Parvathi Menon

The arrest of Kannada editor B.V. Seetharam has raised several questions

BANGALORE: The arrest of B.V. Seetharam, the 52-year-old editor of Mangalore-based Kannada eveninger Karavali Ale, on the grounds that his writings promoted religious hatred has raised several questions on the freedom of expression and the environment of intolerance that has emerged in Karnataka.

Mr. Seetharam was arrested on the night of March 3 from his home in Mangalore along with his wife, S. Rohini. The arrest was made on the basis of a complaint by K. Rajavarma Ballal, president of the State Bus Transport Owners' Association.

Based on the first information report (FIR), filed by the Mangalore police on March 3, Mr. Seetharam was arrested under Sections 153A (promoting enmity between different religions), 153 B (imputations prejudicial to national integration) and 295A (deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings) of the Indian Penal Code all non-bailable offences.

As he is a diabetic, he was first admitted to hospital and moved to jail after two days. He was refused bail twice, first on the night of his arrest and again on March 5 before the Second Judicial Magistrate's First Class Court. Produced again before the court on March 6, he was told his case would be heard on March 8. In the meanwhile, both he and his wife have commenced an indefinite fast. The Karavali Ale is a six-page colour daily. Priced at Rs. 2.50, it has a subscription of roughly 40,000 and a readership of around two lakh in the districts of Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Uttara Kannada in Karnataka and Kasaragod. It takes up populist issues ranging from corruption in high places to the unfairness of the hike in fares in private buses. It is firmly anti-communal, and even iconoclastic, lashing out at what it considers irrational in popular religious practice.

Sangh Parivar criticised

Mr. Seetharam's own columns set the tone of the paper. He has been highly critical of the politics of the Sangh Parivar, a powerful presence in the coastal districts. His office was recently broken into, and computers and files burnt. Although he filed a police complaint and wrote to the authorities, both at the Centre and the State about the incident, the culprits were never caught.

Recently, Mr. Seetharam wrote a recent series of columns on the religious traditions of the Jain Digambar monks, who practice nudity, and have a large following in coastal Karnataka. He criticised nudity as highly objectionable and violative of civil norms. The complaint on the basis of which the FIR was filed took objection to this series. The complainant stated that Mr. Seetharam in his articles belittled the religious practices of Jain monks, thus causing friction between Jains and non-Jains. It accused him of character assassination and blackmail of "respected persons."