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Rich Muslims, angry Hindus: Why coastal Karnataka and Kerala are hotbeds of violent politics

Kozhikode/Kannur/Dakshina Kannada/Udupi/Uttara Kannada: “Askar is getting married. Did you know?” S.P. Razia’s voice is flat as she relays this information, sitting in a corner of her house in Edayannur, Kannur district, Kerala. When asked who Askar is, anger flashes across her face: “My son’s murderer.”

Three years ago, Razia’s son Shuhaib, a 29-year-old Youth Congress leader, was hacked to death at a teashop. Among the accused were several members of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM), including T.K. Askar.

About 170 kilometres away, in Moodabidri, Dakshina Kannada district, Karnataka, another tearful mother mourns her son — Bajrang Dal worker and cow protection campaigner Prashanth Poojary.

“I live alone in this house now. My husband died reliving the horror of my son’s murder every day,” Prashanth’s mother Yashoda Poojary says. She has left her son’s room almost exactly as it was the last time he set foot in it. Like Shuhaib, he was 29 years old when he was killed near his flower shop on 9 October 2015, allegedly by members of the Islamic organisation Popular Front of India.

Garlanded photos of Prashanth Poojary (centre) and his father | Photo: Anusha Ravi Sood/ThePrint

The stories, details, ideologies, and motives differ, but a unique brand of bloody, hateful, and divisive politics pervades India’s southwestern coastal districts in both Kerala and Karnataka. The bloodshed in each is rooted in a cauldron of minority demographics, long-standing rivalries over economic resources, land reforms, and radical politics.

However, there is one stark difference: the political bloodshed in Kerala’s North Malabar districts is often in the name of party loyalty, but in Karnataka’s South Karavali region, it is more commonly in the name of religion.

Also Read: It is impossible to understand Karnataka’s complex politics without reading this breakdown

Cricket, community, culture, and cadre

Muneer Katipalla remembers being in the middle of a cricket match in Mangaluru, Dakshina Kannada, when everything changed.

“Someone from our mosque came running to say that the Babri Masjid had been demolished. He called all the Muslims boys to come protect our local mosque,” Katipalla, state president of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) in Karnataka, recalls.

The so-called ‘Friends Cricket Team’, which had both Hindu and Muslim members, disintegrated at that moment on 6 December 1992, Katipalla says. “That day, we left our bats and went to the mosque, and our Hindu friends went to the temple. Things have never been the same ever since,” Katipalla says.

Before 6 December 1992, cricket teams had members from different communities and sported generic names like ‘Friends’, ‘Five Star’, and so on. Now, Katipalla says, cricket teams are divided along communal lines and have names to match, like ‘Advani’, ‘Saddam’, ‘Om Shakti’, and ‘Green Star’.

Cricket culture is just a microcosm of the deeply divided coastal Karnataka districts, where rifts have only deepened over the years. It is not a coincidence that this region is also the epicentre of the ongoing controversy over the hijab.

What political analysts and leaders across the political spectrum can agree on is that equations between the religious majority and the minorities started changing decades ago when the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ramped up its operations here.

BJP general secretary in Karnataka and staunch RSS votary N. Ravi Kumar says there were several reasons behind the RSS choosing coastal Karnataka as its southern headquarters. One of these was the region’s prosperity.

“When you begin an organisation run by volunteers, you cannot set up in a region where there is poverty. People simply don’t have the time to dedicate towards a cause or ideology. Coastal Karnataka was not just rich in culture, intellect, faith, but also in human capital,” he says.

Ravi also makes pointed reference to the historical episodes, especially the “anger against atrocities towards Hindus” by the 18th-century Muslim ruler Tipu Sultan. “This made it a natural base for an organisation with Hindutva at its heart to consolidate Hindus here,” Ravi, who is also an MLC, says.

As the RSS rose in influence, so did divisive politics, according to social activist Suresh Bhat, who has tracked communal crimes in Dakshina Kannada and Udupi since 2010.

Bhat claims that in the 1980s and 1990s, events like the brick collection drive for the Ram temple in Ayodhya and the Rath Yatra (chariot tour) sparked communal flare-ups in Karnataka.

Around this time, the RSS in coastal Karnataka also consciously started changing its image as an exclusive organisation for Goud Saraswat Brahmins. Instead, it actively wooed youngsters from marginalised, Tulu-speaking communities like the Billava, Mogaveera, and Ediga, Bhat says.

