Outside Tagore Park on Mangalore’s Lighthouse Hill, students from the co-education St Aloysius College heading for the City Centre Mall are a common sight. The groups are almost always exclusively boys or exclusively girls.
A boy and a girl, walking out of the mall together, attract the attention of others. The boy waves to a friend, then quickly looks around nervously. Two days earlier, a group of boys and girls in the same mall had been confronted by a mob. The students were lucky. The mob of Muslim boys only asked each student’s religion before letting them go, though the Muslim girls were lectured against being in a mixed group.
On the evening of September 26, the Mangalore police, acting allegedly at the behest of the Bajrang Dal, broke up another such “mixed group”. They entered a hotel, broke up a private party, and reportedly forced the women to leave. Police said they acted because the organisers did not have an alcohol licence, and that the women weren’t targeted. However, the Bajrang Dal’s Mangalore-based state president Sharan Pumpwell later claimed his men were with police during the raid. Women “dancing in front of unknown men is against Indian culture”, he said.
Earlier this year, in another part of Mangalore, a right-wing mob forced a trip to the Karnataka Assembly by students of a government college in Mudipu to be aborted. “It was an educational tour. Just as our bus left around 9.15 pm from our college, it was stopped by a group that alleged that Hindu girls were going with Muslim boys,” says Mohammed Asif, who was part of the tour.
There were no Muslim girls, Asif adds, because their parents had not given them permission for the trip. “We had not noticed the mix of students” until “the Bajrang Dal” pointed it out, says another student.
Every year, Mangalore’s many colleges and institutes attract over one lakh students, who now live in dread. The danger of the moral police is clear and present.
Still, what happened a month ago was the worst in a long line of moral policing incidents. On August 24, 27-year-old Shakir Ahmed was dragged out of his SUV, stripped, tied to a pole and beaten up by a Hindu mob, for talking to a Hindu girl.
“If police had not arrived on time, the mob would have killed Shakir,” says his father G Mohiddin.
There have been claims, counter-claims since — that Shakir was harassing the 24-year-old girl and a mob came to her rescue, or that the Hindu girl trapped Shakir. But their mobile call records and text messages show they were “in a relationship”, say police.
As many as 15 Hindu youths have been arrested since. In the course of a bail hearing last month, the state public prosecutor argued that Shakir and the girl, who had only recently moved to Mangalore from Hassan, were in a “consensual relationship”.
Shakir and the girl worked together at the EasyDay Hypermarket store in the business district of Attavar. Mangalore has three such hypermarkets, offering employment to youth from lower and middle-income families. But Shakir was different. He belonged to a wealthy Muslim family of Mangalore, with his father a top builder and contractor.
Shakir, Mohiddin says, “wanted to be his own man”. He joined the store as an associate, and quickly became a team leader. Recently, Shakir had bought an SUV. He was with the girl in the SUV when a mob assaulted him, not far from the EasyDay store.
According to Shakir’s family, the girl was “forced” to file a police complaint against him and address a press conference the next day at Pumpwell’s office. “They threatened to cut her off from her family,” says Mohiddin.
Both Shakir and the girl have not returned to work since the incident.
Employees at the EasyDay store are too scared to talk about the two. “Some say they were in a relationship. She was in back-office operations. He was in management. There was little scope for them to interact,” says a management executive.
Shakir is out of hospital but still to recover from “the mental trauma”, says his elder brother Umar Ansar. The family has sent him to Kerala. “His back and legs still hurt. We have not shown him the video of the incident (recorded by onlookers) to save him further pain,” Ansar says.
He also believes that the attack on Shakir may have been prompted by the fact that “he was doing better than others at the store”.
Shakir’s family points out that they are the only Muslims among the 150 families in Kollur, located in Mangalore’s suburbs, and had “never felt any communal divide”.
But that is changing, regrets Mohiddin. “Our generation grew up without differentiating between communities. Things have been allowed to slip.” He adds, “When somebody requires blood, they do not differentiate between Hindu, Muslim or Christian blood, between a beef-eater, pork-eater or a vegetarian. They don’t worry about the religion of their doctor. But a boy from this community must not talk to a girl from that community. What nonsense!”
