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Karnataka – where every community is guilty of encouraging intolerance

MM Kalburgi‘s murder is the latest in a series of violent events perpetrated by fundamentalists in coastal Karnataka, where all the major communities are guilty of encouraging an atmosphere of intolerance. In this photo, Bajrang Dal activists shout slogans during a protest rally in Bangalore against the terrorist attack inside the makeshift temple in Ayodhya in 2005. (AFP Photo)

I can’t remember if I was slapped, shoved or punched. But the night of September 1, 2008 was the first time I was attacked on the crime beat in Mangalore.

That night, a group of activists from the Hindu Jagarana Vedike were ransacking a Christian missionary hospital and attacking its staff because a Hindu girl, who had consumed poison, could not be saved by the doctors there. They were accusing the hospital staff of neglecting the girl because she was Hindu.

The bearded Hindu Jagarana Vedike leader who hit me for taking a snap of the violence was a Catholic Christian. His name was Franklin Montiero. He was not the first christian I had met in the Sangh Parivar in Mangalore, which is called the Rome of the East for its sizable Catholic population.

A few weeks earlier, the Sri Rama Sene had shut down the city to protest against the Ram Sethu shipping canal project. They surrounded me when I took images of them attacking a shopkeeper who had defied their ban near the Mangalore prison. A large, burly, menacing-looking man suddenly burst onto the scene and yelled at the Sene activists in Tulu. They immediately backed down and apologised to me. My hero introduced himself as a journalist, dog breeder, Karate champion, event manager, real estate agent and member of the BJP minority morcha. He was also a Catholic.

Read: Bangalore Muslim boy asked to recite Hindu prayer, ‘humiliated’

The Karate champion promised to find me a house on rent close to my office and after many postponements we finally agreed to meet on Sunday, September 14, 2008. That morning, I got a frantic call from him around 8 am. “They have attacked us! They have attacked us!” he shouted into the phone straining to be heard over the hundreds of loud voices in the background.

In a well coordinated move, the Bajrang Dal had attacked around 20 churches across the twin coastal districts of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi. When I reached the 350-year-old Milagres Church where all the shocked Catholics of the city had gathered, I found the Karate champ sobbing like a baby. “I am quitting the BJP and the Sangh parivar,” he said.

Many Catholics, who had either been supporters of the Sangh or indifferent to its attacks on Muslims in coastal Karnataka until then, moved away from the Hindutva fold that day. But Franklin Montiero stayed back and went on to become the State Vice President of the BJP’s minority morcha.

There doesn’t seem to be any authoritative scholarship on the history of communalism in coastal Karnataka, which according to some is the third most important centre for the Sangh after Nagpur and Pune. For now, the story is best told through the personal histories of common people who live here. It is a story of shifting loyalties and changing identities.

These stories offer some insight into two recent incidents that made national headlines: the public stripping of a Muslim man in Mangalore for speaking to a Hindu woman and the assassination of rationalist Professor MM Kalburgi 400 km away in Dharwad.

Catholics like Montiero, for instance, were raised on family stories about the first time the community was attacked over two centuries ago. In 1784, suspecting the Catholics of being British spies, Tipu Sultan had razed at least two dozen churches in the region, including the Milagres Church. When the first RSS shakhas started sprouting in the region during the 1940s, many Catholic businessmen actively supported the growth of militant Hindutva as a means to contain the common enemy, the Muslims.

A Catholic priest invoked this shared history at a peace committee meeting at the Deputy Commissioner’s office in Mangalore a few days after the church attacks. He told the Sangh leaders at the gathering, who were accusing Christian missionaries of converting lowered caste Hindus: “We are the same people. We were also Saraswat Brahmins like you. Both of us suffered equally under Tipu Sultan.”

At the Nehru football stadium where I used to play football, a group of Muslim players told me another interesting story. A group of footballers from the Catholic part of town had approached them a day after the church attacks and asked them for help in exacting revenge. “We laughed and asked them, ‘Where were you when we were getting attacked all these years?’ There was no answer,” one of the Muslim players told me.

For many in the outside world, Mangalore’s history starts with the pub attack of January 2009 when Sri Rama Sene activists hit and molested girls who were partying. The attack led activists based in Delhi to form the “consortium of loose, forward and pub going women” which started the Pink Chaddi campaign.

