Faith and Fury in Mangaluru

Harsha Vadlamani
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Mangaluru in southern Karnataka is one of the strongholds of Hindutva’s militant fringe. As Assembly elections loom, the cause celebre is love jihad

At the golden beaches of southern Karnataka, the wind and the waves are often merciless and insurmountable. But some men, they love the swim. We are at the office, in Mangaluru, of one such intrepid adventurer. Jagadeesh K Shenava, advocate and Dakshina Kannada district president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), is at home in the foaming communal waters. The armed policemen guarding him 24x7 must have broken a sweat at his latest speech on January 28th endorsing retaliatory murders of Muslims by Hindus, but the lawyer is unflappable. “There was an attempt on my life seven years ago. I regularly get threat calls. But that’s Mangaluru. Nowhere else in India are there so many people willing to give up their lives for Hindutva,” he says. “There are two main issues here: cow killings and love jihad. We cannot let either slide.”

Indeed, in the communally sensitive districts of Karnataka, including Dakshina Kannada, Uttara Kannada, Udupi and Shimoga, the BJP’s campaign for the Assembly polls this year hinges on Hindutva issues. In Dakshina Kannada, Hindus make up around 67 per cent of the population, Muslims 25 per cent and Christians 8 per cent. According to data compiled by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, there were 911 cases of communal violence in the district between 2005 and 2015. And with the BJP targeting 150 of the state’s 224 Assembly seats, the district could spin out of control. On January 3rd, Bajrang Dal activist Deepak Rao was slain in Katipalla near Mangaluru, sparking a horrifying act of retaliation: Abdul Basheer, who had nothing to do with the incident, was murdered in Kottara, Mangaluru, to avenge Rao. Shobha Karandlaje, the BJP MP from neighbouring Udupi, has claimed that Rao’s death is the 21st communal murder in the state in recent times, and the twelfth “committed by jihadis who have the support of the Congress government”. The Siddaramaiah government has contested this, but what it will find difficult to contest is the Hindutva osmosis in Mangaluru, where the typical Hindu seems inclined to normalise moralistic oppression.

“Some years ago, each time a Hindu girl was taken by a Muslim, we had to shout out to be heard. Today, the narrative has changed and the media itself calls it ‘love jihad’. Even the courts admit it is a clear and present danger. Parents who wouldn’t accept our advice earlier now seek us out. Our task has become a lot easier,” says Sharan ‘Pumpwell’ Kumar, 42, convenor of the Bajrang Dal in south Karnataka. Pumpwell in Mangaluru is the power centre whence he keeps track of an army of moral conquistadors lurking at every street corner, college, mall and bar, living out their lives in headlines. His company, Eshwari Manpower Services, is in the business of ‘placing’ men as security personnel in the city’s public spaces. “The autowallahs, students and youth of Mangaluru are our eyes and ears. They report suspicious incidents to us and we immediately mobilise and take action,” Pumpwell says. His energies, he says, are increasingly spent on ‘love jihad’ cases, which seem to set off an unrivalled surge of emotion among cadres—at least 3,000 in Mangaluru city alone.

Here, as in parts of Kerala, a Hindu woman marrying, eloping with or dating a Muslim can spark the savage indignation of Hindu outfits, especially the Bajrang Dal, resulting in murder, suicide, forced separation, reconversion or remarriage. Such cases not only stoke the Dal’s Hindu pride, but also help to shore up its machismo and to exert a proprietary hold over women, who are painted as damsels in distress or as wayward brats in need of chastising.

On December 29th, 2017, Pumpwell shot off a letter to India’s Defence Minister asking for an NIA inquiry into two recent cases of so-called ‘love jihad’ from Mangaluru. The petition solicitously mentions 26-year-old Priyanka Bhandary, a bride-to-be who eloped with her Muslim lover days before her marriage to another in December, and 23-year-old Reshma VK, the daughter of a businessman in Mangaluru whose whereabouts were traced to Mankhurd in Mumbai where she had been living with her Muslim husband for some months. Both women have since been retrieved by the Bajrang Dal’s efficient network of footsoldiers and kept in makeshift internment camps charged with the stale odour of propaganda.

“Some years ago, each time a Hindu girl was taken by a Muslim, we had to shout out to be heard. Today, the narrative has changed and the media itself calls it ‘love jihad’” - Sharan ‘Pumpwell’ Kumar, convenor, Bajrang Dal, south Karnataka

