Pramod Muthalik is an honourable man. His outfit, the Sri Ram Sene had no role to play in the attack on young women and men, who were at the 'Amnesia - The Lounge', a pub in Mangaluru in coastal Karnataka on 24 January, 2009.
This is the verdict of the Third Judicial Magistrate at the first class court in Mangaluru. He acquitted the 25 men charged with violence, citing lack of evidence. Clearly the prosecution failed miserably to establish team Muthalik's guilt, despite the availability of the shocking visuals of assault. Outside the court, Muthalik smugly claimed that it was "a victory of truth" and said he will file defamation cases against those who maligned his image.
Mangaluru-based social activist Vidya Dinker says she is not surprised by the verdict which is both delayed and denied.
"I am frustrated by it though. Mangaluru society is such that most people move out of the country in search of jobs so I am not sure how many of the eyewitnesses and victims actually turned up in court to depose during the trial. Nine years is such a long time to give a verdict in a case like this," says Dinker.
Soon after the incident in 2009, the author had met Diana Edwards (name changed) in Mangaluru who escaped the assault by the skin of her teeth.
"Those few seconds saved us from the assault. We had just finished our drinks and were leaving Amnesia, when we saw this huge group of 30 to 40 men entering, their body language clearly aggressive and intimidating. In a short while after we had left, we received phone calls from worried family members and friends, inquiring if we were at Amnesia. The news had spread like wildfire in Mangaluru," Diana had said.
The Karnataka deputy convenor of the Sene, Prasad Attavar had claimed responsibility for the attack, stating the Sene was against women who violated traditional Indian values. The video of the brute assault went viral and gave Mangaluru a bad name.
But not everyone was convinced that it was the angry Hindutva activist at work. Certainly not Santosh M Hangarki, the owner of Amnesia. The pub was just 26 days old when the incident took place and it lost its license soon after. His suspicion was that someone, most likely a business rival, had hired the men for a price to kill a new entrant into the business. The moral policing angle by a Hindutva group was just a cover for a hit job.
"Some of the men, I learnt later, were students, some autorickshaw drivers, even electricians. Many of them were drunk when they arrived at Amnesia," Hangarki told me.
Mangaluru is notorious for illegalities peddled in the garb of religion. The vigilante groups acquire a certain legitimacy when they associate with a so-called religious group, either right-wing or Islamic. The fringe groups are known to collect hafta regularly and many are in the business of providing security to commercial establishments.
The Dakshina Kannada district is Karnataka's most communally polarised zone. Both right-wing outfits like the Bajrang Dal, Sri Ram Sene, Hindu Jagrana Vedike and the Islamic Popular Front of India (PFI) frequently cross swords to indulge in moral policing. Their favorite targets are young couples, with Hindu groups often beating up Muslim boys seen with Hindu girls, accusing them of love jihad. Hindu boys seen with Muslim girls are similarly frowned upon. There have been several incidents of moral policing, both major and minor, after the Amnesia episode. In the last three years, several activists belonging to both religions have been killed, with attempts made to give a communal colour to each murder.
What does this acquittal mean for Mangaluru, coming as it does so close to the elections?
In 2014, the Karnataka unit of the BJP had admitted Muthalik into the party. But following a media and public outrage, the central leadership of the BJP asked for the decision to be overturned within five hours. What this verdict does is give Team Muthalik a certain legitimacy and will embolden them to make their presence felt in Mangaluru.
It also comes at a time when the coast is being polarised by the BJP, accusing the Congress of having cut a deal with the PFI and its political arm, the Social Democratic Party of India. The BJP calls Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah "Jihadi", hoping to gain brownie points by pitting the 'Hindu' BJP against the 'Muslim' Congress in the 20-odd Assembly seats in four coastal districts.
But beyond the elections, it will make conservative families indulge in in-house moral policing. Having seen that the judiciary has been unable to punish the men who were caught assaulting on camera, the verdict will ensure Mangaluru's young are advised to stay out of harm's way.
If the Karnataka government feels justice has been denied, it owes an immediate appeal in a higher court to the people of Mangaluru. The flip side possibly in this communally surcharged pre-election atmosphere is that it will be projected as an attempt to go after the Hindus.
Updated Date: Mar 13, 2018 14:24 PM