The picturesque districts of coastal Karnataka today seethe with dark and dangerous communal animosities and hate mobilisation. Communal fault-lines erupt from time to time in spurts of bloody communal hate attacks and killings. For a decade-and-a-half, these attacks were carried out largely by Hindus who mainly targeted Muslims and Christians. But this has changed in recent years. Today targeted hate attacks in the region are fuelled not just by Hindu communal formations affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, as in most parts of India, but also allegedly by militant formations of Muslim youth such as the Popular Front of India.

The retaliatory murders by both Hindus and Muslims is a new and deeply troubling reality. It is unlike anything that the Karwan-e-Mohabbat has encountered in its many journeys to families stricken by hate violence in most other parts of India.

We in the Karwan-e-Mohabbat have found in our 22 journeys to 12 states of India that victims of lynching and hate attacks are mostly Muslims and Dalits, and many regions are also wracked by attacks on Christian priests, nuns and places of worship. We have also observed that in most of the country, in the aftermath of lynching and other communal hate attacks targeting Muslims, the victims respond overwhelmingly with fear and despair, never with violence or revenge. They encounter a police force that is almost universally hostile, and expect no justice from them. Their Hindu neighbours mostly stand estranged from them, either displaying continuing hate, or a conspicuous indifference to their suffering. Caught in this bind, the Muslim survivors occupy themselves with their struggles to persevere with survival in the shadows amidst dread and loss, and to save themselves and their loved ones from further attacks, or from being criminalised and arrested by the police; but never respond with retaliatory attacks.

Sangh laboratory

The coastal region of Karnataka was traditionally famed for its vibrant pluralist culture, with its Hindu populations living in peace with their often-prosperous Muslim and Christian neighbours. This changed around the turn of this century, when a number of Hindutva vigilante groups – such as the Sri Ram Sena, Bajrang Dal, Hindu Rashtra Sena, Hindu Jagaran Vedike – rose sharply in influence and membership, and began to dictate violently what they regarded to be permissible social conduct. They opposed, often with rough and brutal violence, the meeting of young people of different religious identities. They combatted, and on occasion thrashed, women who drank alcohol, danced or entered beauty pageants, but were incensed also by the burqa and hijab. They assaulted Christian places of worship, priests and nuns ostensibly to “save” the Hindu faith from conversions. Teams of young men seized cows sold for slaughter, while the men who transported them were badly beaten.

In these ways, coastal Karnataka was one of the early laboratories of the Sangh for fostering bitter religious divides outside the framework of communal riots. This was through mob attacks of cow vigilantism, assaults on Hindu-Muslim relationships in the name of love jihad, and strikes on Christian shrines and religious leaders, all of which the rest of the country would begin to emulate less than a decade later. These enterprises gained further strength when the BJP rose to power in the state in 2007, during which time the police and state administration would often openly side with the vigilantes, and the chief minister and state home minister would rationalise vigilante attacks as “spontaneous anger”. Sadly, some of these trends persisted even after the Congress was returned to power in 2013.

It was around 2015 that dangerous portents in the region first became visible – of agitated Muslim youth also attacking activists of Hindutva organisations. On October 9, 2015, Prashant Poojary, a 29-year-old man said to be a Bajrang Dal activist, was hacked to death outside his flower shop in Moodbidri in the state’s Dakshina Kannada district. He was an ardent cow protection campaigner who participated prominently in protests that led to the closure of slaughter houses in the area. “He had stopped the transport of cows in the area and was involved in skirmishes with local Muslim traders,” his father, Anand Poojary, told The police charge-sheet said: “A six-member gang came in three bikes… [They used] ‘sharp-edged weapons and attacked him from behind’…” The police arrested eight men for the murder, including Mohammad Sharif, Mustafa Kavoor, Mohd Mustafa and Kabir, most of whom were members of Popular Front of India. The police concluded that this was a revenge killing. Prashant Poojary’s family agreed.

Three years later, on September 24, 2018, Imtiyaz, who was one of the men accused for the murder of Poojary and freed on bail, was attacked with a machete by five persons as soon as he opened his roadside hotel to make tea for customers early that morning. He was injured on his hand, as he protected himself from an assault on his head. In what is perceived to be a retaliatory strike, that evening Harish Shetty, convenor of the Bajrang Dal’s Gurupura unit, was attacked by two men on a motorcycle. Both men fortunately survived the attack.

