Coastal Karnataka: Communal cauldron

The steady growth of Hindutva in coastal Karnataka has been accompanied by intense communal polarisation. In this developed region of the State, incidents of moral policing are common and minor scuffles have the potential to lead to major riots.

Published : Sep 14, 2016 12:30 IST

Sangh Parivar actvists vandalising a flex banner of Mangaluru North MLA B.A. Mohiuddin Bava during a march taken out from Parari Junction to Ulaibettu on December 8, 2014.

Sangh Parivar actvists vandalising a flex banner of Mangaluru North MLA B.A. Mohiuddin Bava during a march taken out from Parari Junction to Ulaibettu on December 8, 2014.

ON August 18, Praveen Poojary, a 28-year-old member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was beaten to death by a group of self-proclaimed cow protection vigilantes belonging to the Hindu Jagran Vedike in Hebri, a small town in Udupi district in coastal Karnataka. They claimed he was transporting cows in his vehicle. Cow protection vigilantes belonging to a variety of Hindu right-wing groups have been active in coastal Karnataka for more than a decade now, well before they achieved nationwide notoriety for their brazenness under the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government.

In March 2005, in one of the first incidents of its kind in the country, a Muslim father and son, Hajabba and Hasanabba, were stripped and assaulted for three hours on the outskirts of Udupi after it was alleged that they were transporting a calf. What is new in the case of the Praveen Poojary lynching is that until then cow protection vigilante groups had been attacking Muslims, and it is the first time they have targeted an ally, a BJP worker in this case, showing that their aggressiveness has scaled a new level. For close observers of coastal Karnataka, this has not come as a surprise because of the steady growth of Hindutva here.

An incident that occurred on August 25 last year shows how vigilante groups are active on another front as well. Salman Ali (name changed), a 29-year-old manager of a supermarket in Attavar, a commercial area in central Mangaluru (formerly Mangalore), left the store around 5:30 p.m. after receiving a call from a female employee. As he rendezvoused with her some hundred metres away, he was ambushed by an aggressive bunch of youths on motorcycles who were affiliated to the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). He was dragged out of his car, stripped to his underwear, tied to an electric pole and thrashed for more than an hour. His crime according to this lynch mob of around 50 men was that he had been friendly with his Hindu employee. “It was a well-executed public thrashing,” his brother said. This was not the first time that frenzied mobs in Mangaluru had meted out instant justice to Muslim men fraternising with Hindu women.

On tenterhooks

Over the past two decades, gangs of men affiliated to the Sangh Parivar have kept coastal Karnataka on tenterhooks and in the news with their audacious acts. Some of the incidents that attracted national attention include the attack on churches in the region in 2008 on the pretext that forced conversions were taking place (“Now, Karnataka”, Frontline , October 10, 2008) and the use of the bogey of love jehad to target Muslims (“Love and hate”, Frontline , November 20, 2009). Young adults who were seen as breaching cultural boundaries by indulging in “immoral” activities such as going to a pub (“Taliban in saffron”, Frontline , February 27, 2009) or organising a mixed-gender birthday party at a homestay (“The Lakshman rekha”, Frontline , March 8, 2013) were assaulted by youths associated with Hindutva groups.

While a spike in communal incidents was expected after the BJP came to power in Karnataka for the first time on its own in 2008, what is interesting is that there has not been any decline in the scale of communal incidents after the Congress party came to power in the State in 2013. Suresh Bhat Bakrabail, the Dakshina Kannada district president of the Karnataka Komu Souharda Vedike (Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum), said that 121, 173 and 228 communal incidents were reported in the media in coastal Karnataka in 2013, 2014 and 2015 respectively. “These include incidents of moral policing by Hindu and Muslim vigilante groups, the targeted attack of Muslim men purportedly transporting cattle for illegal slaughter, and skirmishes ensuing from allegations of religious conversions and hate speeches. A few deaths have also been reported,” he said.

The situation is polarised to the point that a tiny scuffle here, something as insignificant as a minor road accident, has the potential to snowball into a mid-sized riot. Social media and a section of the region’s vernacular media contribute to the spread of paranoia and consequent violence.

