Bengaluru: Abdul Rehman, 50 and Mohammad Mustafa, 40, hoped to be back home before sundown, but repairs to their truck took longer than expected in Belthangady town, around 60km east of the city of Mangaluru in coastal Karnataka.
It was 10 pm, and they were apprehensive about traveling 15 km on a dark, isolated road, two Muslims in a truck. In a region notorious for attacks on anyone even suspected of cattle running, they kept the tarpaulin open, so it was clear the truck was empty.
None of that helped, and their apprehension was well founded.
As they were driving, a group of about 25 people tried to stop the truck, first by throwing logs in front of it and then throwing stones. Rehman and Mustafa kept driving, but 3 km later they had to stop when two men on a motorcycle blocked their path.
“Almost immediately, a convoy of vehicles reached us,” Rehman told Article 14 over the phone. “Some 40 people had surrounded us.” The mob belonged to the Bajrang Dal and associated right-wing outfits who often use violence against those they suspect to be or brand “cattle smugglers”.
The Bajrang Dal mob abused and accused Rehman and Mustafa of transporting cattle for slaughter, even though the truck was empty.
“We told them to check the vehicle—we told them that we had nothing to hide. But that didn’t help,” Rehman said. “They started to beat us with their footwear, with their hands, and with sticks. They shouted that Muslims were cattle thieves and beef eaters. One man even had a knife in his hand. We were scared that we’d be killed there.”
Fortunately, someone had alerted the local police, who got there in time to disperse the mob and escorted the injured men to hospital. Both men had head and body injuries, and their truck was damaged. Six people were arrested.
A day later, near the district headquarters of Mangaluru, a multicultural town of nearly half a million with some of India’s highest levels of literacy, two people—a 24-year-old Muslim man and a Hindu woman who were friends and former classmates—were headed to Bengaluru in a private bus. A group of men stopped the bus, pulled out the boy and started to beat him. The woman told the mob she was travelling with her friend of her own volition. Instead, they attacked her.
“They asked him for his ID card and Aadhaar card, confirmed he was Muslim, and (accused him of) sitting next to a Hindu girl,” said a friend of the injured man after visiting him in hospital. “They assaulted him and even stabbed him while the bus full of passengers became silent onlookers…He was in shock. He didn’t even know why he was beaten.”
The Spike In Vigilantism
In both cases, those implicated are members of the Bajrang Dal—youth wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which aims to “consolidate” Hindu society and “protect the Hindu dharma”—and other Hindu right-wing groups.
They acknowledged to Article 14 their intentions of furthering their narratives of the minority Muslim community being engaged in cattle trafficking or “love jihad”, the allegation—bereft, as we reported two days ago, of fact and data—that Muslim men are somehow part of a conspiracy to marry and convert Hindu women.
The goal of the VHP, said Sharan Pumpwell, the organisation’s regional secretary, who is also associated with the Bajrang Dal, was to eventually collate a record of their actions and present them as “proof” to the state government that there was indeed a Muslim conspiracy to have their men marry Hindu women and covert them to Islam.
“Karnataka also needs a love jihad law,” said Pumpwell.
The recent cases are not aberrations in this communally-sensitive region with competing Hindu and Muslim mobilisations but part of a recent escalation of Hindu vigilante activities in the districts of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi in coastal Karnataka.
In the first four months of 2021, the region recorded 37 communal incidents, including 13 incidents of “moral policing” by right-wing Hindu groups and 3 incidents of cattle vigilantism, according to data compiled by Suresh Bhat Bakrabail, an activist with the People’s Union for Civil Liberties and the Karnataka Komu Sauharda Vedike (Karnataka Forum for Communal Harmony).
“There is a definite increase in moral-policing incidents,” said Bhat, who has witnessed and recorded for decades the rise of vigilantism in the region. “The first three months have already seen more cases than in the last three years.”
Though Muslim organisations have also been involved in moral-policing (here and here)—questioning or attacking inter-faith couples or passing judgement on independent women—all the moral-policing cases in 2021 involved Hindu vigilantes targetting Muslim men travelling with or talking to Hindu women.
The violence against the Muslim boy and Hindu girl on 1 April was the fourth such instance of Muslim and Hindu friends being attacked or harangued in Mangaluru city over the past month, and it has, right-wing groups acknowledge, a clear aim.
Police Do Not Keep Records, So One Man Does
In mid-March, two Muslim men and a Hindu woman travelling to a wedding were accosted by Hindu vigilantes 30 km out of Mangaluru city. On 29 March, an inter-faith couple travelling to Mumbai by bus were accosted by Bajrang Dal activists. Two days later, Hindutva outfits menaced a young, Muslim bus conductor who was talking to a college student in the bus.
Since 2010, Bhat has compiled incidents of moral policing by both right-wing Hindu and Muslim groups, cattle-related vigilantism, hate speech and communal incidents by from media reports and first information reports (FIRs) filed with police.
In the absence of police data, Bhat’s database is the most comprehensive form of record keeping in the region. In most moral-policing cases, said Bhat, victims do not file an FIR and media reports of the incident serve as primary sources.
Some broad patterns emerge from Bhat’s data: regular spikes before local elections and when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) runs the state government.
“With the BJP government in power, it does seem like there is a concerted effort to bring forward narratives of love jihad and cattle slaughter,” said Bhat. “They may be attempting to pressure the government into action.”
