04/05/2018 3:47 PM IST | Updated 13/05/2018 1:55 AM IST

Fed By BJP And Congress, The Hindu-Muslim Divide Runs Dangerously Deep In Coastal Karnataka

Communal blitz.

Ashraf Kalayi was killed by assailants in June, 2017.

NARAVI, Karnataka -- Ashok Poojary was recovering from a brutal assault by sword-wielding assailants when he heard of his own death.

"I turned on the television one day and these people were saying that I'm dead," Poojary said, one recent afternoon at his home in Naravi, a settlement nestled between the foothills of the Western Ghats and the Kudremukha mountains in coastal Karnataka.

"As you can see, I am alive," he said.

Poojary had been incorrectly included in a list of 23 Hindutva political workers, allegedly slain by Muslim extremists, compiled by the Bharatiya Janta Party. These deaths, the BJP said, were an indictment of the Congress Party rule in Karnataka.

Poojary is not the only erroneous addition; there are other deaths – independent assessments have found – not related to communal violence.

Yet, this list of 23 has become a mainstay of the BJP campaign speeches across the state. In Sirsi, BJP's star campaigner, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, said, "I have come here to call upon you to outrightly reject the divisive politics of the Congress, the jihadi mindset of the Congress, its policies of supporting terrorism and corruption."

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, "We want to promote the ease of doing business, but they have encouraged the ease of doing murder."

The violence has not been one way: Muslim men have died as well.

Yet, the back and forth over numbers obscures how murder has become an accepted form of politics in a region described, by locals, as a laboratory of communal politics.

"Communalism has seeped into the very cleavage of society," said Tolpady Rajaram, a political science professor at Mangalore University, adding that the routine pitting of Hindus against Muslims had taken a sinister new form.

"It is not typical communalization, not sporadic bursts of violence, but calculated cold blooded murder," Rajaram said. "It is a celebration of violence that brings about a constant state of fear," he said. "It is influencing how people think and act."

Communalism has seeped into the very cleavage of society.

READ:In Karnataka's Hindutva Heartland, A Catholic And A Muslim Find No Joy In Casting Their First Vote

Betwa Sharma/HuffPost
Ashok Poojary at his home in Naravi, Karnataka in May, 2018.

A divided community

For Ashok Poojary, the man who came back from the dead, the attack on his life has not prompted a rethink on communalism. Rather, it has reinforced his belief that Hindus and Muslims cannot live together.

"I'm sick of the Congress. They always side with Muslims. I want the Congress out the country," he said, while pointing out the scars of seven gashes on his head. "The BJP should come to power. They help Hindus."

When Poojary, who is a member of the Bajrang Dal, was attacked, his fellow Hindutva activists rallied around and gathered approximately ₹2,00,000 for him, he said. Had he died, the pay-offs would have been much greater.

In February, BJP President Amit Shah made a campaign stop at the home of Deepak Rao, a distributor of mobile SIM cards, who was killed by Muslim assailants in the town of Katipalla, on January 3.

While the Congress government paid his family ₹10,00,000 as compensation, local Hindu activists gathered several times that amount through an online campaign on social media, his family members said.

"The BJP has taken care of my needs," said Premlata, Rao's mother.

Mohiuddin Bava, a local Congress MLA had offered her ₹5,00,000 as well. But Premlata turned him down.

Premlata stayed silent when asked why she refused Bava's contribution, but a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) activist at her home pulled up a widely circulated image on his phone by way of explanation.

"This is a Hindu house," the message reads. "Congress that won with the blessing of Allah do not have permission to enter."

Congress that won with the blessing of Allah does not have permission to enter.

A short car ride from Rao's home, Imran Basheer had a question for Amit Shah.

"Why did he not meet Abdul Basheer's family?" he asked. "He is a national leader of the party ruling at the Centre. Are we not citizens of India?"

Basheer's father, Abdul, who ran a fast food joint on the highway near Mangalore, was slain in a retaliatory attack a few hours after Rao was killed.

It was after his father died that Basheer, who works as a store manager in Dubai, decided to vote for the first time.

"The Congress helped my family and I want to vote for those who helped me," he said. "If Amit Shah had met us, even phoned us, it would have made me think, but he made the divisions clear."

If Amit Shah had met us, even phoned us, it would have made me think, but he made the divisions clear.

