On April 4, 2023, a 22-year-old Muslim youth in Karnataka was dragged out of a moving bus by a group of men and assaulted, all because he travelled with a Hindu woman. Shahil was travelling to Ujire after the woman alighted the bus at Belthangady, when a group of men allegedly linked to the Bajrang Dal intercepted the vehicle and assaulted him. A video of the incident was widely circulated on social media and four suspects were booked. The case is just one of the 20 instances of moral policing that took place in Dakshina Kannada and Udupi in 2023, as per a report curated by Suresh Bhat Bakrabail, member of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), Mangaluru.
According to the list, 84 instances of communal discord occurred in Karnataka’s coastal districts last year, with the major contributor being hate speech in 44 cases. Eight cases of cattle vigilantism, two allegations of forced religious conversion, and 10 other communal incidents were reported.
Among the hate speech cases is one by Pramod Muthalik, leader of Hindu extremist outfit Rashtriya Hindu Sena, directing Hindu men to “get 10 Muslim girls for losing one Hindu girl” in February. The speech came a month after the outfit’s offshoot Sri Ram Sene joined the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP)’s boycott of Muslim vendors during the Panchalingeshwara temple fair in Vittal town. They had also evicted a Muslim shop owner at the time.
A major share of the 44 speeches were made by Hindutva outfits, while three were by Muslim fundamentalists. In Udupi, an FIR was filed against a Muslim youth for an inflammatory comment on social media stating that an opportunity was lost to “finish off” the Hindu killer of a Muslim family. The accused, Hafeez Muhammed, was talking about the chance to lynch a Hindu man, Praveen Chogale, while being taken by the police for questioning. Praveen was arrested on charges of killing four people, including three women, allegedly after a failed romantic relationship. In Dakshina Kannada, 21 cases were registered against those posting and circulating communally sensitive messages on social media platforms.
Suresh has been compiling this data since 2010. As per the list, the most violent year was 2015 when Congress was in power. Up to 228 instances of communal violence took place in the state that year. This includes 35 instances of moral policing by Hindu vigilantes, 11 moral policing incidents by Muslim vigilantes, and 143 cases of other communal incidents such as desecration and attacks. In 2022, 174 cases were reported, closely followed by 173 in 2014.
The report also sheds light on the state impunity enjoyed by Hindutva leaders despite making objectionable comments. Sharan Pumpwell, joint secretary of VHP, had publicly stated that their activists were involved in the murder of Muhammed Fazil, which they did to avenge the death of Praveen Nettaru in Sullia. The report mentions how Pumpwell was seen inciting an audience to violence by recalling the 2002 Gujarat riots. He could be heard saying, “No Hindus sat in their homes. They came to the streets and entered every house. For the murder of 58 kar sevaks, how many succumbed in Gujarat? Almost 2,000 people were killed in Gujarat.”
Suresh Bhat, the PUCL member who prepared the report, told TNM that he started documenting such data mostly after the 2006 Surathkal riots. “A fact-finding team of the PUCL, which included me, visited the area at the time. That’s when I realised nobody is compiling data about communal incidents. Such incidents keep happening and the media is not neutral. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has been systematically polarising the population in Dakshina Kannada, and their efforts gathered momentum after the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992. The RSS shakhas drill hate into the minds of the people,” he said.
Suresh added that when he started, he depended on print media to collect information, but now relies on digital media as well. Every communal incident is important and I have included incidents irrespective of religion by following media reports,” he said.
Social activist Vidya Dinker said the ground for communal violence was laid in Dakshina Kannada and Udupi, way before the other parts of the state. “Hindutva as a project started before the pre-independence period and continued on. Instances of communal violence do not suddenly spring up. It might start as an argument between neighbours, many of which go unreported. The hatred is entrenched deep in the minds of the public, and statements by political leaders fuel it,” she said.
Arvind Narrain, Karnataka president of the PUCL, said there can be many reasons for incidents of communal violence, one of which is the failure of police to crackdown on vigilante elements. “There are fundamentalists and progressives in every religion. The problem arises when the state gives them patronage and allows them to do what they want,” he said.