Karnataka’s warriors against hate

From calling out bigoted media coverage, to changing historical narratives and increasing women’s participation in citizen movements, these are some of Karnataka’s unsung heroes.
KL Ashok, Vidya Dinker, KS Bhagwan
KL Ashok, Vidya Dinker, KS Bhagwan

“Cut off their legs if they try to ever set foot on the ground.” These were the words of a popular Kannada television anchor in a news segment about two young students who allegedly said ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ in a video. “When I first saw the news clip, I was shocked to see the language used. I felt there should be a systematic analysis of news coverage in the regional media since there was no conversation about hate speech and this is when many of us got together to analyse the coverage,” says Swathi Shivanand, an activist in Bengaluru.

A group of lawyers, activists and writers got together and their conversations and outrage gave shape to a movement. Hate Speech Beda – which translates to ‘We don’t want hate speech’ – was launched in April 2020. The group has since been consistently raising their voice against instances of bigotry and problematic coverage of communal issues in the Kannada news television ecosystem. “We trawled through hours of news footage and found many more jarring lines like this and decided this should be documented and highlighted,” Swathi says.

Hate Speech Beda is just one of the many people’s initiatives in the state to fight the hydra of hate from different angles. Led by citizens who want better, and who are passionate about changing the world, these initiatives are more often than not ignored by the ‘national’ media while similar efforts in Delhi and Mumbai are recognised better.

“More than recognition, we wanted to highlight the patterns we observed in the news coverage and the way it was inflammatory and hateful,” says Swathi.

We The Women, unafraid to stand up to communalism and patriarchy

On January 15 2020, a sea of people – mostly men – gathered at Adyar Kannur in Mangaluru for a massive protest against the CAA and NRC. The call for the protest was issued by We The People, a collective organising anti-CAA protests across India at the time. It was supported by Muslim organisations in Dakshina Kannada district and came almost a month after two people were killed in police firing during anti-CAA protests on December 19, 2019. But conspicuous by their absence were women – both on stage and in the crowd.

While the exclusion of women from the protest was not announced by the organisers, former Mangaluru (North) MLA Moiuddin Bawa faced sharp criticism when he suggested that women were not welcome to the protest due to safety concerns. “Some of us attended the event despite such statements,” says social activist Vidya Dinker. “We thought we must make this space for ourselves.”

We The Women holding a protest

This was the trigger for a new movement to be formed: We The Women. Over the next two months, Vidya and other concerned women in Mangaluru decided to come together, organise themselves through WhatsApp, and hold protests of their own.”I felt like a lot of women were concerned about the issues men were protesting about. We were wondering where this was headed for our children, and how it would impact us long-term,” she explains.

“In Mangaluru, it’s not common for women to be involved in social justice movements. We formed the group around the time of the anti-CAA protests when many people who had earlier not joined protests got together,” says Vidya.

The first protest by We The Women was held on January 30 this year. The group was denied permission to hold the protest, but despite this women got together to protest outside the Deputy Commissioner’s office at the heart of Mangaluru city. “After the events of December 19, 2019 (when the two protesters were killed in police firing), permissions were denied for protests in Mangaluru and the big protest on January 15 was held outside the city,” says Vidya.

But the denial of permission did little to stop the women from protesting. “We knew that officials were being very cautious about giving permissions but we wanted to convey a message of unity against violence as it was martyr’s day. We also wanted to highlight that the Constitution should be safeguarded, so our group formed a human chain outside the DC office,” Vidya recalls.

“There were Hindu, Muslim and Christian women who came together to protest issues. We had made it a point that the group should be inclusive of all religions,” says Vidya.

After their first protest, the group planned a day-long sit-in protest against the CAA and NRC but their plans were thwarted, with the police once again denying them permission to protest.

Like many anti-CAA anti-NRC protesters in the country, We The Women too was affected by the pandemic. They had planned a massive women-led protest in Mangaluru by inviting activists like Rana Ayyub and Swara Bhasker. “It was going to be a protest organised for and by women. We’d planned to allow interested men to join the protest but the lockdown scuppered our plans,” recalls Vidya.

The group remained in touch over WhatsApp throughout the lockdown period before they reconvened to hold events including one in honour of slain journalist Gauri Lankesh after the lockdown was lifted. “The divide is still there. How many people will speak up for issues of social justice and for the concerns of Muslims? Only some who’re politically inclined and even that number is diminishing,” says Vidya.

After the lockdown period ended, We The Women got together to hold protests following the rape and murder case in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh. The group plans to continue from where they left off and hold protests in the future over issues like ‘Love Jihad’ and offer an alternative women-led narrative for social justice movements in Mangaluru.