Muslims strike back

Bharatiya Janata Party MP Shobha Karandlaje wrote to the Union Home Minister in July 2017, claiming that 23 Hindu activists had been murdered in Karnataka since 2014 by people she referred to as “jihadi elements”. She listed their names, and said that certain Muslim organisations – particularly the Popular Front of India – seemed to be involved in these cases, and alleged that they were being shielded by the Congress state government. undertook an investigation into each of these names, and found that one of the men allegedly killed was alive, some in the list had committed suicide, two had been murdered by their sisters, and so on. In many cases, both the families and the police agreed that the murders were the result of personal battles, real estate skirmishes and political rivalries.

But in 10 cases out of this list, the police investigation did point to the involvement of Muslim activists, allegedly from the Popular Front of India. The organisation is active in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Referring to the organisation, the ground report says: “Known for its hardline Islamist politics, it frequently clashes with Hindutva organisations like the Bajrang Dal, Hindu Jagarana Vedike and others. Over the past few years, the clashes have deepened the communal divide along Karnataka’s coast and in districts like Kodagu and Mysuru. Often, they have resulted in deaths.”

The report also points to many counter-allegations by Muslim organisation such as the Popular Front of India accusing activists of the RSS, the Bajrang Dal and other Hindutva formations of murdering its cadres. In one instance, on November 10, 2015, a group of Muslim men in Madikeri in Kodagu district were chasing DS Kuttappa, a leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, who fell from a building in his bid to escape the mob. He later died. That same day, Shahul Hameed, a member of the Popular Front of India, was murdered in a shootout near the town. The police investigations led to the arrest of three men. One of these, KR Ramesh, was allegedly a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

Both the Popular Front of India and organisations affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh deny that their members are involved in the murders. They absolve themselves of any responsibility, and only blame the rival organisation from the other religion for the killings.

The ground report quotes Mohammed Shakif, the president of the Popular Front of India’s Karnataka unit, who cited the example of Manjunath, a resident of Shivamogga, who was killed after clashes between cadres of the Popular Front of India and Hindutva groups in February 2015. “Initially, the police had registered a case of murder against Popular Front of India activists,” he told The report added that evidence later surfaced to show Manjunath was allegedly killed by his sister. “This is how they frame us,” declared Shakif. Similarly, RSS spokesperson Rajesh Padmar also denied the police’s allegations. “Our karyakartas [workers] are never involved in any criminal activities,” he claimed in the report, and instead blamed the Popular Front of India for the murders of Sangh organisation cadres, seeking a ban on the organisation. “All RSS wants is social peace,” he declared.

The caravan of love

In a recent journey to Mangaluru in Karnataka’s Dakshina Kannada district, the members of the Karwan-e-Mohabbat met the families of some of those who were killed recently in these retaliatory communal murders. One cycle of killings began in January when 28-year-old Deepak Rao – also called Deepy – was hacked to death in broad daylight a dozen kilometres outside Mangaluru. Rao, who worked for a mobile SIM card agency, was riding his motorcycle when four men in a car blocked his path and forced him to stop. They fell upon him with sharp weapons and he died of his injuries there itself. The BJP and Bajrang Dal called for a day-long shutdown in Mangaluru and Surathkal to protest Rao’s murder.

The RSS claimed that Rao was an “active volunteer” of the Bajrang Dal as well as of the BJP, but the police said they were yet to confirm his political affiliations. Four men, identified by the police as Mulky Naushad, Rizwan, Pinky Nawaz and Nirshan, were arrested for Rao’s murder.

The night of Rao’s murder, seven people who claimed to be associated with a right-wing Hindutva outfit attacked Abdul Basheer, a 47-year-old owner of a fast-food eatery. According to his son Imran, Basheer was closing down his restaurant that night when seven people on three motorcycles attacked him. “My father was about to pull down the shutter when these men barged in and began hacking him with machetes,” said Imran. They cut off his tongue, and inflicted deep wounds on his arms and his chest. He succumbed to his injuries in a private hospital four days later.

Mangaluru city police chief TR Suresh announced the arrest of Basheer’s alleged killers. They were all young men in their twenties – Shrijith PK, Sandesh Kotyan, and two brothers Dhanush Poojary and Kishan Poojary. He said that the four friends had resolved to avenge Rao’s death by “targeting a person from the other community” and they chose Basheer as a random target.

