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Divide and rule

Print edition : Jun 20, 2008 T+T-

Several local incidents that polarised communities have helped the growth of the BJP in Karnataka.

in Bangalore

On the sidelines of the swearing in of the seven-day Bharatiya Janata Party-Janata Dal (Secular) government led by B.S. Yeddyurappa in November last year, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi said the Gujarat model of governance would be followed in Karnataka. Many senior BJP leaders in the State repeated it while campaigning this year. And, by not giving the ticket in the Assembly elections to a single member of the minority community, the BJP has sent a subtle message that it is not interested in giving representation to the minorities. This is disturbing for the minorities in the context of the communalisation of the polity and society in Karnataka over the past two decades.

History shows that relations between the majority and the minority communities have been relatively harmonious before the demolition of the Babri Masjid. In pre-Independence India, the only major communal riot in the princely State of Mysore was in connection with the Ganapathi Galabhe in Sultanpet, Bangalore, in 1928. Between Independence and the 1990s, close to 30 small incidents of communal differences have taken place across Karnataka, but their impact was restricted.

According to a report by the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi, the only communal disturbance of some significance in the State during this time took place in Malur in 1983 over the rape of a Dalit woman by three Muslim youth. The criminal case turned communal when the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) cadre in the area went on the rampage and destroyed Muslim property.

The RSS has been active in Karnataka for a long time. As Hasan Mansur, the elderly president of the Karnataka chapter of the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), recalled, The RSS shakhas have always been active in the urban centres of the Old Mysore region. Despite this, voters in Karnataka were never influenced greatly by the Bharatiya Jan Sangh (BJS), the precursor of the BJP, unlike in some northern States. The BJS drew a blank in the Legislative Assembly elections of 1957, 1962 and 1972 while it won a paltry four seats in the elections of 1967. The partys potential was hard to discern in the 1978 elections as it contested as the Janata Partys coalition partner.

In its new avatar as the BJP, the party made a slight impression in the 1983 elections when it won 18 seats in the Assembly before it went off the radar again and surfaced with renewed force in 1994 and won 40 seats. The BJP has not looked back since then and has only increased its presence in the State, winning 44 seats in 1999 and becoming the single largest party in 2004 with 79 seats. In the recent elections, the BJP almost touched the halfway mark when it won 110 seats in the 224-member Assembly although its vote share was marginally lower than that of the Congress (33.8 per cent for the BJP and 34.5 per cent for the Congress).

The BJPs gain in Karnataka has been commensurate with its growth as a national party. While the Shah Bano incident, the implementation of the report of the Mandal Commission and the demolition of the Babri Masjid stand as major milestones in the growth of the BJP at the national level, several local incidents that polarised communities helped its growth in Karnataka. This is apart from the longstanding support to it from Lingayats and Brahmins across the State.

The coastal belt of Karnataka has for long been known as the laboratory of Hindutva in Karnataka. The most serious of the spate of communal incidents that have occurred in the region in the past several years was the one in Suratkal in December 1998 following an eve-teasing incident involving a Muslim boy and a Hindu girl. It claimed at least 10 lives and tense atmosphere prevailed for over a month. The local wing of the Hindu Jagran Vedike (a leading organisation of the Sangh Parivar) apparently fanned the communal flames. When the JD(S)-BJP government was in power in 2006, communal violence flared up again in Mangalore over the transportation of cows for slaughter.

The Muslims of coastal Karnataka (most prominent among whom are the Bearys, a distinct community) have benefited greatly from the post-1970s boom in the Gulf economy. Sections of Brahmins from the region who migrated to places such as Mumbai have also repatriated significant sums to the area, leading to a massive pumping of money into the local economy.

According to P.L. Dharma, chairman of the Political Science Department at Mangalore University, the changes in the political economy of the region have provided a fertile ground for converting long-standing economic grievances into issues of defined communal identities. The BJP speaks the language of terrorism in creating the other and accuses Muslims of being involved in illegal activities which appeals to many Hindus across castes, he said.

Sangh Parivar organisations have used Kannada and Tulu newspapers and the extensive temple networks in the region to spread their divisive agenda. Muzaffar Assadi, Professor in Political Science at the University of Mysore, says the entry of Muslims in mercantile activities in the region has led to a sort of competition between them and the Hindus. The BJP has used this to its advantage by spreading its influence among three communities in the region Bants, Billavas and Brahmins who have not benefited from the land reforms in Karnataka or from the spread of petty capitalism in the post-liberalisation era.