Hate Speech Beda

The anti-CAA anti-NRC movement in the country gave birth to several citizen movements. In March 2020, Bengaluru was one of many ground zeroes for protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). A flurry of sedition charges came amid tense anti-CAA and anti-NRC protests and a violent incident in Mangaluru on December 19, 2019 when police opened fire against a crowd of protesters killing two daily wage labourers. The incident came under intense scrutiny and in the aftermath of the firing, a curfew was imposed and mobile internet services were suspended in the city. It is one of few occasions when such drastic measures were taken to maintain law and order in southern India.

“The sequence of events was worrying and we as a group of concerned citizens decided to come together to highlight how prevalent hate speech had become in society now,” says Hate Speech Beda campaign’s Swathi Shivanand.

The campaign aims to recognise and highlight hate speech reported callously by regional newspapers and television channels while covering contentious incidents in the state. “We came together as a group of citizens concerned about the reportage on the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests. There were a series of incidents where young people like Amulya, Ardra and Nalini Balakumar were charged with sedition and the incidents were reported with opinion rather than with facts,” says Swathi.

The group began trawling through hours of media coverage and were startled to find that hate speech was widespread, individuals were defamed, speculation was published without verification and mob justice was encouraged over rigorous news reporting in the Kannada media.

In an exhaustive report titled ‘Wages of Hate: Journalism in Dark Times’, the group documented what they found and HR Ranganath’s tirade about cutting off the legs of students was among volumes of hate speech that promoted the idea that those accused were criminals even though the due process of law was yet to be completed. The group pointed out how the reportage framed protests, dissent and those accused of sedition as objects of hatred. It also pointed out the convenient framing of an ‘us vs them’ rhetoric, where anchors adopted a self-righteous attitude as guardians of the nation.

HR Ranganath’s programme on Public TV

Swathi says that one of the aims of the campaign was to use existing legal provisions to take action against hate speech. “In our first few meetings we wanted to focus on activating institutional bodies – News Broadcasters Federation Authority (NBFA) and Press Council of India (PCI) – and report instances of hate speech. We filed a number of complaints and have had few hearings connected to this. We’re yet to hear from them about what their orders are regarding the coverage,” adds Swathi.

Hate Speech Beda has picked out patterns that suggested that due process was disregarded in the reportage by the media. The group is also informing people about reporting hate speech and avenues available to file complaints on hate speech.

The group also highlighted the coverage of an illegal demolition of a migrant settlement in Bengaluru; the coverage of the coronavirus cases linked to the Tablighi Jamaat in New Delhi; and two incidents of communal violence – in Bengaluru’s Padarayanapura in April and DJ Halli in August.

“Kannada media has a lot of influence in forming public opinion and there was an anti-Muslim sentiment that pervaded its coverage on some incidents this year, like the demolition of the migrant settlement in Bellandur,” Swathi says. In this case, popular news channel Suvarna News reported the presence of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in the migrant settlement in Bellandur. The claim, which was later perpetuated by Mahadevapura’s BJP MLA Arvind Limbavali, led to police demolishing over 100 sheds in the settlement on January 19, 2020.

It was only months later in November that the Karnataka High Court found that the demolitions were unauthorised and that the residents of the settlement were from states like Assam, West Bengal, Tripura, Uttar Pradesh, and even from north Karnataka. The state government was directed by the court to pay compensation to the affected residents.

Komu Souharda Vedika

In 2012, 43-year-old Dalit man Chidananda* was assaulted near Chikkamagaluru’s Belavadi on his way back home from the fields where he worked 13 hours a day. The mob consisted mostly of upper caste youths, who berated him and his family for eating the meat of an ox that died in the neighbouring field. The meat provided Chidananda and his family eight meals over three days. Later that day, the mob also came to his house and assaulted his son, wife and sister-in-law. It took the family over a month to recuperate from the injuries they sustained.

“We knew the identity of those who attacked us but we lied to the police that we didn’t see their faces properly. This is what we’re used to doing because we’re scared that if the police act against our assaulters, we’ll then not be allowed to live in peace in the village. Later, a man named Ashoka and his colleagues met us and told us that they will stand by us not just in getting justice but also if we face any consequences later. My family then mustered the courage to tell the police what really happened,” Chidananda told TNM.

Over a week after this incident, there was a protest in Chikkamagaluru town demanding that the assailants be brought to book and also that those who sanction and support such attacks be held accountable. The protest was held by the Karnataka Komu Souharda Vedike (KKSV), or Karnataka Forum for Communal Harmony. For the last 21 years, this group has been trying hard to provide a voice for those who cannot, socially and economically, fight for themselves.

A rally by Komu Souharda Vedike
The group came together in 1999 with just 40 members when Baba Budangiri, a syncretic shrine visited by Hindus and Muslims, became a hotbed of communal politics and violence. The then VHP leader Pravin Togadia had said, “We will turn Baba Budangiri into another Ayodhya.”

