Iqbal is a youth in his twenties from a small village in coastal Karnataka. He was reportedly assaulted for “being with a Hindu girl”. He is too scared to reveal more about his ordeal.
The incident happened around a week ago. Iqbal confirmed that it did occur, but refused say more. He is back home in Vittla, a village around 80 km from Mangalore.
There is however, an unauthenticated video circulating on a social messaging service showing a young man being asked to say “Om Namah Shivay”, “Jai Shri Ram” and praise and say derogatory things about other religions. In the background, there are two or three other male voices asking him to these things and also swearing at him. It would be inappropriate to reproduce some of the other things he is asked to say, and the comments passed by the other voices.
Sources confirmed that it is indeed Iqbal in the video. His ordeal, and his refusal talk about it, are far too common. His testimony will never appear anywhere, least of all in crime records because he is too scared to talk.
There have been innumerable cases in the past in the two culturally and geographically contiguous districts of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi in coastal Karnataka. Men and women including sexual minorities have been assaulted for mingling with people belonging to other communities, or for allegedly illegally transporting cattle, or simply targeted for being born into one religion or another.
Self-proclaimed guardians have taken it upon themselves to “protect” the religion they belong to. And by extension, they govern the conduct of the people who are born into those religions, irrespective of whether they are believers or not. Such assaults may be carried out by organizations or even groups of local civilians who firmly believe that social relations between communities must not extend to romantic relationships. It occurs in both rural and urban areas.
Iqbal’s case is not an isolated one. In most cases, as any journalist who has covered crime in coastal Karnataka will tell you, vigilante groups accost young couples, assault the men and often molest the women, and then hand them over to the police.
Instead of registering a case of assault and molestation as the case may be, the police summon the parents of the man and woman and tell them, as they put it, “to talk some sense” into their sons and daughters. This sort of vigilantism of morality can take extreme forms – such as the pub attack case in 2008 and the home stay attack case in 2012.
Instances of vigilantism, communal violence and aggression take various forms in Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts. These include assaulting someone simply because they belong to a particular religion, assaulting men and women who are socializing with people of different religions, discrimination on religious lines, allegations of religious conversions, clashes between Hindu and Muslim groups, hate speeches, assaults for supposed illegal transportation of cattle, and deliberate provocation by placing animal carcasses close to religious places.
Political observers trace the beginning of communal tensions in the region to the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition. But such assaults occurred in an organized manner after 2000. Reports of such incidents began to appear in the news several years later.
One of the earliest cases to be reported was the Adi Udupi case in 2005. Around 40 people belonging to a right-wing group surrounded two cattle-traders Hajabba and his son Hasanabba. Father and son were stripped and assaulted. Their nude photographs were published on the front page of a Kannada daily the day after the incident. The accused were all acquitted several years later.
People’s Union for Civil Liberties and the Karnataka Komu Souharda Vedike (Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum) have been compiling news reports of communal discrimination and violence for the last few years.
Udupi and Dakshina Kannada reported 121 communal incidents in 2013. Nine were relating to allegations of religious conversion and eight incidents of cattle vigilantism. Around 45 of these incidents related to “moral policing”.
This year until June 12, a total of close to 80 incidents were reported. But although the incidents included the usual, there were at least three incidents which turned into riots, which required the police to use lathi-charge and even tear gas to disperse the mobs. Prohibitory orders were imposed in each case for around three days to ensure that the situation remained under control. One instance occurred in Ullal in Mangalore and the other two in Kalladka, a small town in Bantwal talk of Dakshina Kannada district.
According to Suresh Bhat Bakrabail of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, these incidents were likely to have had an impact on the elections, which were held in Karnataka on April 18. Such incidents tend to “polarise the vote”, Bhat says.
The Congress appears to be blissfully unaware of the simmering communal tension, which is spilling over to other parts in Karnataka. Despite the change of guard in Bangalore, the situation in the coastal districts remains unchanged. There is a need for strict action against the people who engage in violence of any kind, including communal. In the past, upright police officers have ensured that these goondas were reined in, even when the BJP was in power. Congress leaders were voted to power during the Assembly elections in 2013 in the region in expectation of a change, which has not been delivered. Who then, is answerable?