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How coastal Karnataka was saffronised; Part 18: Two murders, political factions and Muslim polarisation conclude this series

Editor's note: This is the eighteenth and the final 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 was the month of Ramzan in 1976. The Muslim folk of Kalladka, a village 35-kilometer east of Mangaluru, were making their way towards the masjid to offer Isha Namaz, the last prayer of the day.

As was customary for Kunji Ahmad, he stopped at his cousin Ismail's shop and coaxed him into accompanying him. Ismail was immersed in the many accounting details of his newspaper distribution business. He asked Ahmad and his companions to go on, saying he would join them soon. A few hours later, after Ahmad had returned home, Narasimha, the shop assistant, came running to him. Policemen in a jeep had stopped at the shop and requested Ismail’s assistance, who told Narasimha that he would return soon and jumped into the jeep. They had driven away with Ismail. It was past midnight and he hadn’t returned.

Ahmad called a group of friends and set out to look for Ismail. After much deliberation, they contacted the police, who denied that they had picked up Ismail from his shop. Three days later, Ismail's body was found next to a river in Sarpadi. He had been strangled to death.

Kalladka M Ismail was the son of a farm worker. His quick wit and bold tongue earned him followers and soon he was a working member of the most popular party in the region, the Indian National Congress. He had a small roadside store which fostered political conversations and activities. "He was deemed to be someone who was accessible for help round the clock by most people in Kalladka," says Haji from Kalladka, who owns Haji Beedis.

Those were also the formative years of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh. During one public meeting of the party in the early 70s, Ismail had delivered a speech against the ideology of the Jan Sangh outside where the meeting was being held. His speech attracted a big crowd which left the leaders of the Jan Sangh fuming. One of the organisers of the meeting was Dr Prabhakar Bhat, who emerged as a central RSS figure in Dakshina Kannada in the years to come. In the early 1970s, Bhat wasn't as popular. But Ismail was. "He was an engaging orator and his speeches attracted everybody. He was popular among the youth, across religions. Those days, we didn't profile leaders as Muslims and Hindus. Atl east, not in the case of Ismail. He was emerging as a mass leader," recollects AC Bhandary, the president of the Tulu Sahitya Academy.

Ismail is also famous for flagging down former prime minister Indira Gandhi's convoy when she was passing through Kalladka, after a visit to Mangaluru. Gandhi stopped her convoy for fifteen minutes and addressed the gathering at Kalladka. It was rumoured that Ismail would soon be fielded by the Congress in the Assembly elections. It all came to an abrupt end with his murder in 1976.

 How coastal Karnataka was saffronised; Part 18: Two murders, political factions and Muslim polarisation conclude this series

Kalladka M Ismail was the son of a farm worker. His quick wit and bold tongue earned him followers and soon he was a working member of the most popular party in the region, the Indian National Congress. Illustration credit: Shrujana Niranjini Shridhar

Former minister for higher education late BA Moideen has written about Ismail in his autobiography Nannaolagina Nannu (Me Within Me). Moideen credits Ismail for putting in a lot of work when the land reform and redistribution law came into place in 1974. Ismail's store turned into a back office for filing claim forms. Tenants routinely consulted with Ismail and he helped them with the processes required to claim their land.

Moideen, his book, mentions that Kalladka Dr Prabhakar Bhat, Mahabal Devadiga and Urimanjalu Purandar Bhat were charged with the murder of Kalladka Ismail. The trial ended with the acquittal of the three. The state didn't appeal the acquittal.

***

I tried to interview people in the age group of 20 to 25 in the months I spent working on this series. During my interviews, I always asked them what their choice was for a political party. For the sake of this exercise, I will label the individuals in line with what their religion was on their identity cards, though some of them believed otherwise or used the fashionable 'I don't believe in all that'.

Former minister for higher education late BA Moideen has written about Ismail in his autobiography Nannaolagina Nannu.

Former minister for higher education late BA Moideen has written about Ismail in his autobiography Nannaolagina Nannu.

