Sidelined by the Sangh, Karnataka's Billava community seeks political representation

Unfulfilled promises of political representation and a feeling of being taken for granted by the BJP are leading to a potential shift in the Billava allegiances in coastal Karnataka
Sidelined by the Sangh, Karnataka's Billava community seeks political representation
Sidelined by the Sangh, Karnataka's Billava community seeks political representation
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For decades, large sections of the Billavas have been loyal foot soldiers of the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) Hindutva ideology in Karnataka. However, a growing sense of disillusionment is brewing within the community – categorised under Other Backward Classes (OBC) – which appears to be realising that they may never be “Hindu enough” for the Sangh. The Billavas, traditionally into toddy-tapping, were once treated as untouchables. They were one of the earliest Shudhra communities to start siding with the Gaud Saraswat Brahmin-dominated BJP and the Sangh Parivar in coastal Karnataka to attain acceptance under a larger ‘Hindu’ identity. The Sangh may have adopted them into the ‘Hindu’ fold, but many Billavas have started feeling like the Sangh’s upper caste leaders have not quite forgotten their Shudhra caste location. Now, unfulfilled promises of political representation and a feeling of being taken for granted by the BJP are leading to a shift in the Billava allegiances. 

The simmering discontent within the community boiled over in July 2022 in the wake of the murder of BJP worker and Billava youth Praveen Nettaru in the Dakshina Kannada district. 

The BJP faced the community’s ire – possibly for the first time on this scale – with its own workers openly protesting and resigning in large numbers. But this discontent had been brewing not just among the Billavas but also with the Moghaveera fishing community since the years of violent communal riots which propelled the BJP to power for the first time in 2008. These two lowered caste communities provided the foot soldiers for the violent Hindutva campaign against Muslims and Christians on the coast. Moghaveeras and Billavas filled the Mangalore jail over several decades of violence. But when the party came to power, they figured nowhere in its leadership.

On July 26, 2022, years of pent-up anger exploded. The protesting Hindutva workers encircled and violently shook the car carrying then-state BJP chief Nalin Kumar Kateel, upset that a ‘Hindu’ government was not protecting Hindu activists because he was after all a lowered caste Billava. In a bid to pacify them ahead of the Assembly elections less than a year away, BJP CM Basavaraj Bommai cancelled the first anniversary celebrations of his government.

According to theories making the rounds, the dissatisfaction expressed by Billavas after Nettaru’s death may not have been entirely their own. Sources told TNM that a prominent Sangh leader in the region was keen to remove Nalin Kumar from his position as state BJP chief and that the unhappiness expressed by some party members was one way to achieve this goal. 

Tensions also flared up around the time when school textbooks for the 2022-23 academic year came out. A chapter on social reformer Narayana Guru had been dropped from the social sciences textbook and inserted in the optional Kannada textbook. The Billavas revere Narayana Guru. The reformer, hailing from the toddy-tapping Thiya community in neighbouring Kerala had removed the scourge of untouchability by radically reinterpreting the Hindu scriptures. Among those who led the objections to the government’s move to drop Narayana Guru’s reference from textbooks was the advocate and Notary Treasurer of the famous Billava temple, Padmaraj Ramaiah, who is now contesting on a Congress ticket, and Billava leader Satyajit Suratkal.

Since then, the BJP has been trying to win over the Billava community. One of the ways to woo Billava votes has been by reserving funds for Narayana Guru Mandiras in the Mangaluru City Corporation Budget for 2024-25. The city corporation led by the BJP reserved Rs 15,000 for each Narayana Guru Mandira in its jurisdiction in February this year. 

Satyajit Suratkal, a long-time hardcore Hindutva activist and influential leader of the Billava community, recently urged members of his community to support only Billava or Eediga candidates in the polls, regardless of the party fielding them, after his fallout with the BJP. Subsequently, the BJP decided to put up Billava leader Kota Srinivas Poojary from Udupi-Chikkamagaluru. The Congress in the meanwhile, has fielded two Billavas/Eedigas: Padmaraj from Dakshina Kannada district and Geetha Shivarajkumar from Shivamogga. 

Billavas are present in large numbers in the coastal belt and have emerged as a political force. Just ahead of the Assembly election, the previous BJP government created a Billava Development Corporation and opened four residential government schools, including three in the coastal belt, and named them after Narayana Guru before the last Assembly elections. They also named a government bus stand (at Puttur) after Koti and Chennaya, the two folk heroes revered by the community. 

The Lady Hill Circle in Mangaluru city was renamed after Narayana Guru, and a training school named after Koti and Chennaya was opened in the Udupi district to help those interested in joining the Army. Despite these measures, significant political representation has eluded Billavas. “That is how naive and dispensable we are to the party. Each time there is either an apology or a token gesture, the community goes back to supporting without raising any questions,” Satyajit told TNM. 

