Dakshina Kannada/Udupi: A steep, concrete road led to a courtyard carved out of a hill in Nettaru village, nestled amid hills of areca and coconut plantations of southern coastal Karnataka. A bronze bust of a confident young man with folded arms overlooked a sprawling 2,500-sq-ft, one-storey modern house with marble flooring and false ceilings.
Less than 5 km away, a similarly steep but muddy road, pockmarked with rocks and gullies formed in the harsh monsoon rains, led to Kalanja village. Paint peeled from the walls of a two-room house. A broken window was mended with a green net and cracks in the wall were covered with a faded banner showing the silhouette of a masjid.
In July 2022, the houses shared similar tragic scenes: the body of a young man murdered and thousands of grieving, angry people. In Kalanja, daily wage worker Mohammed B Masood, 19, died on 21 July 2022 after reportedly being attacked by eight men from the Bajrang Dal.
A week later, chicken-shop owner Praveen Poojary, a 32-year-old worker of the state’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was killed in Nettaru, in “revenge”, allegedly by members of the now-banned Popular Front of India (PFI).
Nettaru and Kalanja villages are bound by a thread of blood and violence. Less than 48 hours later, one more Muslim man was killed by members of Hindutva organisations, also in a revenge murder, setting in motion a pattern of politicking over murder that has developed across this lush, rich region where 88.97% of the population is literate.
During the run-up to the Karnataka elections, held on 10 May 2023, the bloody thread that bound these two villages reflected larger Karnataka electoral debates, growing increasingly vitriolic as they were pared to their communal essence.
As the Congress promised to ban organisations like the Bajrang Dal and PFI for “promoting enmity and hatred”, Prime Minister Narendra Modi accused them of being against the god Hanuman, also called Bajrang Bali.
This accusation galvanised BJP cadre in coastal Karnataka before expanding statewide through Modi’s speeches and his exhortation to voters to shout “Jai Bajrang Bali” while casting their vote.
Praveen Poojary’s name—he is also known as Praveen Nettaru—was chanted across BJP rallies in the region; while Masood's death was used by the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), the political wing of the PFI, to remind Muslims of their marginalisation.
Their stories revealed that whoever wins Karnataka, the inter-religious schisms of coastal Karnataka will endure, leaking into the state and nation's politics. They explained why the state's ruling BJP has selected, in some constituencies including Udupi, Mangalore North and Belthangady in coastal Karnataka, candidates who strongly advocate Hindu fundamentalism (here, here and here).
“The distinct social profile of coastal Karnataka, along with little resistance to ideas of Hindutva, has created a polarised vote base where the communal agenda works,” said Narayana A, who teaches at the School of Policy and Governance, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.
“But the politics of murder, temple or other forms of communal politics is not easy to replicate elsewhere in Karnataka, which have more politically dominant and politically ambitious castes and where there is resistance to these ideas,” said Narayana. “The BJP can try, but only smaller doses of Hindutva, because they will get a pushback if they cross the line in other parts of the state.”
“A Fight For Religion & Hindutva”
The communal schism and the BJP’s unrealised ideal for the rest of the state was most evident in the constituency of Puttur in Dakshina Kannada, barely 20 km from Nettaru and Kalanja.
Away from the rhetoric and barbs of the BJP and Congress, two candidates embodied the volatile and violent politics of the region: Independent candidate and BJP rebel Arun Kumar Puthila, who had led the funeral procession of Praveen Nettaru where angry young men in saffron demanded retribution; and SDPI candidate Shafi Bellare, who was arrested under terror laws for the murder of Nettaru.
“This election will be fought on religion and on Hindutva,” thundered 43-year-old Puthila, to some applause at a small corner meeting of around 150 saffron-clad followers under a saffron-draped Ficus tree.
“Praveen Nettaru's murder showed that Puttur has become the hub of terrorism,” said Puthila. “SDPI is proof of that. The constituency needs someone who will stand behind party workers."
It was not hard to see where Puthila’s popularity came from. His office in a temple’s community hall in Puttur was bustling with young BJP workers who knew him through his association with the Sri Ram Sene, Bajrang Dal and other Hindutva organisations.
In 1997, he shot to prominence for taking up cudgels on behalf of Hindus after a Muslim man killed a 17-year-old Hindu girl in Puttur town. Puthila, then 27, emerged as a proactive Hindutva functionary, leading protests that put Puttur on the boil for a month.