“Leftist ideology was strong in this region given its geographical proximity to Kerala… but the RSS was able to lure people from the backward classes under the Hindu umbrella,” Bhat says, adding that this ideological project involved a strategy of cultural co-option.

“This is Tulu Nadu, where the Tulu people are actually not Hindus under Sanatana Dharma. Here the people worship ancestral spirits called bhootas and daivas. But, the RSS appropriated their cultural practices by [gaining control of] community temples and organising Yakshagana and Bayalata (traditional theatre forms) cultural events,” he added.

Sharan Pumpwell, Mangaluru division secretary of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), also believes that Hindu consolidation worked in favour of the RSS.

“The RSS had established a base here in the coast decades ago and has been consolidating Hindus. Every Hindu household here has a Sangh karyakarta (worker),” Pumpwell says.

According to Pumpwell, “Islamic forces” had been targeting coastal Karnataka because of its “historic temples” and it was the imperative of Hindutva organisations to oppose attempts to “Islamise India”.

While Pumpwell disagrees that the Babri mosque demolition vitiated the political environment, he acknowledges that Mangaluru had not had violent communal clashes until the 1998 riots in Surathkal near Managaluru.

As the RSS grew in strength, so did a counter-mobilisation of Muslims. According to Bhat, Muslim political activism became well-organised onlypost 2006 with the advent of the Popular Front of India (PFI), which subsumed the Karnataka Forum for Dignity (KFD) in the region.

Graphic: Ramandeep Kaur

“Retaliation from the Muslims came about in an organised way only after the entry of the PFI in Dakshina Kannada. Both RSS and PFI are communal entities,” Bhat says.

In 2006, Mangaluru saw riots set off by an incident of cow vigilantism, but the fissures between the communities went far deeper.

The divide today is so deep, Katipalla says, that children of different communities don’t mingle anymore. “Muslims in Dakshina Kannada speak Beary and Hindus speak Tulu. As kids, we would learn each other’s language while playing or hanging out. Today, our children barely speak Tulu and Hindu children despise Beary.”

Communal divides have grown in coastal Kerala too — as evidenced by the prevalence of ‘love jihad’ as a BJP plank and its Hindu as well as Christian proponents (beef is not a hot-button issue here, unlike Karnataka, since many communities consume it). However, in Kerala, the communal element in political violence is often masked by the history of brutal conflicts among party cadres.

Also, while the RSS was able to woo Hindus across the lower castes in Karnataka’s coastal regions, this strategy wasn’t as effective in Kerala. The RSS reportedly holds as many as 4,500 shakas (congregations) in the state every day, its highest tally in the country, but the impact is limited.

“Credit goes to [social reformer and spiritual leader] Narayana guru and his social reform work in Kerala. The backward classes, like the Ezhavas, are so strongly aligned with the anti-caste reforms of Narayana guru that the larger lure of Hindutva isn’t working there,” Suresh Bhat says.

‘Political violence’ in Kerala

On the day ThePrint met Shuhaib’s family in Kannur, a CPM worker, 54-year-old Haridasan, was hacked to death in the district. The police have arrested four BJP and RSS members in connection with his murder.

Such incidents are not uncommon along the Kerala coast. Political murders in the region have involved victims and accused from multiple parties and organisations, including the CPM, the RSS, and the PFI and its political arm, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI).

Speaking to ThePrint, writer and political commentator Paul Zacharia says that Kannur, and Thalassery in particular, have become a battleground of the CPM and the BJP.

“Kannur is the CPM’s birthplace and it is protective of it and surrounding regions like Kasaragod and Kozhikode. But over the years, the RSS and BJP have been fighting to take over party villages. This started a feud which often leads to bloodshed,” Zacharia says, pointing out that the BJP losing the Manjeshwar assembly constituency in Kasaragod by just 89 votes in the 2016 Kerala elections is a prime example of how close the contest is in some pockets.

Graphic: Ramandeep Kaur

The “party villages” to which Zacharia refers are a phenomenon in Kerala where entire villages are loyal to one party and vote en masse. Villages in Kannur are often seen as loyal to the CPM.

