The Mangalore church attacks of September 2008, for which the Bajrang Dal claimed responsibility, triggered a massive change within the usually apolitical Catholic community in the three districts of coastal Karnataka.
That change was most visible in the assembly elections of May 2013. In a surprisingly bold political statement, the Catholic clergy used the pulpit to tell the devout: "Vote for a secular political party".
Things didn't have to be spelled out. These Konkani-speaking Catholics, who had never been persecuted by the Hindu Right until the BJP came to power in November 2007, knew exactly which party not to vote for. From Canada, West Asia, Australia, Mumbai and Bengaluru, hundreds of Catholics returned to their families in Udupi, Mangalore and Karwar just to vote for a "secular" party in that election.
The Congress effortlessly won seven of the eight assembly seats in the Dakshina Kannada district, which is considered the heartland of the Sangh Parivar in South India. And the BJP managed just one seat in each of the three coastal districts where it had played a leading role for 40 years. The saffron party was rejected in other communally sensitive regions of the state as well. Activists opposed to the Sangh and Hindutva had called it a "referendum against communalism".
At the end of 28 months, it is now safe to say that the Siddaramaiah-led Congress government has failed to honour the surge of secular sentiment which propelled it to power.
Two recent incidents which got national attention - the murder of rationalist Prof MM Kalburgi by alleged Hindutva extremists and the public stripping of a Muslim man in Mangalore by the Bajrang Dal - are just the latest additions to a trend that has come to define this so-called secular government. There have been at least 139 such incidents in Mangalore since January this year. In the twin coastal districts of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi, sectarian vigilantes have struck at least 350 times since the Congress came to power. Statistics are not available for Uttara Kannada, the third coastal district where the tinderbox towns of Bhatkal, Karwar and Sirsi are located.
It is not easy to explain away these numbers with the now common argument that the Sangh and its outfits become hyperactive when the BJP is out of power. And even if this theory were true, the Siddaramaiah government has done little more than sanctimoniously condemn each act of communal violence.
Packs of Bajrang Dal and the Hindu Jagarana Vedike activists still keep the streets of Udupi and Mangalore under tight surveillance, ever ready to pounce on the next person who violates their moral code. Colleges, in this major higher education hub, still don't dare host a rock show or a fashion parade. Not since the pub attack of January 2009 has anybody in Mangalore stepped onto a dance floor. A club owner, who dared to open a discotheque near the Mahaveer junction in Mangalore, shut the place down after just one weekend party eight months ago. He had been threatened by a powerful Bajrang Dal leader who is headquartered in the same locality.
On the other hand, the notorious underworld of Mangalore, whose activities are a huge source of revenue for communal groups of all shades, is in the pink of health. Under the nose of the police, its members collect protection money from shopkeepers, big businessmen and builders; operate gambling dens and dance bars; run hawala rackets and illegal loan recovery agencies.
Nothing illustrates the police support for these groups like an incident on February 1 this year at Kalladka which is the stronghold of the controversial RSS leader Kalladka Prabhakar Bhat. A Hindu woman from Kundapur came to Kalladka to visit her Muslim friend who had just delivered a baby. At the Kalladka bus stop, she was picked up by her Muslim friend's husband on a motorbike. They were attacked by the Bajrang Dal when they were on their way to see the baby and then dragged to the police station. Instead of taking action against the attackers, the police summoned the family of the Hindu girl from Kundapur and advised them to “control” her.
In April last year a woman Congress councillor was sexually assaulted by Hindu Jagarana Vedike activists while canvassing for the Lok Sabha elections. Then Mangalore police commissioner R Hithendra did not take action against the accused until the woman held a press conference accusing the police of siding with her attackers and refusing to file an FIR. It is not tough to imagine the plight of the meek in a district where an activist of the ruling party has to call a press conference to seek action against men who tried to strip her in full public view.
Some argue that Congress leaders from the region such as Health Minister UT Khader have encouraged the police to go soft on communal groups. Last year, Hindutva organisations launched a series of audacious attacks on beef transporters during the month of Ramzan. Instead of instructing the police to contain the violence, Khader shot off a letter to the police commissioner asking him to resign if he couldn't stop the illegal trade of cattle.
The defining feature of the police in the region in the last two years has been that they act only after a vigilante attack becomes "breaking news". The stripping of the Muslim boy, where the police arrived after local cable TV channels started beaming videos of the attack, was no different.
Activists fighting communal forces in coastal Karnataka say that several police Sub Inspectors and Inspectors have been retained in their positions despite their open sympathies for rightwing groups. Seniors in the police department say the problem lies 350 kilometre away in the state capital. A Congress leader, who is leading the internal agitation to replace Siddaramaiah with Mallikharjun Kharge as CM, says that Home Minister KJ George has been reduced to a figurehead and has no real power to control the police force. He alleges that all the postings and transfers of the police are controlled by a coterie made up of men belonging to Siddaramaiah's caste, the Kurubas.
The drubbing of the Congress in the Lok Sabha elections and the recently concluded civic elections in Bengaluru is clear indication that the BJP is going to be a formidable adversary in the 2018 Karnataka assembly elections. Siddaramaiah is getting increasingly isolated within his party and senior leaders such as S M Krishna, Mallikharjun Kharge and G Parameshwara have started criticizing him openly. His public image still seems largely intact thanks to the loyalty of a section of the state's secular intellectuals and writers who had played a crucial role in highlighting the failure of the previous BJP government in containing Hindutva groups.
If he is still leading the Congress' effort in 2018, Siddaramaiah will need more than the endorsement of a handful of intellectuals to prove that he did better than the BJP.