In 2006, he and his followers were baton-charged and scores sent to prison when they defied a BJP state government order against conducting an “inauspicious” religious ritual at a temple in Puttur. In 2023, he still had five criminal cases against him, including for alleged assault and intimidation.
Satish, a software engineer from Bengaluru who travelled to Puttur to campaign for Puthila, called him “the protector of Hindutva”.
“Puthila was always there if any Hindu worker needed help, whether it was an attack by Muslims or if the government filed cases against them," said Satish, who gave only his first name. Employed by a multinational corporation in the state capital, Satish had donned a saffron shawl to be a part of Puthila's core campaign team.
He blamed the region’s “law and order problems” on “Muslims and Islamists". Anti-Muslim rhetoric flowed freely among Puthila’s team, including claims that Muslims were drug dealers, cow slaughterers and practised love jihad, which they defined as any interaction between a Hindu girl and a Muslim man.
Hindu Fundamentalist Rage Turns On The BJP
These workers believed the BJP was not adequately combating their anxieties about Muslims. “We need a strong leader like Puthila here to bring peace,” Satish said.
Puthila has harboured political ambitions for over a decade, but consolidated his hold over young BJP workers in July 2022 after Nettaru’s murder.
He was among the first to arrive in Nettaru and led the procession to the crematorium. Initially, the anger was directed towards the Muslim community, and a few Muslim-owned shops were attacked.
But the rage quickly turned towards the BJP.
When the state BJP president and member of Parliament Nalin Kumar Kateel arrived, a Hindu mob surrounded his car. The BJP government’s administration had to lathi-charge its own workers.
Manish Kulal, 25, a graphic designer and BJP party worker, said, “If not for Puthila, Nettaru's murder would have been forgotten.”
Under pressure, the BJP termed Nettaru’s murder a terror attack, and handed the investigation over to the National Investigation Agency (NIA).
Chief minister B S Bommai visited Nettaru’s family and announced a compensation of Rs 25 lakh, and a government job for the slain man’s wife. The party contributed another Rs 60 lakh to fund a house for the family.
Just two weeks before the election, the house was formally completed, and over 2,000 BJP workers attended a grand function in Nettaru.
The workers expected the BJP to field Puthila. When it chose Asha Thimmappa, a soft-spoken 65-year-old former member of the zilla panchayat or district council with a quiet presence in local politics, their anger resurfaced. Puthila rebelled.
“I’m standing for elections on behalf of party workers who have been pained by the way BJP treats its workers,” said Puthila. “I’m standing to protect Hindutva, which the BJP has failed to do.”
Muslim Man Killed Over A Calf
In Kalanja, Shaukat Ali watched the electioneering with some despair. Masood, his nephew, had been staying with him in 2022, hoping to earn a decent wage as a painter in the area.
Like Nettaru, his dream had been to save enough money to build a house for his widowed mother and four siblings who lived in Kerala.
After Nettaru’s death, he wanted to visit the family, Ali told Article 14. “We could feel their pain,” he said. A painter, the 35-year-old stroked his long beard, and sighed. “We were advised not to go to their house because the situation was turning communal.”
Masood had been killed the previous week.
Thousands attended Masood’s funeral including leaders from the Congress and Janata Dal (S). No one from the BJP came. The police arrested eight men, all of them linked to Hindu fundamentalist groups.
When chief minister Bommai visited Nettaru’s home a week later, his convoy did not enter Kalanja. That pained Ali. “He came within five kilometres of our house. Are we not citizens of the same land? Isn’t a mother’s pain of losing her child the same irrespective of religion?”
The family made several appeals to the district administration seeking compensation that the state government provides in cases of loss or injury due to a crime. So far, Masood’s family has received none. Masood’s family have scattered across Kerala and Karnataka in search of work.
Ali recalled the argument that he believed precipitated Masood’s death. In early July, a neighbour had given Masood a female calf to rear. “He treated the calf like a pet and it would follow him everywhere in the house,” said Ali.
Local Hindutva groups, who consider themselves crusaders against cattle slaughter, repeatedly accosted him demanding to know his intentions with the calf. “Masood asked them if Muslims couldn’t rear a cow,” said Ali. An altercation ensued and a soda bottle was smashed on his head. Masood succumbed to his injuries two days later. (The calf died of natural causes a day after his death.)
