In Mangalore, a coastal town of Karnataka, you can easily notice burkha-clad women on scooties as you see them in offices and college campuses. In the bourgeoning malls they often seem to outnumber other women. This is, more or less, the case all over south coastal Karnataka. Such public presence of Muslim women, unthinkable two decades ago, clearly reflects the arrival of a strong Muslim middles class in this region. But instead of begetting a shared public sphere, which in turn is expressed in civic ties and personal intimacies, communal troops guard the boundaries of their respective communities, spewing violence, wrenching apart friendships and intimacies, interspersed with brutal murders.
The murders themselves are generally enacted as spectacles, where a young man, at the prime of his age, is assaulted with knives and swords, and allowed to die rolling in blood, bringing down the neighbourhood on the scene, and the mobs spilling on the roads shouting vengeance. Most of these young men hail from lower middle-class backgrounds but act as footsoldiers to political outfits. The later celebrate their death for the political dividends it brings!
On January 3 this year, a young RSS activist was killed in the outskirts of Mangalore, and in retaliation a man belonging to the Muslim community, a street vendor of fast food, was killed. A couple of months ago the son of a local dry-cleaner was hacked to death and in retaliation, a rickshaw driver, belonging to another community and an activist of the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) was similarly assaulted, and left to die. The latter two killings led to continued skirmishes between the communal outfits leading to charges of complicity between the BJP and the Congress. The government too went on shuffling the law and order apparatuses in this region, as a section of the police there was accused of harbouring sympathies towards the Sangh Parivar outfits.
Apart from such brutal orgies, there are young people just sacrificing themselves because the communal divide denies them options they regard as most significant in their lives. Some days ago a young girl, friendly with a local Muslim boy, in the small town of Mudigere, at the foothills of Western Ghats, committed suicide since the local Bajrang Dal storm-troopers reprimanded her and her parents that she cannot carry on with this relation. It is now normal to hear of young people of mixed communities being beaten up just because they were found together in a park or a resort in the region. Communal gangs policing inter-community ties and keeping public spaces under surveillance have had their effect: Young people are persuaded by parents and college heads, and even by their employers to stick to their community grove, although given the conditions most of the young do not persuade themselves beyond it either. While young women have to bear the brunt of the denial of options, the stand of the gangs on community-divide finds widespread endorsement in the moralistically seeped conservative setting of the region.
While coastal Karnataka does not hold a mirror to the rest of Karnataka in all respects, reinforcing the communal divide and guarding its boundaries is a self-assigned task that communal outfits have taken on all over the state. Any attempt to highlight shared bonds across communal divide, or defend the option of members of communities to define themselves differently, or to argue the case that all members of the society, irrespective of their segmented belonging, share thick sets of interests, concerns and striving in common has increasingly become difficult. M.M. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh recently paid with their lives for trespassing these boundaries. As Karnataka is drawing closer to state elections, the response from the two major players on the scene has already been laid out: Dividing the people into Hindu and anti-Hindu, BJP leaders have termed Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, the mascot of the Congress in the state, anti-Hindu and patron of terrorist outfits. The BJP’s social base in the state is made of assorted sections of urban middles classes and upper castes, sections of the rural elite threatened by the rise of the socially and economically lower strata, sections of the dominant castes, proponents of a stronger Hindu identity, and the service sector such as hotel industry, petty shops, and small enterprises, mainly in the hands of upwardly mobile rural castes.
It has also established considerable hold on the burgeoning private educational institutions in the state. The large corporate sector is either divided or yet to take a stance. The term Hindu is going to be given much symbolic and rhetorical flourish in the next three months. While such an invocation will surely harden the community divide, its electoral dividends are doubtful, given the way the Congress, and Siddaramaiah himself, have positioned themselves in the state.
Unlike in the past, the Congress has succeeded in assuaging the cleavages within Dalits in Karnataka and has been generous to the shrines and mutts of the backward castes. The communal divide makes the Congress a better option for Muslims compared to the Janata Dal(S) or fringe outfits such as the SDPI. By covertly supporting the Lingayat claim to a separate religion, and making Basava the reigning icon of the state, Siddaramaiah has tried to reach out to the egalitarian legacies of a deeply plural state. It is understandable why Siddaramaiah has been marked out as their number one target by the BJP already.
While the strategy of the BJP is least prone to bridge the communal divide in the state and is likely to exacerbate it further, it is very unlikely that it can hold the fort through stronghand methods. Such an approach is likely to strengthen extremist elements such as the Popular Front of India, face of political Islam in South India, and the SDPI. Christians in the state too harbour strong memories of attack on churches during the previous stint of BJP rule. The Congress, however, has no clue how it can make communities which are increasingly barricading themselves to speak to one another. In the last two years it has only succeeded in containing the spread of the communal virus by employing the law and order machinery. The present conjuncture calls for something more: Perhaps, a politics plus.
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