How coastal Karnataka was saffronised; part 6: Gauraksha takes hold, cow vigilantism grows

Editor's note: This is the sixth 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

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Location: Vamanjoor, Mangalore District
Time: 4 pm
Date: 26 July 2018
Occasion: Launch of Gau Raksha Dals in Dakshin Kannada

A crowd is not unusual to the multi-religious population of Vamanjoor. On a busy day, the Vamanjoor market is bustling with activity. Not only is the market adjacent to National Highway 169, which connects Karavalli to Malnad, it is also home to two unique tourist destinations in the district — Pililuka Biodiversity Park and Manasa Amusement Park. But this small crowd of around 500 people carrying placards, saffron flags and bellowing ‘Bolo Gau Mata ki Jai’ was unusual.

While gauraksha rallies are commonplace in the district, one was yet to be organised at Vamanjoor. And it was on 26 July.

A week prior to this, two calves and a cow had been stolen from the compound of Purushottam and Prema Poojary. Immediately, Hindu groups like the Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Durga Vahini called for a press conference. VHP district president Jagadish Sheneva alleged that a gang of sword-bearing thieves had stolen these cows after terrorising the couple. He proclaimed that the Sangh was left with no other option than to take matters into their own hands.

"These incidents are happening every day. We cannot trust the police anymore. We will launch gauraksha dals in every village on 26 July. We will protect our cows — 'our mother' — our self."

This proclamation made its way into every national media outlet with the usual stock photo of men wearing saffron headbands, brandishing swords. Activists blamed the Sangh Parivar for their ‘fascism’. Leaders of the Sangh made their usual ‘Hindu society will protect its mother’. Statements were shared, Whatsapp messages circulated, Facebook statuses were updated.

 How coastal Karnataka was saffronised; part 6: Gauraksha takes hold, cow vigilantism grows

Two calves and a cow had been stolen from the compound of Purushottam and Prema Poojary. Immediately, Hindu groups like the Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Durga Vahini called for a press conference. Image courtesy: Greeshma Kuthar

The stage was set for a showdown. Or so it seemed.

On 26 July, a trickle of Sangh Parivar leaders and activists from groups, including, Bharatiya Janata Party, Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Dakshin Kannada Gau Sene, Matra Mandali and  Durga Vahini started to assemble at the Ram Bhajana Temple in Moodushedde at 4 pm.

After half an hour of aartis (the torch bearer for the day), Jagadish Sheneva emerged from the temple and started singing the hanuman chalisa. After that, the members raised slogans vowing to protect gaumata. The ‘inefficient government which had failed to protect gaumata’ was condemned. After this, the group set out towards Vamanjoor Market.

The road from Moodushedde led to National Highway 169. At the T-junction, on the left, was the Vamanjoor Market. As I approached the area where the stage had been erected, right in the middle of the market, I understood why the Sangh had chosen this spot for the public meeting. It was congested and logistically not a great option. But it was facing the Jumma Masjid of Vamanjoor, which was less than 100 meters away.

After a bit of hustle and bustle, Sheneva took to the stage. Sheneva is dubbed as one of the most articulate VHP leaders in the region, which means that he dishes out communal rhetoric which would qualify as hate at a steady and even pace. For a man of short stature, Sheneva with his bushy eyebrows and intimidating demeanour, can be quite the terror.

Sheneva introduced those who had assembled for the rally as gaupremis who had forayed out to protect their mother (in this context gau). He scanned through the crowd to mention every name that was important to mention. The list included names of Bajrang Dal state convener Suresh KR , VHP zonal convener Sharan Pumpwell, Bajrang Dal state co-convener Muralikrishna Hasanthadka, VHP district convener Gopal Kuttar, Bajrang Dal zonal convener Bhujanga Kullal, Durga Vahini zonal convener Vidya Mallya, Bajrang Dal district convener Praveen Kuttar, VHP-Gurupura leader Vishnu Kamath, VHP district leaders Vasudev Gowda and Manohar, corporators Hemalatha Salian and Jayaprakash, Gau Sene convener Veerappa and BJP MLA Umanath Kotian.

This reading wasn’t a mere exercise. For Sheneva, it was a show of strength. For others, it was an occasion to publicly display their allegiance to the Sangh and the cause of gauraksha. For bystanders, it was a curious new activity. For residents of Vamanjoor, it was a cause of traffic and disruption.

After labouriously introducing every leader present, some of these leaders took to stage. Some didn’t. Like Umanath Kotian, the reigning BJP MLA from Moodabidre district, where the alleged incident of cow theft had occurred. It could be because the Sangh had the unsaid rule of separating hardline organisations like the Bajrang Dal and its activities from the activities of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The first speaker to set off the long list of speeches was Muralikrishna Hasanthadka, the state co-convener of Bajrang Dal. Hasanthadka has served previously as the head of the Karnataka Gau Raksha Sene and has many FIRs to his name, the most recent for spearheading violence during the funeral procession of murdered RSS worker Sharath Madiwala.

