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Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

Naveen Soorinje: ‘Communalism grew after land reforms’

Naveen Soorinje

Naveen Soorinje | Photo Credit: BHAGYA PRAKASH K

Interview with Naveen Soorinje, journalist and author of Netravathiyalli Nettaru.

On September 10, 2009, a posse of policemen accompanied by vigilantes belonging to Hindutva organisations stopped a vehicle transporting aged cattle on a bridge over the Netravathi river in Mangaluru. They chased the two young occupants of the vehicle—Mohammed Mustafa and Mohammed Asif—both of whom eventually jumped from the bridge into the river but did not survive.

Questions were subsequently raised about the deaths but the journalist Naveen Soorinje, who reported about this event, speculates that Mustafa and Asif preferred a risky leap into the river rather than surrender to the policemen. “It is fear that led to their fateful decision,” added Soorinje, who felt that the Netravathi flowed with blood that day.

Netravathiyalli Nettaru: Karavaliya Komu Himseya Naija Prakaranagalu

(Blood on the Netravathi: The Truth Behind Communal Incidents in Coastal Karnataka) by Naveen Soorinje (Kriya Madhyama, 2022)
Netravathiyalli Nettaru: Karavaliya Komu Himseya Naija Prakaranagalu (Blood on the Netravathi: The Truth Behind Communal Incidents in Coastal Karnataka) by Naveen Soorinje (Kriya Madhyama, 2022)

This episode is the first of several shocking communal incidents that have taken place in coastal Karnataka over the past 15 years, all chronicled in Soorinje’s book in Kannada titled Netravathiyalli Nettaru: Karavaliya Komu Himseya Naija Prakaranagalu ( Blood on the Netravathi: The Truth Behind Communal Incidents in Coastal Karnataka). Communal temperatures are always on the simmer in the Dakshina Kannada district in coastal Karnataka, a region that has been notorious for “moral policing” and “cattle vigilantism” for at least two decades now. The reasons for coastal Karnataka’s emergence as a hotbed of Hindutva vigilantism have been documented in the past (“Communal Cauldron” Frontline, September 30, 2016). The recent controversies around the wearing of hijab in classrooms and the boycott of Muslim traders from temple fairs also had their genesis in Dakshina Kannada and its neighbouring district of Udupi.

Soorinje’s reportage spans several themes that poke holes in the propaganda-driven narratives of Hindutva’s operatives. For instance, he shows how caste hierarchy is pervasive in Hindu right-wing organisations even as they pay lip service to the slogan Hindu Navella Ondu (All Hindus are One). His reporting also reveals the continuous targeting of young Muslim men for putative crimes ranging from “love jehad” to more dangerous accusations of murder and the duplicity of the lumpen elements who indulge in “moral policing” and “cattle vigilantism”. Soorinje’s reporting also highlights the complicity of the police in all these events; he names police officials who have been penalised for their actions based on his evidence. We learn that even the hijab controversy has a history in coastal Karnataka, as the first diktat banning the hijab in an educational institution in the region dates back to 2009.

A few chapters are dedicated to the reportage and the fallout of the infamous “homestay attack” that took place on November 7, 2012, in a holiday home on the outskirts of Mangaluru. Soorinje was named as one of the accused in the case and jailed in 2012 for four and half months. A group of Hindu-right wing vigilantes had attacked a mixed-gender group of youth who were present at the homestay, accusing them of immorality. Soorinje was the first journalist on the scene, and his quick reporting of the event, along with crucial video footage, was immediately picked up by national television channels. This was the reason for the criminal case against him (“The Lakshman Rekha”, Frontline, March 8, 2013). The charges against him did not stand judicial scrutiny.

Soorinje, 37, describes himself as an “activist journalist” and worked for Kannada dailies in Mangaluru such as Usha Kiran and Karavali Ale before he switched to Kasturi News 24 and Suddi TV. A native of Soorinje village, which is around 30 kilometres from Mangaluru, he is currently based in Bengaluru and works for Btv News, a Kannada news channel. Excerpts from his conversation with Frontline:

