On July 27, when the Bharatiya Janata Party Karnataka president and MP Nalini Kumar Kateel, state minister Sunil Kumar Karkala and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader Kalladka Prabhakar Bhat arrived in Dakshina Kannada district after the murder of a party youth leader, Praveen Nettaru, their cars were surrounded by angry Hindutva mobs.

Shouting slogans criticising the BJP, the mob sought to topple Kateel’s car. Kateel is the MP from the Dakshina Kannada constituency.

In a strange irony, the Sangh parivar leaders suddenly seemed to need security from angry members of various saffron organisations in the region. The BJP-controlled state police had to resort to lathi charge to disperse the crowd.

The anger did not come out of nowhere. On the face of it, the mob was angry about why Hindutva activists are not safe in the region despite having governments in both the state and the Centre that they consider their own.

However, Nettaru’s murder and the subsequent unrest among the Hindutva cadre in coastal Karnataka are symptomatic of deeper caste tensions within the precariously stitched Hindutva alliance in the region.

Nettaru, who was hacked to death last week while he was closing his poultry shop in the evening, belonged to the Billava caste – a numerically dominant, but economically and socially marginalised, OBC group in the region.

For the Billava-heavy Hindutva cadres in the coastal district, Nettaru’s murder was only the most recent manifestation of the BJP’s indifference towards the community. While the community provides the much-needed raw street power on which Hindutva politics in the region hinges, it is they who face the repercussions in terms of physical injuries, imprisonment, and sometimes, even death.

For the BJP, on the other hand, the Billava anger poses a serious threat to its electoral prospects. The disquiet in the top leadership over Nettaru’s death is palpable – evident in the hurried political overtures being made by the BJP to assuage the Hindutva cadres.

As Karnataka goes into an election year, how the BJP handles these tensions will be the key to its success in the perennially polarised region of Dakshina Kannada.

The anchorless Billavas

Traditionally a group of toddy-tappers, the Billava community provides both the numerical strength and the raw street power for the Hindutva project in the communally torn region of coastal Karnataka.

Unlike upper-caste communities, Billavas, who are the largest community in the region, were not natural participants in the Hindutva project. Their co-option has been the result of decades of strategic social, political and cultural maneuvering by the Sangh Parivar, and remains a major factor in Hindutva’s success in the region. They are the indispensable Hindutva foot soldiers.

In a paper published in the Economic and Political Weekly in 2002, Muzaffar Assadi, a professor of political science at the Mysore University, wrote that in coastal Karnataka, Hindutva’s success hinges on the coalition of “four B’s” – Brahmins (Konkanis and others), Bunts, Billavas and other backward classes.

While the Brahmins and the Bunts have formed the traditional social base of Hindutva, the Billavas were relatively late entrants into the project.

Until the 1970s, Billavas worked as tenants of the dominant landowning castes like the Bunts. The implementation of the land reforms led to an upheaval in the social and economic status quo of the region.

The hitherto landowning castes were compelled to start new ventures to sustain their economic superiority. As a result, several went to Mumbai – the popular “Udupi hotels” in the city were the result of this migration in the 1970s. Those staying back entered businesses like banking and education.

Members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidya Parishad protest at the home of Karnataka Home Minister Araga Jnanendra in Bengaluru on July 30. Credit: PTI.

While they had already been sympathisers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the land reforms drove the landowning communities further away from the Congress. Meanwhile, the 1970s was also the time of the Gulf boom, which saw several Muslims and Christians travel to the Gulf, bringing back great economic prosperity back home.

The new landowners, the Billavas, however, continued to remain marginalised. Land ownership failed to bring a change in their social and economic status, as by and large, the community remained uneducated, poor and anchorless.

The stage was set for a new kind of social engineering that would determine the politics of the region for decades to come.

Making Billavas ‘Hindu’

Phani Raj, a professor and activist from Udupi said that the RSS supported their inclusion into the Hindu society from the very start. “The Billavas were treated the same way as Dalits in society,” he said. “But the RSS roped them in and consolidated Hindu society without really challenging the caste identities.”

Of course, this was not easy. Billavas along with other backward and lower classes long had a distinct culture, which until a few decades ago had little to do with Vedic Hinduism. At the heart of this distinct culture lies an amorphous form of ancestral worship called the Bhootha cult. Bhoothas, also locally referred to as deivas, are real people who led great lives, and are now worshipped by their descendants.

