How a cow vigilante rose to become BJP’s candidate in Udupi

The rise of Yashpal Suvarna coincides with the BJP’s return to its original formula in Udupi – Hindutva and communal mobilisation taking precedence over a more inclusive appeal based on socio-economic themes.
Yashpal Suvarna campaigning in Udupi
Yashpal Suvarna campaigning in Udupi
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The incident that propelled Yashpal Suvarna, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Udupi MLA candidate, to cult status among Hindutva supporters in coastal Karnataka is etched in the mind of photojournalist Umesh Marpally. It happened on the evening of March 13, 2005, recalls Umesh, who was working for the Kannada daily Jaya Kirana at the time. He received a call tipping him off about Hindu-Muslim violence near the national highway in an area called Adi Udupi. He immediately rushed to the spot with his camera to discover a scene that went on to make national headlines and is considered one of the darkest chapters in the region’s history. Umesh saw two naked Muslim men cowering in fear in the middle of a mob of sloganeering Hindutva extremists.

The two Muslim men, father and son, Hajabba and Hasanabba, were cattle traders by profession. They had been stripped naked, badly assaulted, and then paraded through the streets by a mob led by activists of the Hindu Yuva Sene, a Hindutva group active in the twin coastal districts. Witnesses say the attackers could be heard saying, “Ninage danada vyapara bekaa? (Do you want to do cattle business?),” even as they beat them with clubs and iron rods. To complete the humiliation, the attackers wanted Umesh to click a photograph of the scene with the victims facing the camera. “I was disturbed by the sight, but I did as I was told,” recalls Umesh.

The photograph of the two men trying to cover their bodies as they were being beaten up was published on the front page of the evening edition of Jaya Kirana the following day. Even though it sparked a furious debate and prompted the police to belatedly file a case against the attackers, it fell apart in court after the prosecution lost the most clinching evidence – the negatives of the photograph clicked by Umesh.

2005 Adi Udupi case. Photograph by Umesh Marpally

The incident, however, became a turning point for one of the accused – Yashpal Suvarna – who was hand-picked by the BJP to contest in the municipal elections in Udupi soon after his acquittal in 2008. Fourteen years later, Yashpal, 43, who describes himself as a ‘gaurakshak’, was among the headlines once again as the face of the anti-hijab agitation. It propelled him as the lead contender for the Udupi BJP ticket ahead of veterans such as three-time MLA Raghupathi Bhat. The hijab agitations, in fact, helped the BJP return to its original formula of communal polarisation in Udupi.

Evidence backing this idea presented itself on the morning of April 20 during a roadshow held by the BJP in Udupi before Yashpal filed his nomination papers. Towering over the scores of BJP flags in the roadshow was a large saffron flag with the words ‘Jai Shree Ram’. The music system blared Hindutva pop songs to the tune of electronic beats.

Yashpal enjoys the loyal support of Hindutva groups in Udupi and reiterates his roots in the Sangh Parivar at every opportunity. But those close to him say that during his time as a student in Udupi, there was little to indicate that he would one day emerge as BJP’s Hindutva face in the region. The eldest among four siblings, Yashpal belongs to the fisher Mogaveera community. His father, the late Anand Puthran, was chairman of the Mahalakshmi Co-operative Bank in Udupi. Senior journalists in Udupi remember Anand Puthran as a socialist who was associated with the Janata Dal in the 1990s.

BJP roadshow in Udupi on April 20

When Yashpal graduated with a B Com degree from the Poornaprajna Evening College in 1997, communal discord was beginning to simmer in the well-educated, middle-class coastal Karnataka region. According to activist Phaniraj K, co-author of Komuvaadada Karala Mukhagalu (The Dark Faces of Communalism), a book on communalism in the state, the frequency of communal violence in the region rose sharply from 1998 when the biggest riots in the region since Independence broke out in Surathkal. He notes 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.

In this period, Yashpal, a youthful B Com graduate, worked at a shop managed by his father and as a debt recovery agent for a finance corporation based in Udupi. He joined the Hindu Yuva Sene, which was started in 1989 by Gunakar Shetty, a gangster who was later killed in broad daylight by a rival gangster.

In 2005, during the Adi Udupi case, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the BJP initially distanced themselves from the Yuva Sene, which was not considered to be a part of the Sangh even though their agendas were similar. In the first public meeting held by the group after the incident, there was no member of the BJP or Sangh Parivar present, according to the book Komuvaadada Karala Mukhagalu. “To an extent, even the Sangh Parivar was ashamed of the actions,” the book suggests. Yashpal, who was absconding in the immediate aftermath of the incident, was eventually arrested by the police.

But after the Karnataka Komu Souharda Vedike (Communal Harmony Forum), the state’s first major coalition against right-wing Hindutva, held a massive protest condemning the incident on March 19, 2005, Sangh Parivar groups and BJP leaders, including the then MLA Raghupathi Bhat, rallied around the accused in the case.