Hindu groups acknowledge it is indeed the case that they intend to pressure the government. They have a specific agenda, they told Article 14: to get the state’s BJP government to promulgate, as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat have done, laws to stymie inter-faith marriage, so-called “love jihad” legislation.
Off-the-record, local police officers said the rise in vigilantism is indeed a result of local Hindu outfits flexing their muscle. Additional director general of police (Law and Order) C H Pratap Reddy refused to comment on the rise in vigilantism.
“The police have arrested those responsible,” said Reddy. “We have taken strict action.”
‘The Political Machinery Is On Their Side’
Mangaluru and its district of Dakshina Kannada has a torrid history of moral policing and right-wing vigilantism, capped by two incidents that reached national notoriety: In 2009, members of the Sri Ram Sene attacked young men and women at a pub in Mangaluru; in 2012, right-wing vigilantes heckled and chased revellers at a homestay. In both cases, the vigilantes had said they were “protecting Indian culture.”
Other vigilante violence has been focussed on cattle traders or interfaith couples, particularly prevalent till 2015, abating since, only to be replaced by an increase in overtly communal attacks.
“You had the change in government (from a BJP-led government from 2008-2013 and then a Congress-led government between 2013-2018) and they brought in changes to the police structure that took immediate action if outfits engaged in vigilantism. You did see a definite lull until now,” said Vidya Dinker, a social activist who has campaigned against moral policing and communal activities in the region. “There is definitely some form of impunity among these vigilantes. After all, the political machinery is on their side.”
A lush land of areca and coconut plantations and educational institution, nestled between the Arabian sea and the Western ghats, the region has long been considered the laboratory of Hindutva in the South. It was here that Jan Sangh, the predecessor to modern-day BJP, first won an election.
After the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 , the BJP consolidated its hold in the region, with its only major setback coming in 2013 on the back of corruption scandals that rocked the BJP’s first government in a south-Indian state. The BJP has retained the Dakshina Kannada Lok Sabha constituency (including the pre-delimitation Mangalore constituency) for 30 years, since 1991.
The BJP swept the 2018 assembly elections in the region with an acrimonious campaign that centred around the claim that Hindu-rights activists were being murdered by “jihadis”, “love jihad” and cow slaughter. It won 12 out of 13 assembly seats in Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts.
The BJP government that came to power in 2019 passed the Karnataka Prevention of Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle Bill in 2020 which effectively bans the slaughter of cattle of any age. More ambiguously, section 17 of the law states: “no suit, prosecution or other legal proceedings shall be instituted against the competent authority or any person exercising powers under this act for anything which is done in good faith or intended to be done”. Karnataka Deputy Minister C.N. Ashwath Narayan confirmed that this Act provided cover to “vigilantes and activists” who help curb cattle trading.
The area’s member of Parliament, Nalin Kumar Kateel, who is also chief of the BJP’s Karnataka unit, had said in February 2021 that a law against ‘love jihad’ would be tabled later this year in the state assembly.
“You could sense that there would be an increase in right-wing Hindu activity. It was deferred due to the incidents of December 2019 (when two people were shot dead in police firing during an anti-CAA protest) and the lockdown due to COVID-19,” said Dinker. “It isn’t surprising that the targeting and harassment has resumed after the pandemic-lockdowns ended.”
After the 1 April attack, the Mangaluru City Police arrested four people and formed investigation teams. A senior police officer said they were investigating if those arrested had participated or coordinated the harassment and violence in the four incidents.
Credit for these attacks is not hard to come by in Dakshin Kannada and Udipi districts, where the badge of vigilantism is worn with some pride.
Police and right-wing Hindu activists said a well-oiled machinery of informants is in place, surveilling malls and bus stands for interfaith couples or friends. All it takes is a series of phone calls to ensure Hindu vigilantes gather in large numbers.
“We get information through multiple sources and they all seem to indicate that Muslim boys are luring Hindu girls on the pretext of love. Even parents tell us that their daughters are being led astray,” said the VHP’s Pumpwell. “We gather the men and take action to protect the Hindu girls and stop this love jihad.”
Pumpwell said their “vigilantism” had risen in conjunction with “cases of love jihad”.
Asked what gave the VHP or Bajrang Dal the right to take matters in their own hands, he said: “Protection of the Hindu community is our responsibility. We have taken leadership in it (sic). We have to stop cattle slaughter and love jihad. When you have a group of men, an altercation is bound to take place. People will get assaulted. But the police have been booking cases against Bajrang Dal members instead of taking action against cow slaughter or love jihad.”
‘You could see they hated you for being Muslim’
Three years ago, he had bought a pick-up truck under a government scheme, and had been extremely careful when transporting cows.
“As a Muslim, it isn’t easy to be seen with cattle,” said Rehman. “I would take letters from the local police and local veterinarians, if I had an assignment to take a cow to a farmer.”
“I knew that these right-wing groups do not differentiate between a legal transaction between two farmers and illegal slaughter of cattle,” said Rehman, the sole earner for his family of three children, wife and mother.
When running empty and at night, he made it a point to remove the tarpaulin on top, as he did on 31 March. This transparency, he had hoped, would dispel suspicions that he is transporting cattle.
“There is fear, and I think it will only increase,” said Rehman. “I was almost killed though my truck was empty. All it takes is an allegation, without proof. You could see the anger in their eyes. You could see that they hated you for being Muslim.”
(Mohit Rao is a freelance journalist based in Bengaluru.)