Two weeks after the mysterious death of a young Hindu man sparked communal tensions in coastal Karnataka’s Uttara Kannada district, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s member of parliament from the area and minister of state in the central government, Anant Kumar Hegde, wrote a Facebook post, threatening more violence and bloodshed in the Congress-ruled state.
“The chief minister should be ready for a bigger Marikamba Habba,” he wrote on Friday, after 62 BJP workers who had been arrested during protests last week were released on bail. Maarikamba Habba is an annual event held in March in a temple in Sirsi town. Birds and animals are sacrificed by devotees to seek the deity’s favour.
On December 6, the coastal town of Honnavar town in Uttara Kannada district experienced clashes between Hindus and Muslims. Two days later, the body of Paresh Mesta, 18, was recovered from a pond. The BJP alleged that Mesta had been tortured and murdered by Muslims. It accused the state’s Congress government of shielding the accused and destroying evidence in the case. Over the last week, the party has organised shutdowns in various parts of the district. In Kumta town, the protestors hurled stones at the police and set the vehicle of the inspector general of police on fire.
Even after the state government handed over the investigation into Mesta’s death to the Central Bureau of Investigation on December 13, the BJP refuses to scale down its protests. For the coming week, it has announced a “jail bharo andolan”, calling upon people across Karnataka to court arrest to protest the Congress government’s policy of favouring Muslims. Chief minister Siddaramaiah has accused BJP of using Mesta’s death to create trouble for political gains.
The communal tensions come at a time when political parties are preparing the ground for Karnataka assembly elections to be held in the first half of 2018. In 2012, BJP had won in just one of the six constituencies in Uttara Kannada district and one of the eight constituencies in neighbouring Dakshina Kannada district. The 14 seats in coastal Karnataka will prove crucial in deciding the winner of next year’s election.
A mysterious death
Paresh Mesta was the youngest of the three children born to Kamalakar and Rukma Mesta. The family lived in a two-bedroom house in Tulasi Nagar colony on the outskirts of Honnavar town. The colony is home to around 50 families belonging to the Mesta community of traditional fisherpeople.
Paresh Mesta dropped out of school after class nine and sold fish at the Honnavar harbour. His elder brother Rahul, 24, works as a security guard with a bank, while his sister Priyanka, 20, has just completed her bachelor’s degree from a local college. Friends and relatives remember Paresh Mesta as a jovial person who loved to play cricket with friends in the evenings and dance with them during local ceremonies.
When he left home on the night of December 6, Mesta had told his mother that he would come back after visiting the Shree Shanewara Swamy Temple in Honnavar town. That night, however, clashes broke out between Hindu and Muslim groups in a ground outside the temple. Two days later, Mesta’s body was fished out of a pond which is part of the temple complex.
His mother fell unconscious when she heard the news about her youngest child. A week later, she sat in a corner of the house, sobbing on the shoulder of her daughter Priyanka.
It is not clear how Paresh Mesta fell into the pond. His father, Kamalakar Mesta, however, is sure that his son was murdered. “I am sure that Muslims killed him,” he told Scroll.in. Asked why he suspected Muslims, he said: “My son was a courageous Hindu youth.”
But Paresh Mesta was not a member of any political party, he added. “I want justice for my son. I am confident the CBI would bring out the truth.”
Signs of communal violence were visible in Uttara Kannada district since December 1, said a police official who did not want to be identified. The trouble started at Chandavar, a village that lies 15 km from Honnavar. A group of Muslims, defying the local peace committee’s decision to disallow religious meetings near the town circle, tried to erect a green flag and install a replica of the Prophet’s tomb on his birthday. This brought Sangh Parivar workers to the spot. Before clashes could take place, the police resorted to a lathicharge to dispel the crowds, the police official said.
Five days later, on December 6, in Honnavar, an accident led to an altercation between the Muslim owner of a motorbike and the driver of an autorickshaw who belonged to the Mesta community. This soon took the shape of a conflict between Hindus and Muslims.
