One day in February 2021, a group of seven students from a private college in Mangaluru decided to escape the monotony of their classes by travelling to the Ermayi Falls, a local tourist spot in the foothills of the Western Ghats in Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka. But when they left the waterfalls at 4 pm to return to Mangaluru, they were stopped by five men who questioned them. The reason? The seven-member group had one Muslim man along with three other Hindu men and three Hindu women
According to the investigating police, the men who accosted them included a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member and activists of the Bajrang Dal, a pro-Hindutva organisation. Three men identified as Vinayachandra, a BJP member, Ajith and Bharat, affiliated to Bajrang Dal, then picked out the lone Muslim man and hit him on the head. They abused the students, particularly shaming the women for traveling with a Muslim man.
The men clicked a picture of the students, deliberately making the Muslim man sit in front of the three Hindu women, and then circulated messages on WhatsApp claiming that it was a case of âlove jihadâ â a conspiracy theory which originated in this region over 10 years ago that claims men from the Muslim community are marrying Hindu women and forcing them to convert to Islam or making them jihadis.
How do vigilantes find such groups to target? In this case, the activists, who are from the local area in Dhidupe in Dakshina Kannada, spotted the group when they were going to the waterfalls. They approached the person at the ticketing counter at the waterfalls to identify the students. The person at the counter also informed the police of the development.
âIn other cases, we have seen shopkeepers, bus conductors and auto drivers inform groups like the Bajrang Dal or Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) about the movement of interfaith groups or couples. The fact that couples or groups are hanging out is enough to raise the suspicion of people, including bystanders,â a senior police official in Mangaluru says.
The incident in Ermayi Falls is an example of the violence by vigilante groups in Mangaluru and Dakshina Kannada. Their targets are often mixed groups of men and women and Hindus and Muslims, regardless of whether they are at a pub, homestay, or a mall. Though it is largely the Hindu groups that indulge in such moral policing, there have been cases where Muslim groups have attacked couples.
And crucially, it is not just religious groups that are complicit in creating an atmosphere of fear in the coastal city. âI call it immoral policing and a lot of it is about control. It is not just the vigilante groups but it is even parents of young people and college teachers who are involved in this policing. People do not understand how wrong this is and tacitly support this kind of vigilantism thinking it is good to rein in young people,â says Vidya Dinker, a human rights activist based in Mangaluru.
After the incident in February this year, there were four more incidents of moral policing in Dakshina Kannada district in the next month, each one worse than the last.
In one of them, an interfaith trio that boarded a bus in Bantwal headed to Bengaluru on March 17, were stopped and harassed by a group of men, some of whom were affiliated to the Bajrang Dal.
In an incident on March 29, police in Moodabidri in Dakshina Kannada district prevented a group of right wing activists from harassing a man and woman from different religions who were traveling from Mangaluru to Mumbai in a private bus. Police officials said they were tipped off about the right wing groupâs plan and took the couple aside. After speaking to them and their parents, they were sent on their way.
The next day on March 30, a man and a woman traveling in a bus from Udupi to Surathkal, were stopped after the girl was spotted resting her head on the shoulders of the boy. â...This was observed by other passengers on the bus and they got down from the bus in Vidyadayini Circle. Upon information they were taken to the police station,â stated a message from Mangaluru Police Commissioner Shashi Kumar.
The police do not know who the informant is in this case but believe it is someone who was travelling in the same bus. âBajrang Dal members were ready and waiting to stop the bus in Surathkal and brought the couple to the police station saying this is a case of âLove Jihadâ. But they were just two close friends and when we spoke to the families, we found that the two families knew each other for years and grew up close by,â Chandrappa K, Police Inspector at Surathkal says.
In all three cases, the investigating police did not register cases against the pro-Hindutva groups who were harassing couples and friends. Mangaluru Police Commissioner Shashi Kumar said that no complaint was filed in the cases since the people involved were neither abused nor assaulted.
But that changed in an incident that occurred on April 1 in Mangaluru. A 23-year-old Muslim man, Aswid Anwar Mohammed, travelling with a Hindu woman was stabbed after Bajrang Dal and VHP activists stopped the duo at Pumpwell Circle in the city.
The man and the woman, who are friends and former classmates according to the police, boarded an overnight bus in Mangaluru bound for Bengaluru. But when they were stopped and questioned for travelling together, Aswid was stabbed in the commotion and later admitted to the ICU of a hospital in Mangaluru. A case was registered and four persons â Balachandra, Dhanush Bhandary, Anil Kumar and Jaya Prashanth â were arrested and charged with attempt to murder. Police are on the lookout for more people involved in the attack.
