On Friday, a resto-bar was all set to launch in Mangaluru’s Valencia with a bang. As part of its opening, it offered “free shooters for the Ladies and discounts for the Gentlemen”. A big board outside loudly proclaimed that patrons should “fasten their seat belts” else they get swept away by the opening.
But wasn’t this the same city that saw women being assaulted for drinking inside a pub in 2009? Videos of the attack by the Sri Ram Sene, showing the girls being beaten up, kicked, dragged out by their hair – all in broad daylight – grabbed headlines.
Yet, despite the entire country watching the horrors unfolding on screen, the perpetrators were never convicted – witnesses failed to show up or turned hostile and the videos could not be produced in court as evidence.
Anyway, this new resto-bar is all set to join the league of restaurants and pubs mushrooming across the city, with names such as Liquid Lounge, Froth on Top, Spindrift, Retox Lounge, Onyx, Boiler Room.
So what does this reflect? Has the social value system in Mangaluru undergone a drastic shift? Are the threats from the vigilantes well and truly over? Is the district an emerging cosmopolitan, away from the state capital?
Well-known Human Rights activist Suresh Bhat Bakrabail has collected information on the number of vigilante attacks in Mangaluru between 2010 and 2017. There have been 275 incidents of communal vigilantism both by Muslim and Hindu groups in the coastal district.
While city cops release upbeat statements from time to time, claiming that vigilantism is on the decrease in the city, but there is data to prove it isn’t so. For instance, when Bajrang Dal State Coordinator Sharan Pumpwell declared that his outfit was opposed to New Year celebrations, the city police quietly tweaked the deadline from 1 am to 12 am for parties to wind up.
In his 2017 book, Shadow Armies: Fringe Organizations and Foot Soldiers of Hindutva, journalist Dhirendra K Jha talks about how the vigilante groups have created an ecosystem of fear in the Dakshina Kannada district.
And Sharan Pumpwell has turned this 'fear' into a business model. Through his Eshwari Manpower Solutions Limited, Sharan runs a brisk security service business for private establishments, including three of the four malls in the city – all of which house high-end restaurants, pubs and bars.
Sharan and his outfit are opposed to Valentine’s Day, which is often celebrated with pomp at these upscale cafés and bars. But Sharan has ruled out vigilantism on the part of his outfit.
"We oppose the celebration every year. But now are creating awareness drives, both for children and parents. We advise them not to get attracted to Western culture. But no, we won’t patrol the roads and restaurants, and take action against those celebrating the event," he said.
However, speaking to TNM, Democratic Youth Federation of India President Muneer Katipalla said that business interests ensure that these groups don’t act against the establishments and eateries. "During Valentine Day or New Year, there is a dry spell across the city. In comparison to Bengaluru, no one here is in a celebratory mood. This is because they fear assault by the vigilante groups," he says.
But Muneer says that the vigilante groups won’t dare to attack the high-end joints. "Only the rich, powerful and influential visit these pubs and bars. These fringe groups know well that if they disturb them, then these affluent people will retaliate against them for the rest of their lives and that it will affect their businesses as well. This is why vigilantes direct their attacks on the ordinary – poor people or students – who neither have means nor support to retaliate," he says.
According to Muneer, Sri Ram Sene is a good example of a 'burnout' group. To soak in the limelight, the little-known group had brazenly carried out the attack on Amnesia pub in 2009. For a few days the group also received support from locals. But their days were numbered.
According to prominent lawyer Asha Nayak, who defended Sri Ram Sene chief Pramod Muthalik and his men in the case, the victims allegedly came from influential backgrounds.
"While the victims did not go ahead with legal proceedings, their parents saw to it that the Sri Ram Sene was shamed, did not receive political support, funding and basically left the group high and dry. Even after repeated pleas, there were no takers for the apology from Muthalik himself. Besides generating a stray controversy, it is well known that neither Pramod Muthalik nor his group is either endorsed by any individual or an organisation," Muneer says.
Speaking after the verdict, Pramod Muthalik, once again apologising for the 2009 incident, claimed that the entire assault was a mistake on the part of the Sri Ram Sene.
"We apologise to the women who were attacked; hurting them was not our intention. We have made resolution that, henceforth, we will use only democratic means to communicate our intention and our messages," he said.
However, according to Mangaluru-based food blogger Laxmi Shenoy, there has been a sea change in attitudes since 2009. "Women do venture out without fearing harassment or dire consequences. There is the fear of being seen with someone from a different faith on the streets. But the pub culture in Mangaluru is here to stay. Its growth shows that women want to claim these spaces and assert their freedom. The reason is simple: Why should men have all the fun?” she asks.
This is not the only such incident that Dakshina Kannada has witnessed. In 2012, about 40 members of Hindu Jagrana Vedike gatecrashed a birthday celebration at a home stay in the city. The police had named 44 suspects in the chargesheet, including journalist Naveen Soorinje. The charges against the suspects are yet to be framed.
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