Most Hindus picked the Bharatiya Janata Party. Some of them picked Congress. The Catholic Christians were largely indifferent about who came to power, though most of them (not all), sided with the Congress. The Muslims I spoke to didn't have a ready answer. Though the Sangh and most Hindus have always called Congress a 'Muslim-party' in Dakshin Kannada, younger Muslims don't seem to see the difference between the two national parties. One of them told me that a leader is someone who represents the interests of the community. He was doubtful whether Congress has done that in Mangaluru for the Muslims.

One of them, a young Muslim graduate, did not want to be seen as a victim. He said that Beary Muslims in southern Karnataka, in spite of increased polarisation, have helped each other as a community and are doing well for themselves. When attacked on social media by trolls, which, according to him, is normal, he tries to counter it unlike his friends, who have abandoned the platform. "It gets tiring at times because it is the same rhetoric over and over again," he says as an afterthought. But he can't name a single political entity or a party who he can call his political representative. All parties have failed us, he says.

Yassir Hassan was in his early teens when he heard about the killing of Kalladka Ismail. When all the accused were acquitted and the case started to lose traction, a sense of indifference started to come over Hassan. Ismail was a Congressman. The government in power was Congress. How could Ismail's killers get away?

Hassan had been a part of many okkutas (collectives) which were started after the demolition of Babri Masjid, calling for peace and communal harmony. Spearheaded by Muslims and other civil society representatives, such groups mushroomed all across southern Karnataka. While they existed, their activities were in the nature of peace talks. The activities of these groups didn't stop the arrests or killings of youth, most of which ended in acquittals. Hassan recollected the frustration which existed among Muslim youths of Dakshin Kannada in the 1990s. "Muslim organisations like Jamaat-e-Islami Hind (JIH) were never articulate about the situation of Muslims. National parties didn't care about anything more than our votes. We had no political existence," says Hassan.

Founded in 2001, the Karnataka Forum for Dignity (KFD) started as a new chapter in the history of the region. The KFD was outspoken in nature and organised demonstrations against communal violence, openly naming the Sangh for its activities. Members of the KFD were from time to time involved in fist-fights and clashes with members of Hindu organisations. In 2006, they organised a rally called Vidhan Souda Chalo under the banner of 'Save Karnataka from Communal Fascists'.

Hassan was at the helm of these activities. He served as the general secretary of KFD till it merged with other groups from southern India to form the Popular Front of India (PFI) in 2009. Now, Hassan serves as the General Secretary of PFI.

"All parties have failed" is the narrative that the PFI and its political arm, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), banked on when it took form. In less than a decade, the organisation has grown in numbers. With their popularity, the critique on them has spiralled as well. Members of the PFI have been arrested for moral policing and more importantly for spearheading murders of activists of the Sangh. Many PFI leaders have been pulled up for making inflammatory speeches. Almost all Muslim organisations are opposed to the PFI in Mangaluru, with some even calling for a ban on them. But Hassan is unfazed. He denies that his organisation promotes moral policing.

He also denies the counts of murder. "Muslim assertion is a problem for everybody, including Muslims. But the youth are not stupid. They see what we represent. We equipped them to talk against the Sangh and now the world is jealous of our rise. So be it."

***

"Who represents the Muslims of Coastal Karnataka" is a contentious question in this region.

The Congress has been blamed by the Sangh for being a Muslim appeaser for decades. A recent entrant into electoral politics, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) blames the Congress for using Muslim for vote bank politics while doing nothing for Muslims. Muslim organisations in coastal Karnataka, such as the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, hold the SDPI responsible for polarising Muslims against Hindus. Some Muslims, like Irshad Uppinangady, a journalist and Shabbir Ahmed, a JIH leader from the state, go to the extent of labelling SDPI as the Sangh equivalent for Muslims. SDPI leaders vehemently deny this and blame other Muslim organisations for targeting them for their growing popularity.