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Politics of murder

Deepak Rao and Abdul Basheer's murders were preceded by the murders of Prashant Poojary, a Bajrang Dal activist and a flower seller, Ashraf Kalayi, a member of the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) and an auto rickshaw driver, and RSS worker Sharath Madiwala, who was stabbed by assailants while he was closing his father's laundry shop.

The Congress government has claimed that only nine of the 23 deaths were connected to communal violence.

Analysts are divided on how effective BJP's communal blitz will prove.

Narendar Pani, a political analyst at the Bangalore-based National Institute of Advanced Studies, noted that the murders are a consequence of the rivalry between the BJP and the SDPI, the political wing of the Popular Frontier of India (PFI), a Muslim organization linked to the murder of Hindu activists.

"Whether the BJP can convert that into a problem for the Congress, well, only the results will tell," Pani said.

For the SDPI, the implications of this violence are clear.

"The BJP incites violence for votes, while the Congress comes to get votes after the violence," said Ilyas Thumbay, general secretary of the SDPI.

While denying any involvement of his party in the killings, Thumbay said, "The Sangh Parivar has been growing in strength for the past 50 years. I agree that violence is not a solution but Muslims need to protect themselves."

The BJP incites violence for votes, while the Congress comes to get votes after the violence.

READ:Actor Prakash Raj Talks About Pushback Against The BJP

Sharath Madiwala's father

"Go away," said Thaniyappa Madiwala, while conducting business at his laundry shop in the town of Bantwal. "My son is dead. What do you want me to say?"

Then, the grieving father burst into an angry tirade against Chief Minister Siddaramaiah.

"You see that bus stand, how far is it? Just 50 meters away, even less," he said. "Well, Siddaramaiah came to inaugurate that bus stand but he did not bother to come and speak to us."

News of his son's death, Madiwala said, was suppressed for a whole day by the A.J. Hospital and Research Centre in Mangalore.

"They did not tell us to avoid embarrassing Siddaramaiah who was attending an event in Mangalore," he said. "Not only did the CM not speak with us, they suppressed the news."

The Hindu has previously reported that Madiwala had died at 12:30 am on July 7, according to hospital's post mortem report, but it was announced in the night, after the chief minister left town.

"You see, why I'm angry," said Madiwala.

The Congress has twice, tried to drop charges against Muslims accused in communal violence cases.

U.T. Khader, the Congress lawmaker from Mangalore and Karnataka's Food Minister, refuted charges that his party was seeking political advantage from the murders.

"There is no partiality on the part of the Congress," Khader said, "It is the BJP that are experts in politicizing death."

Ramarajan, the political analyst, contested this claim.

"Not only has the Congress shown little interest in addressing communalism, it is intellectually bankrupt when it comes to understanding it," he said. "Its only response is to blame the Sangh Parivar and the BJP."

Not only has the Congress shown little interest in addressing communalism, it is intellectually bankrupt when it comes to understanding it.

Two realities

There remains, however, a deep undercurrent of social fraternity.

Standing near the grave of his slain brother Ashraf Kalayi, 32-year-old Mohammed Sadiq Kalayi flipped through the photographs on his mobile phone.

"See this photo is with a Hindu family, this one is with a Hindu elderly woman that he was helping," Kalayi, a driver, said. "My brother was first and foremost a social worker. He did not see Hindu and Muslim when he was helping people."

Madiwala, whose son was killed, noted that it was a Muslim vegetable vendor, Abdul Rauf, who rushed his son to the hospital.

In Basheer's case, it was a Hindu man, Shekhar Kulal, who rushed him to the hospital. In Rao's case, it was his friend and boss, Abdul Majeed, who tried to save him.

Premalatha recounted the warm relationship that her son had with Majeed.

Poojary did not fail to mention that it was a local Christian priest who used his contacts to get him ₹20,000 off from his huge medical bill.

Basheer explained how alien it was for him to think on communal lines.

"My friend circle is almost all Hindus. My best friend in Dubai is Hindu. I went to Bengaluru to attend the wedding of a Hindu friend," he said.

Sadly, it is the Islamic festival of Eid that Basheer hardly ever celebrated with his father.

"Now, I regret that we got so caught up with things, with life, with making a living," he said. "I did not know that I had such little time left with him."

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