According to M.V. Jayarajan, Kannur secretary of the CPM, party cadres are not responsible for political violence and murders, like that of Shuhaib in 2018, but have been victims of it for decades, and now particularly so at the hands of RSS and BJP workers.

“We have lost 589 communists in Kerala since 1940. In Kannur alone, 170 cadres have been killed… 22 CPM cadres have been killed since 2016 (when the LDF government led by Pinarayi Vijayan came to power) of which 16 were murdered by the RSS,” Jayarajan alleges.

However, P. Surendran, Kerala BJP president, says that this is a misrepresentation.

“There is retaliatory action, I won’t deny it — but the BJP never starts any kind of violence,” Surendran says.

“We have lost hundreds of workers to political violence by CPM, Congress, and PFI. The CPM is only focused on the BJP without realising the PFI is strengthening its roots in CPM party villages,” he adds.

However, despite their historical differences, coastal Kerala and Karnataka have in common some demographic characteristics that have contributed to the broader trend of political violence.

A fight for economic assertion

Many observers, analysts, and stakeholders concur that North Malabar and Karavali differ from other regions due to their numerically sizeable, economically strong, and assertive minority communities.

“Unlike in other regions, the Muslim community in the coastal belts of Karnataka and Kerala are not just numerically strong but are also economically independent. In pure ratio to population, Muslims live better lives than Hindus,” activist Suresh Bhat points out. This economic disparity, he adds, has naturally caused disgruntlement, but “upper caste and rich Hindus” have channelled it into “Muslim hatred”.

While the economic hierarchy in coastal Karnataka did not hinder “communal harmony” at first, things started changing in the 1990s with the growth of Hindutva politics.

Krishna Naik, president of an association of the Hindu Namdhari community in Bhatkal, Uttara Kannada, recalls a time of communal amity.

“Just thirty years ago, Hindu families would go to Nawayath [a Muslim community] households to borrow jewellery for weddings. They would lend us expensive, exquisite jewellery and wholeheartedly let our daughters wear them on their wedding day. The jewellery would be with us for days on end and they wouldn’t mind,” Naik, who is also a Bajrang Dal member, says.

This kind of bonhomie has long been replaced by mutual distrust in Uttara Kannada.

The Muslim-majority town of Bhatkal here saw a violent communal riot in 1993, a year after the Babri demolition. The following year, “staunch RSS man” Dr U. Chittaranjan was elected as MLA, but in 1996 he was murdered (no one was caught), which led to widespread anger among Hindus and the political ascent of his protégé Anantkumar Hegde, a BJP MP and former minister of state who is known for his communal remarks.

The other fallout was a terror tag for Bhatkal, cemented by the emergence of alleged Indian Mujahideen terrorists Yasin and Riyaz Bhatkal.

Vishva Hindu Parishad office in Mangaluru, Karnataka | Photo: Anusha Ravi Sood/ThePrint

The relentless fight for assertion between sizeable Muslim organisations and the ideologically committed Sangh Parivar today defines the region.

“For centuries, the relationship between Hindus and Muslims in Honnavar, Bhatkal, and other parts of Uttara Kannada was profitable for business. The fishermen and working class were all from the Hindu community while traders and buyers were Muslims,” Dr Muhammed Haneef Shabab, former general secretary of the Majlis-e-Islah O Tanzeem, an influential religious body in Bhatkal, says.

“It is only in recent years that the economic independence of Muslims has been used to incite hatred among Hindus.”

Even now, many Hindus work for the rich Nawayath Muslims of Bhatkal, but this equation deeply irritates Hindutva organisations.

“The attitude of Muslims here — that Hindus should be working for them — is the problem. They look down upon us,” Krishna Naik says.

“We have elected Anantkumar Hegde six times because he stands up to Muslims. It doesn’t matter even if he doesn’t create alternative employment for Hindus. We need a leader who can take them on,” Naik adds.

This statement sums up the polarised mindset of voters in coastal Karnataka, which is something that former governor and Union minister Margaret Alva says she encountered first-hand when she lost the 2004 election to Hegde.

Former Union minister Margaret Alva | Photo: Anusha Ravi Sood/ThePrint

“In the 2004 elections, my own voters — largely women whom I have worked with for decades — told me that they were rendered helpless when the BJP/RSS organised Lakshmi pooja (prayer ceremony) at temples, gave them a nose ring, and made them take an oath that they would vote for the BJP,” Alva alleges. “Despite all the development work I had done, religion took precedence — I was very hurt.”