Hasanthadka is a regular at these programs. Carefully timed with relevant pauses and voice modulation, his eloquence at delivering inflammatory speeches are a crowd puller. The speech he delivered at Vamanjoor was no less.

***

Sharan Pumpwell demanded elaborate measures from the state government ranging from ‘shut down illegal butcher shops’ to ‘check source of beef in butcher shops’ to ‘install check posts across the district for keeping a check on cattle transport’ but the poster boys demands didn’t attract as much applause. Image/Greeshma Kuthar

Sharan Pumpwell demanded elaborate measures from the state government ranging from ‘shut down illegal butcher shops’ to ‘check source of beef in butcher shops’ to ‘install check posts across the district for keeping a check on cattle transport’ but the poster boys demands didn’t attract as much applause. Image/Greeshma Kuthar

High Pitch: Jagatthina ella rashtragaligae manavathaeyya pattavanu kalisikottirvantha Hindu Dharmada mellae akramana! (Hindu Dharma, the religion which taught humanity to all the countries around the world is under attack!)

*pause*

Hindu Samajada mela daujanya! (Atrocities on the Hindu community!)

High pitch: Hindugala nambikkagala mela dali, jagathidda matha ‘gau’ mela akramaduva mukantara nama nambikkagalannu nasha maduva prayatna dina nithi dina nithi ee rajya dali nadutha idhe (The beliefs of Hindus are under attack. When they attack the mother of this universe, the cow, what they are actually doing is destroying the beliefs of the Hindu community. This is what is happening in the country.)

*pauses for dramatic effect with a sweeping glance*

Low pitch: Yochanae madu bekalva navu? Prashnae madu bekalva navu? Prashnae madu bekalva navu? (We should be questioning this, shouldn’t we?)

*APPLAUSE*

Inta shreshtavagi iruvantha gauvinna mela akramana! Gauvinna mela yava reethi akramana madhtharae namagella gothide. Gudetha mela iruva gau vigallana kalathana madi kasai kana dali daujanya maduva mukanthara gau mathaya melae akramana. (These attacks are on animal as pure as the cow. We all know in what ways they are attacking our cows. Cows which are grazing along the mountainside are being picked up and sold to butcher shops. These atrocities are a direct attack on gaumata.)

High pitch: Ashtakenninilla (2X), mathanthra shandathana yelli thanakka kelidhrae, Rathriya hortu nalli, mahalirgal mathra iruva mane alli bandhu kondu talvar thorsi gauvinna kalathanna maduva shandathanake ivathu neechal bidithare. Gauvinna mela ee deshadalli yava durkhatana ee mathantara shaktigalu madtha idare, adhanu nodi yochne madbeku, govinna sthiti yavu tara idhe youchnae madbeku (It doesn’t end there, the level of religious impotency has reached a point where these thieves are attacking houses in the middle of the night, where only women are staying. These women are threatened with swords. At knife point, cows are being stolen. This is the kind of impotency at display. We need to think about the injustices being committed by religious forces against the cow. We need to think about the situation that the cows are in this country)

High pitch: Nimge ahara agi thinlikkaw beraeennu siglilva? (Can’t you find anything else to eat?)

High pitch: Hindu Samaja prashna madu beka bedva yochanae madu bekalva ivathu (It is time that the Hindu society decides whether or not this is to be questioned.)

*pauses for dramatic effect*

Low pitch: Yochanae madu bekalva navu? Prashnae madu bekalva navu? (2x) 

*APPLAUSE*

***

From where I sat and watched the show, these statements seemed to electrify the crowd. Some of them loudly clapped, egging those next to them to clap as well, others vigorously nodded their heads in agreement. Many seemed to be charged to the point that they got up to pose prashnaes (questions), in the same way Hasanthadka wanted them to.

Every speech, one after the other, pretty much followed the same style and tone. Spanning twelve to fifteen minutes, it started with stating the abysmal situation that the Hindu society is in and ended with the resolve to protect our mothers — the cow. Almost every speaker took a minute or two to refer to the ordeal of Purushottam Poojary and how his family must've "shivered" at the sight of the sword-brandishing thieves.

Almost every speaker took a minute or two to refer to the ordeal of Purushottam Poojary (in photo) and how his family must've "shivered" at the sight of the sword-brandishing thieves.

