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Taliban in saffron

Print edition : Feb 27, 2009 T+T-
in Bangalore

A TYPICAL evening at Amnesia: The Lounge, a pub in Mangalore in Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka, turned into a nightmare for a few young women on January 24. As television news grabs later showed, in an incident as bizarre as it could be, they were chased out of the pub and hit brutally by a group of men. Eyewitnesses say that a group of more than 40 people shouting slogans such as Bharat Mata ki Jai, Jai Sri Ram, Bajrang Dal ki Jai and Sri Rama Sene ki Jai barged into the pub.

Soon after the incident, Pramod Muttalik of the Sri Rama Sene, a four-year-old right-wing group that is active in coastal Karnataka, claimed responsibility for it. He justified the attack by stating proudly: We are the custodians of Indian culture.

The Rama Sene was a little known entity before the incident. This leads many senior journalists in the State to believe that it could have used the incident to carve out a space for itself in coastal Karnataka distinct from the Bajrang Dal, which has so far been dominating headlines for its aggressive Hindutva stance in the region.

In his response to the media after the event, Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa said there was no connection between the Sri Rama Sene and the Bharatiya Janata Party. He, however, added that the BJP too was against the pub culture.

The Bajrang Dal, a Sangh Parivar outfit, was also quick to distance itself from the Rama Sene. It is a fringe organisation started by the renegade Muttalik and has limited support, with a membership of around 200 in Mangalore, said a senior Bajrang Dal leader .

Later, the police arrested 28 people for their role in the incident, including Muttalik and Prasad Attavar, convener of the Rama Sene in the State. They were released on bail on January 31.

Significantly, this is not the first case that Muttalik has been involved in. Documents available with Frontline show that 41 cases were filed against him between February 12, 1999, and September 15, 2008. Almost all the cases were under Section 153 (a) of the Indian Penal Code (promoting enmity between different groups), but many of these were withdrawn in the past two years. In August 2007, when Yeddyurappa was Deputy Chief Minister, the Janata Dal (Secular)-BJP coalition government withdrew 51 cases against Bajrang Dal activists. On January 3, the current BJP government withdrew 11 cases against them. These included cases against Muttalik as well.

The rise of Muttalik, a right-wing demagogue, can be traced to the growth of the BJP in the State. He began his career with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). When the Karnataka chapter of the Bajrang Dal was inaugurated in 1996, he became its first convener. In his eight-year stint with the organisation hence, he played an active role in attempts at liberating the Bababudangiri shrine in Chickmagalur from Muslim control. In December 1999, he threatened to capture it if the government did not transfer the management of the shrine to Hindus and proclaimed that he would make it the Ayodhya of the South.

Finding restricted space for his political ambitions in the BJP, he joined the Shiv Sena in 2004. In the 2004 elections Muttalik demanded that several seats be given to his supporters. This did not happen and he joined the Shiv Sena, said a Bajrang Dal leader. He quit the Shiv Sena, too, following its leader Bal Thackerays anti-Karnataka statements and founded the Rashtriya Hindu Sena, of which he is the national president. The Rama Sene is the youth wing of this party.

The coastal districts of Karnataka, which according to many news reports have become the laboratory of Hindutva in the State, have provided fertile grounds for the emergence and growth of organisations such as the Sri Rama Sene in the past two decades. There have been two major communal riots here, in 1998 and 2006.

In fact, to many in the area, the attacks on women in the pub came as no surprise. Looking at the way society has changed over the past few years in the region it is not surprising at all that such an event took place there, said Muzaffar Assadi, professor in the political science department of Mysore University, who has done extensive research on the region.

H. Pattabhi Somayaji, who teaches English at University College in Mangalore, termed the pub incident trivial compared with other incidents in Mangalore in the past couple of years. One of them was in December 2007, when Bajrang Dal activists attacked Muslim boys who were eating ice cream in a public place in the city with Hindu girls, all of them students of Star Tutorial College. On December 26, 2008, Bajrang Dal men attacked a bus carrying a group of students, consisting of Hindus, Christians and Muslims from the Sri Mata Education Trust, on a trip outside Mangalore. Newspapers have reported several other Bajrang Dal attacks on inter-communal groups in recent years.

The only new thing in this [pub] attack is that women were the target. This has not happened in the past, said Somayaji. He was recently at the receiving end of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the students wing of the BJP, for criticising the Rama Sene on a news channel. The students forced the college shut on January 29 and demanded action against Somayaji.