Valerian Rodrigues, a former professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University and currently a national fellow of the Indian Council of Social Science Research, said that a “communal regime” had been established in coastal Karnataka. He uses the framework the American political scientist Paul R. Brass provided to understand communal violence. In his study of cities such as Aligarh and Meerut (both in Uttar Pradesh), Brass argues that an “institutionalised system of riot production” has been created in certain cities since Independence. Communal violence is not spontaneous, but “the production of such riots involves calculated and deliberate actions by key individuals, the conveying of messages, recruitment of participants, and other specific types of activities, especially provocative ones, that are part of a performative repertoire” (“Development of an Institutionalised Riot System in Meerut City, 1961 to 1982”, Economic & Political Weekly , October 30, 2004).

Rodrigues transposes that argument to coastal Karnataka and says that a “riot regime” has been established in the area with all the logistics of riot-manufacturing in place. A closer look at communal events in coastal Karnataka shows that there are patterns in the violence. Linkages with long-term social and economic processes, leading to the emergence of a “communal regime”, can also be established. Rodrigues, who is currently associated with Mangalore University, says that the geographical region where this communal regime is located includes the two districts of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi and extends into the neighbouring districts of Shivamogga, Chikkamagaluru and Kodagu. Dakshina Kannada and Udupi formed one district until 1997 when Udupi was carved out of the parent district. The focus of this article is mainly on the undivided Dakshina Kannada district and the historical reasons for the intense communalisation that has become the dominant characteristic of the area.

Developed region

Coastal Karnataka leads the State in all human development indices. It is more urbanised than other parts of Karnataka and is densely populated and prosperous. The literacy rate of Dakshina Kannada is more than 90 per cent, and the sex ratio favours women, with 1,020 women for every 1,000 men. Among the State’s districts, its per capita income is second only to that of Bengaluru. “It is one of the most modern districts in the country, but it has a medieval mindset as far as communal relations go. It’s a perplexing contradiction,” said a senior official in the district administration.

A unique culture developed in the region historically as this swathe of land is geographically isolated, bulwarked as it is by the Western Ghats on one side and the Arabian Sea on the other. The terrain of the region is hilly and verdant. Mangaluru, the chief city of the region, has been an important port exporting pepper and other spices throughout recorded history. It continues to be a commercial hub and is the third largest conurbation in Karnataka. During the period of colonialism, the region formed part of the Madras Presidency. With the reorganisation of States in 1956, Kasaragod, which had been part of the region, went to Kerala, while the remaining part of South Canara joined the newly consolidated Mysore State. Through its cultural links with Kasaragod, coastal Karnataka continues to share strong social and economic characteristics with north Kerala.

The population’s diversity is reflected in the abundance of languages. While Kannada is the official language, Tulu is the region’s lingua franca as it is the first language of most of the area’s Hindu communities. The Muslims of the coast speak Beary Bhashe, while Konkani is spoken by the Christians and the trading community of Goud Saraswat Brahmins (GSBs), which attests to their historical links with the Goan area. In northern Udupi, a dialect of Kannada is widely spoken, and again a dialect of Kannada is the first language of Hindu communities as one moves towards the Western Ghats. The Kannada spoken in the region has a lilting cadence to it that marks its speaker as a native of “Tulu Nadu”, as the region is also known.

Several distinct communities, native to the region, thrive here. The Bearys, traditionally merchants, are the main Muslim community and belong to the Shafi sect of Sunni Islam. Smaller in number are the Nawayath Muslims, also traders, who are found in Udupi district. Dakhini Urdu speakers, who belong to the Hanafi sect of Sunni Islam, are sprinkled across the region. Muslims form around 24 per cent of the population of Dakshina Kannada district, which is a significantly higher proportion than in the rest of the State.

Among Hindus, Billavas, who were mainly tenant farmers, are numerically the strongest caste (estimated to be around 20 per cent of the population). Bunts, former landlords (estimated to be around 12 to 15 per cent), are a politically strong and influential community in the region. A visible, but numerically smaller, caste of fishermen known as Mogaveeras is also present.