Almost every speaker took a minute or two to refer to the ordeal of Purushottam Poojary (in photo) and how his family must've "shivered" at the sight of the sword-brandishing thieves. Image: Greeshma Kuthar

The program spanning two hours was on the ‘mother that needed saving’. The only woman speaker, the last one, wrapped up her speech in less than a minute as by then people were on the edge of their seats, almost ready to get up and leave. Mallya took it in her stride and, like her comrades, proclaimed: "We will not hesitate to take up arms to protect our cows. The women of this district will take talwars in their hands and stand guard. I suggest that armed women's gauraksha teams should be formed."

Every speaker stressed on the same point: Cows are disappearing; the incident at Moodushedde revealed a new pattern of cow thieves now brandishing talwars; state administration is useless and it was time to unite and get organised to protect cows.

Attacks on Muslims were couched in a ‘safe-zone’ language, probably because of the FIRs which were filed in earlier cases against inflammatory speech. But every speaker displayed full aggression. Hasanthadka went to the extent of saying that a second freedom struggle will be waged to safeguard gaumata. "We won't show our left cheek if you slap us on the right. Hindus are not cowards!"

Sharan Pumpwell demanded elaborate measures from the state government ranging from ‘shut down illegal butcher shops’ to ‘check source of beef in butcher shops’ to ‘install check posts across the district for keeping a check on cattle transport’ but the poster boys demands didn’t attract as much applause. By then, the crowd started getting restless, especially among the assembled volunteers, who had started to talk among themselves. They were bored. Some had retreated to the shops around the venue, sipping on sodas. Sensing dipping interest and numbers, the speeches got shorter and program ended by 7 pm.

The buildup to the event was more ceremonious than the event itself, or so it seemed. The turnout was small, with just five members of the media covering the event. Despite the location of the program and the buildup given to it, the attention it sought, wasn't received.

***

The incident that the leaders at the Vamanjoor Gauraksha Dal launch kept referring to, as a trigger point for their renewed anger against gau-kalathana (cow theft), happened 15 kms away from the event.

At 3 am on 16 July, 2018, Prema Poojary heard voices coming from outside her house. Without switching on the light, she tiptoed to the glass window and peeked out. She saw a Tata Sumo pulling up at the gate of her house and two figures emerging from the jeep. They were conversing in Tulu and made their way into compound of her house. She nudged her husband awake, who instinctly switched on the light. Before Purushottam could switch off the lights, the groups knew what was happening inside the house. The two blurry figures outside knew the residents of the house were awake. Vanaja and Purushottam knew that the blurry figures were trying to lug their cattle into the jeep parked at their gate.

Commands flew in from outside: "Don’t step out, we’ll attack you."

Prema and Purushottam huddled into a corner along with their children. Prema said she saw one of the figures holding a weapon. It resembled a hatchet, only smaller. But she couldn’t make out much since there was hardly any light. They didn’t want to endanger the lives of their children or their own so they remained quiet. In less than three minutes, they heard the jeep drive away.

Purushottam called his friends who lived nearby, and Prema ran out. Two of their milch cows were gone. Purushottam came out closely on her heels, cursing. These calves would’ve eventually been a regular source of income for the household.

"These are hills where our cows used to graze freely. Look what is happening now!" says Purushottam pointing to the mountains. Three cows belonging to his cousin were stolen three months before the incident at Purushottam's house. The theft of his cousin’s cows had received no attention or dharnas.

But crime, in the case of Botta Village, isn’t restricted to the theft of cows. "Things started going downhill after this area was connected to the adjacent highway from Bondel to Moodabidre. This provides direct access to our, otherwise, inaccessible village. Since then we've been facing many problems," says Prema.

Purushottam elaborates that in June a neighbour was robbed by two masked chain-snatchers on a motorcycle. "Chinmayee was returning home from work at 5.30 in the evening when they passed by her. Before she knew what was happening, they had reached for her throat. They took her chain and before she could react and they sped away."

Purushottam's uncle Jarappa Poojary, too, faced a similar incident. Two men on a motorcycle tugged at a piece of cloth he had wrapped around his neck, assuming there was gold beneath. "There was none. In the tussle, my uncle fell down and they sped away. We don’t know where these bikers wearing opaque helmets come from but they’ve become a real menace."

Prema says that none of them have complained or lodged an FIR regarding these incidents. The first FIR was registered from Botta about the theft of their cattle. "We didn’t want to frequent the police station," says Prema. Purushottam also registered a complaint at the Gram Panchayat office. Till date, there has been no update on their case.

When asked if he was aware of the program that was organised by the Sangh, he said he knew about the event but he didn’t attend. He was away on work, a contract needed to be finished on the same day. Purushottam supports a family of five. "I am not a member of any of these groups. My livelihood is hit now. I do menial building-related work here and there. How will being part of these groups help? Will I get my cattle back?" asks Purushottam as he takes me to the cow shed where his remaining cows idle, probably not having a clue about what goes on in their name.

