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How coastal Karnataka was saffronised; part 16: Sangh appropriates local cultural symbols as Congress' brand of 'Hinduness' falls flat

Editor's note: This is the sixteenth reported piece in an 18-part series on the contemporary history of Hindutva in coastal Karnataka. The series features interviews, videos, archival material and oral histories gathered over a period of four months.

 Read other articles of the series here


It would take quite an effort to understand Suresh Shetty’s political inclinations. Here is a man who was part of the children's wing of the Seva Dal, a front organisation for the Indian National Congress, from since he was a child. He progressed to the Youth Congress and eventually to the INC. But when Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) was trying to strengthen itself in Dakshin Kannada with Amir Hassan, a professor from St Ann’s as president, he joined them. This seemed to be a trait of many during these times, when the political lines weren’t clearly defined. And the Sangh, politically, was just emerging.

 How coastal Karnataka was saffronised; part 16: Sangh appropriates local cultural symbols as Congress brand of Hinduness falls flat

Hindu Samaja Utsavs from 1981 to present day. Ilustration by Shrujana Niranjani Shridhar.

When Shetty was asked to be a part of the organising committee of the first Hindu Samaja Utsav organised by the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) in 1980, he agreed. In the same vein, he pledges he is secular and is opposed to the politics of the Sangh, which he terms ‘communal’. His loyalty to the party didn’t take him to the heights that other leaders have reached, but he is content being part of the district leadership.

“See, when ABVP started to build its cadre, they would tell everybody that they have nothing to do with politics. So even I joined. When they asked me why I was in the Congress, I asked them how it was their business! Their pitch for membership was that they want to focus on student activities, not politics. Even for Hindu  Samaja Utsav they said the same thing. Only later did I realise what they were really doing by calling themselves apolitical,” Shetty said. Many leaders of the Sangh Parivar, be it ABVP or VHP continue to say their work isn’t political.

Shetty continued his lament about the confusion prevalent in the late 1970s and the 1980s. “Every move of the Congress would be called minority appeasement or rajakiya (political) stunt, but these groups called themselves apolitical and it worked. Everybody clapped for them while they called themselves the protectors of Hindu culture.”

The Gokarnanatheshwara Temple at Kudroli was inaugurated by Guru in 1912 and renovated by Janardhan Poojary in 1989. Greeshma Kuthar

The Gokarnanatheshwara Temple at Kudroli was inaugurated by Narayana Guru in 1912 and renovated by Janardhana Poojary in 1989. Greeshma Kuthar

Shetty recollected how during the subsequent Hindu  Samaja Utsavs , if Congress leaders participated, they were reprimanded by then Union minister Janardhana Poojary.

Poojary, who had been Cabinet minister from 1982 to 1987, tried many methods to tend to the cultural aspirations of his people. He attempted to reinforce the ideology of Narayana Guru, a reformist from Kerala, in Dakshin Kannada. The story of this temple dates back to early 20th Century. Shudras and Dalits were not allowed into many temples in coastal Karnataka, which was under the control of Brahmins.

Even if they were, there were explicit methods through which they were segregated.

Upset with this, Adhyaksha H Koragappa, a Billava businessman, led a delegation to meet Guru, whose "one caste, one religion, one God" created ripples against the brahmanical order in Kerala in the late 19th Century. Guru visited Mangalore in 1908 and selected a spot to build a temple, which he said should be accessible to all. It was inaugurated by him in 1912 and since then, has been considered an important place of worship for non-Brahmins of the region.

In 1989, Poojary suggested raising money to renovate the temple. “We organised more than 30 mass meetings and rallies across the district. Everybody contributed to this cause and within 13 months, we were able to complete the renovation of the shrine,” said Poojary. The new structure was inaugurated by Rajiv Gandhi on 8 February, 1991.

Former Union minister Janardhana Poojary at his office. Greeshma Kuthar

Former Union minister Janardhana Poojary at his office. Greeshma Kuthar

“While the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign was at its peak nationally led by Advani and leaders like Pejavara Swamy in Dakshin Kannada, Poojary was trying to countermobilise the non-Brahmin masses by driving an ‘alternate Hindu’ politics. But we know who ultimately succeeded,” said Vidya Dinker, an activist and professor.

“It didn’t work. Most castes, including Poojary’s own community, still joined the Sangh Parivar en masse,” Suresh said. “Even we didn’t dare open our mouth against their activities. We already had a pretty strong 'anti-Hindu' tag. Truth be told, we didn’t even think about a counter to this.”

Suresh grudgingly accepted that the thought of doing something never came to mind. Congress, unlike the Sangh, had always been a leader centric-party, not a cadre-based organisation. “When it was announced that Poojary will be contesting, people of my caste were taken aback,” said Suresh. "Many asked 'what about us?'"

Poojary also recalled opposition from within his caste when Indira Gandhi declared him as the MP candidate from Mangalore. “Infighting didn’t help. Energy was spent in keeping caste alliance formulas right, there was little time for strategy,” Suresh opined. This was probably one of the reasons that can be attributed to the failure of the Congress brand of ‘Hinduness’.