“We were very unorganised at the time but despite that when we saw that in street corners, at barber shops people were speaking a language of hate, we realised we needed to fight the ‘us vs them’ conspiracy,” says Mahesha, one of the first to moot the idea of KKSV. Relentless work by activists advocating peace and harmony, many of whom are with KKSV, ensures that communal tensions are minimised.

KKSV slowly expanded to other regions, particularly Malnad which has seen more communal tension and clashes than any other part of Karnataka. When an atrocity towards the marginalised society is brought to their notice, they stage demonstrations. Their legal cell provides assistance as well, without charging any fees.

“I was being sexually harassed by a few upper caste men in my village and when I resisted, they started creating more trouble for me. They paid my husband money to not stand by me and after that he was drunk most of the days. I was fighting a lone battle. Someone told me about these social workers from Mysuru and after I got in touch with them, they helped me file a police case. They even helped me sustain myself financially till I could get back on my feet,” says Savithramma*, a Dalit woman who has now become an ambassador for KKSV.

In keeping with the digital era, KKSV is now using technology to reach more people. From social media platforms like Facebook where they post updates on their work to using WhatsApp to spread awareness as well as bust fake news that can spark communal hate, KKSV’s Convenor KL Ashoka says they hope to reach at least three times their current network in the next two years. He adds that they are also building an extensive network of grassroot reporters who work for hyper-local news organisations to ensure that they too become their ambassadors to battle hate and prejudice.

But Ashoka says even that is not enough. He says that it requires extensive research and studies to systematically take on divisive forces that want to maintain the status quo. And to that effect, KKSV has been working on tie-ups with experts from across the country and even in parts of Europe to put together a roadmap to attain their lofty goal of an equal society.

Mahisha Dasara: Battling the demons of prejudice

Even amidst the pandemic, the Mysuru Dasara procession celebrating the victory of Goddess Chamundeshwari over Mahishasura was allowed with restrictions. Another Dasara procession in the same city was not allowed citing COVID-19 restrictions. But its organisers say the real reason was something else. They say it is because the procession is antithetic to the set narrative that Mahishasura was a demon, because this one celebrates Mahishasura.

A few years ago, a group of people decided that they wanted to set the record straight. They felt that the man after whom their beloved city was named has been vilified long enough and decided to call out the prejudice. Mahisha Dasara was thus born.

They set out to achieve two objectives – to tell the tale of Mahishasura, and to address the hate that might have taken a different form but continues to plague certain sections of society even today. Hate that makes some people think they are superior to others and gives them the right to dictate how others should live.

Mahisha Dasara procession
KS Bhagwan was one of the first few to moot the idea of Mahisha Dasara. A writer and rationalist among other things, Bhagwan is no stranger to hate. For decades, his alternate perspectives on Hindu customs and mythology have earned him immense hostility from many and even several death threats. Police investigating the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh had allegedly found a hitlist, which had Bhagwan’s name right on top.

Speaking to TNM, Bhagwan explains the historical context of Mahisha Dasara. “Mahisha was the ruler of the Mahisha kingdom. The word means greatness. In Emperor Ashoka’s time, Mahisha allowed Buddhism to be preached in his kingdom. Those who were opposed to this also went on to demonise his followers and supporters, including Mahisha.”

Bhagwan adds, “This was done because he opposed the four varnas of the society. Because this not just divided the society into four parts but had declared all Shudras as slaves of Brahmins. History has been witness to how Buddhists who refused this system were slayed. The very word ‘asura’ originally meant someone who does not consume ‘sura’ (alcohol) but later it was misrepresented to mean demons.”

Applied to today’s context, the tale of Mahishasura is extrapolated to the atrocities that Dalits, minorities are facing in the hands of caste Hindus. They use this forum to also address the hate in our society against these communities. “In today’s context, we’re using this to wage a war not against anybody, but against hate. We just want equality in society,” Bhagwan explains.

People from remote villages around Mysuru, Mandya and Chamarajanagar have participated in Mahisha Dasara, speaking of the brutality they face every day. They recount how their choice of food, attire, customs and even livelihood is targeted. And in instances where they gather the courage to stand up, they are subjected to a host of punishments – from hefty fines to ostracisation. And most often the police too cannot help them, says Muni Swamy who has taken part in Mahisha Dasara for four years now. He now represents several such families in Charamarajnagar who are fighting a long, difficult battle to regain their dignity.

Challenges for Mahisha Dasara have been mounting too, from on ground opposition by right-wing organisations, to a slander campaign by many in power. “They tried stopping us by imposing Section 144 but we didn’t get discouraged. We used a small group of determined activists and with the help of technology, amplified our message in a way that they couldn’t stop us.”

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