Barefoot Vigilante Hindutva groups and cultural policing — coastal Karnataka is a bitterly divided place today…

In the picturesque coastal regions of Karnataka, fear has become a dominant motif of everyday life. A full year has passed since the attack on women in a pub in Mangalore on January 24, 2009 briefly attracted national outrage. A range of self-styled vigilante groups, with tacit support of the police and state administration, continue to dominate social life in the region, as they peremptorily dictate and enforce what they regard to be permissible social conduct. They oppose, often with open violence, the meeting of young people of different religious identities. They combat women who drink, dance or enter beauty pageants, but are incensed also by the burqa and hijaab. They assault Christian places of worship, priests and nuns, to ‘save' the Hindu faith from conversions. Teams of young men ‘rescue' cows which are sold for slaughter.

Local newspapers regularly carry glowing reports of how the alert intervention of activists of these vigilante groups — which include the Sri Ram Sene, Bajrang Dal, Hindu Rashtra Sena, Hindu Jagaran Vedike — have succeeded in preventing young Muslim men from enticing and ‘trapping' Hindu girls. The propaganda is that Muslim boys are trained to wage a ‘love jihad', by luring Hindu girls into relationships of ‘love' and marriage, so as to convert them to Islam. More extravagant versions are that the Hindu women are later trafficked for sex work in the countries of the Gulf, or used for terrorist attacks.

Volunteers in key places

Across coastal Karnataka, these vigilante groups have recruited an impressive army of volunteers, which include bus conductors, waiters in way-side eateries and cinema ushers. If a Hindu girl meets with or talks to Muslim boy — in a cinema auditorium, tea stall or bus — the usher, waiter or bus conductor informs the nearest local unit of one of these Hindutva groups by his cell phone. Typically, even before the film ends, or the bill is paid in the restaurant, or the bus reaches its destination, activists arrive with sticks and rods. They thrash the Muslim young men, slap the women, and drag the couples to the nearest police station. The district head of the Bajrang Dal, Sudarshan Moodabidri, boasts that his boys ‘solved' over 200 such ‘cases' in just the last two months: “Sometimes it becomes necessary to use force. Fear of such action should deter such misadventures. Girls reform themselves once they are thrashed and humiliated in public, but boys are tougher to control.”

The police are usually supportive of their exertions, and they detain and beat up the Muslim men, and also call to the police station the parents of the Hindu girls. The police further humiliate and chastise the parents, and warn them to keep their girls ‘in check'. A 15-year-old girl sat next to the brother of a Muslim girlfriend whom she encountered by chance in a bus, and the boy was thrashed and her father summoned to the police station. The humiliated girl hung herself. The police registered a case of abetment of suicide against the Muslim boy.

Vigilantes prevent Hindu friends, both boys and girls, from going for a Ramzan lunch to the home of a Muslim friend. Mixed religious groups of young friends are attacked for going for picnics or films, organising parties in their homes, travelling collectively to college, or drinking juice or beer in each other's company. Both police and local news reports often refer darkly to the ‘crime' of these young people of ‘having fun' together. Matters are, of course, even far grimmer if any wish to marry across religious boundaries. The People's Union of Civil Liberties, Karnataka, in a report ‘Cultural Policing in Dakshina Kannada: Vigilante Attacks on Women and Minorities” has compiled tens of such reported incidents in just a single year. The authors, Ramdas Rao, Shakun Mohini, B.N. Usha and Arvind Narrain, warn against this frightening level of social surveillance and daily vigilantism, by which ‘everyday acts of living in a multi-religious society' are being ‘rigorously policed and ordered by vigilante Hindu groups'. The aim is ‘social apartheid where the various communities become self-enclosed structures with inter-community social interaction being actively discouraged'.

There are other butts of the ire of these vigilante groups as well. They oppose women drinking in public, and wearing what they regard as immodest clothing. They attack dance classes as well as beauty contests, on the grounds that young women wear ‘skimpy' attire. But they also oppose women wearing burqas to college.

Easy targets

Another potent source of hate attacks on Muslims is their trade in cows for slaughter. Most cattle traders in the region are Muslims, but the irony is that almost all the ageing cows that they purchase for the butcher's knife are from Hindus. They have to pay local Bajrang Dal activists, as well as the police, regular bribes to keep their traditional business going. But even these are not guaranteed to protect them. Nasir was buying old cows one night from Hindu farmers, when he was attacked with iron rods. The police was called, but they registered cases only against Nasir for ‘stealing and illegally transporting cattle'. This, he told me, had become the pattern of their now high-risk vocation. A father and son were brutally assaulted, stripped for several hours and paraded near Udupi by a mob for the same ‘crime'. The incident was watched by a large crowd, as if it was a circus.

Deep divide

Professional and educational organisations are also split on communal lines. As in Gujarat, it is today rare for a Hindu lawyer to accept the brief of a Muslim client in a criminal case. Reporters Sudipto Mandal of The Hindu and Naveen Soorinje of Karavali Aley, who bravely report ways by which hate and fear is fostered among minorities, were openly threatened with their lives in a press meet recently, for being ‘anti-Hindu'. A year earlier, Samvartha Sahil was similarly threatened. Most other newspapers are openly partisan, and routinely refer to minorities as people from the ‘other' community. Students demanded the dismissal of their professor for condemning the attack on women in the Mangalore pub, and the professor was served notice by the collage authorities for offending ‘religious' sentiments.

This climate of daily fear is further fanned by regular targeted ‘black-shirt' type attacks on minority individuals and places of worship. These have continued apace from 1997, with communal propaganda against the two principal minority faiths erupting in regular episodes of attacks and ransacking of their homes, livelihoods and shrines. They convert small disputes, such as over road accidents or sports contests, into communal clashes. I met Azween, an 18-year-old daily wage labourer in a hospital in Mangalore, his left eye destroyed. Returning from work, he watched a local cricket match. A skirmish over an umpire's decision erupted into ugly attacks with iron rods on all Muslim youth who were present, and Azween's eye was pierced with a trishul.

Matters deteriorated further since the BJP government came to power in 2006. The police refuse to take action against vigilante groups who beat up and insult young people with impunity in their mission of cultural policing. Instead, they assist and collaborate in their extra-legal criminal intimidation. Both the Chief Minister and Home Minister by implication also justify planned attacks on churches by referring to ‘the spontaneous anger' of the people against conversions.

I met in Mangalore heroes who resist and battle daily this social apartheid: journalists, teachers, students, engineers, businessmen, actors, writers. Extraordinary men and women, mostly from the majority Hindu faith, who accept daily persecution and harassment willingly as the price they must pay to hold their peoples, and their beliefs, together.

And yet I encountered in coastal Karnataka a society almost as bitterly divided as in Gujarat. Unlike in Gujarat, there is no carnage here. Only everyday living weighed low by the burdens of hate and fear.