How Hindutva lost its stronghold in coastal Karnataka

Incidents like the Mangalore pub violence were a symbol of Hindutva’s hold over coastal Karnataka, but also put voters off in state elections this year. STR / AFP /GETTY IMAGES
01 June, 2013

POLITICAL PARTIES OFTEN DEPLOY the rhetoric of war to lend an aura of permanence to their short-term glories. In India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has led the pack in verbally ornamenting its achievements with martial grandeur. When the party nearly won an outright majority in the 2008 Karnataka Assembly polls—they fell short by three seats—and formed a government with the help of independent legislators, they said the state had become their ‘Gateway to the South’. Their breaching the bastion of ‘secular’ parties, so to say, was made to sound like an invasion. The advancement of the saffron army, they trumpeted, could not be challenged anymore. But five years later, in the wake of last month’s assembly elections, their gateway to the Deccan has crumbled; the army that won it looks rag tag, and the rest of their rhetoric has acquired a hollow ring.

The BJP had a vote share of 33.86 percent in 2008. In this year’s elections, the party saw that drop to 19.95 percent, for a total of only 40 out of the 223 seats being contested. BJP candidates lost their deposits in 110 seats—incidentally, the same number they had won in 2008. The Congress increased its vote share from 34.76 percent in 2008 to 36.54 percent this year, and won a simple majority of 120 seats. The Janata Dal (Secular), which polled 18.95 percent in 2008, overtook the BJP this year to poll 20.10 percent, and former chief minister BS Yeddyurappa’s newly formed Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP) polled 9.84 percent.

If the numbers themselves were not compelling enough evidence of the depth of the BJP defeat, the party lost badly even in areas that represented its most fervent base of support, including the state’s three coastal districts. Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Uttara Kannada have long been referred to by commentators as the ‘Hindutva laboratories’, because they have been the focus of the Sangh Parivar’s thought experiments and social engineering. For their simmering communal tensions, these districts have often been compared with places like Godhra in Gujarat. It is here that right wing forces, over the past couple of decades, have created a spectacle of their effort to culturally and socially polarise the majority and the many minority communities.

But even in this supposed stronghold, the BJP was defeated. In the three coastal districts, the BJP’s vote share dropped by over 7 percentage points, from 40.68 percent in 2008 to 33.51 percent, while the Congress and JD(S) vote shares increased by 1.5 and 1.3 percentage points respectively. Yeddyurappa’s KJP, which positioned itself as a ‘secular’ party, garnered about 2.5 percent of the vote share in the region. In the seats tally, of the total 19 seats in the region, the BJP won only 3, down from 10 in 2008. The Congress’s tally nearly doubled, from 7 last time to 13 this time. The remaining three seats have been taken by little-known independents, who essentially challenged the BJP. The average victory margin of the three BJP candidates who won in the region was only 2896 votes. These numbers should put in perspective the rejection of the BJP in the Hindutva belt.

Midway through the campaign, the BJP, which saw itself sinking, came up with the idea of deploying Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi to campaign in the state. Amidst widespread rumours that he was reluctant to risk any dent to his image of invincibility by campaigning in a state where his party was likely to lose, Modi delivered three big speeches during two separate visits. Apart from Bangalore and Belgaum, Modi visited the coast to make a speech in Mangalore; in none of these places did his arrival rescue the BJP’s failing campaign. In Bangalore city, the Congress improved its tally from 10 to 13. In Mangalore city, all three legislators elected were from the Congress and further, all three were from minority communities—two Muslims and a Christian. In Belgaum, which forms part of what is traditionally referred to as the Mumbai-Karnataka region, the BJP’s vote share fell 8.6 percentage points from 35.08 percent in 2008.

In his speeches in Bangalore and Belgaum, Modi had focused on development, on the corruption record of the UPA government in Delhi and the proverbial ‘golden spoon’ in Rahul Gandhi’s mouth. In Mangalore, however, he chose a more Hindutva-friendly line, focusing on the anti cow slaughter bill that his party had introduced in the state assembly and the ‘pseudo-secular game’ of the Congress in blocking it. Neither approach worked. If one goes by the results, Modi’s impact was negligible at best.