Yashpal Suvarna speaking at a rally in Udupi alongside senior BJP leaders

In spite of photographic evidence, the fast track court in Udupi which heard the case expressed doubt that the incident had actually taken place. The judge found it unfathomable that witnesses, media personnel, and the police did not provide assistance to the victims. “Any of those who were present there under the circumstances definitely would have extended all help and assistance. But it is difficult to comprehend that none of them went to their rescue or assistance,” reads the judgement in the case.

None of the witness accounts, neither the testimonies of the residents of Adi Udupi nor the accounts of media personnel present, were part of the prosecution’s arguments in court. Further, crucial evidence in the case like the negatives of the photograph clicked by Umesh were misplaced.

“There was a perception that in a decent, civilised place like Udupi, surely witnesses would have come to the rescue of the victims.None of the evidence was presented before the court,” says  activist Phaniraj K.

The accused offered no evidence of their own in the case and yet, the court decided to acquit everyone involved.

Following the acquittal, Yashpal was made the president of the BJP’s Yuva Morcha in Udupi city and was picked as the party’s candidate in the municipal elections. “Yashpal’s political career took off thanks to the Adi Udupi case. Hindutva groups in Udupi saw him as someone who was ready to go to jail to uphold their cause,” says a prominent Hindutva leader in Udupi.

Yashpal then set about building his political presence in the region. “He naturally became more careful of his image from this point,” the leader adds. In 2009, he was elected chairman of the Dakshina Kannada and Udupi District Co-operative Fish Marketing Federation. The chairman, acting as a mediator between fishermen and the government, wields power, particularly over the release of funds and subsidies for fishing. 

Yashpal is currently in his fourth consecutive term as the chairman of the federation. During his tenure, its turnover increased from Rs 46 crore to Rs 250 crore, according to the federation. “As chairman, he was constantly in touch with fishermen all along the coast. He was popular for introducing a banking department and advocating for diesel subsidies to be given to fishermen,” Yathish Baikampady, a former representative of the Mogaveera Vyavastapana Mandali, a traditional fishermen collective, says.

Yashpal Suvarna along with senior BJP leaders in Udupi.

Though his influence was growing well beyond his popularity among Hindutva groups in Udupi, he was denied a ticket by the BJP in the 2018 Assembly elections with the party choosing to field Raghupathi Bhat.

BJP insiders admit that Bhat, a Brahmin and three-time MLA, symbolises the party’s more inclusive approach in the region. But over the last five years, support for Bhat has slowly eroded, particularly among Sangh Parivar supporters. “Questions were raised about his character and Yashpal had emerged as an alternative,” says a Hindutva leader in Udupi. “If there was any issue for our boys when we are highlighting cases of cattle trading, love jihad, and conversion, Yashpal Suvarna was the first person to be called and he would put pressure on the department,” says the leader.

The contrast in the leadership styles of the two BJP leaders became particularly evident during the anti-hijab agitations in Karnataka, which began at a government college in Udupi located a few metres from Yashpal’s residence. Yashpal is the vice president of the College Development Committee (CDC) of the Udupi Government PU Girls’ College where the controversy began while Bhat is the president of the CDC in the same college.

When a group of Muslim girls were barred from the classroom in the last week of December 2021 for seeking to wear the hijab, an online meeting was called to discuss the issue on January 1, 2022. Parents and teachers who were present say it was in this meeting that the difference of opinion between the BJP leaders became strikingly apparent. “(Yashpal) was decidedly against our children wearing the hijab in the classroom and was in no mood for any kind of compromise,” recalls one parent. “Raghupathi Bhat was speaking about holding online classes for the Muslim students but it was Yashpal who aggressively took up the issue,” says Thingale Vikramarjuna Hegde, a former BJP district president in Udupi.

Yashpal Suvarna (extreme right) with Raghupathi Bhat (extreme left). Photograph via Twitter

Over the next few months, Yashpal emerged as a rallying point for Hindutva supporters in the region. He was present at the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial (MGM) College in Udupi when the biggest anti-hijab agitation was held with hundreds of saffron shawl wearing students opposing their hijab wearing classmates. He then termed the six students who moved the court over the hijab issue “anti-nationals” and “members of a terrorist organisation”.

Even though Bhat eventually began adopting an aggressive line, stating in an interview in February 2022 that he believed the hijab issue was an “international conspiracy to destroy India’s communal harmony”, Yashpal had “stepped out of Raghupathi Bhat’s shadow”, according to BJP leaders in Udupi.

During the roadshow held on April 20, Yashpal and Raghupathi Bhat were garlanded together in a photo-op moment to signify to the party’s voter base that the duo are working together. “I will continue the initiatives started by Raghupathi Bhat and help him realise his dreams for Udupi in the future,” Yashpal said during the event. But what of Yashpal’s dreams for Udupi? A Hindutva leader answers what might lie in store. “We will now hopefully have an MLA endorsing our fight against love jihad, conversion, and cattle trade. This is only the beginning,” he says.

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