Tears well up in the eyes of Seenappa Poojary, a 57-year-old beedi-maker from Kulai village in coastal Karnataka, when he sees Mohammed Haneef. “Will I sacrifice someone who was like my right hand?’’ he asks Haneef. Poojary is referring to Haneef’s younger brother Ashraf Kalayi, a 35-year-old leader of the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), an offshoot of the radical Muslim outfit Popular Front of India (PFI), who was killed in broad daylight on June 21, allegedly by a group of Hindutva activists.
Kalayi, an autorickshaw driver, was also Poojary’s “right hand man” in a small-scale beedi manufacturing business at the village in Bantwal taluk of Dakshina Kannada district. And, given the communal polarisation in this region over the last 25 years, Poojary is disturbed by murmurs that he had a role to play in Kalayi’s killing.
This is their first meeting since the killing, and Haneef responds, “People will say such things. You should not be perturbed by it.’’
On the morning the SDPI leader was killed, Poojary, whose one leg was amputated years ago, was waiting in the autorickshaw for Kalayi to return after delivering a consignment of tobacco and leaves to a home-based beedi unit. Within minutes, Kalayi was chased and hacked to death by seven men, who have since been identified by police as belonging to the Bajrang Dal.
”It’s like the vessel in which I cooked has been snatched away,” says Poojary, who belongs to a backward caste. “Ashraf would go out of his way to help me. A few days before he died, he even managed to get a three-wheeled motorcycle allotted to me under a government scheme,’’ he says.
Police officers say investigations show that Kalayi was killed because he was emerging as a popular leader on account of his “social service” for all communities — the murder took place on the foundation day of SDPI. ”Ashraf used to think that nobody would harm him because he helped everyone,’’ says Imtiaz Ahmed, a member of SDPI’s Ammunje gram panchayat unit, which Kalayi headed.
The emergence of SDPI seven years ago in Dakshina Kannada has resulted in a number of young Muslims moving away from the Congress. The party is yet to win an assembly seat but has representation in gram panchayats across the district. “The emergence of SDPI has helped us counter Hindutva forces on their own terms. Earlier, we used to feel orphaned, now we have organised support,’’ says Ahmed.
Another strand of this polarisation lies 12 km away from Kulai village, on B C Road, where an RSS worker Sharath Madiwala was hacked to death on July 4 at Uday Laundry, a family-run business. The 28-year-old succumbed to his injuries three days later.
As Madiwala was attacked, Praveen Kumar, 38, who was in the general store next door, rushed out on hearing the sound of tyres screeching on the street. In the dim light, he says, he saw a man jumping onto a motorcycle with two others on board and speeding away. Inside the store, he saw Madiwala lying in a pool of blood. He called out for help.
Among the first to rush over was Abdul Ravoof, a fruit vendor whose store is located a few metres away. “We were trying to hail an autorickshaw to take Sharath to hospital. He seemed to be alive. There was nobody willing to come so we put him in a rickshaw I use for my business and took him to the Fr Muller hospital. His family wanted to move him to another hospital so I travelled in the ambulance to AJ Hospital with him. I stayed with him till 2 am,’’ says Ravoof.
”Sharath was a low-profile RSS worker whose work did not extend outside the Sangh. His murder seems to be an act of communal revenge,’’ says a veteran Hindutva activist in the region.
”Is it wrong to be a part of the RSS? He is gone now. We conducted his last rites. There is no point in talking about him,’’ says Sharath’s father Thaniyappa Madiwala, also an RSS member.
Police investigations in the Madiwala case are yet to show results but senior officers say that it was a “communal murder” carried out in retaliation for Kalayi’s killing. “The murder bears the modus operandi involved in the killing of several Hindutva leaders in recent times by hit teams,’’ says an officer.
An NIA investigation into the murder of an RSS worker Rudresh in Bengaluru last November had revealed that leaders of PFI had allegedly organised the killing.
In Bantwal, the two murders, within a span of 20 days, has stirred a political storm, with assembly elections in Karnataka barely eight months away. Bantwal constituency has the highest Muslim population among the 13 in Mangalore’s coastal belt — as much as 35 per cent of the nearly 3 lakh population.
The district in-charge minister B Ramanath Rai of the Congress has won the seat since 1985, barring a loss in 2004. But the emergence of SDPI has created a new dynamic. “I oppose all radical elements, Hindu or Muslim. All that is happening now is because assembly elections are round the corner,’’ says Rai, Forest and Environment Minister in the Congress government.
For the RSS, one of the key players in the region is local chieftain Prabhakar Bhat Kalladka, 65, who is known for his provocative speeches. Once a dominant force in state politics, Kalladka was at his peak when the BJP was in power between 2008 and 2013. But his standing fell after the party won only three seats in the coastal belt in 2013, in the wake of alleged corruption, infighting and communal disturbances.
”He is still a power centre in Mangalore and calls the shots here,’’ says a police officer who has worked in the Bantwal region for over six years.
”Prabhakar Bhat has allied with (BJP state chief) B S Yeddyurappa… the BJP wants to take advantage of the anger over these murders. At present, all the Sangh groups are not working together in the region. But if the Congress government is seen as taking unfair action against Hindutva leaders, Hindu groups will unite and this will help BJP,’’ says a veteran leader in Bantwal of a prominent Sangh group.
Responding to allegations that he was fomenting communal trouble, Kalladka says, “All communities are living peacefully here. Local minister Rai is supporting minority groups, this is the problem.’’
Meanwhile, the situation on the ground is tense. Since Madiwala’s death, Sangh groups have staged several protests, although Bantwal and several neighbouring regions have been under prohibitory orders. BJP MPs such as Union Minister D V Sadananda Gowda and Shobha Karandlaje — both close associates of Yeddyurappa — have been drafted to lead more protests in the region.
”Over the last one-and-a-half months, the atmosphere in Dakshina Kannada has been spoilt by the arrogance and the adamant attitude of the ruling Congress party. All this violence is because assembly polls are approaching,’’ Gowda said in Mangalore this week.
Back in Kulai village, Kalayi’s friend Ahmed says, “Very often, police are satisfied with the arrest of five or six persons who may be directly linked to a communal murder. They never attempt to get to the root of the conspiracy and where the orders come from. This has fostered communal violence.”
Says Ravoof, the fruit vendor who rushed to help Madiwala, “I have been running my business next to Sharath’s laundry for over 20 years. There were no differences between us. Ordinary people go about their lives but outsiders are disturbing the peace.’’