Agitations by the Sangh Parivar and the BJP to wrest control of the Idgah Maidan in Hubli and the shrine in Chickmagalur are products of a newfound assertion that the party has displayed after its success in mobilising sections of the Hindu community in the wake of the rath yatra that led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

The Idgah Maidan is a Muslim prayer ground close to the bus station in Hubli. In 1921, a Muslim organisation, Anjuman-e-Islami, got the site on lease for 999 years. When a few buildings were constructed on the site in the 1960s the Sangh Parivar contested the right of the organisation to do so. The High Court ruled in favour of the contestants, but the Supreme Court later granted a stay on demolition of the buildings.

In 1992, when BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi tried to hoist the national flag in Srinagar, local Sangh Parivar activists in Hubli, in the name of the Rashtradhvaja Gowrava Samrakshana Samiti (Committee for Protecting the Honour of the National Flag), tried to do the same at the Idgah Maidan, but they were prevented from doing so.

Uma Bharati tried to hoist the national flag at the maidan in 1994, leading to rioting and protests and the death of five people.

Matters died down when members of the Anjuman-e-Islami themselves hoisted the national flag. The issue flared up again when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) chief Ashok Singhal visited the city in 2001. Sangh Parivar activists tried to force their way into the maidan in a bid to celebrate Singhals birthday in its premises. In the ensuing violence one person was killed. Uma Bharati was also summoned by a Hubli court for breaking the curfew in 1994 but later the charges against her were dropped.

The Bababudangiri shrine is located in the hills of Chickmagalur district. Many Sangh Parivar leaders had openly claimed that they would turn it into the Ayodhya of the South. The shrine is named after a Sufi saint who is said to have brought coffee to these hills. This Sufi saint was a worshipper of the 11th century saint Hazrath Dada Hayath Meer Khalandar who some believe is none other than Dattatreya, believed to be the incarnation of Vishnu, Siva and Brahma. The shrine is a symbol of the syncretic culture of the State; both Hindus and Muslims venerate it.

The date of the urs (death anniversary) is based on the Hindu calendar and Hindu musical instruments are part of the urs. Devotees break coconuts and offer prayers at the shrine. According to a January 2000 report of a joint fact-finding team commissioned by the PUCL, the Citizens for Democracy and the South India Cell for Human Rights Education and Monitoring, there was a dispute regarding the management of the shrine in 1975, but the Sangh Parivar started making a beeline for Bababudangiri after the Idgah Maidan issue in Hubli fizzled out. In the 1990s, the Sangh Parivar (mainly the VHP and the Bajrang Dal in this case) made its agenda clear and demanded that Hindus be allowed to perform puja daily and that the present custodian, a Muslim, be replaced.

Rath yatras were flagged off from all parts of the State and they converged in Chickmagalur in December 1998 for the celebration of Dattatreya Jayanti (in fact, this festival was not celebrated at the shrine before 1984). The annual celebrations in December sees the hills festooned with saffron pennants of several thousand activists who descend on the area. The Sangh Parivar has succeeded in its efforts in raking up something that was a non-issue and converting it into a potential space for communal contestations.

The Sangh Parivar has also made a strong attempt to expand its social base and spread Hindutva consciousness among the subaltern communities in the State, according to Father Ambrose Pinto, a political science scholar in Bangalore who has closely followed the rise of the BJP in the State. According to him, the Sangh Parivar is being helped by the Lingayat religious teachers in north Karnataka and religious heads such as the Tejawar Swamiji in the district of Dakshina Kannada. There are also demands from Hindu activists to ban the urs at the Honnurvali dargah in Hospet. Tipu Sultan also came in for attack from former Higher Education Minister D.H. Shankarmurthy of the BJP, who accused him of being anti-Kannada. There has also been great support from the Sangh Parivar for S.L. Byrappas novel Aavarana, which articulates the notion of a Hindu identity in opposition to the other, in this case Muslim. Muzaffar Assadi said how Virat Hindu Samajotsavas were being held across the State in every district and taluk to spread the Sangh Parivar ideology.

While there is a connection between the growth of communal consciousness and the rise of the BJP in Karnataka, Ganesh Yaji, media-in-charge of the party, said, The BJP is the most secular party in the State and it has grown in the State because of its struggles and agitations for the people and continued efforts to improve its organisation at the grassroots.

Not everyone would agree. A Congress leader accused the Sangh Parivar of spreading terrorism not only in Karnataka but across the country. What can be said for certain is that the BJP has grown in the State at the cost of the Congress and the JD(S) over the past few years. It is time these parties introspected as to how they conceded this secular space to the BJP.