According to Alva, who was born in Mangaluru, coastal Karnataka used to be “a very secular region” with an eclectic mix of communities, but the rise of the RSS to prominence changed everything. She also points at the BJP’s attempts to frame the Bababudangiri shrine in Chikkamagalur as the Ayodhya of the South as a turning point.

Currently, both Muslim as well as Hindu organisations claim they need to demonstrate their muscularity to fend off attacks.

“In places like Ullal, Bantwal, where the Muslim population is larger, they find it easier to attack us,” alleges VHP leader Sharan Pumpwell.

Indeed, in some of these areas, Muslim organisations such as the controversial PFI and SDPI do have a strong presence.

“The SDPI and PFI came to Dakshina Kannada from Kerala where their base is strong. They are cashing in on the anger felt by Muslims due to constant attacks by Sangh Parivar outfits,” says a former office-bearer of the Udupi District Muslim Okkoota — an umbrella organisation of mosques, jamaats, and Islamic organisations. “We [Muslim Okkoota] have been trying to fend off their influence on the community.”

Also Read: Datta Peetha-Bababudangiri: How Karnataka’s Hindu-Muslim shrine became ‘Ayodhya of the South’

The third factor: Christians

Kerala’s religiously diverse demographic make-up is often pointed to as the reason why the BJP hasn’t been able to make much political headway in the state. However, the party is now working on building up a support base not just among Hindus but Christians.

“Muslims account for almost 30 per cent of voters in Kerala. This demography is a hurdle for the BJP and that is why we are aligning with Christians on issue-based politics. Islamic extremism targets Hindus first and Christians next,” P. Surendran, BJP president in Kerala, says.

However, the Christian community is “ambivalent”, Zacharia says.

“Christians have the highest asset holdings in Kerala, perhaps on par with or more than CPM leaders. They have business interests, personal interests, authoritative interests to protect and will side with whoever protects their interests the best,” Zacharia says, adding that what keeps Kerala’s politics different is its relatively secular tradition of party- and issue-based voting.

Also, the BJP has had only short-lived success with Christians even in Karnataka, especially in the wake of a controversial anti-conversion bill and attacks on church gatherings by suspected members of Hindutva outfits.

“Christians feel that Congress takes them for granted while appeasing Muslims since they are a bigger minority. Christians may have backed BJP in the past but look where it has landed the community [in Karnataka]. It is regrettable,” Alva says.

Land reforms, globalisation, political conflicts

In both coastal Karnataka and Kerala, analysts believe that political conflicts have intersected with societal changes brought about by land reforms and international trade in a globalised world. The clear hierarchy between the land-holding classes and the landless is no longer as rigid as it once was, leading to a period of churn.

“The Left was instrumental in championing the causes of land and tenancy reforms in the coastal belt of Kerala and Karnataka, and hence enjoyed a lot of support till the 1980s,” Karnataka DYFI president Muneer Katipalla notes.

Muneer Katipalla, state president, DYFI, Karnataka | Photo: Anusha Ravi Sood/ThePrint

“There was no space for communal politics since conflicts were between wealthy upper caste landlords and the poor labour class — which mostly belonged to the lower castes,” Katipalla adds.

However, with land reforms leading to tenants owning lands, it created a new generation of a relatively wealthy working class and also “shattered caste dynamics”, Katipalla notes.

Professor Narendar Pani, a political economist and analyst who has researched and authored a book on the impact of the land reforms act on the region, notes that Kerala and Karnataka responded differently to the changes.

“In Kerala, landlords left the state and moved to other areas, ceding space to businessmen from elsewhere. In Karnataka, however, the capital moved from agriculture into education, healthcare, and hotels. Traditionally big on banks, the region gained strength in that sector too,” Pani says.

According to him, elite Hindu landlords diversified to sectors other than agriculture and continued to assert dominance by mobilising people beyond caste identities and trying to unify them under the Hindu umbrella after amendments to the land reforms act in Karnataka in 1974.

“They thought they could establish dominance over Muslims with a united identity as Hindus. But in a globalised economy, Muslims had connections with the Gulf countries and were able to consolidate too. The initial Hindu capital went into education, but so did the Muslim capital. That is why you see successful Hindu-run ventures as well as Muslim-owned establishments,” Pani says.

