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‘Pro-PFI’ vs ‘PayCM’: Karnataka poll battle lines drawn as BJP, Congress prep their ammo

At a public rally in Karnataka's Vijayanagar region in April this year, BJP national president J P Nadda had hinted that the PFI would be the saffron party's major issue in the 2023 polls.

AICC General Secretary & Karnataka in-charge Randeep Singh Surjewala, KPCC President D K Shivakumar, Opposition leader in Assembly Siddaramaiah and M B Patil hold posters with QR code and the phrase 'PayCM', during a protest against the state government on the issue of alleged corruption, in Bengaluru, Friday, Sept. 23, 2022. (PTI Photo)

The recent crackdown on the Popular Front of India (PFI) has come as a shot in the arm to the ruling BJP in Karnataka in its bid to regain credence among its core workers in the communally-polarised coastal Karnataka region.

The major multi-agency clampdown on the leaders of the PFI, a radical Muslim group known for its aggressive pro-minorities campaigns, across the country, including Karnataka, is likely to prompt the BJP to stick to its plans to make the principal Opposition Congress’s alleged support for the PFI its key issue for the state Assembly polls, slated for May 2023, and blunt the Congress’s attacks against the saffron party on the corruption front through campaigns like “PayCM” and “40 per cent commission government”.

There have been clear signs of the BJP wanting to make the PFI its central plank in the coming state polls with the stage being set for a battle between the two rivals mainly along the “pro-PFI” vs “PayCM” lines, among other issues.

At a public rally in Karnataka’s Vijayanagar region in April this year, BJP national president J P Nadda had hinted that the PFI would be the saffron party’s major issue in the 2023 polls. At the rally, which followed a state BJP executive committee meeting, Nadda and Karnataka CM Basavaraj Bommai indicated that the BJP will be using the withdrawal of police cases against

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the PFI activists in the state during 2013-2018 to target the Congress in the run-up to the polls.

“I have to say with sadness that the Congress party is behaving in the most irresponsible manner and I want to ask whether Siddaramaiah did or did not drop cases against PFI activists. This is something that the people of Karnataka will be asking,” the BJP chief said.

“You speak against terrorism and you release terrorists. You support them from the inside and you go around wearing masks on the outside. The BJP will go to the ground and will unmask them to reveal the truth,” Nadda said.

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Since that rally, the state BJP suffered several blows as some of its leaders came under the alleged corruption cloud.

The murder of a BJP youth leader Praveen Nettaru on July 26 in Bellare village of Dakshina Kannada district, a BJP stronghold, by some persons allegedly linked to the PFI resulted in the BJP and right-wing cadre turning against their own party and questioning its resolve to tackle the PFI.

The BJP and Sangh Parivar activists threatened to topple a car carrying state BJP president Nalin Kumar Kateel in Bellare village on July 27 when he arrived to condole Nettaru’s death.

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As they rocked Kateel’s vehicle, the right-wing workers chanted, “Down with those who do business with our enemies”.

The incident caused a major embarrassment to the BJP and forced Nadda to cancel his scheduled visit to Karnataka on July 28 that marked the third anniversary of the BJP government in Karnataka and the first anniversary of CM Bommai’s tenure. Following the murders of Nettaru and earlier, on February 20, of a Bajrang Dal activist Harsha Hindu in Shivamogga, Bommai had said that efforts were being made to control the PFI’s activities.

“We have sent required reports and evidence necessary for banning such organisations to the Centre. The process has begun and you will hear a decision on this from the Centre at the earliest. The ban has to be done across the country,” Bommai said after the PFI was linked to some of the communal murders in Karnataka this year.

The operation spearheaded by the NIA against the PFI on September 22 is expected to help the BJP regain its “moral high ground” with regard to its charge of the Congress being soft on the PFI.

In this exercise, reportedly on the basis of intelligence inputs about the PFI allegedly conspiring to carry out attacks to disturb communal peace, the NIA arrested the outfit’s 45 office-bearers, including seven from Karnataka.

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The Karnataka police also arrested 15 PFI-linked persons from across the state for “attempting to create communal disturbances” following the NIA arrests.

The BJP has been targeting the Congress, and its senior leader Siddaramaiah, the former CM, for having been allegedly soft on the PFI, citing the withdrawal of non-heinous cases against its members when the grand old party had been in power.

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During 2013-18, the then Siddaramaiah-led Congress government had dropped cases against the activists of the PFI and its political wing SDPI, who were accused of involvement in communal disturbances during the previous BJP tenure. The Siddaramaiah government had dropped a total of 176 cases filed against 1600 PFI activists during 2008-2013 by the BJP government. These cases involved protests and communal flare-ups in Shivamogga (114 cases from 2015), Mysuru (40 cases from 2009), Hassan (21 cases from 2010), and Karwar (one case from 2017).

Siddaramaiah has argued that the cases were dropped since many of them were minor ones

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and that the cases against farmers and political workers were also dropped. He has said that the Congress does not discriminate between criminals on the basis of caste and religion. “We abide by the truth and the law of the land. We are in favor of free and fair action by the police. We oppose politically motivated actions,” he said.

A total of 320 cases have been registered against persons allegedly linked to the PFI in Karnataka since the group came into existence in 2007, but no case has been brought against the PFI itself. There are 18 murder cases lodged against the PFI members in Karnataka, including the Nettaru murder case.

There have been convictions by the courts in only five of these 320 cases, police sources said. There have been no convictions in heinous cases like murders and attempt to murder, which are mostly still under trial.

The first time the alleged possible involvement of the PFI activists in the killings of right-wing workers from the BJP and Sangh Parivar in Karnataka emerged was in 2016, when the Mysuru police arrested a PFI-linked man Abid Pasha for the murder of RSS worker K Raju on March 13, 2016.

The police later found that Pasha was allegedly involved in five other murder cases of the Sangh Parivar activists in the Mysuru region, with the earliest murder dating back to 2008. They found that Pasha, a carpenter, and his group targeted people allegedly over “moral digressions” or their association with right-wing Hindu groups in Mysuru.

Pasha was also linked to the double murder of two business management students in Mysuru on June 8, 2011, after they were kidnapped for seeking a ransom of Rs five crore. He was identified by the police and the then BJP government in 2011 as being an activist of a group, Karnataka Forum for Dignity, which in 2007 had merged with two groups from Kerala and Tamil Nadu to form the PFI.

While most cases of serious crimes linked to the PFI have involved individuals who participated in its events, in two cases investigated by the Karnataka police – the murders of RSS worker R Rudresh in Bengaluru in October 2016 and the RSS worker Sharath Madivala in July 2017 in Dakshina Kannada – have resulted in arrests of the PFI office-bearers.

In the Rudresh murder case, the Bengaluru police arrested Asim Sherif, the PFI Bengaluru unit president, and named him as the fifth one among five persons who allegedly executed the murder. In the case that was later given to the NIA for probe, Sherif was alleged to have been in contact with the killers through the mobile phone of an associate in the lead-up to the murder. This case is still under trial, and he has been in prison since 2016.

In the Sharath Madivala murder case, the Dakshina Kannada police arrested Khaleelullah, the PFI district president for the Chamarajanagar region, on charges of harbouring the main killers after the murder. The case has been under trial, even as Khaleelullah was granted bail by the Karnataka High Court in 2018.

First published on: 27-09-2022 at 09:23:24 am
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