ON THE NIGHT of 13 October 2022, Harish Poonja was returning by road from Mangaluru to his home constituency in Belthangady, on the foothills of the Western Ghats in coastal Karnataka. A third of the way into the journey, near the fish market in Farangipete town, his vehicle was hustling for space on the road with a white Scorpio. The occupants of both cars got out of their vehicles and a brief altercation ensued. The Scorpio then sped away. The police soon registered a case against the Scorpio driver, with minor charges pertaining to wrongful restraint and criminal intimidation. “The accused does not have any prior criminal cases and we have not found any weapon on him,” Rishikesh Sonawane, the district’s then superintendent of police, told the New Indian Express. “The motive was road rage.” But two days later, as the press began playing up the Muslim identity of the Scorpio's owner, the incident acquired a peculiarly religious colour.
Poonja, at 40, is one of the youngest members of Karnataka’s legislative assembly, and is part of a new generation of leadership that the Bharatiya Janata Party has pushed to its fore. Before he rose to power, he had only a short career as a lawyer in the Karnataka High Court and as the president of the BJP’s youth wing in the state. Like his peers, and unlike much of the previous senior leadership of the party in Karnataka, Poonja was brought up by, and traces his political lineage to, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
Many of the BJP’s younger leaders leapt to Poonja’s defence. Nalin Kumar Kateel, the BJP’s state president, told the press that the incident should be probed in relation to an ongoing investigation by the National Investigation Agency—the country’s premiere anti-terrorism task force—into the Islamic organisation the Popular Front of India. Poonja himself claimed that “jihadis” attempted to kill him because he was “working for Hindutva.” The press, both in the state and nationally, lapped it up. The police found an L-shaped spanner that the Muslim youth was holding during the incident, at his home. In the Press Trust of India’s reporting, the spanner and its owner transformed into something far more sinister. “A few miscreants waylaid the official vehicle, brandished swords and tried to attack the MLA,” PTI noted. The case was soon transferred to Karnataka’s Crime Investigation Department, usually reserved for high-profile crimes.