Karnataka polls: In 'terror-tainted' Bhatkal, Hindu-Muslim divide polarises voters as well as decides candidates

The sitting MLA from Bhatkal, Mankala Subba Vaidya, who is also the Congress candidate, rushed to the office of Majlis-e-Islah-o-Tanzeem soon after it sent word for him. Even though he was in the midst of his election campaign, Vaidya knows he can ill-afford to ignore the NGO's summons. After all, it sits on a corpus of 55,000 Muslim votes in Bhatkal constituency.

The Tanzeem is an umbrella organisation with a membership of 20 jamaats (committees) from different parts of the Bhatkal constituency. Soon after the meeting that lasted an hour, the NGO decided to back Vaidya and the Congress in its fight against the BJP in Bhatkal.

"Every political party has the right to ask for votes from every community. That is how Congress has asked the Tanzeem, the Hindu community, and the Christian community. It is people's choice whether to give or not," says Vittal Naik, president of Congress's Bhatkal unit, defending his party's arrangement with the Tanzeem.

 Karnataka polls: In terror-tainted Bhatkal, Hindu-Muslim divide polarises voters as well as decides candidates

BJP workers taking part in Jana Suraksha Yatre in Bhatkal, Karnataka. Twitter@BJP4India

But the decision did not come without its share of devious politicking. The meeting was preceded by Congress-leaning members of the Tanzeem allegedly putting pressure on the JD(S) candidate, SM Amjad to withdraw from the contest. He took back his candidature 25 minutes before closing time on the final date of withdrawal of nominations.

"The Congress leaders put pressure not only on me but also on my family members to withdraw, saying I should not split the secular vote. But I do not think even with my exit, the Congress' chances will improve. I see a good chance of BJP winning," says an upset Amjad.

Bhatkal is no ordinary constituency. Call Bhatkal a "terror town" in front of a Bhatkali and you are more than likely to see a frown, a serious look of disapproval on his face. Unfortunately, for this coastal town in Karnataka, the involvement of terror masterminds Yasin and Riyaz Bhatkal, whose family name of Siddibappa got replaced with the town's name, meant Bhatkal and terror became synonymous with each other. Just about every Bhatkali resents it and having to put up with an extra layer of security check at the airport the moment the officer sees the name 'Bhatkal' on the passport.

Bhatkal forms part of the Uttara Kannada Lok Sabha constituency, that is represented by Union minister Anant Kumar Hegde, known for his communally divisive remarks. It is important for Hegde to deliver Bhatkal into the BJP kitty, for it to be showcased as the party's political victory against 'terror elements'. And, the Congress cosying up to the Tanzeem has handed it an opportunity on a platter.

Of the 2.12 lakh voters in this constituency, 55,000 are Muslims. Bhatkal has 1.1 lakh Hindu votes, of which Namdharis constitute about 70,000. The others include fishermen belonging to different sub-castes, Christians, and Brahmins.

In 2013, Vaidya contested as an independent candidate and gained from the presence of four Namdharis in the fray as the vote got split. The Tanzeem had then backed the JD(S) candidate Enayatullah Shabandri. While he polled 27,000 votes, most of them believed to be from Muslim voters, he lost by 9,800 votes to Vaidya.

While the Tanzeem's support gives the Congress an advantage, it is a double-edged sword. At least 12,000 of the Muslim voters are in Gulf and Bhatkal reported 71 percent polling in 2013. So, Vaidya can hope to net about 30,000-odd votes of the Muslim community.

The flip side is how many Hindu votes he could potentially lose. The BJP whose candidate Sunil Naik is a Namdhari is conducting a campaign asking Hindus to vote for a Hindu party (read BJP) and not the pro-Muslim Congress. And no time is wasted connecting the community to terror, both on social media and during door-to-door campaigns.

"Vaidya is a candidate of the Tanzeem. If he wins, he will listen only to the Muslims," says Rama Naik, BJP leader and member of the strategy team. "And everyone knows what is happening in Bhatkal. This is a bomb factory," he adds.

The Muslims bristle at being pushed into a corner by the aggressive posturing by the BJP. Imran Lanka, an advocate denies any attempt to polarise by the Tanzeem. "If the Tanzeem was backing a Muslim candidate, there would be some merit in what the BJP is alleging. Not when we are supporting a Hindu candidate. This is mischievous BJP propaganda," says Lanka.

Haneef Shabab, a doctor practising in Bhatkal town says, "What these people are doing is to talk about Hindus vs Muslims, Tipu vs Shivaji, terrorism vs patriotism instead of development. They are making an issue out of it as they have a Namdhari candidate and therefore a solid vote bank."

The Tanzeem denies it is dividing communities by pledging support of Muslims to the Congress.

"The support is in exchange for a promise that development will be undertaken. We are trying to work towards development and peace in Bhatkal," says Mohiddin Altaf Kharuri, general secretary of the Tanzeem.

The BJP dismisses the Tanzeem's defence as a lie and accuses it of bossing around in Bhatkal. Rajesh Naik, president of BJP's Bhatkal unit, claims that of the 24 wards in Bhatkal municipality, the Tanzeem unilaterally decides who will be the chairperson in 16 wards as 70 percent of the town's area under the corporation is Muslim-dominated. In turn, the BJP does not even venture into 100 percent Muslim areas like Azaad Nagar, Madina Colony, and Navayath Colony. Ghettos define Bhatkal and this election has only reinforced the communal divide.

"Hindus have suffered in Bhatkal. It is a terror town. Fortunately, there have been no communal riots since 2006 in Bhatkal because it was affecting the business of the Muslims. So, now they create trouble outside Bhatkal," alleges Rajesh.

Vaidya is banking on the developmental work he has done in Bhatkal. A few months ago, the Congress candidate put up hoardings claiming that he had done development works worth Rs 1,500 crore in Bhatkal. Since then his critics refer to Vaidya derisively as the '1500 crore MLA'.

What is ironical is that BJP candidate Sunil, a well-known sportsperson in the town, played cricket and kabaddi for Royal Sports Club that is based out of Jamia Mohalla, a Muslim-dominated area.

"Don't be surprised if he gets some Muslim votes also because of this connect," says Mubashir of Saahil Online, a Bhatkal-based news website that focuses on news along the coast.

While the upcoming Karnataka Assembly election is seen as an election setting the tone for 2019, constituencies like Bhatkal are proof of the rupturing in the fabric of India where the festival of Indian democracy is only leaving behind soot and bad blood.

Updated Date: May 06, 2018 17:08:11 IST