Karnataka

The BJP's devious game plan in Karnataka

Print edition : November 19, 2021

Basavaraj Bommai at the Kudroli Sri Gokarnanatha temple in Mangaluru on October 13. Contrary to expectations, his appointment as Chief Minister seems to have emboldened the Hindu Right in the State. Photo: MANJUNATH H.S.

Protest against Basavaraj Bommai’s “action-reaction” statement by a coalition of progressive organisations, including Dalits, minorities and women, in Bengaluru on October 21. Photo: PTI

Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai’s endorsement of the activities of Hindutva’s lumpen foot soldiers provides a clue to the direction the BJP is going to take over the next two years before the Assembly election in the State.

On October 21, a protest was held in Bengaluru and in different parts of Karnataka against the recent spike in the activities of right-wing Hindu organisations against religious minorities and Dalits in the State. As many as 500 protesters representing marginalised groups, activists, students and concerned citizens gathered at the Mysore Bank (State Bank of India) Circle in central Bengaluru at around 11 a.m.

Their main demand was that Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai withdraw his statement on ‘moral policing’ that justified the activities of groups such as the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). Interacting with mediapersons in Mangaluru Airport on October 14, Bommai, in reply to a question on the rising cases of ‘moral policing’ in coastal Karnataka, stated that when “sentiments are hurt, there will normally be action and reaction”.

Speaking to Frontline on the sidelines of the protest, Vinay Sreenivasa, an advocate-activist who is part of the Alternative Law Forum, said: “The protest has been organised against the rising attacks on youth for being in love; against attacks on Dalits, Muslims and Christians and against Basavaraj Bommai for his statement encouraging goondagiri in Karnataka. Immoral policing is an assault on dignity. It is an attack on the right of women to choose and an attack on the right to life and liberty of religious minorities and we demand that the Chief Minister withdraw his statement.”

Bommai’s legacy

When Bommai became the Chief Minister in July, many commentators noted that his father, former Chief Minister S.R. Bommai, was a Socialist and had been a follower of the radical humanist M.N. Roy. Basavaraj Bommai’s initiation into political life happened in the company of Janata parivar stalwarts and former Chief Ministers such as Ramakrishna Hegde and J.H. Patel. He is not a homegrown leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with roots in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and joined the party from the Janata Dal (United) in 2019 when it became clear that that the JD(U) did not have a future in Karnataka. Given this legacy, political observers widely agreed that Bommai would, like his predecessor B.S. Yediyurappa, not easily toe the line of the hard right-wing within the BJP.

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Contrary to the expectations though, Bommai’s appointment as Chief Minister seems to have emboldened the Hindu Right in the State. His “action-reaction” statement only confirms this, and may be a pointer to the further rightward turn of the Karnataka government.

Writing in the Kannada newspaper Vartha Bharathi on October 25, senior Kalaburagi-based journalist and political columnist Sanathkumar Belagali stated, “Hearing these words justifying communal goondagiri from Bommai has surprised many people as he had joined the BJP from the Janata Parivar. It is clear that principles and ideology have become irrelevant for him now. It is also possible that he [Bommai] is desperate to save his chair and has to make such utterances endorsing the actions of Hindu right-wing groups that have taken the law into their own hands. His statement was also not uttered spontaneously and was a well-thought-out enunciation as part of a larger strategy to further consolidate the Hindutva vote bank in the State.” The Congress’ Siddaramaiah, Leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Assembly, said the “RSS was controlling Bommai and he is praising the RSS to protect his chair.”

A series of events that have taken place in the State recently corroborate the perception that groups such as the VHP, the Bajrang Dal and the Hindu Jagran Vedike (HJV) have suddenly become aggressive in their activities. Different communities have been at the receiving end of their fierce actions. The events vary in scale and space, but they always point to the free hand that has been given to the belligerent upsurge of Hindutva activities in Karnataka.

In September, the Bommai government meekly caved in to the demand of right-wing groups when it passed a Bill in the Legislative Assembly to “protect” illegally constructed religious structures in Karnataka. Bommai himself tabled the Karnataka Religious Structures (Protection) Bill on September 20 after an intense backlash following the demolition of a temple in Nanjangud taluk in Mysuru district as part of a 2009 Supreme Court order. Members of the Bajrang Dal and the HJV had organised Statewide protests against the demolition, with one leader of the Hindu Mahasabha in Mangaluru even threatening Bommai with death.