While he is happy with police action in Shakir’s case, Mohiddin fears that may not be enough. One of these days if police are slack, he says, “the communal cauldron in Mangalore will explode”.
Located adjacent to a large drain running through Attavar, and not far from the store where Shakir and the girl worked, is Jain Compound — a huddle of small, crumbling houses occupied by families living off hand-to-mouth incomes. It is here that three of the 15 arrested for the assault on Shakir live.
One of them is a 24-year-old local Bajrang Dal leader, Santhosh Poojjari. Identified from the videos as the person leading the attack on Shakir, Poojjari lives in a rented room in Jain Compound. Belonging to the backward Billava community and originally from Karkala town, near Mangalore, he is reported to have dropped out of school at the age of 15 and moved here. In the city, he did odd jobs.
“He used to run a petty shop selling tender coconuts,” says Vivek Prabhu, the president of the local VHP unit, who adds they are offering legal and financial aid to the accused. The Bajrang Dal is the youth wing of the VHP.
The counsel for 14 of the 15 arrested for the attack is former BJP legislator K Monappa Bhandary, a Mangalore-based lawyer.
The others arrested from Jain Compound are Ghanshyam Acharya, 23, a welder, and Dhanush, an unemployed youth whose mother works as a domestic help.
Around 500 metres from Jain Compound is the home of V Kiran Kumar, a 24-year-old hotel management graduate who works at a three-star hotel. Kiran, also belonging to the Billava community, is alleged to have recorded the attack on his mobile phone.
“Kiran normally works late into the night. On the day of the attack (August 24), he returned in the evening. He said there was some incident on the main road. He likes to shoot videos. He did it out of curiosity,” asserts Kiran’s father V Krishna, a boat mechanic, who educated his younger son and built a house in Attavar on bank loans.
He says he doesn’t know if Kiran is associated with Hindutva outfits but admits his elder son Kishan was affiliated to the Bajrang Dal. The family sent Kishan away to Dubai, where he works ironically in “a firm run by a Beary Muslim from Mangalore”.
Around a kilometre away from Jain Compound, near the pole to which Shakir was tied, is Babagudde, a middle-class locality. Abhiram, 23, a gym trainer also arrested for the assault, lives here with his parents and brother in an independent house.
Abhiram’s mother, a retired government revenue department official who does not want to be named, says the family was hit by a double tragedy. “First Abhiram was arrested and then my mother died. He was needed for the last rites but was in jail,” she says.
Breaking down, she recalls Abhiram returning home early on August 24. “I did not pay attention since I was rushing to hospital to see my mother. We have always lived with our heads held high, this has shamed us.”
Abhiram’s father is a retired BSNL employee and his younger sibling has Down’s Syndrome. His mother says she doesn’t know if Abhiram was a member of any organisation, but admits, “he was involved in a lot of activities, and youth today are attracted to some of these outfits”.
It was after Abhiram had been in jail 10 days that she spoke to him. “I am a mother after all. He said he was sorry,” she says.
The only middle-aged person arrested for the assault on Shakir is Bhujanga Shetty, a 45-year-old auto-driver, bank loan recovery agent and a father of two. “He didn’t do anything,” Shetty’s brother-in-law Prashant Rai said, while waiting outside court during a bail hearing recently. “If you see the videos of the attack, Shetty was the one asking the others to stop. But police have arrested him as well. His wife is in hospital with dengue.”
All the accused come from poor, backward families, their counsel Bhandary argues. “These are all people doing small jobs. They will not carry out such attacks.”
Police have few doubts though that the attack was “coordinated” by men linked to the Bajrang Dal. “We don’t know if it had the sanction of any organisation, but individuals coordinated and carried it out,” a senior officer, who didn’t want to be identified, says.
Lawyer Dinakar Shetty isn’t surprised at the statements of either Bhandary or the police officer. He was himself an accused in the 2009 pub attack by the Shri Rama Sena, the first moral policing incident in Mangalore to draw national outrage. Since then, Shetty has severed ties with the right wing and is now a legal adviser to the All Canara Students Union (comprising students from colleges across Mangalore).