For the purpose of reservation in government jobs, the Karnataka State Backward Classes Commission classifies Mogaveeras as part of the Most Backward Castes, Billavas as part of the More Backward Castes and Bunts as part of Backward Castes. Thus, their relative position in the caste hierarchy can be ascertained from this classification. Brahmins, who are divided into five different denominations, and the GSBs (who have a distinct identity) are the high castes of the region. There is a historical presence of Jains in the region as well. Christians form 8 per cent of the population and are mainly Catholic, although there is a small but visible Protestant component. The Dalits in the region, forming around 7 per cent of the population, are not as populous as in the rest of the State and do not belong to the two main consolidated groups of Dalits in Karnataka. Further inland, towards the Ghats, there are Scheduled Tribe communities who form around 4 per cent of the population.

Hindutva laboratory

Coastal Karnataka is often referred to as the “laboratory of Hindutva” in south India. The origin of this phrase is hard to trace, but by the late 1990s political scientists such as Muzaffar Assadi of the University of Mysore were already discussing the overwhelming influence of Hindutva in the region. When V. Dhananjay Kumar of the BJP became the Member of Parliament from Mangaluru in 1991, it was the culmination of decades of meticulous and tenacious work by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). Hindu right-wing groups who were present in the region from the 1920s laid the foundation with the GSB community, which had strong ties with the RSS before Independence. When Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, some members of the RSS who were GSBs were jailed, writes the anthropologist Harald Tambs-Lyche in his book Business Brahmins . “By the 1950s, certain communal pockets like Kalladka, Ullal and Kodibengre had already built up in the region,” said Rajaram Tholpadi, professor of political science at Mangalore University. All three areas had significant Muslim populations and were commercial hubs.

Several observers agree that at this point two conflict spaces, both linked to commercial activities, emerged. The first space emerged when the GSBs entered into the business area of Bunder (the port area) dominated by the Beary Muslims. Even today, a walk in the compact space of Bunder shows that wholesale businesses are almost equally divided between GSB and Beary traders. The second conflict space emerged all along the coast between Mogaveera fishermen and Muslim wholesale fish traders. (This conflict was also referenced in the film Gulabi Talkies made by award-winning Kannada director Girish Kasaravalli in 2008.) In 1968, Mangaluru saw its first major communal riot close to Bunder. Coincidentally, just a year before, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the precursor to the BJP, won a seat for the first time in the State Legislative Assembly from the region.

Changes in the 1970s

The 1970s was a period of change in coastal Karnataka. The Emergency had a severe impact. “When Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency in 1975, a lot of GSBs who were in the RSS were arrested, and the community completely turned away from the Congress,” said Adyar Dinesh Shenoy, a Mangaluru businessman and a GSB. Some observers feel that it is the community’s monetary support that has led to the growth of the saffron outfit in the region.

Two other events that took place in the decade would have a permanent impact on the society of the region. First, the Congress government passed the Karnataka Land Reforms (Amendment) Act in 1974, which gave land titles to agricultural tenants. Land distribution was relatively successful in undivided Dakshina Kannada. Out of 176,237 applications for land, 136,881 agricultural tenants received titles, which led to a fundamental shift in land ownership patterns. Second, a lot of young people, both skilled and unskilled, began to migrate to the Arab countries around the Persian Gulf where there was a surge in employment after the hike in oil prices in 1973.

Billavas were the main beneficiaries of land reforms, while Bunts along with other upper-caste communities lost their position as landowners. “Bunts responded to this crisis by professionalising themselves. They went to cities like Bombay [now Mumbai] where they started small restaurants like the ‘Udupi hotels’. A section of Bunts also became involved in predatory activities like joining the underworld in Bombay,” said K. Nagaraj, a former professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies. It was easy for Bunts to professionalise themselves and take advantage of newer economic opportunities because they had access to land in the past.

The initial cohorts of migrants who went to the Gulf countries were mainly Muslims and Christians. Norbert Lobo, a professor of economics at St. Aloysius College in Mangaluru, recalled how there were advertisements in the 1970s seeking Muslims and Christians for employment. This is not to say that Hindus did not go to the Gulf. A study that Lobo did in 1998 on internal migration showed that of the 300 families he identified for his study, 90 per cent had at least one family member working in the Gulf, an indication of the massive impact migration had on coastal Karnataka. With money being repatriated from the Gulf states and from Mumbai and other cities, coastal Karnataka began to be known as a “money order economy”. At the same time, with the success of the land reforms, Billavas and other backward communities gained social respect and economic stability.