But by then, hundreds of simple women – dressed in saris, churidars and burkhas – who were neither “forward” nor “pub going” had been attacked by right wing groups merely for speaking to men from another community.

Many trace the origins of this vigilantism to the 1998 communal riots in Surathkal near Mangalore. Eight people were killed in those riots that started when the Hindu Jagarana Vedike attacked a Muslim man for dating a Hindu girl. Since then, the trend has been that the police file cases against the victims of these vigilante attacks under ambiguous laws relating to public indecency. The recent stripping of the Muslim man was the 140th such incident this year alone.

Read: After Kalburgi murder, Bajrang Dal leader says another rationalist next

The Surathkal riots also provided an entry point for the Muslim fundamentalist organisation Karnataka Forum for Dignity (KFD). Until the riots, the KFD was active only in Kerala where it was called the National Development Front. They are now known as the Popular Front of India (PFI).

Secular groups such as the Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum regularly shared the stage with the KFD/PFI whenever they held protests against the communalism of the Sangh. The ‘secularists’ would demand proof when asked how they could ally with one communal group to counter another.

That proof presented itself on the evening of October 6, 2009 when activists of the PFI attacked a Hindu boy in front of the Deputy Commissioner’s office in Mangalore for dating a Muslim girl. When I called him for a reaction, the then district secretary of the PFI, Ataullah, claimed responsibility for the attack only to retract his statement when the incident created a huge uproar. Ties between the PFI and the communal harmony forum soured after the incident and today, they no longer share a stage. This year, activists of the PFI have been held responsible for six of the 140 vigilante attacks in the region.

However, the PFI did not give birth to Islamic fundamentalism in coastal Karnataka, which has been a major centre for liberal Sufi Islam. Increasingly ghettoised by the rise of the Hindu Right and abandoned by the Congress, the Beary Sunni Muslims of the region had started turning to religion in a big way as early as the 1970s.

Young Beary men, who went to West Asia in search of a fortune, brought back not just material wealth but also an interpretation of Islam that ran counter to Sufisim. Groups such as the Tablighi Jamaat and the Jamat-e-Islami had gained a huge following in the area by the time the turbulence of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement hit the Konkan coast in 1992.

The polarising events of those years propelled one man from the region onto the national stage – the seer of the Udupi Pejawar Mutt, Vishveshwara Theertha Swami. A disciple of the second RSS chief MS (Guruji) Golwalkar, the soft-spoken pontiff, now 84, is seen by many as the man who laid the foundation for the Sangh in Coastal Karnataka.

In 1969, Theerta organised the first ever state-level conference of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Golwalkar was the chief guest at the event, which also saw the participation of many Congress leaders of the time. Four years earlier, in 1965, the then Mysore Maharaja and founder President of the VHP, Jaya Chamrajendra Wodeyar Bahadur, had organised the third national executive meeting of the outfit at his summer palace.

During an interview at his Bangalore ashram on Wednesday, Theertha recalled those days fondly and said, “When he came to Udupi in 1969, Guruji praised me in front of 65,000 people for helping the Mysore Maharaja with the national executive meeting.”

He said that before the 1960s, the Sangh barely had any presence in coastal Karnataka. “Cows were being slaughtered by thousands but nobody was speaking out against it. That’s when we started the VHP to take up this issue seriously.”

Police records from the 1960s show that it was a period when a series of attacks were launched against Muslim cattle traders. The years of the Emergency added further heft to the VHP with many Congress and even some young Left leaders joining its ranks. This was also the period when the VHP started spreading its footprint to other regions of Karnataka such as Hubli-Dharwad, Raichur and Bagalkot.

But for some, even the VHP was too soft. By the late 1970s, the Hindu Yuva Sene took on the responsibility of cow protection in the coast. This group made way for the even more militant Hindu Jagarana Vedike in the 1990s. And the Gujarat riots of 2002 allowed the Bajrang Dal to replace the Jagarana Vedike to spearhead the Hindutva movement in coastal Karnataka.

People such as Franklin Montiero, Ataulla and the Pejawara pontiff are bound to contest this version of events. But it stands to reason that everybody is entitled to a telling of this story in a region which has been torn asunder by competitive communalism that has led to riots, curfews, killings and vigilante attacks for the last 50 years.

And the task of writing a definitive history of all this is as difficult as catching all the fish in the Arabian sea.

Below are photos that show how moral policing is a real scare in the state:

(HT Photos)

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