There was a communal riot every day in north Karnataka for six straight days to Monday. What was the police doing, and can they be trusted to put out future fires?
Luckily nobody died but hundreds were injured and properties worth crores were lost in the riots: Mudhol-September 23, Chikkodi and Surpur-24th, Dharwad and Surpur-25th, Dharwad and Koujalagi-26th, Belgaum-27th and 28th.
There were signs everywhere for weeks that riots might break out in the state. The incident -- where Hindu Jagarana Vedike activists stripped a Muslim man at a marketplace in Mangalore, tied him to a pole and flogged him for an hour in full public view for being friends with a Hindu girl on August 24 -- was a sign.
The broad daylight assassination of rationalist MM Kalburgi on August 30 in Dharwad was a sign. The open threats issued to rationalists and intellectuals after Professor Kalburgi’s killing were also signs that something big might happen.
The riot during Ganesh puja in Janata colony of Mudhol was slow cooking for weeks before it was served on the night of September 23rd. Hindus and Muslims in the area had clashed just two months earlier during the procession of Durgowwa, a local Hindu deity.
There were a few close shaves during Ramadan as well.
A week before the Ganesh puja, the Sri Rama Sene entered this restive theatre and put up a large banner about the festival outside the local mosque. Not to be outdone, the Muslims promptly put up a poster of their own outside the mosque in the name of Tipu Sultan.
Despite all these signs, and the fact that Janata Colony was classified a ‘sensitive area’, the police gave the Sene permission to take the Ganesh procession in front of the mosque. The rioting started around 8pm, as soon as the procession reached the mosque. And when that happened, there weren’t enough policemen deployed on the spot to control the violence.
Things calmed down only around 3am when reinforcements, led by superintendent of police Ravikanthe Gowda arrived from neighbouring Belgaum district.
The Sri Rama Sene’s north Karnataka chief Basavaraja Mahalingeshwar, who was leading the procession in Janata colony alleges that the trouble started when stones came flying out of the mosque. Speaking to HT, he readily admits that his men burnt and destroyed around 10 Muslim properties in retaliation.
Official records show that at least twice that number of Muslim properties were looted and attacked -- not just with stones but also burning tyres and petrol bombs indicating that the violence was planned in advance. Yet, of the 90 men arrested, only 30 were from the Sene.
In Belgaum city, there were minor clashes and incidents of stone-throwing in the crowded Khade Bazar, Khadolkar Galli and Kacheri road areas for at least 24 hours before the main riot erupted around midnight on 28th.
Strangely, the bulk of the police force was withdrawn by the police commissioner S Ravi just hours before. A tenuous peace returned only at dawn the next day.
The same trend was witnessed in Surpur and Dharwad city where tension slowly built up over weeks before the main riot.
Koujalagi and Chikkodi in Belgaum rural were the only two places where riots were nipped in the bud. These two backward towns were also on the boil in the days leading to riots there after the Sri Rama Sene carried out an aggressive campaign against cattle slaughter ahead of Eid. But when the main riot broke, SP Ravikanthe Gowda’s men were well prepared for it.
“Every riot is preventable. No rioter is stronger or smarter than the police,” IPS officer Gopal Hosur, now retired, had said at his first press interaction in Mangalore after taking charge as inspector general in February 2009, one of the most violent periods in the history of the region since Independence.
Just a month earlier, the Sri Rama Sene had molested and beaten women who were partying at a pub. A few months earlier, Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad activists had attacked dozens of churches in coastal Karnataka.
Riots, murders and vigilante attacks had become daily occurrences and BS Yeddyuppa’s BJP government was being accused of shielding the Hindutva extremists who were holding the region to ransom. It seemed Hosur didn’t have a chance.
Nobody was sniggering when he was transferred to the state capital 18 months later. Hosur and his core group of officers, each of whom he had handpicked and brought in from other districts, had delivered 18 of the most peaceful months coastal Karnataka had seen in a very long time.
Of course, they had a tough time; there were dozens of vigilante attacks on intercommunity couples and many small attacks and counter attacks. But Hosur and his men gave as good as they got.
By the time the regime, under pressure from the RSS, started transferring these officers, they had sent hundreds of communal elements, Hindus and Muslims, to jail.
The main architect of the pub attack, Prasad Attavara, was sent on a long jail term after his links with overseas underworld gangs was exposed by the police. His arrest along with several other Sri Rama Sene leaders led to a situation where there was no official spokesperson left for the organisation apart from Pramod Muthalik.
In the process Hosur’s troops proved that it is possible for the police to triumph, even in coastal Karnataka where the rioters are well organised, ferociously motivated and enjoy powerful patronage.
Those of the view that the Congress is a secular party and the BJP is a communal force still find Gopal Hosur’s farewell speech in Mangalore hard to stomach. The outgoing officer, who many conveniently assumed was anti-BJP, surprised them by giving the entire credit to BS Yeddyurappa and the then BJP government for allowing him to work without political interference.
What then went wrong in north Karnataka this last week? Neither are groups such as the Sri Rama Sene and Bajrang Dal strong there nor do they enjoy the sympathies of the present government.
More importantly, the last six riots are indication that the situation might worsen and possibly spread to other parts of the state. When they have failed to contain these minor, mohalla-level skirmishes, can the Karnataka Police be trusted to act decisively in the face of bigger challenges?
And what about Mangalore, that viciously polarised town of coastal Karnataka, where policemen went with Bajrang Dal activists to a discothèque last Saturday night and forced all the women out because they were allegedly ‘violating Indian culture’ by dancing.
Since the murder of Professor Kalburgi by suspected Hindutva extremists, chief minister Siddaramaiah has been promising that communal outfits will tied down.
Since he hasn’t delivered on that promise yet, the chief minister will obviously have to demand more from his home minister and the police force. Siddaramaiah might also want to find out how Yeddyurappa succeeded, albeit briefly, where he has failed totally.