Billavas stayed with the Congress under the leadership of B. Janardhan Poojary through the 1970s and 1980s. “He gave a sense of pride to Billavas, who were considered untouchables by caste Hindus,” said Vidya Dinker, a social activist in Mangaluru. Much of Poojary’s support within the community came from his control over and refurbishment of the Gokarnanatheshwara temple in Kudroli in Mangaluru, which the social reformer Narayana Guru consecrated in 1912. Poojary represented Mangaluru four times in a row in the elections held between 1977 and 1991 and continues to have a strong grip on the affairs of the temple. The names of Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi are emblazoned prominently on the temple, a sign of its connection to the Congress.

Disenchantment with the Congress after the land reforms led a section of Bunts to turn away from the party. The Bunt-Billava axis that formed the Congress base was broken. A section of the upper castes was also consolidating against the Congress in the 1980s. Vishwesha Teertha, the swamiji of the Pejavara mutt in Udupi and the most respected religious leader in the area, had begun to identify himself with Hindutva programmes. The 1980s and early 1990s saw the decline of the Congress. “After ushering in land reforms, the Congress did not have any vision and began to lose support in the region,” Nagaraj said.

Social coalitions

One of the ways in which Hindutva builds social coalitions that translate into political gains for the BJP is by homogenising the practices of local religious cultures to conform to larger notions of Brahminical Hinduism. Hindutva has always strived to create a pan-Hindu identity. The Tulu-speaking backward castes in the region worship bhuta s (or daiva s). This is a form of spirit worship. There were hundreds of bhuta -worshipping spaces across the region where non-Brahmin rituals prevailed, but over the past few decades these spaces have been Brahminised. “There are 464 named bhuta s, and they represent a subaltern culture. They are not fictitious but real people who fought against different kinds of oppression. Koti and Chennayya are prominent bhuta s who lived in the 16th century and fought against the feudal regime. There are also women and Muslims in the bhuta pantheon,” explained K. Phaniraj, a teacher at an engineering college in Manipal.

Bannanje Babu Amin, a prominent folklorist of the Billava community based in Udupi, said: “Billavas are traditionally ancestor worshippers. Ancestors are worshipped in the form of daiva s, where men don colourful makeup representing the spirits of prominent ancestors. Bhuta s are distinct from the gods of Brahminical Hinduism. Our rituals have become Brahminised. We were not bothered about issues like cow slaughter earlier, but it has become a big issue now.”

Pramod Madhwaraj, a Mogaveera leader and MLA from the Udupi constituency, added: “We worship a spirit called Bobbariah whose father was Muslim and mother Jain, but tell the ordinary communalised Mogaveera today this and he will refuse to believe you.” Babu Amin’s and Madhwaraj’s comments are an indication of how Brahminical Hinduism has homogenised the subaltern religious culture in coastal Karnataka.

Billavas, who had acquired a semblance of economic stability after the land reforms, needed a strong identity, and this is where Hindutva came in with its pervasion of the religious and cultural space. Phaniraj analysed it thus: “The idea that economic changes will automatically lead to social and cultural change is flawed. The communists failed to understand the prevailing sentiment. The cultural momentum unleashed by these changes [of the 1970s] was captured by the forces of Hindutva, who started co-opting institutions at the micro level. This should be seen as a Gramscian phenomenon: the political movement that intervenes gains hegemony.”

By this time the Congress’ role in the social space was depleting. The communists, who had tall leaders such as M.H. Krishnappa (d. 2011) and B.V. Kakkilaya (d. 2012) and support among both the peasantry and industrial labour, also failed in the crucial decade of the 1980s to provide an alternative framework. The Dalit movement had the potential to provide an alternative at the time, “but with the five-way split in the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti [Dalit Committee for Struggle] in the 1980s, the movement lost its potency”, said P. Deekaiah, a social activist from Belthangady.

