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Explained: In Bengaluru violence, a small party and a wider political probe

Three persons died in police firing after mobs attacked the DJ Halli police station and the home of a Congress MLA, Akhanda Srinivasa Murthy.

Written by Johnson T A | Bengaluru |
Updated: August 26, 2020 8:29:48 am
Bengaluru violence, Bengaluru riots, Bengaluru Facebook post violence, Karnataka violence, Express Explained, Indian ExpressA special police force team ‘Garuda’ deployed at the site of violence (PTI Photo)

On August 11, a social media post by the nephew of a Congress MLA about the Prophet triggered violence in the eastern part of Bengaluru. Three persons died in police firing after mobs attacked the DJ Halli police station and the home of the Congress MLA, Akhanda Srinivasa Murthy. Initial investigations by Bengaluru police suggest a larger political conspiracy in the sequence of events despite the role of the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) at the surface level.

What is the SDPI and how wide is its influence?

The SDPI was founded in 2009. Its stated goal is “advancement and uniform development of all the citizenry including Muslims, Dalits, Backward Classes and Adivasis” and to “share power fairly among all the citizens”. Its main support base is in Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The radical outfit Popular Front of India (PFI) provides cadre for SDPI’s political activities.

In Karnataka, SDPI’s influence is mainly in regions with a large Muslim population in Dakshina Kannada, Mysuru and Bengaluru districts. Until 2013, it won seats in 21 civic constituencies; by 2018 it had won 121. Since 2013, it has been fielding candidates in Assembly and Parliament polls. In 2013, it finished second in Mysuru’s Narasimharaja Assembly seat and third In Bengaluru’s Sarvagnanagar and Pulkeshinagar, where the August 11 violence occurred and which has a nearly 49% Muslim vote base. In 2018, the SDPI withdrew its candidates from key seats in a sign of support for the Congress. In Narasimharaja it finished third with over 20% votes. In Parliament polls, the SDPI won only 1% votes in 2014 and over 3% in 2019.

How often have SDPI/PFI workers been linked to incidents of violence?

Their cadre have been accused in many incidents of murder and communal violence in these regions. Several members of the group have also been killed in counter-violence incidents involving members of right-wing groups, in Dakshina Kannada region in particular. Key cases include the murder of an RSS worker, R Rudresh, in Bengaluru in 2016; the president of PFI’s Bengaluru unit Asim Shariff is named an accused by the National Investigation Agency. Persons linked to SDPI are key accused in the 2019 attempt to murder Tanveer Sait, Congress MLA from Narasimharaja, allegedly to break his stranglehold.

Bengaluru violence, Bengaluru riots, Bengaluru Facebook post violence, Karnataka violence, Express Explained, Indian Express Three people were killed in police firing on August 11. (PTI Photo)

What is its role in the August 11 violence?

It was a delegation led by a local SDPI leader, Muzammil Pasha, an aspirant for a seat in the Bengaluru city council, that first approached DJ Halli police to lodge a complaint against the social media post by P Naveen Kumar, the MLA’s nephew. Large crowds gathered at the police station, pelted stones, and eventually set fire to or smashed vehicles. Ten SDPI men including Muzammil Pasha and Fairoze Pasha, a social media acquaintance of the arrested Naveen Kumar, are among over 300 persons arrested.

The SDPI has claimed it has been made a scapegoat in violence perpetrated by other political forces. “The SDPI vehemently condemns the violent incidents. Criminal intent of Naveen and negligence of the police are the real causes for the untoward incidents. It is clearly visible that the BJP has conspired in the violence keeping eye on the upcoming BBMP civic polls and Assembly elections,” SDPI state president Eliyas Mohammed Thumbe said. “Also, the conflict between the local MLA and a faction within his party might have added fuel to the situation.”

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Does the SDPI have links with mainstream political parties?

Since the SDPI vies for votes in the same demographic constituency as the Congress, it is seen as helping the BJP in communally polarised seats and regions with a strong Muslim presence. Ahead of the 2018 polls, the Congress is believed to have struck a deal with the SDPI to withdraw candidates from touch-and-go constituencies. Since the August 11 violence, there have been allegations and counter-allegations in the Congress and BJP as to who promotes the SDPI.

“The tacit understanding is now backfiring on Congress since they legitimised such organisations and the same organisations are making inroads into minority-dominated Congress strongholds,” alleged former Congress leader Roshan Baig, a seven-term MLA who is now in BJP.

Incidentally, when Baig was in the Congress, he was accused of being involved with the SDPI by BJP leaders like Shobha Karandlaje in the aftermath of the RSS worker’s murder in 2016. Congress leader Zameer Ahmed Khan, Bengaluru MLA, counter-alleged that it was Baig who facilitated the fielding of an SDPI candidate in a bypoll in Shivajinagar in 2019, after being denied a BJP ticket. “When Baig used to contest Shivajinagar constituency the SDPI never fielded a candidate in the region. When he did not contest the polls recently why did the SDPI enter the fray,’’ Khan said on social media.

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Bengaluru violence, Bengaluru riots, Bengaluru Facebook post violence, Karnataka violence, Express Explained, Indian Express Rapid Action Force (RAF) personnel carry out a flag march in the affected area in Bengaluru, Thursday, August 13, 2020. (PTI Photo: Shailendra Bhojak)

How have police investigations progressed?

Police investigations are looking at the violence from multiple angles: the instigation, the role of the SDPI/PFI, and local rivalries both within and outside mainstream parties. Also under probe are the role of politicians who have high stakes in the Bengaluru City Council, and the huge funds available in civic wards in the city that has been controlled for the last 10 years by MLA Murthy, earlier in JD(S) and now in Congress. Dozens have been arrested on the basis of their cell tower location in the vicinity of the violence. “We are hoping these people will lead us to the real instigators and planners of the violence,” a police officer said.

The probe suggests that although the SDPI was visible in the events leading to the violence, large groups of anti-social elements were mobilised by local politicians to scale up violence after the initial protests. The police have arrested Arun Raj, personal assistant and nephew of former Congress mayor of Bengaluru Sampath Raj, after finding evidence to suggest that his mobile phone was used to mobilise people to attack the home of MLA Murthy. Police are also looking at the roles of A R Zakir, a Congress councillor opposed to Murthy, and the husbands of two Muslim councillors. Kaleem Pasha, husband of councillor Irshad Begum, has been arrested. Fractures in the Congress along support lines for original Congressmen and entrants from JD(S) — who are allied to former CM Siddaramaiah — are also being probed.

State Congress president D K Shivakumar has accused the Bengaluru police of targeting Congressmen. Siddaramaiah has alleged that a faction within the BJP is using the violence to target BJP Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa. “BJP is clearly divided into 2 factions. One that is closer to RSS is trying to take advantage of the Kaval Byrasandra incident to topple BSY’s position,’’ Siddaramaiah said on social media last week.

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