The murder of an 18-year old youth from a fisherman’s family in the port town of Honnavar in Karnataka’s Uttara Kannada district has brought protests and communal tensions to the fore, and triggered a political face-off between the BJP and the Congress in the run up to the Assembly elections next year.
Uttara Kannada is a district that has remained relatively calm for 24 years. But the murder of 18-year-old Paresh Mesta, whose body was found on December 8, has changed this.
Karnataka has recorded 17 ‘communal deaths’ of both Hindus and Muslims since 2013, when the Congress government took over. Official data say 11 Hindus and 6 Muslims have died. “The majority of the cases are from the coastal districts and Chikkamagaluru, and very few from other areas,” said Home Minister Ramalinga Reddy.
After Paresh’s murder, the BJP claimed that he was one of its workers who was “tortured and killed” as retribution for his presence at a violent protest over a traffic accident involving two communities two days earlier.
Paresh’s father has said he did not belong to any party. Yet, BJP leaders, including Union Minister and local MP Ananth Kumar Hegde, persisted with their claim. Shobha Karandlaje, another party leader said, “Mesta was murdered by Jehadis in ISIS fashion.”
There have been a series of protests — some turning violent — and bandh calls in the region over the claim that the youth had been tortured. Sangh Parivar organisations issued bandh calls in Honnavar, Kumta and Sirsi in Uttara Kannada, and Sagar in neighbouring Shivamogga district.
The doctor who conducted the post-mortem on the youth denied the torture claims, but tensions continue to simmer.
Kamalar Mesta, Paresh’s father, said, “I believe my son was brutally tortured and killed. Police are covering up to say he drowned.” The State government handed over the case to the CBI. The murder has put Uttara Kannada on edge.
For example, on Thursday, when a teenager walking through a forest path to her school was allegedly attacked by two knife-wielding men, it triggered accusations of assault and murder. But the truth was that she had escaped with minor knife injuries.
Some 40 km away, in Honnavar, the incident was intensely discussed on social media based on the rumours blaming a minority community. The small town of 20,000 people soon came to a halt.
Uttara Kannada’s tensions mirror what happened in South Coastal Karnataka earlier this year. Two murders of members of both communities — Mohammed Ashraf, an SDPI activist and Sharath Madiwala, an RSS activist — shocked the south in July 2017. Stone pelting, assaults, politically-charged protest rallies and bandhs followed, and police imposed prohibitory orders for nearly two months.
Except Uttara Kannada, the remaining three districts have a strong presence of Popular Front of India (PFI) and its political arm, Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), which speak for the minority communities. A senior police official said coastal Karnataka had turned into a battleground for PFI-SDPI on the one side and Sangh Parivar on the other. However, both PFI and Sangh Parivar deny any role in the incidents.
The fallout in Uttara Kannada has been a polarisation of communities. The autorickshaw drivers union dominated by Mestas, a fishing community, launched an informal boycott of Muslims. “Union leaders have asked us not to take them,” said Satish, an auto driver. Lawyers in the small town refused to represent those arrested from the minority community. Nasrulla Siddhi Mohammed, from the local Rotary Club, said stone pelting incidents took place.
Even 8-km away in Kavalakki village, five families of the minority community rarely ventured out after the incident. “I have not had a single patient from the minority community,” says H.S. Anupama, a doctor in the village and a noted Kannada writer.
The Hindutva card
The last time Uttara Kannada experienced major violence was during the 1993 Babri Masjid riots, and even that was confined to Bhatkal town.
Vittal Bhandari, convenor of Chintana, an organization of writers of the district formed after the Bhatkal riots, says the resurgence of Hindutva coincides with Mr. Hegde being made a Union Minister. “He was made a Minister after Yogi Adityanath was made the Chief Minister. This is seen as a signal of reward for this brand of politics. Other leaders like Shobha Karandlaje, C.T. Ravi and Nalin Kumar Katil, have started making extremely disturbing statements after that,” he observed.
The divisive politics over Paresh Mesta’s death has intensified in the fishermen community which has had differences with the minority community over fishing trade.
The BJP is keen on regaining its influence in the region which was for long its bastion since 2004. Uttara Kannada, Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and the neighbouring Chikkamagaluru district which houses the Baba Budangiri hills has a total of 23 Assembly segments.
The Congress won 15 seats and BJP seven seats in the 1999 elections. But after the 2002 violence over a sufi shrine in Baba Budangiri hills, BJP’s tally shot up to 17 seats. In 2008, however, that dipped to 15, and by 2013, the party could win just five, as the region was swept by anti-incumbency. Now, the BJP is focussed on recovering lost ground in the 2018 elections.
S. Suresh Kumar, chairman of the BJP manifesto committee, said that the “partisan” attitude of the Congress government would be one of the main poll issues. “We will demand answers from Congress over the killings of our workers,” he said, adding that BJP will otherwise run a development-oriented campaign.
Ms. Shobha Karandlaje said 19 of the BJP’s workers have been killed. She draws comparisons with political murders in Kerala and blames Muslim organisations, PFI and SDPI, which the Congress government was “soft on.” ISIS is making inroads into the region, she claims. Police refute the claims.
Moreover, the list of 19 includes a few cases where workers have been killed for non-communal reasons as well.
Of the 11 Hindus killed in communal incidents, PFI activists have been arrested in two cases: the murders of RSS activists Rudresh in Bengaluru in October 2016 and Sharath Madiwala in Dakshina Kannada in July 2017. Many of the remaining cases remain unsolved. Ms. Karandlaje points out to the Cabinet decision by the State government that led to dropping of 175 cases against activists of PFI in 2015.
Over the past six months, the BJP has opposed the Tipu Jayanti, pressed its claim on the Hindu ownership of the Baba Budangiri shrine, and conducted Hanuma Jayanti celebrations. It has now taken the battle to Uttara Kannada.
Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has charted a different political strategy, relying on populist schemes, stitching up a coalition of OBCs with a promise to increase reservation to over 70% and trying to break the BJP’s influence in the powerful Lingayat community.