Traditionally, the Bhootha cult did not have elements marking it out as either Hindu or Muslim. In fact, in coastal Karnataka, there are examples of several Muslim bhoothas like the Bobbarya and Ali Chamundi Bhoothas, who have been worshipped by backward castes. Backward castes are known to offer meat and alcohol to their bhoothas as prasad.

However, slowly, with the advance of Hindutva, Bhoothas were brought into their fold. Hitherto unknown customs and practices like conducting a Satya Narayan Pooja in every Bhootha shrine or using the swastik and om symbols in bhootha worship, have become common over the last three or four decades.

“Traditionally, there were different colours of the deiva,” said Vidya Dinekar, a Mangaluru-based activist. “Over the years, it just became all saffron.”

Suresh Bhatt, another Mangaluru-based activist, agreed. “Bhootha worshippers don’t believe in traditional Hindu gods, but the Sangh Parivar slowly injected Hindu customs into these communities,” he said. “These ancestral gods are now seen as the servants of Hindu gods. Now socially, that translates to backward castes being the servants of upper-caste Hindus.”

While the Bhoothas are allowed a certain degree of cultural autonomy as they continue to be widely popular among backward castes, the hierarchy between them and the Vedic gods is clear. “Bhoothas are not gods,” said MB Puranik, the head of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in Karnataka. “They are great people who lived and died. They are below god. The fact that they exist is evidence of the inclusivity of Hinduism.”

The foot-soldiers

Of course, the cultural co-option was closely linked to a political alliance. The increasingly Hinduising Billavas had a void to fill politically and socially.

In his EPW paper, Assadi writes, “The social coalition created a structure of relations: at the top the upper castes (konkanis/brahmins) providing the ideological framework that would not directly involve them in communal riots or physical attack on ‘others’; rather the task of attacking, destroying the properties is assigned to backward castes.”

A disproportionately large number of the membership of Hindutva organisations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal, Hindu Jagran Vedike, Sri Ram Sene and others comes from the Billava community.

While earlier, their role was limited to being the foot soldiers or street fighters of Hindutva, over the last 10-15 years, they had started being given local leadership positions in these organisations as well, Dinekar said.

“A lot of the leadership at the local levels is occupied by the OBCs,” she said. “That is what gives them a sense of ownership of the project…The Hindutva organisations operate at neighbourhood levels, and it is young boys from these communities who are the leaders.”

Giving a sense of identity to the historically marginalised Billava has been crucial to their political appropriation.

“These are largely uneducated people, who come from poor families,” said Phani Raj. “They don’t really get a sense of pride from their family or educational or caste backgrounds. So, when they are included as Hindus by the upper castes, it is a boost to their self-esteem.”

It is this social reality that makes the Billava the most loyal and unquestioning Hindutva soldier in the region. Hating Muslims, over whom they can assert brute force on the street, in incendiary statements and on social media, gives them a sense of their own identity.

“Billavas are uneducated, so they do this job,” said Satyajit Surathkal, a former BJP leader from the Billava community. “Maarne wala bhi Billava hai aur maar khaane wala bhi Billava hai.” (The one to attack is a Billava and the one to be attacked is also a Billava.”

Can Bhootha and Rama co-exist?

Over the last few years, however, the inherent tensions in this alliance are beginning to make themselves evident.

Surathkal left the BJP two years ago after being declined tickets in several elections. “I have been a Hindutva soldier since the age of 11 when I joined the RSS,” he said. “But one cannot work where one does not get respect…Most Hindus who fight and die for Hindutva are Billava, but they never get their due.”

In the last state election in 2018, the BJP gave only two tickets to Billavas in Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts. The Billava Association president M Vedakumar at the time said, “Political parties use Billavas to build parties but are not ready to give tickets.”

There are other areas of tension as well. In June, while the BJP government in Karnataka was getting flak for reducing the space given to Tipu Sultan in school social science textbooks, the Billava community was also up in arms against the government. The proposed changes in the textbooks had dropped lessons on social reformer Narayan Guru, who is widely revered by the Billava community.

These controversies point towards deeper tensions. “There is a sense of discomfort,” said Rajaram Tolpadi, a retired professor of political science from Mangalore University. “The Hindutva project is of course very powerful, but there are sites of resistance locally. After all, for how long can the bhootha exist with Rama? The contradictions are bound to catch up.”

Sanya Dhingra is doing a Master’s degree in South Asian Studies at Columbia University in New York.