By Ismail Zaorez
Sunday 26 September, was a rather usual day in Dakshina Kannada District and all that unfolded on the weekend’s evening also, to a point has become a usual of a sort. Dakshina Kannada district on the coast of the Arabian Sea in Karnataka has always been in the news for being a safe house to the far-right ideology where it is yet to encounter any resistance against its upspring, neither from the law enforcement agencies nor from the district administration, and the influence of their political masters has only helped them in blossoming further over the years.
The Coastal Karnataka has been facing the brunt of being a safe haven for the right-wing ideology from the early 90s. Mangaluru has been an epicentre of this hate-mongering ideology and the people in the city ever since, not only have access to good hospitals and educational institutions but also have forced access to the extremist Hindutva. This over the years has impacted the lives of youngsters living in the city, mostly students who choose to love, perhaps by not looking at the religion of their partners.
In 2008, an attack on students staying in a homestay shook the country and it was then that moral policing in this part of the country became a household name. Such incidents over the years increased rapidly to a point that the news of such incidents is no surprise to the people of the city today, who are left with no option but to get accustomed to living a life and loving a partner of religion dictated by these people who are challenging the very existence of our Constitution.
What happened on 26 September was only a glimpse of what has ever been happening in this city of beautiful beaches. On the last Sunday of the month when the mainstream media was busy screaming mostly about the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and its consequences, they chose to remain silent on the mini Afghanistan of their own in our backyard created by our own Taliban.
A group of medical students from a majority community had visited the famous Malpe Island in Udupi district along with one of their friends from the minority community when their car was intercepted on the national highway near a busy tollway. The students were abused, assaulted and shamed by these self-styled protectors of our culture and traditions.
What makes this particular case all the more critical, is the fact that the incident took place in the presence of a senior police official of the city police. It took the police one full day and the video of the incident to go viral, to initiate any action in the case. The city police arrested five Bajrang Dal activists based on the complaint filed by the victims. The accused were charged under Section 341 IPC (Punishment for wrongful restrain) for stopping the vehicle, Section 323 IPC (Punishment for voluntarily causing hurt) for slapping the boys on the car, and Section 504 IPC (Intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace) and were released on bail from the police station on the same evening.
A lot of local organizations and the public, in general, was surprised with the fact that the goons who they call “terrorists” managed an escape from the ‘long hands’ of the law the same evening they were arrested.
Corroborations were made between a similar case that took place in the state’s capital Bengaluru, where the accused from the minority community were booked and arrested within a day.
DYFI State President and activist Muneer Katipalla says that the rising incidents of moral policing in the district were part of a systematic conspiracy of the BJP, which is in power in the state in the wake of upcoming assembly elections in Karnataka that are due in 2023.
Katipalla says the Surathkal incident was well-planned and not spontaneous. He believes the BJP government in the state is fanning such incidents to save its face in the coming assembly elections. Katipalla was one of the first to make corroborations of the Surathkal case with the Bengaluru case which the city’s police commissioner declined.
“This was more of a case of lack of information. The two cases were totally different but people went on to make corroborations between the two cases. The complainant in the Bengaluru case had claimed that the mob who policed them had sexually harassed them and the modesty of the women. Those were serious charges for which immediate action was taken and the accused were arrested. Here, no such allegations were made by the complainant hence we could not charge them with any non-bailable offences.” City’s Police Commissioner N Shashi Kumar said.
Katipalla adds that since the incident took place in the presence of a police official who was stopped from intervening and could clearly be seen being pushed away by the crowd in the video, the police could have charged the accused of stopping a police officer from discharging his duty. Those were non-bailable offences that could’ve been pressed on the accused, he says.
Katipalla further states that the police department has become a toothless tiger in this political game and are powerless to initiate any action against the accused, courtesy to the political backing of the goons who wreak havoc in the city in the name of saving religious values and cultures.