PRIYANKA, A RESIDENT of Daregudde near Belvai, about 50 km northeast of Mangaluru, allegedly fled with her boyfriend Hyder on the night of December 8th, the day of her mehendi, with gold and valuables after plying her family with sedative-laced drinks. The resolute workers of the Bajrang Dal and Durga Vahini, the women’s wing of the VHP, swooped down and convinced the family to file a case against Priyanka so that the police would have reason to detain her. Arrested, abandoned by Hyder, and worn down by the indignity of prison, Priyanka couldn’t have been lonelier. Even as her family shirked contact with her, a trained counsellor with tenuous Hindutva links took over, moving her to a facility that allowed no one but her and another guardian to talk to the crestfallen victim. The hindutva brigade, denied direct access to her for the time being, has its ear to the door to ensure she emerges a changed woman. “We cannot afford to let even one of our women go to the Muslim fold,” says Shenava, adding that the Dal’s handling of Priyanka and Reshma could become model cases for Hindutva activists. “We invited proposals from Hindu men for both the girls and we have received an overwhelming number of offers. We are considering a few,” he says. In many cases, when an ignominious daughter returns, the family, having lost face in society, prefers not to associate with her, leaving her no choice but to turn to the Hindutva warriors who orchestrated her ‘rescue’. In Reshma’s case, she was kidnapped from her husband’s house in Mumbai by Dal workers, who then ‘counselled’ her overnight about the error of her ways. She then told the Mumbai High Court that she had come home of her own accord and wanted to live with her parents.

In December, Hindutva activists had pressured another young woman from Mangaluru to leave her Muslim boyfriend after accusing him of being a drug peddler. The teenager, a rebel by all accounts, spent a few days along with her mother at the Govanitashraya Ashram in Phajeer, run by a trust that is not affiliated to the Bajrang Dal or VHP. “She had tattoos and a piercing on her tongue. She did not wear a bindi and did not tie her hair. She sulked in the beginning but slowly warmed to us,” says S Sushila, the wife of the caretaker at the ashram, which shelters rescued cows and destitute women. The ashram feels like an interstitial space, with a living room that is bare but for a TV, a kitchen and small rooms on either side of a corridor. Two fierce dogs bark away in the yard, tugging at their chains. The handful of residents pause in their chores—washing, cooking, cleaning—and smile obligingly at whoever crosses over into their world. Lakshmi Bhat, the 63-year-old silver-haired warden, says they only had one case of love jihad. “We don’t normally shelter such victims,” she says.

“I’ve been following 20 cases of love jihad based on leads from Facebook alone. We work closely with families, because that is the most honourable way to end this social evil” - Rajasekharananda Swami, head of Vajradehi Math in Phajeer near Mangaluru

Surekha Raj, 45, a senior Durga Vahini member who was asked to handle the case, says the victim is repentant but the family is still in shock. Raj, a school principal, has keen, suspicious eyes. After a brief interrogation about the purpose of our meeting—at an old cafe in the heart of Mangaluru—she talks to Open about the importance of involving women in Hindutva activities, which until some years ago were a male preserve. “These days, we are brought in to help with every single case of love jihad. We know how sensitive the issue can be for the girl and the family—it’s a question of their honour,” she says.

“We try to nip it in the bud,” says Ramesh Shetty, 38, a mechanic who joined the Dal 15 years ago. “If a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy are hanging out in college, we follow them for three months or so to make sure it is not the start of a relationship. Then we issue a stern warning.” Shetty and some of his friends meet us at the Bajpe bus stop, 10 km north of Mangaluru, and decide to move the conversation to the local BJP office, a tiny room with a shutter. Here, they talk about reprimanding ‘suspicious’ Muslim men and watching over Hindu girls lest they fall prey to cheats and terrorists looking to convert them. “We have no fear. We thrive on danger,” says a young man with a sharply styled beard who specialises in catching cow thieves, even sleeping at bus stops to intercept them in the dead of the night. The men of the Dal spend their evenings playing kabaddi and trawling through social media. Many of them lead hardscrabble lives, working as mechanics, masons and daily wagers. What brings them together is a common hostility towards Muslims. “They tempt poor girls with money, as in Priyanka’s case. (Priyanka’s family says she received over Rs 1 lakh in her bank account.) They also lure rich Hindu girls like Reshma by seducing them—the boy she eloped with was dirt poor and took her to live in a slum,” says Shetty, venturing the usual hypotheses of sponsored terrorism and abusive domestic life in interfaith relationships.

Earlier this year, Dhanyashree, a 20-year-old from Chikmagalur, committed suicide after being hounded by the Dal for an alleged relationship with a Muslim. Two other young women, Madhuri Bolar and Bharathi Prashant, both from Dakshina Kannada, have since complained of harrassment at the hands of Hindutva elements on social media for being friends with Muslims. Nearly a year ago, Bolar and Hamza Kinya, members of the Students Federation of India (SFI), boarded a Ganesh Travels sleeper bus to Gangavathi in Koppal district to attend an SFI state conference. They took a selfie with other SFI members, posted it on Facebook and forgot all about it until the picture resurfaced this year on Hindutva social media groups, urging Hindu youth to take action against Kinya, 24, a kabaddi player and state-level referee, for ‘roaming with Hindu girls’. Bolar, an MCom student, filed a complaint with the Cyber Crime Cell of the Mangaluru Police. “Both Hindu and Muslim outfits have made life hell for youth in Mangaluru,” says Kinya, who now works as a copy editor for a media house in Bangalore. Kinya subsequently deleted pictures of women from his social media accounts.