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An Urdu media journalist, Safdar Khaiser, who was covering one of these protests in Mysuru on September 16, was mercilessly thrashed in the presence of the police simply for his religious identity.

The bogey of ‘love jehad’ that has its roots in Karnataka led to the brutal murder of a 24-year-old Muslim man in Belagavi district on September 28. Ten persons, seven of whom belonged to an extreme Hindutva organisation called the Sri Ram Sena Hindustan, were arrested and charged with the murder of the Muslim youth, Arbaaz Mulla, who was in a relationship with a Hindu girl. Belagavi has also seen an increase in Hindutva activities, with incidents of bullying of members of minority communities being reported over the past month. In the neighbouring district of Bagalkote, two Muslim boys were thrashed on October 12 in the town of Ilkal because they wore skullcaps to their tuition classes.

Vigilantism

Coastal Karnataka, which has been the hub of religious vigilantism in Karnataka for at least two decades, has also seen an escalation of activities by Hindutva groups. An analysis of news reports by Suresh Bhat Bakrabail of the Karnataka Komu Souharda Vedike (Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum) in Mangaluru found that there had been 32 communal incidents (with the aggressors belonging to Hindutva groups) between July and the third week of October. On one occasion, Umanath Kotian, BJP Member of the Legislative Assembly from Moodbidri, was criticised for escorting two persons of a right-wing group who were released on bail from the Moodbidri police station on October 9 after they were detained on the charge of indulging in moral policing.

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Other incidents have also kept the communal tension high in the State: for instance, Pramod Muthalik, founder of the Sri Ram Sena, attempted to create a controversy in Gadag in a speech on October 17 when he stated that the Jumma Masjid in that city would be demolished like the Babri Masjid as it was built after the destruction of a temple during Tipu Sultan’s reign. In Tumakuru, in south Karnataka, Basavaraj, secretary of the Karnataka State unit of the VHP, is reported to have said in a public speech on October 22 that if Muslims dared to challenge Hindus they would be not be left with any “space to even bury their dead”.

Attacks on churches

Several churches have also been targeted by Hindutva groups after allegations that they were indulging in “forced religious conversions”. On October 18, Bajrang Dal and VHP members barged into a church in Hubballi and sang bhajans. The intelligence department in the State has allegedly been given the bizarre task of surveying and ascertaining the number of churches in Karnataka.

Suresh Bhat Bakrabail said that there was a “pattern” in the recent spike in attacks on the Christian community all over the State. He added, “All these attacks are being stage-managed by the RSS to build up pressure for the passage of an anti-conversion law in Karnataka on the lines of what we have in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.” The Chief Minister and Home Minister Araga Jnanendra have already indicated that the government is in favour of such a law.

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There have also been instances where Muslims were involved in criminal and vigilante activities. A Hindu man who was in a relationship with a Muslim girl is alleged to have been murdered by the family members of the girl on October 21 in a village in Sindgi taluk of Vijayapura district. In two separate instances of moral policing in Belagavi (October 20) and Bengaluru (September 18), Muslim women were shamed after being accosted by gangs of Muslim men because they were travelling with Hindu men. Apart from his swift condemnation of the incident in Bengaluru, Bommai has maintained a careful silence on all other incidents where the aggressors have been Hindu, and the victims belonged to religious minorities.

Bommai is in the middle of hectic campaigning for the byelections in Hangal and Sindgi Assembly constituencies which will be held on October 30. In the midst of this, a local journalist asked him a pointed question on his endorsement of the audacious activities of the Hindu right-wing accompanied by escalating communal tension in Karnataka, but Bommai refused to respond. With elections in Karnataka slated to be held in mid 2023, Bommai’s appointment and his subsequent endorsement of the activities of Hindutva’s lumpen foot soldiers provide a clue to the direction that the BJP is going to take over the next two years before the Assembly election. With anti-incumbency settling in against the BJP government, it looks like the party is increasingly inching towards raising the communal temperature in the State as a calculated game plan.

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