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Moral policing incidents rise in Karnataka as ruling BJP looks the other way

Spike in cases that are of a communal nature are known to occur in coastal Karnataka when elections approach and this trend has been seen in the past 30 years, say senior police officials

Written by Johnson T A | Bengaluru |
Updated: October 15, 2021 1:15:44 pm
Samhith Raj, one of the right-wing activists involved in a moral policing incident in Moodbidri in Mangalore on October 9, leaves the local police station after being released on bail. Local BJP MLA Umanath Kotian (seen in photo with back to camera) received the activists. (Twitter/INC Karnataka)

On October 9, right-wing activists waylaid a car near Moodbidri town in Mangaluru region and abused its driver and three women travelling with him. The men were allegedly up in arms over the fact that the car’s owner, who was a Muslim, and his wife were travelling with two Hindu women.

About an hour later, one of the Hindu women who was allegedly abused and assaulted by the vigilantes filed a complaint before the Moodbidri police in which the 40-year-old said four men stopped the car in which she was travelling with her friends. These men were later joined by nearly eight associates. “They abused us saying, are you the progeny of Muslims? Do Muslims belong to your caste? Why are you travelling with them? Can you not travel by bus?” the complaint said.

She stated that the vigilantes also abused the owner of the car and his wife. “We are members of an organisation and we will burn all of you,” the woman quoted the attackers as saying.

Based on the complaint, the police registered a case of unlawful assembly, rioting, promoting enmity between groups on grounds of religion, wrongful restraint, sexual harassment, assault of a woman, public mischief and criminal intimidation. They identified the three right-wing activists as Samhith Raj (36), Sandeep Poojary (34) and Chittaranjan. Eight to 10 others were also involved, they added.

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Samhith Raj and Sandeep Poojary were arrested the same day but obtained bail around 9.30 pm and were escorted out of the police station by Umanath Kotian, the BJP MLA from Moodbidri. “Their family came and requested me to help them. My duty is to ensure justice to people,” the MLA later told the media.

The next day, on social media, the Congress party in Karnataka questioned the presence of the MLA at the police station and said the BJP government in Karnataka is complicit in the rising number of such incidents in the state.

Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai, who was on a visit to the Mangaluru region on Wednesday, was asked about this allegation – specifically with regard to the October 9 Moodbidri incident – and he justified incidents of moral policing as mere reactions to social situations and not illegal vigilantism.

“Some youths need to ensure that the sentiments of their society are not hurt. This is a social issue and we need morality in society. We cannot live without morality,” Bommai said. “Peace and relationships are dependent on morality. When there is no morality there will be action and reaction. There is a responsibility on everyone and not just one section of society,” the chief minister said.

Incidentally, Bommai had taken a different stand on social media in the wake of another incident of moral policing in Bengaluru on September 17 when two Muslim vigilantes had beaten up a Hindu man for taking a Muslim woman colleague home after work. “My government deals with such incidents with an iron hand,” he had stated after police arrested the suspects within 24 hours.

Over the past few weeks, Karnataka has seen a spurt in reports of moral policing and communal crimes. While the majority of cases have been reported in the communally polarised Dakshina Kannada or Mangaluru region in coastal Karnataka, these incidents have occurred in other parts as well like Belagavi, Bagalkot and Mandya.

In Belagavi on October 8, the police arrested 10 persons – including an activist of the right-wing group Sri Rama Sene Hindustan – in connection with the murder of Arbaaz Mullah (24). The youth was allegedly killed on September 28 over his relationship with a Hindu girl. The girl’s parents have been accused of hiring members of the right-wing group for the murder.

On September 26, right wing vigilantes allegedly stopped six second-year MBBS students from Mangaluru at a checkpost near Surathkal when they were returning after an outing to Malpe beach. The activists went on to question the women in the group for being in the company of Muslims.

Exactly a month earlier, on August 26, six paramedical students from a Mangaluru medical college were allegedly held captive by a group of five right-wing activists while they were on a visit to Karinja Hill in Dakshina Kannada’s Bantwal.

