vedike and Bajrang Dal would pronounce the case as yet another incident of ‘love jihad’. This campaign has significantly increased over the last two years,” said Suresh Bhat Bakrabail, the Dakshina Kannada district president of the Karnataka Komu Souharda Vedike (Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum).

Ganesh Karnik, sitting BJP MLC, told The Wire, “Everytime a girl from the majority community goes missing, we have found that a man from the minority community is behind the kidnapping.”

When asked that the relationships could be consensual and would be legal if both partners are adults, he said, “Often we have found that the girls who go missing belong to very poor, under-educated backgrounds.” While he hinted that the Muslim boys mislead poor Hindu girls into eloping, a RSS worker at the BJP’s Mangaluru office, who did not want to be named, put the Hindutva wrath against such unions quite succinctly.

“They keep their women under burkhas. They do not allow Hindus to even look at their women. Just because Hinduism is a liberal religion, why should we allow our women to marry Muslim boys? They should also taste a bit of their own medicine.”   

The undercurrent of moral policing by the Hindu Right is one of patriarchal communalism. In 2015, a 29-year-old Muslim employee at a Mangaluru supermarket was dragged out of his car, stripped to his underwear and tied to an electric pole before being thrashed for more than an hour by Hindutva vigilante groups. The mob of around 50 men alleged that he was over-friendly with a Hindu female colleague.

The same hyper-masculinity was displayed by another Hindutva mob in 2005, when a Muslim father-son duo, Hajabba and Hasanabba, were stripped and beaten in broad daylight for allegedly transporting a calf. The incident, which happened at a suburb of Udupi, had sent sent shock waves across the country. Last year, a similar mob beat BJP activist Praveen Poojary to death in Hebri village of Udupi. The reason, again, was that he was allegedly smuggling cows in his vehicle.

Bakrabail, who has been documenting incidents of communalism since 2010 in Dakshin Kannada and Udupi districts, said that although cow vigilante groups have been active in the region from much before the campaign spread across the country, incidents of violence related to gau raksha has dramatically increased over the last two or three years.

“I see a shift in Sangh parivar’s campaign strategy in the last few years. From a dramatically anti-Muslim propaganda, which would often lead to massive communal riots in the region, the BJP has managed to anchor all of these elements in its talk of nationalism. Now anyone who eats beef or is critical of Hindutva is being branded as anti-national. Their slogan is if the Hindu wins, the nation wins. It has become much more subtle but remains as communal as ever. Use of fake news has become an important tool in spreading hatred among communities now. Celebration of Tipu Jayanti or other Muslim festivals are also being communalised these days.”

Carrying out low-intensity campaigns has been the Sangh parivar’s formula for quite sometime now. Bakrabail said that while incidents related to religious vigilantism aka campaign against religious conversion and number of organised communal riots have decreased since 2015, small-scale violent clashes as a result of hate speech, cattle slaughter, moral policing have increased manifold times in the same period and has kept communal tensions alive.

“The years 2013, 2014 and 2015 saw most number of communal incidents. Now we see one-off incidents in distant villages but a more organised propaganda machinery following these,” said Bakrabail. 

The trend shows that such diversified campaigns by Hindutva outfits has helped them maintain their political momentum. 

Infighting within BJP

Despite an organised presence, however, the BJP had to face huge reverses in the 2013 assembly elections, when the Congress rode on a strong anti-incumbency wave against the saffron party to win all eight seats in Dakshin Kannada and three out of five constituencies in Udupi. In 2008, it had won eight of the 13 seats from these two districts.

The party hopes to wrest most of the seats away from the Congress this time, given its sustained campaign, but it has had to face significant infighting within its own ranks. The maximum support for the BJP comes from the backward Billava caste group. It is said that Billavas are the foot soldiers of the BJP. However, the community feels shortchanged as the Hindu nationalist party has given only one ticket to a Billava candidate in Dakshin Kannada and Udupi each. At the same time, it has given six tickets to Bunts, the dominant, prosperous caste group, and two to Goud Saraswat Brahmins, the largest Brahmin group which has traditionally supported the Sangh parivar in the region.

Satyajeet Surathkal. Credit: PTI

This has fuelled rebellion among Billavas. One such example is that of Satyajeet Surathkal, who is a prominent face among Billavas and a Hindutva activist. He threatened to vote for the Congress or contest as an independent candidate. Considered at par with Union minister Anant Kumar Hegde in the party, Surathkal, a former Hindu Jagaran Vedike leader known for his rabidly communal statements, had hoped he would get the ticket from the Mangalore North seat but the BJP gave the seat to the former Janata Dal (Secular) leader Bharath Shetty, a Bunt. However, according to reports, he has been lying low as he was assured a MLC position if the BJP comes to power.

The community has also started a Facebook group called the ‘Dakshina Kannada Billava Nota Campaign’, which has been appealing to Billavas to press the NOTA button. “We have been staunch supporters of Hindutva since the last two decades. We have given our lives to the BJP. Yet the party does not think it fit to represent our members in the elections. Does the BJP think that Billavas are there only to go to jail and get murdered for party campaigns,” a Billava driver in Bantwal, a highly communally-sensitive constituency of Dakshin Kannada, told  The Wire.   

He seemed to think that the BJP now prioritises its business interests more than its ideology of Hindutva. “Most BJP and Congress leaders from the Bunt and Brahmin community are rich and have interests in sand mining, which is a greatly profitable business in Dakshin Kannada. Congress always gave tickets to such people but we thought BJP was different. But now we know that even the BJP wants rich people and not those who have worked hard for the party.”

Billavas make up around 30% of the population in Udupi and Dakshin Kannada and in some seats comprise more than 50%. Rebellion in their ranks may cost the saffron party dear. On the other hand, Rahul Gandhi, has been trying to bring Billavas into the fold of the Congress. He has been warming up to the octogenarian Congress leader Janardhan Poojary, a Billava stalwart who is said to be miffed with Siddharamaiah. He also visited the famous Kudroli temple, considered to be the most-venerated shrine among Billavas during his Jana Ashirwada Yatra. It has also represented more backward caste and minority members in its ticket distribution. 

Modi’s last-minute push to consolidate Hindus, as was evident from his speech, indicates that the party hopes to stem these caste contradictions by polarising the electorate on religious lines further. Whether he will triumph in his efforts or not is something one will know on May 15, but the question – should a prime minister, considered to be a development icon by many, use such political tactics to win elections – may haunt many in future.