How Karnataka’s civil society groups are taking on the Hindutva juggernaut

A diverse group of individuals and organisations are trying to instil the spirit of the Constitution in places where the social fabric has been rent by communal polarisation.
How Karnataka’s civil society groups are taking on the Hindutva juggernaut
Bahutva Karnataka
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Karnataka is witnessing an unprecedented political churn as the state goes to polls. Its people and institutions are more polarised than ever before due to the systematic efforts of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar which has had a presence in the state since the 1930s. After the BJP came to power in 2008 polarisation has only intensified, with the BJP’s 2018-23 tenure marked by the hijab controversy, calls for economic boycott of Muslims, and draconian laws on cow slaughter and religious conversions. 

It is in this political and social atmosphere that Karnataka’s ideologically diverse civil society groups and progressive movements have gone all out to contain the BJP politically with one common strategy: reminding people that they owe their civil liberties to the Constitution and vote to support it.

Communal undercurrent

The sheer range and spread of groups is mind-boggling. They include groups working to promote theatre, education, science and rationalism, communal harmony, migrant workers’ living conditions, women’s rights, Dalit’s rights, farmers’ rights, eradication of manual scavenging, and slum residents’ rights, among others. Some work with each other, others independently.

Although the Sangh’s strongholds are coastal Karnataka, Chikkamagalur and Shivamogga districts, the lack of communal violence does not mean an absence of Islamophobia elsewhere. Communal attacks against Hindus and Muslims have been reported from various parts of north Karnataka in the past year. 

In some slums of Bengaluru, it exists in subtle ways. “During Covid, our Muslim brothers helped a lot, distributing food and other things. But we noticed that many people did not take food from them,” says 47-year-old Jansi, a member of Slum Mahila Sanghatane, which has a presence in 40 slums in the city, all of which are at least 40 years old. 

This distance developed despite slum residents of all faiths having participated in anti-CAA protests in Freedom Park. “People watch the media and get scared,” she says. They are now tackling this fear during community meetings where everyone turns up to discuss civic issues. “We ask them what they think, and we discuss secularism. We talk to kids and young people more because they can be swayed easily,” Jansi says.

One way they’ve tried to create trust between social groups is by organising inter-faith dining events. This year during Iftar, local Hindu, Muslim and Christian religious leaders were invited to talk during the Iftar. A priest at a local temple talked about how he, a Brahmin, was the go-to person for parents of all communities when they wanted to get their children married. “From next year onwards, we will do this for Ugadi, Easter, Christmas and other festivals too. Otherwise, people will think this is only about Muslims,” Jansi says. 

Food is a uniting factor in the slums, Jansi says. “Political parties say ‘Don’t eat beef’. But all of us here — Hindus, Muslims and Christians — eat beef. Last year we had pork also. Muslims didn’t eat it, but there was no opposition from them.” 

In northern Bengaluru, the Tamate Centre for Rural Empowerment began working with about 6,000 migrant labourers in Ashwathpura when Covid broke out. Their focus is addressing the workers’ living conditions, and entitlements such as water supply through a community-based organisation. “But we live in society and we have to respond to what is happening around us. In the past four years the Sangh Parivar has been there, always in touch with people. On January 22 (Ayodhya temple inauguration) they went around putting up saffron flags everywhere,” says its founder Obalesh KB.

It took them about two years, but the community now trusts them, and considers their views. “What we tell people is this: ‘You have been Hindu for years. Rama and Sita are your gods, you’ve always been praying to them. What is new about it? You don’t have drinking water, you can’t send your children to school. Did Muslims cause it? If someone tells you this is a Hindu Rashtra, then you should get everything for free, shouldn’t you? Can you take your mother to Apollo Hospital and get her treated for free?’” Obalesh says. 

Dharwad-based Sadhana Women and Child Society headed by 51-year-old Isabella is also campaigning against the BJP, as part of Eddelu Karnataka. “The only way to counter the Sangh’s ideology is to establish the connection between the Constitution and people’s lives. We talk to upper caste people too. We talk about how we can achieve the society BR Ambedkar dreamed of.” In the wake of the communalisation of Neha Hiremath’s murder, she says they will talk to people about Ruksana, the women of Manipur, and how all women are targeted by men.

Read: Neha’s murder: A rising number of men in Karnataka are killing women they feel entitled to

The Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha which was started in 1980, still has a hold among farmers across the state, says its president Badagalpura Nagendra. “The PM has not kept its promises. They did not waive loans, nor did they implement the MSP formula prescribed by MS Swaminanthan. They passed the farm laws and called farmers Khalistanis. They did not double farmers’ incomes,” Nagendra said. 