The phenomenon underscored that in a globalised economy, being a religious majority in a nation “doesn’t matter beyond a point,” Prof Pani adds. In this scenario, he further notes, attempts to ghettoise Muslims in coastal regions simply pushed them to find opportunities autonomously.

“Street corner libraries were a rage in Dakshin Kannada. In the 1980s, one could find books on the Left and land reforms but today you will find Hindutva literature. The process is the same, politics is the same, the mobilisation is the same as one we saw for tenancy reforms but what they are fighting for has changed because the basic structure of the economy has changed,” Prof Pani says.

O.M.A. Salam, chairman of the Popular Front of India (PFI), also credits wealth among Muslim households to post-1980 reforms.

“Muslims in Kerala have been very poor historically but by the 1970s and 1980s every household started sending its members to Gulf countries to work. They came back home rich and set up businesses — small and big — here,” he says.

The immigration to Gulf countries for better income, however, brought its own set of problems. “The more people went to Saudi, the more control Wahhabism gained in Kerala. Wahhabism destroyed the Kerala Muslim culture with fundamentalism. Wahabbism is a deathblow to Muslims,” Paul Zacharia says.

‘On election day, all communal harmony is forgotten’

In December 2017, a scuffle between two people triggered a communal riot in the coastal town of Honnavar, just months before the Karnataka assembly election. Paresh Mesta, an 18-year-old from the fisherman community, went missing on the day of the riots. His decomposing body was found floating in a pond nearby, sparking outrage in Hindutva organisations.

BJP leaders, including Union minister Shobha Karandlaje and national general secretary C.T. Ravi, alleged that Mesta was tortured and murdered by Muslim mobs. This caused even more violence to erupt across Uttara Kannada, with even an inspector general-rank officer’s car being set ablaze.

Even after the police investigation concluded that the death was accidental and not a murder, protests raged on, compelling the then Siddaramaiah-led Congress government to transfer the case to the CBI.

Four years down the line, the CBI is yet to file its report. Mesta’s death receded from public attention, too, until it made headlines again during the 2021 elections for the state legislative council.

Kamalakar and Rukhma Mesta, parents of Paresh Mesta, who was found dead after communal riots in 2017 in Honnavar, Bhatkal | Photo: Anusha Ravi Sood/ThePrint

“BJP leaders came to our house just before the MLC elections to take my blessings,” Paresh’s father Kamalakar Mesta says. “Congress leaders neither care, nor come.” In 2017, he adds, many political leaders came forward to help.

Suresh Bhat, going through his excel sheets, points out that communal incidents spike in coastal Karnataka when elections draw near.

The police agree. “There is a clear trend of communal incidents spiking in an election year. There is a general a lull in number of incidents and severity post elections,” says a DG-rank officer on the condition of anonymity.

It isn’t just communal flare-ups that peak during election season, but also religious messaging in general.

“These days, Yakshagana scripts are being rewritten with communal undertones,” a former office-bearer of the Udupi Muslim Okkoota says. “Poojas, aradhanas, temples, special religious gatherings, too, are used as venues for communal division.” He acknowledges that politics imbues churches and mosques too, and never more so than during polls.

“Ironically, the largest fishing company in Udupi is run in partnership by a Muslim and Hindu, but on election day all harmony is forgotten,” he points out.

The BJP insists that all its actions, whether in Kerala or Karnataka, are only “retaliatory” in nature. “Our ideologies and parties could be different but, in a democracy, dissent should be shown via ballots and not bullets. This is reaction to action. When those in power don’t take action against assault on our workers then there is fallout,” C.T. Ravi, BJP national general secretary, says, alleging that Sangh Parivar workers were targeted under both the Congress rule in Karnataka and the CPM regime in Kerala.

While the political blame-game rages on, hundreds of homes that have lost their sons to violence wait for justice.

The families of Shuhaib, Prasanth Poojary, and Paresh Mesta all say that traumatic memories come rushing back whenever there is a new political murder. And, whatever their political inclinations may be, they are united in their refrain that they want their sons’ killers to be brought to justice.

(Edited by Asavari Singh)

Also Read: Proud Muslims or radical Islamists? Why PFI is linked to everything from hijab row to terror plots

Source: The Print

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