On Monday evening, the self-styled protectors of Karnataka’s rights over water from the Cauvery stopped buses attached to Infosys Ltd on an expressway in Bengaluru, offloaded the IT major’s employees and forced them to shout: “Cauvery belongs to Karnataka.” As the techies then set off on the long trek back home, lugging their laptop bags, the protesters called out: “Hey, you English, don’t forget to support us tomorrow.”
Bengaluru’s reputation as India’s IT hub often overshadows an underbelly of disenchantment among a section of the city’s residents who have migrated from poor agricultural homes in the rural areas of southern Karnataka to take up jobs as autorickshaw and car drivers, garment factory workers and security guards — some remain unemployed.
The bulk of the cadre of such groups that claim to stand for Kannada pride — like the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike or Jaya Karnataka, a socio-political outfit started by former underworld don Muthappa Rai — are made up of youths from this underbelly, who stay in the poorer parts of the city.
At some level, there is a lingering feeling among these groups and their cadre that local culture and issues — like the importance of Cauvery to south Karnataka or local icons like the late filmstar Rajkumar — are not well-appreciated by those who come from other parts of the country.
Since Monday, 78 vehicles were burnt and 44 damaged in attacks by mobs in Bengaluru over the water-sharing dispute with Tamil Nadu. Two people were killed in police action and 355 others arrested. Police are still sifting through the backgrounds of those involved to ascertain whether they belonged to existing outfits or were just members of mobs that gathered in a random manner.
But the profiles of youths who were killed, injured or arrested for Monday’s violence reveal that most are from the 20-30 age group and migrants from the rural hinterlands of Karnataka to Bengaluru.
Take the case of Umesh Kumar, who was killed in police firing last evening in north Bengaluru after he allegedly joined a mob trying to torch a police jeep. The 25-year-old was a resident of Hegganahalli, a low-income locality bordering the industrial area of Peenya, and a native of Singonahalli in the Kunigal taluk of Tumkur district, about 60 km from Bengaluru.
Umesh came to the city in search of a job after completing his Class X and was employed at a petrol bunk in JP Nagar in south Bengaluru. He was staying in the city with his younger brother Hanumantha, a garment-factory employee; his wife, who is pregnant, lives in Singonahalli with their 18-month-old daughter.
Umesh’s family owns 1.5 acres of land in the village but that has been lying idle since his father’s death due to a kidney disorder. Umesh and his brother were the breadwinners of the family. On Tuesday, Umesh’s mother-in-law, Ammayamma, claimed that he was shot when he ventured out to see what was happening on the street.
The second person who died in police action in Hegganahalli was M Kumar, 29, who delivered LPG cylinders for a local agency and worked at construction sites. Kumar fell from the third floor of a building while trying to flee a police lathi-charge on Monday night — he died on Tuesday.
Hailing from a poor family in Magadi, 50 km from Bengaluru, Kumar moved to Kempegowda Nagar in the city, where he lived with his wife, a garment-factory worker who is six months pregnant, and their two-year-old daughter. Kumar’s family claimed that he was not part of the violence and not linked to any organisation.
Then there’s Yogesh Gowda, a 24-year-old driver undergoing treatment at the government-run Victoria Hospital in Bengaluru for bullet injuries sustained during the police firing. At his side, inside the emergency ward, are his 21-year-old wife, a garment-factory employee, and an older sister.
Yogesh, who moved to Bengaluru two years ago, ferries goods around south India in a jeep owned by his employer. He has studied up to Class XII and hails from the Belur Cross region of Nagamangala in Mandya district, 80 km from Bengaluru. His mother lives in his village and works at other homes for a living.
”I was on leave on Monday and was near Hegganahalli when I saw the mob gather. I parked my bike and was standing by the side when a bullet hit me. Some activists from the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike were throwing stones where the firing happened but I was not part of them,’’ said Yogesh on Tuesday.
But he later came up with a different version, saying that he was shot as he tried to help the owner of a battery store remove his goods after the shop was set ablaze.
Yogesh’s friend Madhesh, 21, moved to Bengaluru two years ago from Madhugiri in Tumkur district, and works as a carpenter. “We were not part of any organisation involved in the violence. We went to see what the trouble was in Hegganahalli and were fired upon by police. We were in the crowd but did not do anything,’’ claimed Madhesh.
On Tuesday, police also revealed the identities of nine of 27 people arrested in Nandini Layout and Rajagopalanagar police limits for their alleged involvement in the attacks on vehicles and policemen. Praveen Kumar, Girish, Govindaraj, Tulasi Ram, Jagadeesh Achari, Shiva, Yashodhara and Raghu are all residents of Laggere and aged between 20-26 years. “All nine are employed with garment factories in the locality. They claimed that they did not belong to any organisation and that they carried out acts of violence on their own,” said a police officer.
Over the years, jingoistic pro-Karnataka organisations have been patronised by government entities who identify them as social organisations. State-run corporations, like the Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation, are known to have donated funds to outfits like the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike.
Karnataka Rakshana Vedike and Jaya Karnataka are also said to have been deployed by ruling parties in the state to mobilise crowds. In recent years, these groups have affiliated themselves with labour agitations as well.
In April, a protest by garment-factory workers — mostly women — over the new Provident Fund measures turned violent in Bengaluru with several buses being burnt after the agitation was allegedly hijacked by Jaya Karnataka members.
At the time, too, the state government claimed to have no knowledge about the affiliations of those who triggered and carried out the violence. “We were a little tolerant towards protesters earlier but they have misused our tolerance. We will deal strongly with trouble-makers now,’’ said Home Minister Parameshwara.