Local Muslims gathered near an open ground on the side of a road, where they used to celebrate Muharram. In the meantime, Sangh Parivar workers assembled in front of the Shree Shanewara Swamy Temple that lies on the other end of the ground. A pitched battle ensued, with men on both sides wielding sticks, said the police official.
The policemen dispersed the crowds using a lathicharge. They later arrested 28 Muslims and 14 Hindus who were identified on the basis of CCTV footage. The police official said it was easier to identify and arrest the Muslim men since they were local residents, while the Hindus had come from other parts of the taluka.
Paresh Mesta is believed to have gone missing during the police action.
The spread of fake news
BJP state general secretary and MP from the Udupi-Chikmagalur constituency, Shobha Karandlaje, alleged on Twitter that Paresh Mesta’s body had been mutilated and castrated, boiling oil was poured over his head, and his head was split with a weapon.
But the police has denied the allegations based on the preliminary findings of the doctor who conducted the postmortem. Answering 19 questions from police, Dr Shankar M Bakkannavar, Associate Professor, Department of Forensic medicine, Kasturba Medical College, Manipal said there was no evidence of weapon injuries on Mesta’s body. The abrasions on the body could have been caused by “blunt force trauma”, or physical trauma through impact or injury. He said the colour of the face had changed due to putrefaction. The postmortem report will be released next week.
Karandlaje also alleged on Twitter that “jihadis” had raped and murdered a schoolgirl and asked why the government was silent. She was referring to an incident that took place on Thursday, when a class nine student suffered injuries in her hand after she was stabbed by two unidentified men on her way to school. The police are still investigating the crime.
Fear among Muslims
As fake news spreads, the district continues to be tense. With revenge threats in the air, Muslims in Uttara Kannada district say they are afraid of venturing out of their houses.
According to the 2011 census, Hindus account for 82.61% of the total population of Uttara Kannada, while Muslims constitute 13.8%. Hindus form the majority in all the towns, except Bhatkal where Muslims constitute 75% of the population.
Hussain Qadiri, president of Congress party’s minority cell and vice-president of Honnavar Muslim Jamaa’t committee (a panel that runs mosque affairs) said that timing of Friday prayer timings have been changed in the last two weeks.
“We have three mosques in Honnavar and used to have common Friday prayer timings all these years,” he said. “But we have set different prayer timing for each mosque in the last two weeks. If men go to the mosque at the same time, it will give a chance for miscreants to attack our homes. With the change in timing, at least a few can stay back and protect the homes, women and children.”
According to a report in The Hindu, Abdul Gafoor Sunti, a Muslim truck driver, was attacked twice in the last week. While driving from Honnavar to Sirsi on December 7, he tried to take a different route to escape rioters, but they spotted him, pulled him out from the truck, snatched his mobile phone and beat him up. Though he escaped to the forest, he was attacked by a second gang on December 8 with iron rods. Later, police tracked Sunti and admitted him to the government hospital.
Civil rights activist and writer Dr HS Anupama said Sunti’s experience illustrated the predicament of Muslims in Uttara Kannada these days. For ten days since the tensions had erupted on December 6, no Muslim patient had come to her clinic. “Muslims are not venturing out of their homes these days. They worry about attacks,” she said. “The government should ensure their security.”
Another fallout of the communal tensions is that the local bar association has asked lawyers not to take up the cases of the Muslim men arrested for the clashes of December 6. The president of the bar association, Satheesh Bhat, said the decision was taken unofficially on December 11, the day the bail application of the Muslim men was to be heard. “We assembled outside the court and took the decision as mark of respect to the deceased’s family,” said Bhat.
Hussain Qadiri said two lawyers had agreed to present the bail application of the Muslim men in front of the judicial magistrate but withdrew after the bar association issued the diktat. “We were left high and dry,” he said. “Eventually, the court rejected our pleas.”
Qadiri said they will appeal in the court of the district magistrate in Karwar, the district headquarters, on Monday.