Basheer left behind his wife and four sons, two of whom work in the Gulf. He had worked for many years, since 1994, in Saudi Arabia, running a restaurant to provide for his family in India, and had returned home only a year earlier because his wife and children insisted that they wanted him home with them. He had opened his Mangaluru eatery of Indian Chinese food with his savings from his years in the Gulf.

Clerics lead the prayers at Abdul Basheer's house in January. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).

As news of Basheer’s death spread around the city, angry crowds gathered outside the hospital where he had died. The city was on the edge, with people bracing themselves for a fresh outbreak of communal rioting. The crowd demanded that Basheer’s body be taken out in a funeral procession through the city. But Basheer’s wife, brother and sons were firm. They would not allow a funeral procession from the hospital to their house. They knew that the procession could provoke people to attack Hindus in a continuing cycle of blood-letting.

Basheer’s brother Hakeem, his voice shaking with grief, appealed to the crowds that they should not to give in to any kind of provocation, resort to violence or even hold protests over the death. “Nobody can give justice to my brother except Almighty God,” he said. “We request all good people to pray for his departed soul. No one should lose patience and indulge in any wrongdoing. The Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits are all our brothers and sisters. Our anger towards the killers should not provoke us to cause any harm to our innocent brothers and sisters of other faiths.”

Local television channels carried his appeal. Many eyes turned moist as people heard this impassioned entreaty for peace and restraint. Hakeem’s words and their refusal to parade the body through Mangaluru saved the city from going up in flames. The family chose a quiet burial in the courtyard of a local mosque, and thousands gathered peacefully for his last journey.

Deepak Rao's mother Premalatha at her home. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).

Ending the cycle of violence

The Karwan-e-Mohabbat team resolved to meet Rao’s family in Mangaluru. Around us gathered a group of local women and men of peace – of Muslim, Christian and Hindu faiths. When we arrived at their modest home on the side of a hill, Rao’s family was initially suspicious and hostile. As we sat in the courtyard, his mother did not emerge from the house, and an uncle made some phone calls. In about 10 minutes, six young men gathered, local volunteers of the Bajrang Dal. They positioned themselves around the house, glaring at us suspiciously.

We persisted, as I explained that the members of the Karwan came to them to share in their grief and pain at the senseless and cruel hate murder of Rao. Our spirited local colleague Vidya Dinkar went into the home and embraced Rao’s mother. The ice was broken. The family and Rao’s friends gathered around us, and spoke of how a lot of help was offered to them immediately after the killing. The chief minister had promised a job for Rao’s hearing-and-speech-impaired brother, and BJP leaders had promised to help with lawyers and finances. But everyone had forgotten them. No job was offered, and no money had arrived to assist a family that was struggling to manage with its main bread earner snatched away. Even Rao’s motorcycle was still with the police. If they got that back, the family would have some money to tide over this difficult time, they said.

Dinkar promised that the Karwan team would stand steadfastly with the family. “We have volunteer lawyers who will help you,” she said. She introduced the lawyer who had joined our team – Sarfaraz, clearly a Muslim name. There was an awkward silence. No one said anything. Sarfaraz promised to go with them to the police station to get their motorcycle released. That evening, Dinkar took us to meet the local minister, demanding that the state government fulfil the promise of employment for Rao’s disabled brother. The minister promised to try. Two days later, Dinkar called me up triumphantly: Sarfaraz had managed to get the motorcycle restored to the family. Tiny victories, yes. But these were precious breaches in the uncompromising hate that had come to divide the people of this region.

We also went to meet Basheer’s wife, their sons, and his brother Hakeem in their home of grey stone and large glass windows, on another hill in Mangaluru, adjacent to a mosque. They said the anguish would not leave them that a good and innocent man, whom they loved so much, had been felled in an act of senseless hate by people who did not even know him. But from the start, none in the family felt hatred in their hearts. They knew that hatred was a poison: it would only spill more blood, and take more innocent lives. The cycle had to stop somewhere, and they knew that they had the power at the moment of Basheer’s death to either fuel more hate and killings, or to stop it.

They were sure that Abdul Basheer would have felt happy that they chose to halt the hate.