Since socio-political polarisation along the lines of religion emerged in Coastal Karnataka, the Indian National Congress was seen as catering to multiple interests. There were leaders from Christian and Muslim communities such as Oscar Fernandes, Margaret Alva, UT Fareed and BM Idinabba and leaders from lowered castes such as Janardhan Poojary, Veerappa Moily and Manorama Madhvaraj.

The predominantly Brahmin Jana Sangh hadn't managed to capture the popular imagination in Mangaluru till the Emergency in 1976. After the riots of 1968, there had been a simmering tension but they were brought under control. With the onset of land reforms, which affected all communities including Muslims (some of whom had been landlords), the region sank into an economic mess. When things started changing in the early 1980s, with programs such as the Hindu Samajaotsava in Dakshin Kannada and the Ram Mandir movement slowly shifting the focus from the 'others' to the Muslims, there was nothing which was strong enough to counter the popularity that this narrative was gaining. Not even the so-called all-pervasive Congress. Hindu, Muslim and Christian communities had started migrating to the Gulf in search of work but only the growing affluence of the Muslim community was targetted.

Ismail was killed during this time.

The acquittals, the silence of the civil society, including the Congress, and growing tensions between communities affected inter-religious relationships in Coastal Karnataka. With the arrival of the Sangh's Ram Janmabhoomi movement, the mandate was set for the future.

'Hindu Rashtra' was in peril and only the establishment of a 'Ram Mandir' would save it. Across the country, the Sangh organised campaigns to collect bricks which would be used to build the Ram Mandir. Lal Krishna Advani's Ram Rath Yathra set out in Septemeber 1990, bringing with it a militant face of Hindu organisations, unseen till then. When he was arrested in October, the first set of riots broke out across the country.

It finally culminated with nationwide riots following the destruction of Babri Masjid on 6 December, 1992. In Dakshin Kannada, several remember this year as the time when clear faultline appeared for many. Localities across Dakshin Kannada saw rioting and since, the region hasn't been the same.

***

A trip to the lending library went horribly wrong in 2002 and I ended up with books I had never picked. One of them was a courtroom drama set in the United States. On a whim, I read it and ever since I imagined that I would grow up to be an outstanding trial lawyer. The vision disappeared after I started making trips to the court during law school. Courtroom drama didn't exist. People barely got through the day without dozing off in court. There was hardly anybody in the Mangalore Bar Association who fit the description of the lawyers in the books that I had read. Despair-struck, I continued to visit the trial courts of Mangalore till one day, I heard the arguments of the celebrated senior criminal advocate late K Purushottam Poojary.

Purushottam Poojary must have been in his late 70s when I saw him. I was told that Poojary was invincible but the cold-blooded murder of his junior, who was touted as the next Purushottam Poojary, changed everything. Naushad Kashimji was shot dead on 9 April, 2009, right in front of his house. Naushad was survived by his wife, Nusrath Jahan and his two children, who at the time of his death, were six and two.

Naushad Kashimji was shot dead on 9 April, 2009, right in front of his house. Naushad was survived by his wife, Nusrath Jahan and his two children, who at the time of his death, were six and two.

Naushad Kashimji was shot dead on 9 April, 2009, right in front of his house. Naushad was survived by his wife, Nusrath Jahan and his two children, who at the time of his death, were six and two. Image procured by Greeshma Kuthar

"He is a hard-working junior. Every day, early in the morning, he would pick me up and we would go to the office together. We used to go to court together and after court, he would drop me back home. This has been his habit for ten years." This is how Purushotham Poojary described Naushad in a complaint he submitted to the Station House Officer of Pandeshwar Police Station in Mangaluru, the day after was Naushad killed.

For a week after the killing of Naushad, the only statement that Poojary repeated over and over again was, "Why didn't they kill me? I've been doing these cases for longer, I am Naushad's senior." The day after the killing, Poojary filed a private complaint alleging that four senior police officers were behind the killing of his junior. Their names are Venkatesh Prasanna, Jayanth Shetty, Shivaprakash and Valerian D Souza. The reason, he stated, was vengeance.

