In July 2017, BJP MP Shobha Karandlaje wrote a letter to the then Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh identifying 23 men either as “Hindu activists” or members of the “BJP/RSS” who were killed by “jihadi elements” starting from March 2014. "It is a blood bath in Karnataka,” the letter declared, with the words marked in bold, blaming the Popular Front of India (PFI), a Muslim organisation for the murders, particularly concentrated in the coastal Dakshina Kannada district.
One of the workers named in the letter was, in fact, alive as reported by Scroll. Of the remaining 22 cases in Karandlaje's list, 10 killings were linked to Muslim organisations whereas the others were completely unrelated to communal violence. The list of 23 was, however, used extensively by the Sangh Parivar during the previous assembly elections as 'evidence' that Hindus were not safe under the Congress government. Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to the deaths saying there was “ease of doing murder” in Karnataka in one of his pre-election speeches.
As the party in power, the BJP finds itself in the same situation as the Congress in 2017. With the murder of its youth worker Praveen Nettaru in Dakshina Kannada district on July 26, the BJP has become the target of the saffron sentiment that it helped unleash. It's own workers who are openly rebelling and resigning in droves. The murder of Praveen followed the murder of 19-year-old Masood from Sullia who was attacked on July 19.
The party's state chief Nalin Kumar Kateel was jolted on Thursday when protesting Hindutva supporters surrounded and pushed the car ferrying him. The crowd was angry that a ‘Hindu’ government was not protecting Hindu activists. "There is disillusionment among many core Hindutva supporters who have unwaveringly supported the party. We feel that the leadership is working against the interests of Hindutva. Didn't both Sunil Kumar and Nalin Kateel vow to protect Hindu karyakartas?," a Bajrang Dal member from Puttur tells TNM.
Supporters and workers in Hindutva groups have flooded social media with videos of Sunil Kumar and Nalin Kateel promising to protect the party's workers, and questioned the current BJP government for not doing enough. The ire of the protesting workers intensified after police dispersed them with a lathi charge."In the past when such incidents happened, innocent Hindutva supporters were not lathi charged. We demand that the police officers involved should be suspended," Bajrang Dal state convenor Sunil KR said.
Several party workers including the Chikkamagaluru district Yuva Morcha president tendered their resignations in protest after the incident came to light while workers also flooded social media with videos mocking BJP leaders. An unverified audio clip, purported to be a conversation between BJP Yuva Morcha National President Tejasvi Surya and Sandeep, who is the BJP district Yuva Morcha president in Chikkamagaluru, was shared on social media. In the audio, the voice, purported to be Tejasvi Surya, claims that they could have pelted stones if the current government was run by the Congress.
Even as Hindutva groups are expressing their anger over Praveen's death, a close relative of Praveen has said that this is a moment of self reflection for young men involved in Hindutva organisations. "We should condemn this. I feel his activities with the organisations has brought him his current fate. I am not telling this to just Hindus but also to Muslims and Christians, that for people who get involved in these kinds of organisations, meeting this fate is certain," says the relative Dharmapala Sheni. Praveen was an active member of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and BJP Yuva Vahini.
"We should look at the fate of Praveen and other young men who died and learn from this. We should not blame anyone based on their religion and the killers, whoever they are, should be brought to justice," Dharmapala says.
Dharmapala points out that in most cases, the people who are victims of communal violence, are from marginalised communities.
His words are echoed by Sunil Bajilakere, a former Hindutva supporter and BJP worker in Mangaluru. He says that people are beginning to realise that communal violence in Dakshina Kannada is more frequent around the time of election and those who suffer are people from marginalised communities. "In 2018, just before the elections, there was the murder of Deepak Rao followed by the murder of Basheer. People are beginning to realise that communal violence becomes a statewide issue around the time of election," says Sunil Bajilakere.
"There is also a realisation that whenever someone is killed in communal violence, it is from the Billava, Mogaveera or Madiwala community whereas those holding positions in Hindutva groups and in the BJP are from higher castes," he says.
In 2018, the BJP decided to field two candidates from the Billava community in Dakshina Kannada and Udupi, as opposed to six candidates from the Bunt community to which Nalin Kumar Kateel, the current state BJP chief belongs to.
In particular, the denial of a party ticket to Sathyajith Surathkal, a firebrand Hindu Jagrana Vedike leader, in the Mangaluru North constituency in favour of a young dentist and former JD(S) leader, Bharath Shetty, led to backlash from the community members. Sathyajith, who was at the forefront of protests over the killing of RSS worker Sharath Madivala in Bantwal in 2017, initially threatened to contest as an independent candidate before he was pacified. The Billava community also recently opposed the Karnataka government over its decision to exclude sections about Narayana Guru in the revision of textbooks in the state.
Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) State president Muneer Katipalla says Billavas feel used by the party and this could even impact the party in the upcoming elections. “Billavas have been leaning towards Hindutva a long time ago and have stayed with the BJP for years now. But there have been a series of events that have angered them. There has been a sentiment that youth from the Billava community are used for the cause(Hindutva). If you look at the data you will find that of the people who are killed in communal incidents and the ones who are accused in the killings of Muslims in the region, people from the Billava community are in large numbers. But they now feel that the BJP has been ignoring them when it comes to rewarding them,” he said. Muneer says that many from the community, like Satyajit Suratkal, have not been given a ticket to fight elections and the anger seen after Praveen’s murder is a culmination of all this.
Muneer however adds that this anger is unlikely to affect the party's electoral prospects much. “It is safe to say that Billavas are angry with the BJP but they may not abandon the party electorally just yet. Although a small number of people may work to defeat a few BJP leaders in the upcoming elections,” he says.
The BJP in Karnataka has reacted predictably to the series of communal murders. Tejasvi Surya has spoken on television debates questioning growing fundamentalism among Muslims, CN Ashwath Narayan called for police encounters as a way to deal with the accused and Chief Minister Bommai has said that he won't hesitate to use the 'UP model' of governance.
The Chief Minister has announced Rs 25 lakh compensation for the family of Praveen Nettaru while no compensation has been announced for the families of the two Muslim men murdered.
Watch: Why custodial deaths keep happening in India