In its election post-mortem, the BJP attributed its loss to the damage done by Yeddyurappa’s KJP. But this interpretation does not reflect the reality on the ground: while the KJP vote share was around 10 percent, the party only posed a real challenge to the BJP in about 45 seats. Though the KJP contested 205 seats, it lost its deposit in 146.

A better place to look for the reasons behind the BJP’s defeat is the coastal districts, which since the 1990s have slowly gravitated toward a polarising right-wing politics that has disturbed the centuries-old cosmopolitan feel of the region. The coast, by the virtue of its geography, has been a multicultural hub accommodating various denominations of entrepreneurial Hindus, two distinct denominations of Muslims—the Byaries who are traders in Dakshina Kannada and the well-to-do Navayaths in Uttara Kannada—and, of course, various denominations of Christians, with German Protestant missionaries and Roman Catholics playing very significant roles in the economic and educational advancement of the region.

With places around Mangalore, like Manipal and Surathkal, turning into educational centres and attracting students from across India, this multiculturalism further blossomed. It began to be threatened in the early 1990s after the Ram Janmabhoomi movement sprouted, and the assertion of Hindu identity became common in many parts of the country. In early 2000, even as the Ayodhya movement started dying a slow political death across India, the Hindutva movement took a venomous turn on Karnataka’s coast.

The move to nurture Hindu fundamentalism in the region was said to have been a reaction against the economic well-being of Muslims and the influence and social standing of Christians. The BJP shared power for the first time in Karnataka in a coalition for 20 months in 2006, and then came to power on its own in 2008. It was after this that the region witnessed a rise in acts of violence by Hindu vigilante groups, among them attacks on churches and pubs. In all these activities, those mobilised to join the ‘vigilante armies’ or the ‘moral police’ brigade were people from backward Hindu caste groups.

Their economic backwardness was set up against the flourish of the minority communities. For over one-and-a-half decades now, the violence and intimidation in the coast has centred around four issues: cattle slaughter, conversions, elopement and “eve-teasing”. In the recent years, the most common reason for a communal flare-up has been the mingling of young people from different communities.

According to activists G Rajashekar and K Phaniraj, co-authors of Komuvaadada Karala Mukhagalu (The Dark Faces of Communalism, 2005), a book on communalism in the state, the frequency of communal violence sharply rose in the region from 1998 onwards. They note that between 1998 and 2000, communal incidents were reported every six months. These started occurring every month between 2000 and 2004, and from 2004 onwards, they became a weekly occurrence. There were many ghastly cases reported besides the ones that television captured—the attack on women in a lounge bar in 2009 and on youngsters celebrating a birthday party in 2012, and the church attack in September 2008. For instance, in 2005, over 150 Bajrang Dal activists barged into a cinema hall in Puttur town and dragged out four workers from an areca processing factory and thrashed them. Their crime: two Hindu women and one Hindu man had dared to go to the cinema with a Muslim colleague.

Over the years, the local media developed vicarious pleasure in capturing these assaults and beaming them across the region. They often had advance information to reach the place of attack before the Hindu vigilante armies arrived to indulge in their ‘cleansing’ acts. The local media became a mute witness, if not an accomplice, to the various crimes. The fact that television cameras were present when these assaults took place, Phaniraj and Rajashekar say, reminded them of Walter Benjamin’s observation that ‘Fascism makes a spectacle of its ideology’.

In this light, the verdict of 2013 in the coastal districts becomes important because communal chaos and violence appear to have been politically resisted after nearly two decades. The embers of communal hatred may still be alive, but an effective political counter has been formed. Its formation was not easy, and many reasons may be adduced for its success, but if one had to assign a face to the Congress victory in the coastal districts, it would be that of Janardhan Poojary, the former Union minister and president of the state Congress, who has been in charge of the party’s campaign in the coastal districts.