In the early 1990s, two things happened whose impact was felt all over the country. First, a muscular streak was injected into Hindutva with L.K. Advani’s Rath Yatra, a movement which culminated in the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and second, the economy was liberalised in 1991. Social scientists like Prabhat Patnaik have made conceptual connections between the growth of Hindutva and the liberalisation of the Indian economy. In the same vein, Assadi and Tholpadi have argued how globalisation and the growth of Hindutva have been symbiotic in coastal Karnataka. The impact of liberalisation and globalisation was felt in the expansion of the service sector, leading to a growth of contractual employment and the influx of large capital.

“Globalisation opened the market for communal ideology on a large scale. It was a decade when cultural festivals such as bhuta kola and Sangh Parivar events such as Hindu Samajothsava were aggressively marketed through various forms of media, space for which had opened up after the liberalisation of the economy. The 1990s was a decade where Hindutva was marketed,” said Assadi.

The decade was characterised by minor outbreaks of communal violence all over coastal Karnataka. Concerns over forced conversions and love jehad (well before the phrase began to be commonly heard) were articulated by Hindutva forces. “STD booths and footwear shops emerged as the supposed centres where Muslim boys were luring Hindu girls. Paranoia began to be built up about this by organisations like the VHP,” said Phaniraj. The role of “rumours”, a potent catalyst, became important from that time on.

A major communal riot broke out on December 20, 1998, in the town of Surathkal, around 15 kilometres north of Mangaluru. Eight people died according to official reports but civil society activists put the number at 16.

A few years later, in 2002, a rumour spread at a village festival in Aasodi in Udupi district that Muslims were injecting Hindus with the AIDS virus. Mogaveeras, who were numerically strong in the region, attacked Muslims and vandalised their houses. Violent events such as these set the stage for the region to emerge as a communally sensitive area. Since then, the Hindutva forces have only entrenched themselves in the social, cultural and political space of the region and have a sturdy network. Events such as the mammoth Hindu Samajothsavas held in the area have helped in this. It is one of the few parliamentary constituencies in the country, and the only one in south India, where the BJP has won continuously since 1991.

Hindutva in action

Sharan Pumpwell, the south zone coordinator of the Bajrang Dal in Karnataka, who said that his organisation had 11,000 active members across the southern districts of Karnataka, explained how Hindutva forces worked: “There are two issues that lead to tension here. One is illegal cow slaughter, and second is Muslim men seducing our women to convert them to Islam, or ‘love jehad’.” According to him, there is an extensive network of Hindutva sympathisers spread all over coastal Karnataka. “They immediately inform us if a Hindu girl is seen with a Muslim boy and if cattle are transported,” he explained. Bus drivers, conductors, petty traders, grocery shop owners and taxi drivers are often said to be the informants or the foot soldiers of Hindutva. When news comes to the Bajrang Dal, it swings into action and mobile teams swiftly reach the spot. “We go and talk to the girl and tell her what she’s doing is not good. In the case of illegal transportation of cattle, we inform the police. When they don’t do anything, we take matters into our own hands,” he said. “I have personally gone and stopped some of these trucks, and there are seven or eight cases against me,” he added. The Karnataka Prevention of Cow Slaughter and Cattle Preservation Act, 1964, allows for the slaughter of bulls, bullocks and buffaloes over 12 years of age.

A senior leader of the VHP in Mangaluru, who did not want to be named, described the structure of the organisation: “There are nine units of the VHP in Mangaluru. The Bajrang Dal has around 150 units here, and the Durga Vahini, the girls’ wing, has 15 to 20 units. Every week we have a satsanga where we discuss relevant issues and decide on a plan of action.”

This senior leader is a Brahmin as are other leaders of the Sangh Parivar, whereas the cadre is composed of people like Sharan Pumpwell who belong to backward castes. “It is wrong to say that there is any notion of caste in the Sangh Parivar,” the leader explained, “it is just that Brahmins are educated and understand the situation better.” Hindutva outfits not only have a deep support base in coastal Karnataka but also parent communalism in Karnataka. Since the 1990s, cadres from here have been travelling to other parts of the State to support other Hindutva causes. The frenzy created around the syncretic shrine of Sri Guru Dattatreya Bababudan Swamy Dargah is a case in point as Hindutva forces have converted the hill shrine in Chikkamagaluru into a “disputed” site (“Communal work”, Frontline , October 23, 2009).