Shashi Kumar added that he had personally met the victims and their families and had assured them all the support from the police department. However, this is not the only case reported in the Dakshina Kannada this year, the district has seen at least 15 reported incidents of moral policing of which at least three were reported in the Mangaluru City Police’s jurisdiction.
“Based on the case that has occurred in our jurisdiction, we have registered the necessary cases. In the last six months, six such incidents of moral policing have been reported in our jurisdiction, and in two cases that occurred in Kadaba and Puttur, we registered a suo-moto case” Rishikesh Sonawane, Superintendent of Police of the district says in his defence.
But the far-right fringe groups’ activists are viewing moral policing as a shortcut to success and elevation in their ranks among their peers. Earlier, the incidents were not reported so frequently, but now a few local newspapers carry reports of one such incident every month if not every week. Despite this, nothing from the police department and district administration has served as a deterrent to these self-styled saviours of religion and values.
Lavanya Ballal, the KPCC Spokesperson and former RJ hailing from Mangaluru was threatened for life on live TV debate when she was speaking against the September 26 incident. A purported man named Sandeep from Mangaluru called the TV debate and dared Lavanya to comment against the Bajrang Dal and Sangh Parivar in public, and that the activists would manhandle her there and then.
“Why are you sitting in AC rooms and commenting on RSS and Bajrang Dal? Come out and speak in public. Bring your daughter too if you want, we will show you what RSS and Bajrang Dal is, we will beat you as well,” the caller said on the live TV debate.
“Bajrang Dal and Sangh Parivar activists have become hyper in the region whenever there is a BJP government in the state. BJP being in power every time has made them fearless. What I have always said and will forever uphold is, nobody except for the parents have the right to discipline their kids. People are free to roam with people of their choices in this country. Nobody can take the law into their hands and whoever does that is disrespecting the Constitution of this country,” Lavanya says.
“The Sangh Parivar is not teaching anything good to our kids and future generations. They talk about culture, and they threaten a girl on a live TV debate. They troll women. They’ve called me whore, they’ve called my mother whore, is this what they mean when they say they are doing service to their religion and the culture?” Lavanya asks.
The menace of organised and systematic moral policing has spread across the city. Students and working-class travelling with friends of the opposite sex on public transport are now wary of their co-passengers with a saffron band around their wrists or ones with a Bhagwa tattoo on their bodies.
Kumar while commenting on the Lavanya Ballal incident added that he had assigned a team of cyber police to monitor the case adding that there was no complaint filed by Lavanya regarding the case. He however acknowledged that no suo-moto cognizance of the offence was taken by the cops but only the situation was being monitored.
Kumar’s predecessor Dr. Harsha, an IPS officer, was largely under the public scanner and allegations were made against him for taking direct orders from a top brass RSS leader Kalladka Prabhakar Bhat during sensitive hours of his duty, including during the infamous police shootout during the anti-CAA protests in the city in December 2019. Kumar however, on record states that he is not under any political pressure or influence while dealing with such communally sensitive cases.
“Moral policing is illegal, and it is not allowed. We will not hesitate whatsoever to act against anybody compromising with the law and order in my jurisdiction. This is a clear message that I want to send to activists and members of all the groups that are actively involved in such cases” Kumar tells.
Whether this “clear message” yield any results for the good of Mangaluru city or not is something only time will tell, but the last time a top-ranked officer tried to sustain at loggerheads with the fringe groups in Dakshina Kannada, IAS Officer Sindhu B. Rupesh, the previous Deputy Commissioner of the district was threatened, trolled and transferred overnight by the political class setting a wrong precedent for all the administrative postings in years to come.
So at a time when we condemn and our newsrooms go bonkers over the Taliban’s capture of Afghanistan, it is also a time to introspect, retrospect on how things are quickly going south pole in our own backyard and how the administration, police department and everyone together are failing to stop a force that is no less than a Taliban of its own and are capturing an Afghanistan of their own in amidst the beautiful valleys of the Western Ghats and beautiful beaches.
Ismail Zaorez is a senior sub-editor at Vartha Bharati, Karnataka.
(Twitter handle: @izaorez )