Naushad was no ordinary lawyer.

In the years after Hindu Samajotsava, Babri Masjid and the Surathkal riots of 1998, the police force found a new focus. Crime in Mangaluru had largely been about the gangs.

Ballalbagh gang led by Raghu, Barke gang led by Barke Yaddu, Kadri Santhu, Pandu gang, Mulki Naveen gang, Kavonji gang from Bunder, Matadakani boys, Mulki Rafique, Bushra Azeez, Ravi Poojari gang, Vamanjoor Rohi and Bejai Raja gang.

These were some of the key gangsters in Mangaluru at that time. Mangaluru had also always served as a source of 'talent' for the Mumbai underworld, owing to the mass migration from Mangaluru to Mumbai over the decades, starting way before Independence. Today, some of the names listed above are reformed. Some are dead. Some are on the run.

The board outside Puroshottom Poojary's office still has the name of Naushad. Image by Greeshma Kuthar

The board outside Purushottam Poojary's office still has the name of Naushad. Image by Greeshma Kuthar

But in the late 1980s, the gangs went with the flow — they turned religious. On one side was the influence from Mumbai and on the other, was Mangaluru's own churning. The Hindu Yuva Sene emerged in 1989 with Gunakar Shetty at its helm. In true Tilak-style, they started yearly Ganesh Utsav celebrations and publicly proclaimed that they will fight against alleged atrocities faced by the Hindu community. But the members of the Hindu Yuva Sene were former gangsters. Now, their gang had a saffron tinge and they tried to divide other gangs along religious lines. That was the only difference.

In 1991, Gunakar Shetty was killed in broad daylight by a rival gangster, who was a Hindu. After 1992, there was a widespread crackdown on all activities of the gangs, especially those linked with the underworld. Newer formations in the form of Bajrang Dal, Ram Sene and Hindu Yuva Sene, with religion as its agenda now grew more prominent.

From rowdy sheeters, the focus started to shift to "communal sheeters". Arrests of those 'allegedly' involved in communal activities increased and predictably, many of the arrested were youngsters. Muslim youths became easy targets. Very few from the Mangalore Bar Association would involve themselves in these cases and this is where Naushad comes in.

His senior, Poojary, was familiar with such cases. Under the tutelage of Poojary, Naushad focussed on representing youth who were falsely charged with communal crimes. Most of Naushad's clients were those who couldn't afford legal help.

These activities were initially surprising for Naushad's wife, Nusrath.

Nusrath was overwhelmed with the amount of work Naushad put in, especially his round-the-clock dedication to the needs of his clients. He explained his work to her and they often had conversations about the cases. Two months into their marriage, Naushad suggested that Nusrath should take up law.

Late advocate K Purushottam Poojary. Image procured by Greeshma Kuthar

Late advocate K Purushottam Poojary. Image procured by Greeshma Kuthar

"He took me to professors who taught him and senior lawyers from Mangaluru, all of whom encouraged me to take the plunge. It made sense to me, as well, we could both practise and our work would also be a way of bringing us together," recollects Nusrath.

Nusrath joined law school the next month. In the years to come, she helped Naushad draft petitions, many of which involved cases of illegal detention and orchestrated encounters by the police. In 2006, a leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party was killed. At least, 25 Muslims were arrested. Two of them were killed in an encounter, both of them dying due to close range shots to the head and chest. The officer in charge of this operation was Venkatesh Prasanna.

Naushad filed petitions to human rights commissions. When a judicial enquiry was constituted to look into the encounter, he played a pivotal part in bringing the excesses by the police department to the fore. Subsequently, over the next few years, Naushad moved many petitions against Venkatesh Prasanna, who was notorious for spearheading encounters and custodial violence.