“If you look at the demographics of the accused in communal policing incidents, they are mostly boys from poor and backward families, with no older person to guide them,” he says. “They are constantly told by right-wing groups how other communities are undermining Hindus. It is only after they are sucked into a criminal case that they realise what they have done. The cases also help the groups control the youths.”
A senior police officer blames “leadership of the backward castes”. The arrested youths are mostly from the Billava (agricultural workers and toddy-tappers) and Mogaveera (fishermen) communities — like in the Shakir case. “Most of them are not upper-caste Hindus as one would imagine while talking about the Sangh. Backward caste leaders have failed, and the right-wing groups have filled the gap,” says the officer.
Simultaneously, the economic disparity between Muslims and backward castes has been increasing — with the Muslims forging ahead due to jobs in the Middle East and Gulf — and that has contributed to the tension.
“A few years ago, Muslims in Mangalore were only marginally ahead of the backward castes economically. There is jealousy over this,” says the officer.
Asha Nayak, a senior criminal lawyer who has defended activists arrested for moral policing incidents, notes that unemployment and illiteracy are big factors. “Very few leaders get prosecuted in these cases. The boys, meanwhile, are used and dumped. They don’t know the law or the repercussions of what they do,” she says.
The fact that no major case of moral policing in Mangalore has resulted in conviction means there is no legal deterrent, adds Nayak. If in the 2009 pub attack, victims have not come forward to testify, in other major cases such as the 2012 attack on a “mixed” birthday party in a home stay, the accused have obtained bail.
In the Shakir case, with police and courts taking a strong view, the arrested youths have been in prison for over a month. “The strategy of the right wing is to attack and file a counter case. We have not yielded to the coercion,” says Shakir’s father Mohiddin.
There is another aspect to the moral policing — the Sangh Parivar’s nurturing of the Dakshin Kannada region. Mangalore has as many as 40,000 RSS shakhas, and a wide network of like-minded affiliates, including the VHP, Bajrang Dal, Hindu Jagaran Vedike and the Shri Rama Sena. At the heart of their campaigns are themes of ‘love jihad’, cow slaughter and “protection of Hindu culture”. The “danger” of Hindu girls “falling prey to boys of other communities” is a pre-eminent theme, say right-wing group leaders.
Unemployed, poor and backward youths, seeking a sense of purpose and belonging, are easy hunting ground.
The right-wing’s polarising strategy, in place since the 1990s and Ram Janmabhoomi movement, has helped the BJP turn Mangalore from a Congress stronghold to its own bastion. Since 1991, the party has won the Mangalore seat in every Lok Sabha election, and done consistently well in the eight Assembly segments here, barring 2013.
The 2013 result was seen as public anger against moral policing. But that optimism, says Mangalore-based rationalist Narendra Nayak (Asha Nayak is his wife), proved short-lived. “People feel this goondaism is wrong but don’t speak up. We are waiting for a breakthrough moment,” he says.
Asha Nayak adds that there is little chance of the moral policing subsiding. “To pit one against the other and to keep things simmering is the plan. They want to point out that this is happening, and we are protecting.”
Radical reactionary Muslim groups like the Popular Front of India (PFI) and the Campus Front of India have emerged in response. An offshoot of the PFI, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), has even become an electoral force. The SDPI contested 23 seats in the 2013 Assembly polls, and garnered around 4 per cent of the votes.
Muneer Katipalla, of the Democratic Youth Federation of India, says both the SDPI and PFI are involved in moral policing.
Sara Aboobacker, a renowned Muslim writer from Mangalore, talks about seeing more Muslim women in burqa in the city.
Muslim vigilantism too has taken a violent turn. Asha Nayak recalls an incident from a couple of years ago when two postgraduate students of Kasturba Medical College — a Muslim boy and a Hindu girl — found in a car at night, were assaulted by Muslim youths.
Anuj Kumar, a medical intern at the college, says they have learnt their “lesson”. “You have to be extra careful if you are going out in a mixed group. This message gets passed down to every new set of students.”