Bajrang Dal and VHP members were informed around 4.30 pm on the day Aswid booked tickets online to travel to Bengaluru but the source of the leak is unknown to the police. âTheir travel plans were leaked by someone known to them (victims). They were seen together for the last three years and the Bajrang Dal was tipped off about their travel plans,â investigating police tells TNM.
VHP divisional secretary Sharan Pumpwell confirmed that Bajrang Dal and VHP members tried to stop the duo from leaving the city together. âIt is true our men tried to stop them but we donât know who stabbed him. The state government has to think about why this is happening and bring a law to prevent 'love jihad',â Sharan Pumpwell says.
Police say that informants are often not affiliated to groups like VHP or Bajrang Dal but they keep in touch with members of these organisations. âWhen there is a suspicion that an interfaith couple is travelling together, the local Bajrang Dal leader is informed. The organisation is divided geographically by units and the information is passed on to the concerned unit. We have seen in cases that bus drivers, conductors, people selling items in tourist spots, shopkeepers in towns, tip off these groups about the movement of students and young people. Sometimes, these informants are not a part of such organisations,â says a police official in Mangaluru.
Another pattern common in these incidents are the celebratory messages shared by right-wing groups after their âinterventionâ. âContinued Operation of Bajrang Dal Today (Thursday 01/04 night) A Hindu young woman who was fleeing with a Muslim man was traveling from Mangaluru to Bengaluru. Bajrang Dal activists stopped the couple near Pumpwell,â reads a message widely shared on WhatsApp following the April 1 incident in Pumpwell Circle.
Similarly, messages were shared after the other incidents, often on WhatsApp as statuses, sometimes even on Facebook and Instagram, celebrating the acts of the right-wing groups. The messages also shame Hindu women seen with Muslim men.
In one case in Karkala in Udupi district in March, Bajrang Dal members clashed with Hindu Jagrana Vedike members after the latter claimed that they reported the presence of a minor boy and girl of different religions to the police. Although the police did not find any evidence of wrongdoing, the two groups took to WhatsApp to declare that their intervention helped separate an interfaith couple.
The term âLove Jihadâ has its origins in this region. Mangaluru was a part of the Madras presidency in the colonial period and with the reorganisation of states in 1956, Kasargod, which was part of this region, went to Kerala while the remaining parts - South Canara - joined the newly formed Mysore State. The regionâs links with north Kerala are intact even today and is one of the reasons for concepts like âLove Jihadâ spreading among the residents in this region.
The term was first used in an evening newspaper in Mangaluru in September 2009 in a report on incidents in northern Kerala which were linked to events in Dakshina Kannada. The term caught on quickly and less than a month after it first appeared in the public domain, mainstream newspapers in the state were using the term without checking the veracity of the accusations in detail. The Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS), another Hindutva organisation, fuelled the use of the term publishing press releases claiming women in Dakshina Kannada were being converted to Islam. A Karnataka High Court order which asked for a joint investigation by the Karnataka and Kerala police further legitimised the term but the Karnataka Criminal Investigation Department (CID) probe on this issue did not find specific instances of âlove jihadâ.
Though the police donât maintain records of each case of communal violence, an activist, Suresh Bhat Bakrabail, has recorded cases of communal incidents in Dakshina Kannada and Udupi going back over 10 years to 2010. So far in 2021, Suresh Bhat has recorded 51 communal incidents including 14 incidents of moral policing by Hindu vigilantes and 13 instances of hate speech . Since 2010, he has recorded 334 incidents of moral policing and 1298 communal incidents in the two districts.
His records reveal a pattern of bullying faced by young men and women in the district, often for no reason other than the fact that they are from different communities and that they are spotted together. âThe perpetrators of this violence are often men who do not have gainful employment and want to be in the limelight with these attacks. They often get away without facing consequences for their actions,â says the activist Vidya Dinker.
The absence of evidence of specific cases of âLove Jihadâ has done little to deter religious groups, mostly pro-Hindutva groups, in Dakshina Kannada as they have actively restricted the social space for students of different communities. In the district, incidents of moral policing by religious groups make national news every few months even though they occur more frequently, sometimes like in this year, within days of each other. Whether videos and photos are circulated or not, moral policing is common and the consequences are mostly paid by young interfaith couples and friends.