The coastal region of Karnataka consists of three districts Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Uttara Kannada. Known for their high literacy rate, the districts are only behind Bangalore in most social indicators. According to the Karnataka Human Development Report of 2005, the ranking of Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Uttara Kannada in the Human Development Index was 2, 3 and 7 respectively from among 27 districts. (Karnataka has 29 districts now after Chickballapur and Ramnagram were designated districts in 2007.)

The area has a significant number of Muslims and has a historically dominant Catholic presence. According to an article published by Assadi in Economic and Political Weekly, the coastal region underwent a complete transformation after the 1970s with the effective implementation of land reforms, the Gulf boom, the establishment of a large number of new industries, and the expansion of banking. In this changed economic setting, two backward caste groups, the Billavas and the Mogaveeras, and the relatively dominant Bunt community competed with the newly affluent Bairy Muslims.

After the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 the area came increasingly under the influence of the Sangh Parivar, which used the changes in the political economy of the region to convert the long-standing economic grievances into defined communal identities by casting the Muslim as the other. The vernacular media played their role in furthering the agenda of the Sangh Parivar.

While the leadership of older Sangh Parivar groups such as the RSS and the VHP continues to remain in the hands of the upper castes, the backward castes, members of the Bajrang Dal and the Rama Sene, have been indirectly indoctrinated and are responsible for much of the vandalism in the region, said Somayaji. Gulabi Talkies by the acclaimed film-maker Girish Kasaravalli chronicles these changes in the coastal region.

In September 2008, there were 15 attacks on churches in the region. The following December the distribution of a Mangalore-based newspaper Karavali Ale was disrupted following its criticism of the Bajrang Dal. The Bajrang Dal may have washed its hands off the Rama Sene by calling it the organisation of the renegade Muttalik, but it has been indulging in its own brand of moral policing for the past few years.

Self-appointed guardians of culture have routinely targeted women in India because of the prevailing notion that there are certain boundaries for women in public spaces. According to Women in Modern India by the historian Geraldine Forbes, attitudes to womens rights in India began to change in the 19th century with an understanding of European ideas of gender. Raja Rammohun Roys role in questioning the practice of sati, which was legitimised by religion, was an important step that helped make this change. By the second half of the century, reformist groups all over the country focussed their attention on sati, female infanticide, polygyny, child marriage and female education. Laws such as the Hindu Widow Remarriage Act of 1856 could be passed partly because of the efforts of such groups.

During the course of the nationalist movement women got more space to negotiate issues with regard to their rights. Geraldine Forbes writes that while Mahatma Gandhi did not bring women into public life he made their presence felt by giving them a blueprint for action. He did this while assuring the husbands and fathers that these women would not rebel against their families. Muslim womens organisations also began to articulate similar demands, as demonstrated by the work of the historian Gail Minault.

Partition was an important period to understand how notions of religious nationalism were contested over womens bodies. As Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin say in Borders and Boundaries: Women in Indias Partition, womens bodies were seen as territory to be marked by the enemy.

In post-independent India, the first serious debate about the religious opposition to equal rights for women took place when Jawaharlal Nehru attempted to pass the Hindu Code Bill. Towards Equality, a report commissioned in 1974 by the Government of India, pointed out the lacunae in the states intention and the results when it came to gender equality. In 1986, Muslim fundamentalists, with their excessive response to the decision of the Supreme Court to grant alimony to Shah Bano, exhibited the influence of patriarchal notions over them about womens place in society.

Notions of patriarchy are still a challenge to the womens movement in India. In the Mangalore incident, for instance, a large number of people surveyed by online news portals, newspapers and TV news channels, though not condoning the excessive methods of the Rama Sene, expressed their disapproval of women drinking. A conservative element dominates in the thinking of certain groups of people which is opposed to Western habits, said Tanika Sarkar, professor of Modern Indian history at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

The manner in which a National Commission for Women (NCW) team led by Nirmala Venkatesh assessed the situation is perhaps indicative of this line of thinking. The NCW, a statutory body set up by a Central Act, condemned the Mangalore incident and immediately sent a team led by the member in charge of South India, Nirmala Venkatesh. She made statements that almost justified the Rama Senes action; she blamed the pub owners for not providing enough security and recommended that the licence of the pub be cancelled. The lesson to be learnt for women out of this incident is that we should try and safeguard ourselves, she told a news channel.

Disagreeing with the observations of the NCW team, Renuka Chowdhary, Union Minister of State for Women and Child Development, has sent another team from her Ministry to Mangalore to reassess the situation. Girija Vyas, National Chairperson of the NCW, has also distanced herself from the initial report of its panel.