A Funeral Speech, Candidature From Jail
Among the men present at Masood’s funeral was Ismail Shafi, a 41-year-old trader from the neighbouring Ballare village and a member of the SDPI since its inception 14 years ago.
Shafi was a popular speaker, drawing sizeable crowds of SDPI workers who would travel long distances to hear him about religion and politics. Between 2014 and 2017, the police filed three cases against him for hate speech under section 153A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860.
At Masood’s funeral on 21 July, Shafi made an impassioned speech about the injustice of the violence.
When Nettaru was killed a week later, the NIA arrested several men connected to SDPI and PFI. On 5 November 2021, it arrested Shafi for conspiring to kill Nettaru. He was charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), 1967, and continues to be in jail without bail.
In April 2023, the SDPI, which contested 16 seats in the Karnataka elections, selected Shafi as its candidate in Puttur, though he was still in Shivamogga prison.
“There is a narrative that Shafi is a terrorist. We are countering that. He is an innocent man,” Basheer, Shafi’s elder brother, told Article 14 over the phone. He insisted that at the funeral, Shafi had only said the law would take its own course.
Basheer said just as Praveen Nettaru’s family deserved justice and a fair enquiry, so did Masood’s. “The truth is that political parties are scared to take a stance when someone from the Muslim community is killed,” he said.” They think it'll affect their votes elsewhere.”
The SDPI’s campaign for Shafi was primarily aimed at Puttur’s 50,000 Muslim voters. Muslims are the largest community here, forming nearly a quarter of the constituency's electors.
During the door-to-door campaigns, SDPI’s sparse cadre were often asked why a man accused of murder in a communally sensitive district was selected to contest.
Ibrahim Sagar, SDPI’s Puttur constituency president and in-charge of Shafi’s campaign, admitted that they had to repeatedly explain that the RSS and SDPI were in a direct fight.
Puthila and the BJP used Shafi’s candidature to emphasise how the PFI and SDPI were “terrorising Hindus”. J P Nadda, the BJP’s national president who stopped in Nettaru village while campaigning in the district, said the party would ensure that Nettaru’s “martyrdom will not go to waste.”
In Praveen Nettaru’s household, the elections reopened old wounds. Their walls illustrated the politics outside, and sketches of him shared space with pictures of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and local BJP leaders. These were gifted to them by the BJP. Puthila has visited them multiple times.
“The house feels empty without our Praveen,” said Ratnavathi Poojary, his mother. The family was still grappling with the reason for the murder. Among those arrested were acquaintances and neighbours.
They were deeply upset with the SDPI’s choice of candidate. “He should not have stood for elections. He will inspire more people in this village to do violent acts,” said Ratnavathi.
Politics Over Corpses
Elections in Puttur, which lies about 50 km outside Mangaluru, are yet another chapter in the region’s bloody history of murder, arson and revenge that began with a series of riots between 1993 and 1998, coinciding with the BJP’s meteoric rise here.
“Communal murders have been common, but they would earlier be confined to one village or town. Since 2017, they have flared up and have impacts across the district,” said K Ashraf, the former mayor of Mangalore and a member of the Muslim Okkuta, a collective of moderate Muslim organisations.
In December 2022, five months after Masood’s death, Ashraf recalled rushing to the outskirts of Mangaluru city when Abdul Jaleel, a 45-year-old shopkeeper, was stabbed to death for reportedly being involved with a Hindu woman. Thousands had gathered for the funeral procession.
The police enforced section 144 of the Code Of Criminal Procedure, 1973 that prohibits assembly, processions and gatherings. The Okkuta ensured that Jaleel’s body was taken to the graveyard quickly despite the crowd clamouring for it to be kept on public display for longer.
“Politically, the Congress can’t be seen as siding with Muslims and does little but offer condolences. The BJP and SDPI proudly show their biases as the party of Hindus or Muslims. These are the parties that politically profit when these murders happen,” Ashraf said.
In 2018, the BJP’s strategy of blaming the Congress for the deaths of 23 Hindutva “activists” during the latter’s rule in Karnataka won them 12 out of 13 constituencies in Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts. Later, reports showed that the BJP’s list of 23 deaths included men who were alive, and some men who had died of natural causes. A majority of the murders were not committed by Muslim men.
