In this series, we travel back to the turbulent 1990s to see what impact the Ram Janmabhoomi movement had on south India. We found that Karnataka was as enthusiastic then as it is now about militant Hindutva. But the other states in the region weren't entirely immune to the flames of hate.
The grand consecration of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya on January 22 stirs memories in Karnataka of a turbulent, blood-soaked period. The state witnessed some of the worst communal violence in the years leading up to the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. Revisiting that period is useful to understand why this is the only state in southern India where Hindutva rhetoric resonates like a gong, uniting diverse sects, castes, and linguistic regions under one ideological umbrella.
The movement, which today has thousands of foot soldiers in Karnataka, began in the coastal district of Udupi with a two-day Dharma Sansad between October 31 and November 1, 1985. Over a thousand Hindutva ideologues gathered for the event that featured prominent religious heads from different parts of the country.
The Dharma Sansad ended with a resolution to build a Ram temple at Ayodhya in place of the Babri mosque. It was also unanimously decided that the seer of Udupi Pejawara Math, Vishveshwara Theertha Swami, a disciple of the second RSS chief, MS Golwalkar, would be one of the trustees of the newly formed Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust (SRJTKT). The trust survives to this day. It has been entrusted by the Union government to manage the temple at Ayodhya and organise the gala event planned for its inauguration later this month.
Vishveshwara Theertha, who conducted the first pooja at the site after the demolition of the mosque, has since passed on, but his legacy continues to shape Hindutva politics in the state. In fact, his disciple Vishwaprasanna Theertha, the present head of the Pejawara Math, is also one of the trustees of the SRJTKT.
The late pontiff’s soft-spoken demeanour belied the fervour with which he championed the cause of the Ram Janmabhoomi as the southern face of the national movement. Those were the days before social media when provocative pamphlets and songs fanned the flames of the movement across Karnataka. The ground was already buzzing by the time LK Advani's Rath Yatra entered the state in 1990. D Ramachandra (92), a kar sevak from Channapatna, remembers the euphoria, the chanting crowds, the collective breath held as Advani stood atop the chariot, leading them “not to war, but to a holy quest”.
Just as it did in other parts of the country, Advani’s yatra left a trail of blood in Karnataka in October 1990. After Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, Karnataka earned the dubious distinction of being the third most badly hit state by communal violence as a direct fallout of the Rath Yatra that year. In south India, there was no parallel to the violence witnessed in Karnataka.
There was major rioting In four cities – Kolar, Davanagere, Ramanagara, and Channapatna – and the police responded with a shoot-to-kill spree. The sectarian clashes and police firing left 88 people dead by the time the Yatra exited the state.
Since then the communal situation in the state has been fragile.
The riots and the police response put the then Congress chief minister Veerendra Patil in a precarious political position, even as his health deteriorated sharply. On one side, progressive groups lampooned him for allowing the Rath Yatra to enter the state. On the other side, Hindutva ideologues were baying for his blood over his handling of the police.
Rajiv Gandhi, who was then the Congress chief, took a unilateral decision to sack Patil without consulting the ailing Lingayat leader. The incident created a tectonic shift in Karnataka politics and marked the beginning of the Lingayat community’s exodus from the Congress towards the BJP. Over the next few decades, the Lingayats consolidated behind a leader who was virtually unknown at the time — B S Yediyurappa. In 2007, he formed the first BJP government in south India and went on to become CM four times.
The flames of 1990 had only just abated when the fateful day arrived. News crackled through radios on December 6, 1992 that the Babri Masjid had been reduced to rubble. Civil society let out a garbled scream of disbelief amidst the joyous chants of the Hindu right.
In Karnataka, the tremors reached every corner. Bengaluru, Mysuru, Gulbarga — cities erupted in violence again, the air was thick with smoke, teargas, and fear. The post-demolition riots claimed 78 lives; 33 of them were due to police shootings.
BJP leader Satyajit Suratkal, who was an RSS activist in those days, recalls his journey to Ayodhya. Satyajit (22 then), and many others travelled by train to Delhi and then by buses to Ayodhya. “In 1992, there weren't any obstacles. The then Uttar Pradesh CM Kalyan Singh had assured that no trouble would befall the kar sevaks. There would be no arrests, the police had been asked not to stop us,” he said.
Satyajit was entrusted with the job of standing guard near the Babri Masjid's compound wall on December 6, 1992. "A dome had fallen," he said, "By 4 pm, all three domes lay in rubble." The morning after the demolition, around 6 am, the Pejawara seer took centre stage. Inside a temporary tent constructed by kar sevaks, he consecrated the Ram statue said to be discovered within the Babri Masjid. “He was the one to perform the first pooja to the Ram statue,” Satyajit said.
Meanwhile in Karnataka, the situation on the ground continued to deteriorate. The Congress government sought assistance from neighbouring Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh police, issuing shoot-at-sight orders. A report by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and another in Deccan Herald said that then Director General of Police SNS Murthy and chief minister Veerappa Moily congratulated each other on what they claimed was a swift resolution to the riots, even as Karnataka was still dealing with the emotional aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition in Ayodhya. The then Chief Minister, Veerappa Moily, attributed the violence to the "spontaneous fury of the people in the wake of the Ayodhya incidents".
While the Congress administration was in a self-congratulatory mood, the ground under them was shifting. The police action and the death of several Hindutva activists only served to create a martyrdom narrative for the Sangh Parivar.
Activist Phaniraj K, one of the founders of the Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum, said, "The Congress underestimated the Sangh Parivar. Post Nehru, none of the Congress leaders understood the ideology of RSS. They couldn’t even differentiate between Hinduism and Hindutva. For them, RSS was a cultural organisation and what happened after the Babri Masjid demolition in Karnataka was just a ‘law and order’ issue."
The Sangh, meanwhile, consolidated itself in coastal Karnataka with the Ram Mandir as their rallying cry. The region became a simmering pot of communal tensions, a feature that defines it to this day. “Stormtrooper groups like Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal emerged strong in Karnataka only after Babri Masjid demolition and the police action that followed,” Phaniraj added.
Noted political commentator and activist Shivsundar stresses that the Sangh Parivar capitalised on the mosque's demolition for a decade and worked to create a rift between Hindus and Muslims. “Karnataka initially wasn't a focal point for the Sangh Parivar, but post-1990s, the Sangh gained momentum in south Karnataka, particularly after attaching itself to the Ram Mandir issue. Coastal Karnataka played a prominent role in communalism from the early days.”
Shivsundar underscored the Congress party's predicament during the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and said that except in Bihar, the Congress did not take a firm stand to stop the Yatra. On 23 October 1990, the then Prime Minister VP Singh (National Front coalition) authorised Lalu Prasad Yadav, then Chief Minister of Bihar, to arrest Advani as the Rath Yatra was about to enter Uttar Pradesh.
According to Shivsundar, the initial Congress policy viewed the Yatra as a religious movement, and it was only after the Babri Masjid's destruction that they reevaluated their position. Or did they?
Congress, accused of silencing Hindu voices, now scurries to join the celebration, announcing temple poojas. Minister Ramalinga Reddy recently announced that all Muzrai temples must conduct a special pooja on January 22. "The Congress never used Lord Ram’s name for political purposes, but the BJP has been doing it, trying to own him,” he said.
Shivasundar says, “While many discuss the takeover of institutions by communal forces, it's crucial to recognise that this influence was achieved through a meticulous grassroots approach. The capture of people’s minds preceded the capture of institutions. Institutions can work only if there’s a strong people’s mobilisation and that’s what secular forces should focus on in order to tackle communalism.”