Moral policing, a phrase being used to name those groups of people who have assumed self proclaimed responsibilities to improve the cultural and ethnic style of living and also to become our moral guardians. The Mangalore incident and a series of other such incidents show how this phenomenon is becoming prevalent in our country. The guarantees of liberty and freedom of expression as enshrined in our constitution have started to seem meaningless under the black shadows of such actions which now have become a regular on the newspapers of our country.
A typical evening at “Amnesia: The Lounge”, a pub in Mangalore in Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka, turned into a nightmare for a few young women on January 24. As television news grabs later showed, in an incident as bizarre as it could be, they were chased out of the pub and hit brutally by a group of men. Eyewitnesses say that a group of more than 40 people shouting slogans such as “Bharat Mata ki Jai”, “Jai Sri Ram”, “Bajrang Dal ki Jai” and “Sri Rama Sene ki Jai” barged into the pub.
Soon after the incident, Pramod Muttalik of the Sri Rama Sene, a four-year-old right-wing group that is active in coastal Karnataka, claimed responsibility for it. He justified the attack by stating proudly: “We are the custodians of Indian culture.”
The Rama Sene was a little known entity before the incident. This leads many in the State to believe that it could have used the incident to carve out a space for itself in coastal Karnataka distinct from the Bajrang Dal, which has so far been dominating headlines for its aggressive Hindutva stance in the region.
In his response to the media after the event, Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa said there was no connection between the Sri Rama Sene and the Bharatiya Janata Party. He, however, added that the BJP too was against the “pub culture” .
The Bajrang Dal, a Sangh Parivar outfit, was also quick to distance itself from the Rama Sene. “It is a fringe organisation started by the renegade Muttalik and has limited support, with a membership of around 200 in Mangalore,” said a senior Bajrang Dal leader .
Later, the police arrested 28 people for their role in the incident, including Muttalik and Prasad Attavar, convener of the Rama Sene in the State. They were released on bail on January 31.
Significantly, this is not the first case that Muttalik has been involved in. 41 cases were filed against him between February 12, 1999, and September 15, 2008. Almost all the cases were under Section 153 (a) of the Indian Penal Code , but many of these were withdrawn in the past two years.
The rise of Muttalik, a right-wing demagogue, can be traced to the growth of the BJP in the State. He began his career with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). When the Karnataka chapter of the Bajrang Dal was inaugurated in 1996, he became its first convener. In his eight-year stint with the organisation hence, he played an active role in attempts at “liberating” the Bababudangiri shrine in Chickmagalur from Muslim control. In December 1999, he threatened to capture it if the government did not transfer the management of the shrine to Hindus and proclaimed that he would make it the “Ayodhya of the South”.
Finding restricted space for his political ambitions in the BJP, he joined the Shiv Sena in 2004. He quit the Shiv Sena, too, following its leader Bal Thackeray’s anti-Karnataka statements and founded the Rashtriya Hindu Sena, of which he is the national president. The Rama Sene is the youth wing of this party.
The coastal districts of Karnataka, which according to many news reports have become the laboratory of Hindutva in the State, have provided fertile grounds for the emergence and growth of organisations such as the Sri Rama Sene in the past two decades. There have been two major communal riots here, in 1998 and 2006.
The coastal region of Karnataka consists of three districts – Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Uttara Kannada. Known for their high literacy rate, the districts are only behind Bangalore in most social indicators. According to the Karnataka Human Development Report of 2005, the ranking of Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Uttara Kannada in the Human Development Index was 2, 3 and 7 respectively from among 27 districts. (Karnataka has 29 districts now after Chickballapur and Ramnagram were designated districts in 2007.)
The area has a significant number of Muslims and has a historically dominant Catholic presence. According to an article published by Assadi in Economic and Political Weekly , the coastal region “…underwent a complete transformation after the 1970s with the effective implementation of land reforms, the Gulf boom, the establishment of a large number of new industries, and the expansion of banking…”. In this changed economic setting, two backward caste groups, the Billavas and the Mogaveeras, and the relatively dominant Bunt community competed with the newly affluent Bairy Muslims.
After the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 the area came increasingly under the influence of the Sangh Parivar, which used the changes in the political economy of the region to convert the long-standing economic grievances into defined communal identities by casting the Muslim as the “other”. The vernacular media played their role in furthering the agenda of the Sangh Parivar.
In September 2008, there were 15 attacks on churches in the region. The following December the distribution of a Mangalore-based newspaper Karavali Ale was disrupted following its criticism of the Bajrang Dal. The Bajrang Dal may have washed its hands off the Rama Sene by calling it the organisation of the renegade Muttalik, but it has been indulging in its own brand of “moral policing” for the past few years.