“Political murders tend to happen before or in the lead up to elections. BJP has always made them an emotive issue to polarise voters,” said Suresh Bhat Bakrabail, a social worker who has since 2005 kept a record of local media reports on communal incidents in the region—encompassing hate speech, moral policing, attacks by cattle vigilantes and murders. In 2022, there were 174 communal incidents, the highest since 2014.
After years of political murders stirring the hornet’s nest in this communally sensitive district, there is now a growing anger at parties who spin election campaigns around “martyred” political workers.
A Trail Of Broken Families
On 6 May, BJP’s flags lined the small highway town of B C Road, around 30 km from Mangaluru. Armed policemen awaited the start of a roadshow by Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath.
From a laundry shop that abuts the highway, a woman peeked out with some irritation. Six years ago, on a warm July day on the same highway, thousands had accompanied the body of her brother, Sharath Kumar Madiwala. The 28-year-old RSS and BJP member was killed by three men in front of this laundry shop, reportedly to avenge the killing of an SDPI party worker two weeks earlier.
In the previous election in 2018, Madiwala’s name was chanted in rallies across the district. Hindutva groups built a memorial in front of his house.
“Imagine waking up to his image every day and knowing he’s not there. It really disturbs the mind,” said Madiwala’s sister who asked that her name be withheld. She said this was not out of fear but resignation that no amount of press coverage or letters to local BJP leaders had helped their family out of their financial troubles.
“People promised us a lot of things in 2018. We’ve got nothing,” she said, while running the shop that her brother once managed.
“We’re seeing videos on WhatsApp about how the BJP is helping Praveen Poojary’s family,” said Madiwala’s sister. “They deserve help after something so traumatic. But what did we do not to deserve it?”
This undercurrent of anger against the BJP formed a critical pitch for Puthila, who challenged BJP leaders with a rhetoric of their own making. Kannada banners around his rallies said: “Cast your vote for Hindutva”.
Another one said, “Idhu bandayaalla; prathirodhi (This is not a rebellion. It is resistance.)”
What Puthila was resisting was the alleged softening of BJP’s Hindutva stance. Many BJP workers told Article 14 that after Nettaru’s murder, they wanted the police to shoot down the killers, to strike fear in the hearts of Muslims.
Sowing The Seed Of Communalism
When the police did not do their bidding, two days after Nettaru’s murder, Hindu fundamentalist mobs hacked down Mohammed Fazil, a 23-year-old daily wage worker at an oil refinery outside Mangaluru city.
The police arrested eight people, many with links to the Bajrang Dal, and said their motive had been to kill any Muslim man as revenge.
In January 2023, Sharan Pumpwell, a Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader with a violent rap sheet spanning decades, said in a public speech that it was his workers who murdered Fazil. “This is our power,” he said.
Fazil’s family demanded Pumpwell’s arrest, but the police did not register a complaint, claiming they had sought legal opinion.
“What kind of justice is it when Nettaru’s murder is sent to the NIA for investigation, but we get a shoddy investigation?” asked Ummar Farooq, Fazil’s father, who lives in Mangalapete, a hamlet on the outskirts of Mangaluru that abuts the region’s largest oil refinery.
Farooq is a broad-shouldered, proud man who hides his tears by pursing his lips. He had spent his life driving trucks across the state, a job he had to quit after Fazil’s death left him with health complications.
Farooq’s elder son, Adil, had been waiting for his work visa to Saudi Arabia when Fazil was killed. Fazil had a postgraduate degree in fire and safety management, and had also been looking for opportunities to emigrate.
Farooq’s youngest son, who is in class 7, held out a phone to show a photo of Fazil: a well-built man who took after Farooq.
Chief minister Bommai, who announced Rs 25 lakh for Nettaru’s family, had been in Mangaluru when Fazil was killed. “There is no question of getting compensation when the government doesn’t even turn towards us,” said Farooq.
Farooq’s hands trembled as he spoke. “The press, the police and politicians are a nexus that have sowed the seeds of communalism,” he said. “This communalism is being cultivated over corpses, including my son’s.”
He said he did not hope to get justice. “But I do pray that no other innocent child is sacrificed on the altar of communalism.”
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(Mohit M Rao is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru.)