From toddy-tappers to Hindutva foot soldiers

"Billavas were treated almost like Dalits on the coast. Until the 1970s, they were subjected to severe discrimination including untouchability," said activist Phaniraj K, one of the founders of the Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum. Despite this history of oppression, the Billava community now provides both the numerical strength and the raw street power for the Hindutva project in coastal Karnataka.

The co-option of the Billavas into Hindutva has been the result of decades of strategic social, political, and cultural manoeuvring by the Sangh Parivar. Their involvement remains a significant factor in Hindutva's success in the region, with the Billavas now being indispensable Hindutva foot soldiers in the area.

In coastal Karnataka, Hindutva’s success hinges on the coalition of Brahmins (Saraswat Brahmins and others), Bunts, Billavas, and OBCs. While the Brahmins and Bunts have been the traditional supporters of Hindutva, the Billavas joined relatively later.

To understand the Billavas' history, we must look back to the colonial era when Christian missionary institutions like the Basel Mission provided them with education and a means of refuge. Following this, many Billavas converted to Protestantism because they desired a higher social status that the hierarchical caste system failed to provide. As a result, most of the Protestants in coastal Karnataka today were originally Billavas, according to Phaniraj.

In the early 1870s, the Basel Mission's work in the region led to a sudden increase in conversions of Billavas, Moghaveers (fishermen), Bunts, and individuals from other castes. This development is known as the "Tulu Movement in the History of Basel Mission in India." One of the main reasons for the conversions was the belief that the support of the missionaries would offer protection from landlords, leading to freedom from taxes, rents, and other obstacles.

Journalist Greeshma Kuthar in her How Coastal Karnataka Was Saffronised series wrote that the Billavas were the first from the lowered caste groups to pursue education in South Kanara and work as bureaucrats for the East India Company. The dominant Brahmins, who considered Billavas untouchable, had to share office spaces with them. In 1851, Brahmins filed a petition against the employment of Billavas as trainees in the East India Company, fearing that they would become the heads of the offices, and Brahmins would have to obey their orders. “Brahmins would be compelled to obey their orders, the orders of people that they could scarcely look at without being polluted,” the petition read. 

Later, the Brahmo Samaj arrived in Mangalore, and news of the large-scale conversion of Billavas to Christianity was reported. In 1869, a telegram was sent to Calcutta requesting a missionary from the Brahmo Samaj to come to Mangalore. However, as per reports from 1870, the Billavas, who were willing to join the Brahmo Samaj, were not spiritually inclined towards Christianity. Instead, they sought social recognition, individual liberty, and religious equality. They did not want to become Christians but desired to remain within the Hindu fold.

Meanwhile, a social reform movement led by Narayana Guru was brewing in Kerala and parts of South Kanara, as it was then known. Even though his movement was primarily focused on Kerala's Ezhava community, Guru's fight against caste discrimination and his message of social equality resonated with the Billavas, who also faced similar social challenges. 

The Billavas established their own temple –the Kudroli Gokarnanatheshwara Temple in Mangalore –which followed principles of inclusivity. Narayana Guru consecrated this temple in 1912. 

According to Phaniraj, if Narayana Guru's teachings and movement had grown in the early 1900s, it would have brought about significant changes. However, the influence of his ideologies eventually faded, and while several Billava Samaja and Narayana Guru Seva societies were formed, they did not flourish. Narayana Guru eventually became an icon for social upliftment and self-respect. 

“The missionaries were doing social work, and Narayana Guru's self-respect movement was gaining momentum. It was then that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) realised that if they did not take action, there would be no chance for them. Consequently, the RSS came to coastal Karnataka in the 1940s and has been working against social reform ever since,” Phaniraj pointed out.

Making of the ‘Hindu’ identity

Until the 1970s, the Billavas were tenants of dominant landowning castes, but the implementation of land reforms caused a significant social and economic change in the region. The Billavas, who were the beneficiaries of the land reform laws brought in by Devaraj Urs (a two-term Congress chief minister of Karnataka), are now with the BJP.

“The Communist leaders worked with the Billavas, as the majority of tenants belonged to the community. This was the first time the Billavas perceived the possibility of social and economic self-sufficiency. However, neither the Communists who gave them power nor the Congress that passed the legislation, harnessed their potential. Both assumed that their influence would remain among the Billavas,” elaborated Phaniraj. 

Muneer Katipalla, a member of the Karnataka (CPI[M]) state committee, explained that the Communists were unable to effectively utilise the benefits of the movement. As a result, Congress leaders such as Janardhan Poojary (Billava) and Veerappa Moily (OBC) emerged as influential figures. Poojary and Moily, who were lawyers, assisted the Billavas in obtaining land rights. Eventually, they went on to become Union ministers and Chief Ministers of Karnataka. “The Communists failed to give them an emotional connection. Due to this, landlord communities began to support alternate parties like the Janata Parivar. Meanwhile, the landless Billavas aligned with the Congress for some time,” Muneer said. 

