On December 14, I was in Honavar town in Karnataka’s Uttara Kannada district, reporting on a communal conflict that had been smouldering for nine days.
The flare-up had begun with a mundane accident involving an autorickshaw and a motorbike on December 6. It sparked a clash between Hindus and Muslims. Later that day, 18-year-old fish vendor Paresh Mesta went missing. On December 8, his body was found in a temple pond. It is not clear how he ended up there, but the Sangh Parivar blamed his death on Muslims and the Congress-led state government. For the next week, mobs across the district shut down schools and shops and set vehicles afire.
Sharing a bike ride with Sharath Sharma, a journalist with the Kannada news website thestate.news, I arrived at the Sree Shaneswara Swamy temple to photograph the place where the clashes had started and the pond where Mesta’s body had been found. It was 5 pm and the streets were almost empty – the police had banned the assembly of more than four persons till 11 am the next day. Near the temple stood around 15 policemen. An autorickshaw with a saffron flag atop was parked near them. We decided to ask the policemen some questions.
As we spoke with an inspector, two men emerged from the autorickshaw and asked us, “Neevu yaru?” Who are you?
Sharma told them we were journalists. They left but were back less than five minutes later, this time accompanied by more than 10 people. All of them had tilaks on their foreheads. Ignoring the inspector, they asked again, “Ninna hesaru enu?” What is your name?
“I am Sharath,” my companion said. They asked for his full name. “Sharath Sharma,” he replied.
“Do you have business card?” they continued. He handed them one.
Then they turned to me and started questioning me. I remained quiet. I knew their intention was to ascertain my religious identity. As I struggled to respond, Sharma intervened: “He is my photographer. He does not have a business card.”
The group was not satisfied. The inspector came out of his jeep. “Section 144 is in place,” he told them. “You should disperse now.”
His words fell on deaf ears. The men seemed determined to continue their interrogation. It was only 20 minutes later, after more policemen arrived on the scene, that the men finally left. The inspector then told us the men were Bharatiya Janata Party workers and that we better leave too, “else you will be in trouble”.
Getting out of town
We took his advice and rode 20 km north to Kumta town, where we decided to halt for the night. But no one was willing to rent us rooms without identity cards. I was afraid that revealing my Muslim name would cause trouble, so we headed further north. We eventually reached Ankola, 30 km away on the Kundapur-Karwar national highway. Luckily, the manager at one hotel there did not ask for identity cards. The riots had put a dampener on business and he seemed grateful for any guests he could get.
We locked ourselves into our rooms that night, afraid to open the door even for the waiter who brought us our dinner.
Read TA Ameerudheen’s story on the communal tension in a coastal Karnataka town over a young man’s death here.
Scroll reporters look back at 2017.