MALLUR, Karnataka -- Muneer Katipalla, while searching for a quiet place to speak with HuffPost India, refused to step into the mosque situated right across from the street where he was campaigning in Mallur village of coastal Karnataka.
It would send the wrong message to the public and compromise his stand, explained the 41-year-old candidate from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – CPI(M) - who is challenging Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) heavyweights in the deeply polarised Assembly constituency of North Mangalore.
Locals describe coastal Karnataka as a "laboratory of Hindutva," and its politicians have few compunctions about exploiting the bloodshed between Hindus and Muslims for votes.
Katipalla, however, is marching to a different beat, which is not only in line with his party's ideology, but also his own convictions.
The Muslim Communist, along with his devoted band of Hindu followers, is out to prove that religion has no place in politics. The father of two, who has assets less than Rs 2 lakh, doesn't believe it is naive to fight an election exclusively on issues like governance, health, education and the environment.
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With the exception of GV Srirama Reddy, who won the Bagepalli Assembly constituency seat in 1994 and 2004, no candidate from the either the CPI(M) or the Communist Party of India (CPI) has prevailed in Karnataka since 1983.
The CPI(M) has fielded 19 candidates in the 2018 Assembly election.
How are you Muslim and a Communist?
It strikes one as a contradiction.
Communism in India is different. In Bengal and Kerala, where the Left has been in power for a long time, there are a lot of Muslims in communist parties. The Communist Party has no objection to the personal belief of their members. We have no problems with people's belief system. We have a problem with communalism, we have a problem with fundamentalism and violence in the name of religion.
Karl Marx says that religion is also the sigh of the oppressed, but it should not be the opiate. My opponent from the Congress, Mohiuddin Bava, is telling people that I don't believe in God. That's all he has to say about me.
Communism in India is different.
Do you believe in God?
That's a personal question.
Do you pray?
I pray for the people (laughs). Politics is different and my personal beliefs are different.
When your opponent says that you don't believe in God, do you think it hurts your chances?
He is trying his best to bring me down, but I'm not corrupt. We are always with the poor people, with the oppressed, not with the rich. That is why the Congress candidate has nothing else to say against me except that I have no religious beliefs.
Four years back, one Bajrang Dal activist, Rajesh Poojary, was murdered here and three young Muslim boys were arrested although they were not connected to the case. Nobody supported them, neither the Congress government nor the Congress MLA. The communists stood by them and persuaded the police to remove their name from the case because they were innocent. That is why people trust me a lot.
People say that you will help the BJP by cutting into the Congress vote.
We are a national-level political party and so I'm contesting. Seventy-five to 80% of my activists are Hindus. I'm not asking for Hindu votes or Muslim votes, but votes based on my performance.
I'm not asking for Hindu votes or Muslim votes, but votes based on my performance.
Congress says it is a secular party. Do you agree?
I do not say that Congress is not a secular party. The party is secular but not its candidates. Sometimes, those who are in the Congress join the BJP when they don't get seats, and those who are in the BJP join the Congress, so how can they be called secular? It is not enough for the party to be secular, but for its candidates as well.
The BJP accuses Congress of appeasing Muslims. Do you agree?
It's not appeasement, but it is attraction. To call it as appeasement, they should have been given jobs and houses.
Why do Muslims feel they have no option but to vote for the Congress?
There is no alternative. The other strong party is JD(S), which calls itself secular, but have joined with BJP so many times that Muslims don't trust it. The Left is strong in trade unions, workers' movement, but we have not developed politically in Karnataka.
What do you make of the cycle of violence between Hindus and Muslims in coastal Karnataka?
It is being done for political benefits. Here, the government has not created any medical facilities, education facilities or given jobs to youngsters. They are promoting polluting industries. They imprison innocent people. They engineer these killings to create a split, to show people they can protect them, and to divert attention away from the real problems likes job, education and houses.
They engineer these killings to create a split, to show people they can protect them, and to divert attention away from the real problems likes job, education and houses.
Who do you think is more dangerous in the area – the Hindu extremists or the Islamic fundamentalists?
The Sangh Parivar, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
Why not the PFI (Popular Front of India)?
The PFI developed because the minorities were being attacked for the past 15 years.
What are the issues that you are running on?
Anti-corruption, education and health. There are seven private medical colleges in Mangalore. I want a government medical college. There is good education here but there are no government facilities. We want government schools. Education is a major industry here. All the education is in the private sector, so really meritorious students don't get a chance unless they can make big donations, two lakhs, three lakhs, four lakhs per year.
Young people are worried about unemployment. Some want multinational companies (MNCs) to come here.
I don't have problem with MNCs as long as they are job-driven. Let them make profit, but the local youth should also profit. I would like industries to come here but non-polluting industries. We should also develop tourism.
Do you feel that you have the resources to go up against the Congress and BJP?
My boys won't even take money from others for tea or lunch, but for Congress and the BJP, nobody will work unless they are paid. There is a war between idealism and money. My slogan is 'no corruption and no compromise.' Another slogan is – 'This is a struggle against the rich capitalists by the common people.' It is not a struggle between Hindus and Muslims. It is a struggle between 10% of the exploiters and 90% of the exploited.
It is not a struggle between Hindus and Muslims. It is a struggle between 10 percent of the exploiters and 90 percent of the exploited.
Money does often win over idealism.
I see this as a long-term struggle. I'm not a sprinter but a marathon runner. I have cultivated people here, and they will stay with me for the next election as well.
Still, money does help.
We all submitted a statement of our assets, I have only Rs. 1,98,000. One lakh rupees in life insurance, a Bullet bike worth Rs. 70,000, that's it. No house, no land. Someone asked me how will you do politics without money. They bring people in helicopters (Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been using a helicopter to reach various election rallies across the state). There are thousands of people here who applied for land, when they don't have a house, why should I have a house? After they get a house, perhaps I will get a house. Is it possible for BJP and Congress candidates to say that?
Many people vote for the BJP because they like Modi. Do you feel like you're going up against Modi?
Modi has not filed nomination papers here, so why are they bringing him to caampaign? There is no point asking for votes for Bharath Shetty or Vedvyas Kamat (local BJP candidates) and that is why they have to bring him. Nobody has come from my party. I'm contesting against the policies of the BJP and the Congress.
Who is one person you admire the most?
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