Prasanna is just one example of how the police operate in Dakshin Kannada. He was also someone who has been accused of associating with the underworld, blackmailing and threatening businessmen in Mangaluru for bribes. In 2013, a show cause notice was issued to Prasanna by IGP Gopal Hosur, where he was pulled up for misuse of power, cheating and indulging in activities that tainted the image of the police department. Ironically, Prasanna received the President's medal in 2015.

Naushad regularly wrote to the Human Rights Commission about Prasanna and other officers, such as Jayanth Shetty and Valerian D Souza. All of them, according to the petitions filed by Naushad, were misusing the law and targeting young Muslims.

"Those were crazy times. There was a killing or a stabbing every other day," says Sudipto Mondal, a journalist who was covering the crime beat for a national daily in Mangaluru at that time. The riots of 2006 had set off a string of killings. A Hindu would die one day, a Muslim the next. This almost became the order of the day. With the BJP coming to power in 2007, there was a marked increase in communal crimes. Hindu organisations received a fresh lease of life. Within a year, churches were targeted and attacked across Dakshin Kannada.

"Officers such as Nagaraj (who was eventually transferred), (Venkatesh) Prasanna and (Jayanth) Shetty were openly taking sides. Young Muslims were being picked out of their homes and locked up in jails, all on suspicion of involvement in terror plots, with zero evidence. Naushad pursued each case, filing bail application after bail application, arguing case after case. He made these cops cringe with exasperation," recollects Sudipto.

Sudipto, during this time, was regularly in touch with Naushad who informed him about these proceedings in court. Over a period of time, a friendship developed between the two. Sudipto recollects Naushad not just as a human rights lawyer, but as someone who was well read and understood the design of the establishment. "I know very few lawyers who understood social justice the way Naushad did," says Sudipto.

"In March 2009, a new SP came to town. His name was A Subrahmanyeswara Rao. He started bringing the city back to order. The police officers who otherwise had a free rein were also under scrutiny," says Sudipto.

A month after Rao, Naushad was shot dead. Naushad had filed a bail application for Abdul Rasheed Hussain, who was arrested for allegedly plotting the murder of top politicians in Mangaluru. Naushad's colleagues remember Rasheed's wife pleading with Naushad to take the case. During the arguments for bail, Naushad argued that the officers in charge have a history of carrying out unconstitutional killings. Naushad also told the court that handing over Rasheed to them for 15 days meant torture or imminent killing and hence, Rasheed should be examined only in the presence of his counsel, while also being medically examined everyday.

The court granted his prayer and immediately an argument had broken out between Naushad and the officers-in-charge Venkatesh Prasanna, Jayanth Shetty, Shiva Prakash and Valerian D Souza, who were present in the court. They told him, in court, that he wouldn’t get away for too long for harbouring criminals.

This is how Purushottam Poojary describes Naushad's death in a private complaint he filed at the JMFC Court in Mangaluru in July 2009: "Since Naushad Kashimji fought against illegal activities of Accused No. 13 to 16 (Venkatesh Prasanna, Jayanth Shetty, Shiva Prakash and Valerian D Souza), he had become a nightmare to them. They had deep seated animosity towards him. According to this complainant, the accused hatched a plan in consonance with hired gundas and murdered the brilliant upcoming advocate Naushad Kashimji."

This complaint was dismissed by the court for not having sufficient material to back it up. The police concluded from their investigation that Naushad was killed by rivals of Abdul Rasheed. Four of them were convicted in 2014 by the trial court. All of them were acquitted by the High Court in 2018.

On the day of the murder of Naushad, Sudipto received a call from a friend informing him about Naushad. Sudipto rushed to Naushad's flat to see his friend and confidante dead on the floor. In shock, he sat down. When he turned around, he saw the faces of the officers who were hovering over Naushad's dead body. One of them was Venkatesh Prasanna. Sudipto remembers Prasanna looking at him with a smirk for a few moments. For days after that, Sudipto didn't leave his room.

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Updated Date: May 08, 2019 08:28:44 IST