The programmes of the Sangh relied heavily on evoking a homogenising religious pride while appropriating local cultural symbols.

“It has been thirty years since we went house to house to interact with the masses. But look at them. Starting from ittiga pooja to collecting money for festivals to election campaigns, they have made their place inside the home of every Hindu. Even our people have started attending Hindu functions now. We have no other place to go,” said Suresh.

UT Khader, the only MLA to win from the Congress in the 2018 elections, is a regular at various religious events of all faiths. In April 2018, he was publicly insulted by senior RSS leader Prabhakar Bhat for taking part in a kola (traditional worship of Deiva).

U T Khader with his party workers at the Circuit House in Mangaluru, Greeshma Kuthar

U T Khader with his party workers at the Circuit House in Mangaluru. Greeshma Kuthar

Bhat went to the extent of questioning the sanctity of the Deiva for engaging with a ‘beef eating Muslim’. He called for immediate brahmakalasha (a purification ceremony) of the Deiva Sana. But Khader said such incidents don’t bother him. “People of Mangaluru are not communal, they won’t fall for such political stunts,” said Khader, dismissing Bhat’s insults.

“If Bhat is arrested, the entire state will go up in flames.”

This was the statement made by former chief minister BS Yeddyurappa when cases were filed against Bhat by the police. Bhat was accused of instigating violence through "inflammatory speeches" after the murder of RSS worker Deepak Rao.

Bhat doesn’t just enjoy the favour of the top BJP leadership of Karnataka, he has been dubbed as the maker of game plans for the party in the coast. “I am not a politician, I am an RSS karyakarta. We don’t take part in electoral politics, but we take part in deciding how politics should be,” a smiling Bhat said.

Bhat rose to prominence after he was arrested during the Emergency in 1975. “I was arrested along with my wife. Dakshin Kannada was a hotbed of anti-Emergency activities. This was the period when people starting losing faith in the Congress. Until then, this region was a Congress stronghold,” Bhat recollected.

Senior RSS leader Prabhakar Bhat at his Kalladka school. Greeshma Kuthar

Senior RSS leader Prabhakar Bhat at his Kalladka school. Greeshma Kuthar

Bhat believes the real support for BJP started pouring in after the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign. “In the next Lok Sabha elections, Poojary lost. Hindus woke up. They realised that Congress doesn’t represent them, the BJP does. This marked the beginning of our success in the coastal region,” said Bhat.

He remains appreciative of Poojary for renovating the Kudroli Gokarnatheswara temple.

“But who did he invite to inaugurate the temple? Rajiv Gandhi. Poojary initiated many reforms, no doubt, but he indulged in the same gimmicks Ramanath Rai is doing. Congress culture is like that only. They want to show their allegiance to Muslims, no matter what they do. That is why their downfall started, because of them behaving like a Muslim party.”

During the campaigning leading up to the same elections, Rai, the former Bantwal MLA, at a public function thanked the Muslim community for helping him win six times and added that this victory was possible with the mercy of Allah. This statement went viral with everyone targeting him for being a ‘Muslim appeaser’. Bhat is convinced this is the reason why Rai lost the election.

“He is not the only one. Every one of them does this. They support Muslims, majority of whom are anti-Hindu. The state of our mother, the cow, is appalling. Parents are scared whether their girls will return back home as Hindus. But what do these Congress leaders do? Even Shakuntala Shetty lost because she never supported Hindus. She always took the side of Muslims. Their losses are all repercussions of their anti-Hindu behaviour,” Bhat alleged.

While Bhat labels the Congress 'anti-Hindu', in the coast the Grand Old Party is, for the most part, made up of Hindu leaders.

Most, like Poojary, organise around religion, albeit in different ways. Rai tried to float Ganesh Utsavs to counter the ones of RSS. “I call it secular Ganesha,” he said, adding that people from all religions participate in the five-day celebrations.

Ganesh Utsavs in Mangaluru follow the formula of the original, which was started by Bal Gangadhar Tilak in Maharashtra. “We need to provide alternatives to the people if we want them to move away from the communal traps being set by the Sangh,” said Rai.

Bhat believes that the ‘Hinduness’ of Congress leaders are gimmicks. “Being Hindu is connected with having national feeling. Hindutva is the aatma of this nation,” said Bhat, ridiculing leaders like Rai for not being loud enough about their Hindu identity. “If you remember Balraj Madhok spoke about Indianisation of Muslims and Christians. When that happens, even they will feel that pride. All of them are not bad, only some are terrorists, the rest want peace. But the main problem are the Congress leaders, they don’t do anything other than dance to the tune of Muslims.”

“Congress leaders have also tried pretty hard to project that they are ‘Hindu enough’,” said Dinker. “While vote banks may go back and forth, it is evident that when it comes to religion, people’s allegiances remain with the Sangh. People will buy anything the Sangh sells them.” But Poojary doesn’t think this is the case: “Can anybody question my devotion or my contribution to this religion? Still, they claim they are more Hindu than me. Who is the real Hindu?”

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Updated Date: Apr 25, 2019 18:40:43 IST