People’s march against CAA & NRC: Spontaneous protests in Karnataka

Print edition : January 17, 2020

Former Mayor K. Ashraf, who was injured, being removed from the scene of protest in Mangaluru on December 19. Photo: H.S. MANJUNATH /THE HINDU

Protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens have snowballed into a mass movement across India. Significantly, students are spearheading it in many places.

IN Karnataka too, as elsewhere across the country, the custodians of the law reacted aggressively to the spontaneous protests against the passage of the CAA. Mangaluru, historically a cultural melting pot, was the focal point of resistance. That the most violent crackdown occurred here and in the wider coastal region of the State, an area that has proved to be a Hindutva bastion, was not unexpected with the BJP ruling the State.

Coastal Karnataka, consisting of Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Uttara Kannada districts, has been a Hindutva stronghold for some time. Dakshina Kannada district, which includes Mangaluru, is the pre-eminent commercial hub of the region. While the proportion of the Muslim population in the area is significantly higher than in other parts of Karnataka, the community here is also relatively more prosperous and enjoys higher literacy levels. Naturally, the area is an influential centre of Muslim identity politics. It was obvious that the B.S. Yediyurappa government would closely monitor the protests.

In order to maximise impact, Muslim organisations such as the Samastha Kerala Sunni Students Federation (SKSSF) synchronised their protests with the all-India protests that were slated for December 19. The SKSSF is an influential Muslim student body in coastal Karnataka affiliated to one of the factions of the Samastha Kerala Jamiyyathul Ulama, a body of Islamic theologians based in Kerala. The administration imposed Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure in most urban centres of Karnataka for three days from December 19. In effect, protests were declared illegal even before they occurred. Despite this, thousands of people turned up to protest in different parts of Karnataka, including Bengaluru, where the historian Ramachandra Guha was detained while participating in the protests at the Town Hall.

In Mangaluru, when it became clear by the evening of December 18 that Section 144 was being imposed the next day, the SKSSF withdrew its call for a protest. But by then information about the protest had gone out, and by 2:30 p.m. the following day, a few hundred youths gathered near the State Bank of India in central Mangaluru, the de facto venue for such events in the city.

According to a journalist with a Kannada daily who was present at the location, the gathering was peaceful until the police resorted to a lathi charge. “In the confusion, a few journalists were also attacked even after they showed their identity cards,” he said. Videos released by the Mangaluru Police on December 25 purportedly showed protesters hurling stones at policemen near the protest venue. According to the journalist: “This happened only after the police began their lathi charge.”

The protesters fled towards the old part of the city called Bunder, a Muslim ghetto that is under the jurisdiction of the Mangaluru North police station, which the police claim was being surrounded by the protesters. It was around 4:30 p.m. when the Mangaluru Police started firing tear gas shells and live rounds. A video of this scene has emerged which shows two policemen firing at fleeing protesters. A senior police officer is seen telling his subordinate that “10 shots have been fired but no one has been hit”. P.S. Harsha, Commissioner of Police, Mangaluru City, refused to acknowledge these videos in a press conference held the next day.

In this firing, Abdul Jaleel (49), a worker in the fish market, and Noushin Kudroli (24), a welder, both daily-wage workers, succumbed to bullet injuries before they could be taken to hospital. In statements to the media, Jaleel’s family said that he was not part of the protests and was returning home with his two children. He was shot in his left eye and dropped dead in front of his children. Kudroli’s friend, Mohammed Hanif, also said that he was returning home from the welding shop where they worked when a tear gas shell burst in their path and in the thick smoke, Kudroli was shot in the chest.

Police barge into hospital

The closest hospital to Bunder is Wenlock District Hospital, but the deceased were taken to the Muslim-managed Highland Hospital along with the injured victims. Shocking visuals from CCTV footage emerged over the next few days. The police were seen entering the hospita and, barging into wards, even the Intensive Care Unit.

Speaking to Frontline, Dr Srinivas Kakkaliya, who is practising in Mangaluru, said: “The fact that the injured were taken to Highland Hospital and not Wenlock Hospital even though it was closer proves that a significant section of the minorities in the city have lost confidence that they will be treated properly in the government-run hospital. Second, even in war zones, hospitals remain neutral safe zones, and it is highly condemnable that the police entered Highland Hospital without permission from the hospital authorities.”

On December 22, Chief Minister Yediyurappa met the families of the two deceased and announced compensation of Rs.10 lakh each. This decision did not go down well with a wide section of the BJP leadership, many of whom had stridently called the protesters “criminals”. Basanagouda Patil Yatnal, a senior north Karnataka leader of the party, demanded that the compensation be withdrawn as the deceased were not patriots. Other senior BJP leaders like C.T. Ravi, Minister of Tourism, also opposed the Chief Minister’s gesture and warned that “protesters should not test the patience of the majority [community]”. The Mangaluru Police also filed a first information report against the deceased along with 75 other accused under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, including Sections 143 (punishment for unlawful assembly) and 147 (punishment for rioting).

On December 25, Yediyurappa withdrew the ex-gratia offer to victims’ families and said: “We have not decided yet to give the ex-gratia to the family members of those killed in the police firing because giving criminals ex-gratia is an unpardonable crime in itself.”

Chandan Gowda, a political commentator and a professor of sociology at Azim Premji University, said: “I don’t recall any other political leader promising ex-gratia and then withholding it for any reason whatever the pressure on the Chief Minister might have been. The gesture is not noble.”

While Yediyurappa has ordered an investigation into the events in Mangaluru by the Crime Investigation Department, opposition parties in the State, including the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular), and Muslim organisations in Dakshina Kannada have demanded a judicial inquiry into the events that led to the two deaths in Mangaluru. Although protests in Bengaluru drew the most attention, and while Mangaluru was where the crackdown was at its most brutal, significant protests were also organised in Mysuru, Kalaburagi, Belagavi, Hubballi, Shivamogga, Chikkamagaluru, Hassan and Chikkaballapura.

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