The coastal Karnataka town of Udupi has earned fame for three things.
First, food historians say the unique Indian delicacy of dosa was invented here some centuries ago. The town later spawned ‘Udupi restaurants’ across India and in some parts of the world. Second, Udupi’s twin town of Manipal turned out to be a pioneer in banking. Third, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh — the BJP’s earlier avatar — won a majority in the town’s municipality in 1968 for the first time in southern India, heralding what LK Advani once called the party’s “future rule” in the South.
The man who made the third thing possible was VS Acharya, then a 28-year-old doctor and a devoted worker of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Acharya lost the 1977 and 1980 Lok Sabha election from the Mangaluru seat. Mangaluru is the capital of the coastal district of Dakshina Kannada. But in 1983, three years after BJP had been formed, he trounced a local Congress stalwart in the assembly election. When I met Acharya for the first time after that momentous election, I found him to be very humble and soft-spoken.
It was not till 1991 that the BJP won the Mangaluru Lok Sabha seat and 2008 when the party formed the first government in the state. And it was from around 1991 that coastal Karnataka — till then a tranquil and relatively prosperous place with a substantial Muslim population — came to be regarded as a ‘communally sensitive’ and ‘polarised’ place. And in 2009, when the humble and soft-spoken Acharya was the state’s home minister, he became a supporter, if not an open perpetrator, of aggressive Hindutva. He was even accused of doing nothing to punish those who attacked churches in the region at that time.
In keeping with the post-1990s polarisation, the coastal districts of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi have been the scenes of communal incidents, especially during the months before every election, as was evident once again in the recent past. The state Assembly goes to polls in about five months from now.
On 3 January, some Muslim men allegedly belonging to the Popular Front of India (PFI), a fundamentalist Islamic organisation, killed Deepak Rao, a 38-year-old activist of the Bajrang Dal and a member of the BJP’s IT cell, in Suratkal town near Mangaluru, by attacking him with machetes. They were later arrested.
Hours after Deepak was murdered, four men from a Hindu right-wing outfit attacked Abdul Basheer, a 47-year-old owner of a fast food joint. He died on 7 January. The police said Basheer was randomly chosen to avenge Deepak’s killing.
In an apparently separate development on 3 January, the VHP and Bajrang Dal issued a ‘moral code’ for Hindu girls to protect themselves from ‘love jihad’. This required Hindu girls not to have any links with non-Hindu men and to maintain a distance from them while travelling in buses, and in schools, colleges and work places.
On 2 January, two Hindu girls and two Muslim boys were assaulted when they were visiting an amusement park at Pilikula. A video taken by a passerby shows one of the attackers, identified as a member of Hindu Jagrana Vedike, slapping a girl even after the police arrived.
On 27 December, the Bajrang Dal warned hotels and pubs in Mangaluru not to have New Year’s Eve parties since these were “part of western culture”, and also because, it said, innocent girls targeted for love jihad would be tempted to participate in such events.
To look at the whole saga of tension on the state’s coast since the 1990s as a result of the BJP’s communal politics is to see only one side of the story. Bajrang Dal, Hindu Jagran Vedike, Sri Ram Sene, Vishva Hindu Parishad and smaller Hindu groups have been, no doubt, taking the law into their hands. So have the Muslim outfits like PFI, its political wing Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) and the Campus Front of India (CFI). These Hindu and Muslim outfits and their associated fringe groups have been at loggerheads with each other for a long time.
Asking whether it was the Hindu groups that first kicked up the trouble and then the Muslims retaliated or whether it was the other way around is as irrelevant as the chicken-first-or-egg-first question. Both sides, as well as their respective political backers, must be held responsible for the communal madness. The BJP, of course, raises hell when Hindus are killed, and the party’s tacit support for the Hindu fringe groups is too clear to miss. What, however, is less obvious is the backing the “secular” Congress provides to Muslim outfits. The BJP has released a photograph that shows Karnataka’s food minister UT Khader having lunch with a man who is a close associate of one of the accused in Deepak’s murder.
And six months ago, a video that went viral on social media showed Karnataka minister Ramanath Rai putting pressure on the district police chief to arrest a local RSS leader.
Investigations of past cases have established that at least some of the Hindu and Muslim ruffians who commit crimes ranging from moral policing to murders are used by political parties during elections. That makes the line between mainline parties and the so-called fringe groups very thin, and both the BJP and the Congress are guilty of backing the perpetrators of communal tension before the elections and using their questionable services during the elections.
But it’s clearly the Hindu groups that are more organised and well-entrenched than the Muslim ones in the region, although the PFI gets generous help and money from Islamic sources in Kerala and outside India. And the ridiculous moral policing by the Hindu groups often hits the headlines, causing widespread panic and disgust not only in the region but also across entire Karnataka.
What the BJP must, however, remember is that communal tensions didn’t always help the party win seats in the coastal districts in the past. Take the last two Assembly elections for instance. In 2008, the party won 10 of the 13 seats in the coastal districts of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi, won a majority in the Assembly and formed the government. Then after a relatively peaceful period, there was a sudden spurt in communal violence and renewed ‘polarisation’ of voters during the run-up to the 2013 poll. Then the BJP not only lost power in the state for a variety of reasons but also did miserably in its so-called bastion on the coast.
The lesson for the BJP from the last Assembly polls is that it must rein in the fanatical Hindu groups in its own electoral interests. On its part, the Congress must shed its hypocrisy of perverted secularism and keep away from Islamic fundamentalists to keep peace in the region and to rid itself of the ‘anti-Hindu’ image that it has earned.