How coastal Karnataka was saffronised; part 13: Under Deoras, Sangh widens base in Dakshin Kannada, ramps up support from lowered castes
The Sangh, by now, had made its political entry into coastal Karnataka by winning the Municipal Corporation elections in Udupi. At 28, VS Acharya took charge as the youngest ever Municipal Commissioner. He later emerged as one of the most significant politicians for the BJP, going on to become the Home Minister of Karnataka in 2008. But this decade was not his to shine.
Editor's note: This is the thirteenth 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.
The 1970s as a decade was fraught with inconsistencies.
The Sangh, by now, had made its political entry into coastal Karnataka by winning the Municipal Corporation elections in Udupi. At 28, VS Acharya took charge as the youngest ever Municipal Commissioner. He later emerged as one of the most significant politicians for the BJP, going on to become the Home Minister of Karnataka in 2008. But this decade was not his to shine. Instead, from his own neighbourhood, another Mogahaveera leader emerged — Manorama Madhvaraj — thanks to a social engineering strategy which captured the imagination of smaller lowered caste communities across Karnataka. It was called the 'Devaraj Urs Formula'.
This formula, when applied to Dakshin Kannada, witnessed the Congress trying to pander to communities such as Moghaveeras, Devadigas and Billavas by elevating their leaders to important positions.
Manorama Madhvaraj was one such leader, though her husband, Madhvaraj, had already been an MLA before her. A veteran of the Indian National Congress, Manorama is all smiles when we start talking about her initial days in power. The first woman cabinet minister of Karnataka, she was elected as an MLA in 1972 and went on to become an MP in 2004. "The Moghaveeras were proud that a woman from the community was contesting elections, they fully supported me. Indira Gandhi was very popular among the masses for her measures. But the rich were angry," says Manorama.
"On one hand, we nationalised banks in 1969, there were four in Dakshin Kannada itself, and on the other hand, we took land from landlords and bestowed ownership right on tenant communities in 1974. Why won't they be angry?" she says. "But it all came to an end when they killed her," she adds referring to Indira's assassination in 1984. Indira enjoyed considerable support in Dakshina Kannada as it was under her governance that the Land Reforms were introduced in 1974.
The popularity enjoyed by Indira Gandhi is endorsed by another leader whose rise is attributed to her, former Union Minister Janardhan Poojary. "I received a call from her in the middle of the night. My life changed after that," Poojary said. He filed his MP nomination papers the very next day and for the next five terms, he was undefeated.
Congress indulged in all types of formulas to form newer bases for support. They particularly tried to focus on Moghaveeras, Devadigas and Billavas. Manorama Madhvaraj, Janardhan Poojary and Veerappa Moily were given important portfolios as they belonged to these three castes which garnered a substantive chunk of support. Moily was the first chief minister from Dakshin Kannada to rule Karnataka.
But this is also the period that RSS ramped up its support base from being just Brahmin-dominated to including almost all the other lowered castes of Dakshin Kannada.
Both Poojary and Madhvaraj can't explain how this happened. While Madhvaraj quickly changed the topic, Poojary thought of them as invincible. "They will say whatever required to convince you, they are everywhere," he says, before trailing off into silence.
The truth is far from this though.
While Poojary's closest aide and biographer is a local BJP leader, Madhvaraj herself contested from a BJP ticket in 2013. Both are weary about it.
The journey of RSS, from being an organisation which was scorned after the assassination of Gandhi to an organisation which was accepted, needs to be scrutinised. During the early 1970s, RSS itself went through a major upheaval, with a change in command from MS Golwalkar to Madhukar Dattatreya Deoras. Deoras was a disciple of Hedgewar. He had kept away from the RSS during Golwalkar's time as they disagreed on the kind of work RSS should be doing.
We find mention of this in The RSS: A view to the inside written by Walter K Anderson and Shridhar D Damle:
"Deoras reoriented the RSS to include involvement in poltics and social reforms. In fact, his disagreement with Golwalkar's view on activism wsa strong enough for Deoras and his brother, Muralidhar alias Bhaurao to pull out of the daily functioning of the sangh for several years. Golwalkar's choice of Deoras as his successor marked the end of the organisation's quietist rebuilding process and the start of a new and more assertive RSS. In his early speeches after becoming sarsanghchalak, he spoke of the need for the RSS to act assertively on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged."
Natesh Ullal is a filmmaker from Mangaluru. His earliest memory of the RSS is playing games at a neighbouring ground, led by a pracharak. "Once a week, we would have somebody talk to us about personalities like Shivaji, Rana Pratap, Subash Chandra Bose and historical figures." Poojary too, who studied at Bokkapatna Government School, shares a similar memory. "There was a shakha in my school and they used to play games every day," says Poojary.
But while RSS was relatively new during Poojary's time, Natesh was born after it had been banned once for being involved in Gandhi's assassination. Due to this, the RSS and its new-born political wing Jan Sangh did not have many takers in the years to follow.
Natesh recollects an incident from his childhood when a group of students from his school went to Sanganiketan for a program. When they returned, all of them were caned by their parents for attending the program. He also remembers taking part in a Jan Sangh election campaign as a child. Children were given cloth-made badges which said 'Vote for BJS'. The students had had to pin the badges to their chest and have it on for the entire day. When his family saw the badge, they were very angry.
"There was an aversion to Jan Sangh and RSS. We used to make fun of the Brahmin who used to run the shakha in our area. At times, there would be nobody. He would give instructions, do exercises by himself and then salute the saffron flag by himself," says Natesh reiterating that in the 60s and 70s he only recollected people taunting the organisation. Evidently, a region where Gandhi had a strong following, the RSS was admonished publicly in Mangalore in the years following his killing.
"This feeling went away to an extent with our generation. RSS started being seen as an organisation which leads social service activities, like helping out during cyclones and floods. They led many activities during the Cyclone in Andhra Pradesh in the 70's. There were hardly any organisations doing this kind of work, so youngsters signed up without much coaxing."
Golwalkar, after the first ban on RSS was revoked in 1949, pushed his karyakartas to build shakas across Coastal Karnataka. The work of the RSS during the time of Golwalkar, remained shaka-centric. This approach didn't receive mass support. "The hangover of RSS's involvement in killing Gandhi still hadn't escaped from the minds of people and this huddling in one place made everybody more suspicious," says Natesh.
But with the coming of Deoras in 1973, RSS was reoriented as a voluntary organisation. This is what finally worked for the RSS. Within a few years, the RSS grew and by the time the 1975 emergency arrived, RSS had a large enough base to take on Indira Gandhi's government. They pretty much rode on the anti-Indira wave to establish themselves as one of the saviours of democracy in India.
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