What was your aim in writing this book?
I have been reporting from coastal Karnataka for several years now and have gathered an important perspective of communal events in the region. My main aim in writing this book is to not only document communal incidents in coastal Karnataka but also to demonstrate the collusion of the police with Hindutva elements with examples and evidences. These are incidents that I have seen and recorded. For example, in the infamous church attacks of 2008, policemen were part of the attacks along with Hindutva groups except in the case of the Milagres Church, which Hindutva elements did on their own. Why are Hindutva groups given a free run in coastal Karnataka? It is because of the police’s majoritarian mentality.
BJP spokesperson Ganesh Karnik, who is from coastal Karnataka, has stated that 60 per cent of police constables are influenced by the RSS. There are also Muslim communal groups active in coastal Karnataka, but incidents of violence and moral policing led by members of these groups are controlled within a few hours while incidents involving Hindutva groups are allowed to spiral out of control. Based on my reportage, I have provided convincing evidence to show that a large section of the police force is sympathetic towards the idea of Hindutva. Whenever a communal incident occurs, a Muslim is sought to be made the scapegoat even if there has been no complaint against that individual. I have documented many cases where innocent Muslims have been arrested and tortured by the police.
The growth of communalism in coastal Karnataka can be traced to the passage of the Land Reforms Act in the 1970s.
The growth of communalism in coastal Karnataka can be traced to the passage of the Land Reforms Act in the 1970s. | Photo Credit: PRAKASH HASSAN
Having grown up in coastal Karnataka, do you think the situation was always this surcharged with communalism or is this a recent development?
When I was in school in the 1990s, I remember there were communal skirmishes but they did not spill over into social and cultural relations which were intricate and deep all over the region. Communal incidents never affected friendships and there was inter-religious harmony. My father used to distribute sweet potato from our fields to Muslims who would regularly visit our house and we, as children, were not even aware that these visitors were Muslim. Things have deteriorated now to the point that when I take my Muslim friends home, my mother, who is very hospitable to them, later tells me that my friends are not like “other” Muslims.
There have been changes in the cultural sphere as well. You may be aware that coastal Karnataka is known for its non-Vedic worship of bhutas (spirits) or daivas which can be described as a form of ancestral worship. When I was a child, the processions of these bhutas would pass by Muslim houses which laid out a snack of milk, bananas and coconut. The bhuta would stop at the village mosque, engage in a silent conversation with Prophet Muhammad and depart after paying his salutations. All these aspects have reduced considerably.
The growth of communalism in coastal Karnataka can be traced to the passage of the Land Reforms Act in the 1970s [Karnataka Land Reforms (Amendment) Act in 1974]. With the lower caste tenants gaining ownership of the lands they tilled, there was a fear that the hierarchies of caste would be disrupted. This was also the time when an increasing number of Muslims began to work in countries around the Persian Gulf, meaning that their economic situation improved vastly with the remittances that they repatriated. This was the era when communal incidents began in coastal Karnataka. In 1985, a dharam sansad was held in Udupi where the decision to demolish the Babri Masjid was taken.
Slain journalist Gauri Lankesh.
Slain journalist Gauri Lankesh. | Photo Credit: Bhagya Prakash K
You describe yourself as an “activist journalist”. Another person who described herself as an activist journalist was Gauri Lankesh, who was murdered for her convictions. What does this phrase mean to you?
When journalists call themselves “objective”, I am always sceptical. What does it mean to be an objective journalist? Should I report both sides of the story when a member of the Bajrang Dal beats up a Hindu-Muslim couple on the beach? I am a subjective journalist because when an incident like this takes place, I am on the side of the victims of moral policing because there is nothing wrong in what they were doing as per the law of the land and the Constitution.
A journalist has to be on the side of the people against authority, power and exploitation. When someone beats up a couple who are holding hands, he is committing a criminal act and it is my duty as a journalist to report it. Why should I side with the criminals as so many journalists do? If that is what is objective journalism, I would prefer to be called a subjective journalist.
Have you received any threats because of your consistent reportage on the activities of Hindutva groups?
I have lost count of the number of times I have been threatened on phone. Random people call me and scream that I should have been born to a Muslim. I remember that a member of the Sri Rama Sene openly threatened me in a press conference and I was also falsely accused and jailed for a few months in 2012. I have not been physically harmed at any point but since I am a Bunt, which is a powerful upper caste in coastal Karnataka, I am also aware of my caste privilege. Perhaps a Billava or someone else belonging to a lower caste could not have got away with the kind of reporting that I have done.

Caste in Hindutva

It is interesting that you bring caste into your discussion. How does the institution of caste work within Hindutva groups?
The idea that these Hindutva groups believe in equality for all Hindus is an eyewash. There is a clear caste hierarchy in the way they operate. The strategists and leaders are usually Brahmins and Bunts, while the Billavas, the Mogaveeras, the other backward castes and Dalits are the foot soldiers. This is evident in the sort of responsibilities that are assigned to them. Not a single Brahmin has been arrested till now for their involvement in any communal incident in coastal Karnataka.
Let me give you an example: After the church attacks of 2008, a leader of the VHP [Vishwa Hindu Parishad], who is a Brahmin, and a leader of the Bajrang Dal, who is a member of a backward caste, jointly addressed a press conference where they accepted responsibility for the church attacks. Both of them gave similar statements but only the backward caste leader was arrested, while the Brahmin leader was not touched. The sooner the backward castes realise that they are being exploited by the upper castes under the guise of Hindutva, the better for them, but lower castes such as the Billavas and the Mogaveeras are socially aspirational, which means that even this limited recognition is enough for them as they have suffered from an inferior caste mentality all these years.
How was your experience in jail? Are you bitter at having been falsely accused because of which you had to spend so many months in jail as an undertrial?
I think every journalist should spend some time in jail (not as an undertrial or convict) because it is a compressed social lesson. My stint in jail was educational. Here, you understand how religion and caste works clearly. There are two sections in the Mangaluru Jail—the Muslim ward and the Hindu ward—and all undertrials are housed separately according to their religion. I was housed in the Muslim section because many of the people I had reported against were part of Hindutva groups who were in the Hindu section of the jail. The only other Hindus housed in the Muslim section were four undertrials accused of being Naxals and a sharpshooter of a dreaded Muslim underworld don. The serial killer “Cyanide Mohan” used to wash my plates and clothes when I was in jail.