However, the Billavas saw an ideological bankruptcy in the Congress, which was not able to project how land reform was their effort and that it was the Congress leadership that brought land reforms that majorly benefitted the Billavas. The Sangh recognised this gap and a stage was set for a new era of social engineering that would shape the politics of the region for decades.

Read: The lost ground: In Dakshina Kannada, fading out of the Left looks complete

‘Pawns in the BJP’s larger scheme’

The RSS brought the Billavas into the Hindu fold while maintaining the caste system. Phaniraj explains that the Sangh Parivar filled the void that neither the Congress nor the missionaries could. “They gave the Billavas a social identity as Hindus, but nowhere did they challenge the hierarchical caste system. Separate temples were built for Billavas,” he said. 

A significant number of people from Hindutva organisations such as the Vishva Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal, Hindu Jagran Vedike, Sri Ram Sene, and others belong to the Billava community. Initially, their involvement was limited to being foot soldiers of Hindutva, but over the past decade or so, they have been appointed to local leadership positions within these organisations. However, notably, there have been no Members of Parliament from the saffron party belonging to the Billava community. 

“Look at Satyajit Surathkal now. There is no other valiant Billava leader who has dedicated his life to Hindutva politics (like he has). He realises the Billava power now, but now you see how helpless he is,” said Phaniraj. 

Satyajit, once a prominent BJP leader who also worked with the RSS, has fallen out of favour within the party after unfulfilled promises of a suitable position. Despite assurances, he was denied a ticket during the 2018 Assembly elections. Although he initially considered independent candidacy, he eventually reconciled with the party. Similarly, in the current Lok Sabha elections, his aspirations were dashed as the party fielded Brijesh Chowta (Bunt) in the Dakshina Kannada constituency.

“This (Hindutva) has become our identity. My family spent their whole life fighting for the Hindutva cause. I have spent 37 years of my life fighting for this cause. I now realise that the community can progress only with representation,” he said. Satyajit and his brother joined the RSS in the 80s, introduced by his brother’s friends who belonged to the dominant Saraswat Brahmin community.  

Billava activist Sunil Bajilakeri said that the youth from his community are uneducated and have been indoctrinated with the ideology of Hindutva. “Why else would they fight for it and give their lives? During the hijab agitations, only Billava youth were seen agitating on the ground while the children of MLAs/MPs were nowhere to be seen. These politicians from the dominant caste rely on the Billavas to carry out their dirty work,” Sunil pointed out. 

Sunil was formerly associated with the Sangh Parivar. But he went on to become one of the BJP’s critics and is now a Congress worker. “In the years to come, there won’t be anyone from the marginalised communities in this (Hindutva) factory. I made sure my children got an education and stayed as far from this ideological politics. I am someone who helped build this ideology with hundreds of my brothers and sisters but it ends with us,” Sunil said. 

Sunil also added that despite a significant Billava population in coastal Karnataka, they have been sidelined in electoral politics. “This is why we urge our brothers and sisters to vote for the community regardless of the party fielding them,” he said.

For the past few years, the Billavas have openly expressed their disenchantment with the BJP's failure to give recognition to the community, a large number of whom have been killed defending the Hindutva cause. Referring to a prominent RSS leader, Sunil said, "Has Prabhakar Bhat ever faced imprisonment? His provocative speeches are known to influence youth from backward castes, causing them to end up in jail or worse, getting killed. Evara kaiyalli mic matra, talwar irodu namma bada makkala kaiyalli (They hold only a mic in their hands, while our poor children hold the sword.)” 

Phaniraj stressed that to breach the 'Hindu' identity among Billavas, it is necessary to have social and political consciousness. He highlighted the need to develop another powerful social identity and regroup against Hindutva. 

“This is challenging because the RSS has worked hard to establish a Hindu identity among the Billavas. To overcome this, there is a need to develop another powerful social identity and regroup against Hindutva. This is similar to the working class gaining consciousness against capitalists. We need to come to a realisation that our labour value gives us power and we will not support those in power who do not accept our claim in the state. But sadly, this is not happening,” he said. 

Satyajit said that he feels disheartened to be used as a pawn by the BJP. “For more than half of my life, I have seen myself as a Hindu first and then a Billava. But it’s disheartening to know that the BJP only sees me as a pawn. If I were from a dominant caste, I wouldn’t be treated like this even if I wasn’t given a ticket. While every other community in the state votes based on caste, why shouldn’t the Billavas do the same?” asked Satyajit.

Read: Brahmins vs Bajrangis: Caste trumps Hindutva in Naveen Soorinje’s latest book 

This story is part of our series called ‘Hindutva’s South Push’. Read our other stories here.

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