***

Two arrested for illegal cow transport, one of them a Bajrang Dal activist: Prajavani, 28 July, 2018

The Vittla police have arrested two persons on the charge of illegally transporting cows to a Kerala butcher house. Of those arrested, one is Shashikumar Bhat (48), a Bajrang Dal activist from Padaru in Padnur village. The other person is Abdul Harris (21). There were four cows and a calf in the vehicle. Shashikumar is a local leader of BJP and chief of “Gomatha Rakshak Dal - Mani division”. During the last village panchayat elections, he had contested as the BJP candidate from Padnur village. The arrest comes barely a few hours after the VHP and Bajrang Dal staged a protest at Vamanjoor in Mangaluru against illegal transportation of cows. Statements like ‘the next Independence struggle will be waged to protect our cows’ were made at this rally.

***

Zuhaib (name changed) noticed the saffron-clad gang following him at the Vittla intersection. It would take this gang less than five minutes to finish him off. The murders of Hussainabba, cattle theft at Praveen Poojary, and Matani Kareen crossed his mind.

Earlier that day, Thimanna (name changed), a farmer who had over the years sold Zuhaib cattle regularly, had called him. Though Zuhaib said he was busy, Thimanna insisted that he buy the cow immediately. "I cannot sell it to anybody else. You are special!" Thimanna had said. Zuhaib had postponed a personal engagement and travelled to Vittla to purchase this farmer's cow.

Less than ten minutes after he had started on his journey back, Zuhaib knew he had walked into a trap.

He had to act quickly because more than himself, the life of his 18-year-old cousin sitting next to him was at stake. He looked around and saw a mosque. Without thinking twice, he drove right inside the compound of the mosque.

As soon as he parked inside, a crowd gathered around him. By then, the saffron-clad gang entered the compound and an argument broke out. While this was happening, Zuhaib tried to jump out of the back gate, only to be caught and thrashed by the gang, who by now had identified themselves as Bajrang Dal activists. Inside the compound, a member of Bajrang Dal was also roughed up.

Finally, the police intervened and filed cases against both the groups. One for illegally transporting cattle, the other for assault. The cow was returned to Thimanna.

***

Soumya Shetty is a housewife whose life revolves around her four year old son and Whatsapp.

"I am part of many WhatsApp groups, both family and friends. Every day these groups are filled with hate posts targeting Muslims and Christians. During elections, these posts spiral out of control. What are we going to do with such posts?" asks Soumya.

As an afterthought, she adds that there was a time when she was also anti-Muslim. "We heard these things in college, it is but natural. Now, I understand these things better." Soumya's husband is a district level leader of the Congress. But Seema says she is still not comfortable with the idea of a Hindu marrying a Muslim or a Christian. "I am okay with inter-caste marriage. But I can’t accept inter-religious marriage."

Soumya is convinced that the gauraksha campaigns of the Sangh are propaganda. Originally from a village close to Surathkal, Soumya says, "My father is a farmer. When his cattle were no longer of use, he used to call a Beary and sell the cattle to him. Everybody from my village did that. This practice has been there forever. Where did this gauraksha come from now?” asks Soumya

***

Dakshin Kannada is an agrarian region. Most of the local population were engaged in agriculture. The Paddanas best describe the characteristics of this land. Paddanas are songs about local deities, which have handed down the history of the region orally from one generation to the other. In the course of narrating the story of the deity, the Paddana would describe the agricultural character of the Tulu nation, elaborating on the feudal practises and hierarchical caste driven existence of the Tuluvas. Some of the paddanas acknowledge those from other religions, like Bearys, who were intrinsic part of an agrarian tulunadu.

As the Paddanas elicit, agrarian land was central to existence in the region. While the land was subject to regular changes in ownership under different rules, the mulageni system was primarily in practise.

Animal husbandry was also an important part of the milieu as any other aspect of agriculture.

The Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act was enacted during the tenure of S Nijalingappa in 1964, when the movement against cow slaughter led by the Sangh, was at its peak. This wasn’t the first law on cow slaughter to be passed in the region though.

Hyder Ali who ruled Mysore from 1761 to 1782 outlawed cow slaughter. The law didn’t apply to Coastal Karnataka, which was part of colonial Madras Presidency. But after the formation of the state of Karnataka, this Act would for the first time apply to Coastal Karnataka as well.

“Farmers routinely buy and sell cattle. Now the issue has turned communal because the business is almost exclusively being monopolised by Muslims. The situation was different 40 years ago," says Suresh Bhat Bakrebail, a retired engineer. Suresh Bhat has been documenting vigilantism in the name of the cow for close to two decades now.

In his experience, he says that almost every case involves the seller informing the Bajrang Dal of a soon-to-happen transaction and them forming a plan around this. “Most of the cases are pre-mediated. The police is informed."

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Updated Date: Apr 07, 2019 14:28:57 IST

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