“We’ve gone door-to-door across the state. The Constitution is important. We need this system. The authoritarianism we’ve seen in the last few years is not good for the country,” Nagendra says. 

Vinay Sreenivasa, a member of Bengaluru-based Bahutva Karnataka, says, initially the group had an issue-based approach. A month after it was formed, the hijab controversy broke out. Its members conducted campaigns and collaborated with activists in Udupi district and elsewhere to protest. Gradually, they also began to meet to discuss through initiatives such as the monthly art “Koota” (gathering) held in Cubbon Park, releasing bulletins and report cards. 

Read: Udupi turns into a carnival as hundreds attend walk for religious harmony

Anti-BJP, or pro-Congress?

While the messaging of these groups is clearly anti-BJP, is it pro-Congress? On this question, the groups have different approaches. Some groups urge people to vote for a party that respects Constitutional values. Others followed this line initially, but have begun to tell people to vote for the Congress. “What else can we do? After we say our bit, we’re faced with ‘Ok, so who do we vote for?’” says an activist in Bengaluru. 

In Kalaburagi district, advocate Ashwini Madankar, head of Prabhuddha Bharata Sangharsha Samiti which works with children’s education, volunteers as a part of Eddelu Karnataka. “There is a good impression about the guarantees here. But it is us who is going around telling people that they got those benefits because of the Congress. Even Congress workers aren’t doing as much as we are.” Even Isabella has a similar story to share about Dharwad. 

Different ideologies, same direction

Whatever limited effect their campaign has, the anti-BJP activists are well aware that it benefits the Congress electorally, even though they are not Congress supporters. 

“We have to choose. We know the Congress is filled with capitalists and casteist people. It’s the difference between cyanide and poison. The Congress will kill you slowly. BJP is cyanide, it will kill you instantly. With the Congress, we can fight back and bargain. The Congress is fighting for power. We are fighting to survive,” says Mavalli Shankar, head of Dalit Sangharsh Samiti (Ambedkarvada). Ahead of the previous general election too, the DSS(A) had announced that it would back the Congress. 

Manipal-based academic and activist K Phaniraj says that people associated with Eddelu Karnataka are ideologically diverse, but agree that communal polarisation needs to be tackled systematically. “This is a temporary coalition to give a strategic ideological framework for the Congress to work on. We’re not organically linked with it the way the BJP is with the RSS. We’re not here to reform the Congress. We’re doing this so that our movements to achieve social democracy can survive.”

Bengaluru-based political observer Shivsundar says that the idea of supporting the Congress to defeat the BJP electorally is “dangerous”. “Say tomorrow the INDIA alliance comes to power. You will then fight the Congress as the party in power and that will only make the BJP stronger. Unless you defeat the Modi in people’s heads, you cannot defeat him in the polls.” This can only be done through a sustained movement and not ahead of elections, he says.

Many progressive organisations extend mutual support to each other, but not all collaborations are acceptable to everyone.

A Bengaluru-based member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) who declined to be named, said that the party would not collaborate with Muslim fundamentalist organisations even if it was for the same goal. “You can’t fight one fundamentalist ideology with another.” 

Others hold the opinion that Muslim organisations are few and that it is important to reach out to everyone as long as they are not from the now banned Popular Front of India. 

Dalit groups are wary of some activists in the current campaign who are perceived to be on the extreme left. A member of one DSS faction who requested anonymity cautiously said, “The path of the Constitution that Ambedkar showed us is the only way to achieve our goals,” he said.

Un-making the communal majority

There is no way to measure whether campaigns to spread the spirit of the Constitution are effective, especially among privileged people. But that is not the only way to look at these campaigns, activists say. 

“When so much hate is being spread, it’s important that people know that there is a counter to that. Many people want to oppose fascism, but they don’t know how to organise. One of the things fascism does, as Hannah Arendt says, is to make people feel alone. We have to break that isolation, build bridges and make forums where people can get together,” says Vinay. 

On reaching out to people privileged by caste and class, who are more likely to be supportive of Hindutva, Vinay says, “We’re volunteers, we don’t have that kind of a strategy. But we do try. We did readings of the Preamble in upscale locations of Bengaluru such as MG Road, Church Street, and outside Jayanagar Metro Station.” 

Vinay says that many of Bahutva Karnataka’s members are savarna people, but maintains that it’s important to get people from different social identities together and that their campaigns have often managed to do so. “We have to get women, Dalits, Muslims, Christians, and middle class people to sit down in a room and talk to each other.”

The Kannada writer Devanooru Mahadeva once said that it’s easier to build “sanghatanegalu” (organisations) than it is to build “samudayagalu” (communities), Vinay says. “What we’re trying to do amounts to building communities.”

(This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project)

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