At Puttur, in the same district, a woman from Bengaluru and her male friend were allegedly attacked on September 18 by a group of right-wing vigilantes for sitting with a Muslim man in a hotel. The woman had travelled to Puttur to get a car released from police custody and had sought the help of the two men who were her work associates.

Spikes in cases that are of a communal nature are known to occur in the coastal Karnataka region when elections are fast approaching and this trend has been seen in the past 30 years, say senior police officials. Right-wing Hindutva groups tend to resort to polarisation tactics to keep their vote bank intact, and tend to be emboldened if the BJP government is in power in the state, and if it is seen as being soft on vigilantism by right-wing groups, police sources said.

“In the Mangaluru region, communal incidents are known to peak when elections are close. Even if the police want to act sternly against people involved in these incidents, they are not given a free hand by the political party in power. Ultimately, the police report to the government of the day. Ideally, we should crack down but it is practically not possible,” a senior state police officer said.

According to police officials, the pendulum swings in favour of the right wing when the BJP is in power and in favour of Muslim groups and others when other parties are in power in Karnataka.

“These communal incidents are part of the power politics in the region. We are also aware of a sudden spurt in these incidents and we are concerned and frustrated,” the police officer said.

In the run up to 2018 state Assembly elections – when the Congress party was in power – the coastal Karnataka region was inflamed with communal passions with every second crime gaining communal connotations as the BJP made a push to polarise communities to win polls in the region.

In December 2017, when 18-year-old Paresh Mesta died mysteriously in the aftermath of a clash between Hindus and Muslims in Honnavar town over a disputed site, the propaganda on social media claimed that the youth was a Sangh Parivar worker who was tortured and killed by Muslims despite forensic evidence negating this theory and suggesting drowning as a possible cause. Union Home Minister Amit Shah travelled to Mesta’s home and ordered a CBI probe. The investigation has not revealed any foul play in the death.

Karnataka-Chief-Minister-B-S-Yediyurappa Karnataka Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa. (Express Photo)

“Police officials acting like puppets of the Congress and harassing our workers by adding their name to lists of rowdies and creating an atmosphere of fear should be ready for consequences once we come back to power,” the then BJP state president BS Yediyurappa had stated.

Sangh Parivar groups and its affiliates are known to appreciate BJP governments only if they are allowed a free hand to establish core agendas of the right wing – namely prevention of cow slaughter, inter-religious relationships, religious conversions and protection of Hindu culture.

During 2008 to 2013, when the BJP was in power in Karnataka for the first time, the initial years were marked by a series of communal incidents – an attack on churches in Mangaluru in 2008, an attack on women at a pub in 2009 and on a birthday party at a home-stay facility.

Hard core right-wing groups in Mangaluru, however, had a falling out with the BJP by the 2013 elections due to severe infighting, corruption and a crackdown on persons involved in moral policing incidents like the home-stay attack.

Bommai, who assumed office in July after the exit of Yediyurappa, is currently engaged in a tightrope balancing act to remain in favour with the various forces involved in keeping the BJP in power in Karnataka, including radical outfits, and has been seen as soft-pedalling vigilantism which is considered key to the BJP vote bank in communally polarised regions of the state – although there are fears of it now spreading to other parts as well.

“These acts of violence affect the dignity of the youth and instil fear in them. It condemns minorities and Dalits to lead the life of second-class citizens. It also conveys the message that women have no right in choosing their partners. It is an attack on all women, in fact. It also fills the minds of many youths among the majority community with hate,” stated a group of activists led by former Karnataka HC judge Justice HN Nagmohan Das on October 13. “By attacking those who love across boundaries of religion and caste, the vigilantes are attacking both democracy and fraternity,” the statement said.

“Innocent women are being targeted in the name of moral policing. The government is trying to protect anti-social elements instead of putting them behind bars,” said former Karnataka chief minister and Congress leader Siddaramaiah in a reaction to the BJP government’s soft stance on moral policing and communal incidents in Karnataka.

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