The Big Story: Race to the bottom

Both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the ruling Congress in Karnataka seem to have decided that competitive communalism is the best route to power in the poll-bound state.

Over the last few months, the BJP has attempted to stir up the already-tense communal situation in coastal Karnataka, framing local conflicts on religious lines and using Hindutva rhetoric to target Chief Minister Siddaramaiah as anti-Hindu. Siddaramaiah’s measured response, keeping his focus on his government’s achievements over the last five years, drew appreciation from many quarters. For instance, Siddaramaiah’s verbal duels with Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath, who had been brought in by the BJP as a star campaigner, primarily involved pointing to the southern state’s superior social and economic indicators. However, developments over the last week have given rise to speculation that the Congress, in its attempt to counter the BJP, has decided to adopt some of the BJP’s own strategies.

On December 22 and January 2, the director general of police wrote to his subordinates in 23 districts asking their opinion on withdrawing cases of rioting against “innocent minorities”. The BJP seized on the letter, showcasing it as a clear case of minority appeasement. The party claimed that many Hindus had also been booked in false cases, but the Congress government was expressing concern for only the minorities in a bid to seek their votes.

The Adityanath government had been heavily criticised by the Congress earlier this month for a similar attempt to withdraw riots cases against Hindus in Uttar Pradesh.

Pushed into a corner, the Karnataka government issued an unconvincing clarification, claiming that the letter contained a clerical error and that cases against all innocent persons would be reconsidered. Home Minister Ramalinga Reddy said the words “all innocent minorities” had been added by oversight.

The Congress’s explanation is unsatisfactory. If the government believes there are innocent persons who have been booked for rioting, it is a strong commentary on the arbitrary functioning of the police force. Has any action been initiated against officers who framed these innocent people? Two, if the Congress was really worried about this phenomenon, it should have intervened the moment it took charge in 2013. Its decision to suddenly consider a fix just before state elections does not inspire any confidence.

Such decisions hurt the criminal justice system. It is a normal procedure for the police to drop cases if there is no evidence of a crime. This is done by recording either mistakes of facts or mistakes of law. There was no need for Karnataka’s Director of Police to write letters asking his force to take an action they should have already done. If cases are not dropped for lack of evidence, they should run their full course in a trial. Any attempt to disrupt this process will end up compromising the system.

The Congress should understand that by taking a leaf out of the BJP’s book, it is endangering its own stated political positions and, more worryingly, the secular character of the state.

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In poll-bound Meghalaya’s Garo Hills, the BJP is struggling to shed its anti-Christian image, reports Arunabh Saikia

“By most accounts, the almost vehement resistance to the BJP is a fairly recent phenomenon. The Garo Students’ Union’s Chief Executive Committee president, Tengsak G Momin, said the party had started making inroads in the Garo Hills, riding on its landslide victory in the Assam Assembly elections in 2016. ‘Like most other parts of the country, Garo Hills was also influenced by the BJP’s rise in the rest of the country,’ said Momin.

But it was short-lived. On May 23 last year, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests passed a notification – which has since been withdrawn – banning the sale of cattle for slaughter in animal markets. While the ban evoked sharp reactions in all tribal states in the North East, which were convinced it was a ploy to ban beef, the BJP witnessed a churning in the Garo Hills that was marked by en masse resignations. One of the more high-profile resignations was that of Bernard N Marak, president of the party’s West Garo Hills unit, headquartered in Tura. ‘Before they came up with the notification, the BJP was growing in the Garo Hills,’ claimed Marak. ‘The entire tribal belt in the area was also with the BJP, but because of their dictatorial attitude, it’s all over now. The party’s growth has stagnated now. They tried to trample over people’s religious and cultural beliefs. That had never happened before.’”