Growth of the PFI

With the secular space in the region shrinking, a section of Muslims has been attracted to the identity politics of the Popular Front of India (PFI), a Muslim-only organisation that calls itself a social reform movement. It was formed in 2007 but has been around for a longer time. In its earlier avatars, it was known as the National Development Front and the Karnataka Forum for Dignity. The PFI has a political party affiliated to it, called the Social Democratic Party of India, which has a token representation of non-Muslims. While the party has not won any seats in the Legislative Assembly, it has scattered representation in local bodies across the region, including one member in the 60-member Mangaluru City Corporation. Shafi Ballare, State secretary of the PFI, said that the organisation had around 30,000 members in Karnataka. Of this, 10,000 are from the coastal region. In its disciplined cadres, Muslims see a challenge to the organised onslaught of Hindutva forces. It is evident that the PFI has a limited communal vision and is a reaction to the growth of the Sangh Parivar in the region. Observers often remark on the similarity in the methods of the PFI and the Hindutva groups, with the PFI also indulging in “moral policing”.

Irshad Uppinangady, a television journalist based in Mangaluru, explained how a documentary film he made on the restrictions imposed on Muslim girls who wanted to dance attracted the ire of some of the cadre of the PFI. The organisation’s growth has also been aided by an increasing religiosity among Muslims in the region. “Muslims are sending their children only to Muslim schools, and the next generation is going to be even more inward looking,” said Umar U.H., a social activist in Mangaluru.

Communalism in the service economy

Over the past two decades, there have been changes in the economy of coastal Karnataka. It can no longer be called a money order economy. A large chunk of its population remains outside and repatriates money, but the region’s service economy is thriving and capital is accumulating locally. Dakshina Kannada district’s gross domestic product (GDP) was Rs.23,530 crore in 2012-13, of which Rs.14,291 crore (61 per cent) was generated by the tertiary, or service, sector. (The service sector includes transport, trade, banking, insurance, real estate, public administration and other services.) This figure does not include the significant turnover of the construction industry, which is part of the secondary sector. As a ratio of service sector contribution to total GDP, Dakshina Kannada’s share is second only to that of Bengaluru in the State.

Communalism is now spilling over into the areas of this new service economy, much of it centred in the burgeoning city of Mangaluru, which has a population of around six lakh. “The competition is now in the areas of real estate, education and other sectors of the service economy like trade and transport,” said Shivasundar, an activist-journalist based in Bengaluru. There are eight medical colleges, 18 engineering colleges and two private universities in Dakshina Kannada district. Mangaluru has limited State-run public transport, but there are close to 500 privately operated buses. There are five big malls in the city now. There is competition in all these arenas, with Muslims having a significant presence.

During the pre-liberalisation period, Muslims were primarily traders, fish and timber merchants, owners of small hotels, and areca nut, cashew and dry fruit traders. After globalisation, they expanded the scope of their commercial activities through their networks in the Gulf states. This has led to new conspiracy theories by people like Pumpwell who believe that a “land jehad” is taking place in the coastal region where Muslims are buying all the land from Hindus. “They have taken over north Kerala, and now their eyes are set on this region,” Pumpwell said.

In this communally surcharged atmosphere, even the peasantry has not been spared. New kinds of social networks are being forged on the basis of trade relations rather than agrarian connections after the upheavals between the 1970s and the 1990s. Syed Faisal, a PhD student of anthropology at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom, argues this out in his research and shows how a communal element has become evident in relations between Hindu Billava peasants and Muslim Nawayath merchants in the coconut trade around Udupi.

Muslim as the ‘other’

The trope of the “prosperous Muslim” is heard constantly in conversations with a variety of people in the region. While it is unclear to what extent this is true, it is used as an efficient tool to create resentment against Muslims. Stereotypical Hindutva notions of the Muslim say that he is the enterprising trader who is entering into new areas of the economy, buying land owned by Hindus, eating beef, and on a crusade to seduce, kidnap and convert Hindu girls with the intention to eventually Islamise the coastal region. It is a view that a wide cross section of non-Muslims here hold. In conversations, it seems like the “othering” of the Muslim in the region is complete. This has been accompanied by the growth of a muscular Hindutva. With the lynching of Praveen Poojary, the monster the Hindutva forces created has taken the life of one of their own.

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