“I cannot let Hindutva activists question her or marry her off, not yet. I have worked hard to gain her trust. I cannot let her down now” - Vidya Gowri, counsellor to Priyanka Bhandary, an alleged victim of love jihad

The virulence of Hindutva politics is on full display on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Instagram, where individual identities are subjected to scrutiny every day, held up to the flame like letters written in invisible ink. “I have been following 20 cases of love jihad based on leads from Facebook alone. Eight have been resolved; we are working on the rest. We work closely with families, because that is the most honourable way to end this social evil,” says Rajasekharananda Swami, 41, a sadhu who heads the Vajradehi Matha, a tranquil ashram on the banks of the Gurupura river, about 12 km from Mangaluru. He has set up a 21-member Love Jihad Taskforce, including lawyers and counsellors. There is no dearth of donations for the cause, he says, meeting us after his morning prayers. His ashram is home to 30 orphaned children and dozens of abandoned cattle. The fight against love jihad is just another aspect of his social service. The taskforce works with a team of 60 students from Mangaluru colleges who report interfaith relationships. “I have spoken to Yogi Adityanathji and other Hindu leaders about the seriousness of the problem here due to our proximity to Kerala. They welcomed my move to take action,” he says.

A BUMPY BUS ride down winding country roads takes us to Belvai, about an hour-and-a-half from Mangaluru. The bus makes a stop at Moodbidri, where a middle-aged man sits hunched at a streetside flower stall. He is Anand Poojary, the father of Prashant Poojary, a 29-year-old Bajrang Dal activist whose murder on October 9th, 2015, allegedly at the hands of Popular Front of India members, rocked Dakshina Kannada. “He was a committed worker, and his death was a big loss,” says Somnath Kotian, 45, the Dal leader in Belvai, driving us in his SUV to the village of Priyanka Bhandary. He has several cases pending against him in courts, but none of them is “personal”, he says. Kotian runs a grocery store in Belvai and takes cares of the family farm, but much of his time is spent championing the cause of Hindutva. So when he got a call from Bhujanga Kulal, the district convenor of the Dal, on the morning of December 9th, 2017, he immediately set out for Daregudde, where a Hindu girl had duped her parents to elope with a Muslim. “This had never happened before in Belvai. Here, people don’t even marry outside their caste,” says Kotian.

“Before Priyanka, love jihad had never happened before in Belvai. Here, people don’t even marry outside their caste” Somnath Kotian, Bajrang Dal leader from Belvai

Priyanka’s mother, Veena Bhandary, 48, is a bidi-roller whose husband died 18 years ago. She has spent much of the past month at her sister’s house nearby, unable to come to terms with her daughter’s trickery, even though activists keep assuring her that Priyanka was ‘mesmerised’ into running away. “It was the day of the mehendi and the house was full of guests. Priyanka was in a good mood. She was, after all, getting married to a boy she had known for six years. Dinesh had plans to take her to Dubai,” says Bhandary, who looks hollowed out. Priyanka had failed the English paper in her PUC exams and started working at a garments factory 4 km away for Rs 4,000 a month. She helped her mother roll bidis that they sold at Rs 150 per 1,000. She spent two years in Mumbai as a nanny for a distant relative. “When she made pomegranate juice for us, everyone drank it and I unwittingly refused. So when I woke up at 4 am and found her gone, it was a rude shock,” Bhandary says. “All the arrangements had been made. What were we to do now?” Kotian and members of the Bhandary Samaj took control of the situation. “In any case, she was lost to us. I saw her at the police station after two weeks and I did not want to take her back,” Bhandary says.

Their next meeting, at a secret location in Puttur, would be different, thanks to the efforts of a counsellor who spent hours convincing her to stand by Priyanka in her hour of need. At an arecanut processing plant in Puttur, we wait for Vidya Gowri, 51, who pulls up in a Tata Nano, smartly dressed in a black sari. Priyanka is in no state to meet anyone, she clarifies. For nearly a month, Gowri has visited Priyanka for a few hours every day, coaxing her to open up and trying to redeem her from her Sisyphean heartache. “She regrets it all. She realises that he left her alone when the police came after her,” Gowri says. There is a certain artifice to her counselling sessions, where she sometimes asks probing questions to check if Priyanka has really ‘turned’. But much of it is constructive. The experiment is perhaps the most ambitious counselling initiative in the history of ‘love jihad’ in Karnataka. “I cannot let [Hindutva activists] question her or marry her off, not yet. I have worked hard to gain her trust. I cannot let her down now,” Gowri says. When we return to Mangaluru, members of the Dal and Durga Vahini, having tracked our movements, are disappointed to learn that we did not interview Priyanka. They cannot wait to see her risen from the ashes of her past, a phoenix burning, blazing, for their noble Hindu cause.