Poojary has always shown fierce loyalty to the Gandhi family. He was first picked as a junior minister for finance in the Union cabinet in 1982, and was popular for his loan camps. Poojary, along with Veerappa Moily, Oscar Fernandes and Margaret Alva, among others, had had significant local roles in the coast during the Congress’s disintegration in the 1990s, until which time it had appeared like the party’s bastion. (Poojary was elected to the Lok Sabha from the Mangalore constituency for four successive terms between 1977 and 1989.) While the rest of Poojary’s colleagues withdrew to play national roles after the coast was conceded to the Hindutva forces, Poojary seemed to have quietly drawn up a crude plan to thwart them. It took over a decade to bear fruit, and in 2013 it is one of the key factors that contributed to the Congress’s victory.

As a Billava leader (the poor, backward caste toddy tapping community), Poojary understood that Hindutva’s foot soldiers in the coastal districts were all drawn from backward communities—erstwhile Congress supporters. They were being engaged by the Sangh to advance their ideological plan. Their economic backwardness, insecurity, illiteracy and chauvinism were worked upon to disrupt the tolerant atmosphere of the region, which had in history opened up to the world much before the rest of Karnataka had. Through modest town hall and street corner meetings, Poojary started engaging with these youth. In his typically brusque manner of speaking, he explained to them the risks they were taking—they faced legal hassles and prison terms for their hooliganism, while the forward castes reaped political benefits. This work of weaning the youth away took place at regular intervals over the years, with Poojary ramping up activity in 2009, after he lost the parliamentary elections from the Dakshina Kannada Lok Sabha constituency. The effect wasn’t as simple as the creation of a reformatory milieu, but the efforts contributed to the critical mass that was being built against Hindutva activism as the calm of the coast—and livelihoods—came under threat.

Poojary’s reform was not an intellectual endeavour. It was an ad hoc political method, but in the case of the coast an intellectual counter would have yielded only a slow, limited dividend. A fearless hellraiser was the need of the hour, and Poojary easily slipped into the role. He, too, decided to tap emotion and not reason. He intuitively understood that the conservatism spawned by age-old Hindu temples and seminaries on the coast needed to be countered through reformist activity around temples. Therefore, he started organising activity around the Kudroli Gokarnanatheswara Temple in Mangalore city. If people were being drawn by faith, he tried to offer them an alternative, at times even radical, understanding of faith.

The Kudroli temple was consecrated by social reformer Narayana Guru in 1912. The decision to build the temple and install an assortment of deities was taken after elders of the Billava community consulted with Narayana Guru around 1908. Even then, it was meant to counteract the oppression of the upper castes in the region. In 1989 the temple was renovated under Poojary’s leadership—this was around the time the Congress had started slipping. Poojary initiated a new set of radical rituals to attract the attention of the backward castes. He got lower caste widows not only to pull the temple chariot, but also gifted them vermillion and flowers, a complete departure from the practices of the Brahmin Udupi seminaries and temples a few kilometres away. It was a slow exercise of weaning the poor and the backward castes away from the Vedic monolith that the Sangh was trying to create in the coastal districts, and instilling a sense of dignity in them. Poojary called Dalit women to the temple premises and washed their feet; he was giving indirect lessons in respecting women when the Hindutva brigade was making a spectacle of attacking them. When tribals and backward castes were being encouraged to roll over plantain leaves with leftovers of meals eaten by Brahmins (a ritual called ‘made snana’), Poojary rolled on the clean surface of the Kudroli temple premises to create a contrast. All these actions had a positive traction among the lower castes. It helped breach the Hindutva citadel in an unconventional way.

The Congress has formed the government in the state, but Poojary has remained away from the portals of power, unsung. If anybody needs to be complimented for putting up a persistent ideological opposition to the Hindutva elements on the coast, it is him. The Congress now has the task of sustaining the change.