The town of Thudiyalur, about 11 kilometres from Coimbatore, was on the boil on September 23 as members of the Hindu Munnani (Hindu Front), a right-wing Hindu outfit in Tamil Nadu descended on Subramaniapalayam. Their destination was the home of C Sasikumar, a leader of the outfit who was attacked and murdered by unknown assailants a day earlier. The organisation called for a bandh (shutdown) in Coimbatore on September 24, the day the funeral procession of Sasikumar was to be taken out. Unexpectedly, violence erupted. A mob of over 100 persons who were part of the funeral procession attacked and torched government buses, private vehicles and shops, and petrol bombs were hurled in Thudiyalur. Coimbatore police, after an initial surprise, reacted swiftly, arresting 80 people in connection with the violence. The case too has been transferred to a special unit of the police, the Crime Branch - Criminal Investigation Department (CB-CID).
The Hindutva groups’ grouse in Tamil Nadu is not a new one. The murder of Sasikumar is the latest in a series of attacks on members of fringe pro-Hindu groups in the state in the recent past. Another outfit that has been frequently targeted is that of the Hindu Makkal Katchi (Hindu People’s Party), led by a former RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and Hindu Munnani member Arjun Sampath. Sampath and his ilk in Tamil Nadu are livid at what they call the carelessness of the state police and state government in providing protection to Hindu right wing organisations. These Hindutva groups lay the blame for these attacks on Islamic extremists. H Raja, the BJP’s national general Secretary, even went so far as to make the unsubstantiated claim that Sasikumar’s murder was by “Bangladeshi infiltrators”.
“Jihadi forces are growing rapidly in Tamil Nadu,” alleged Sampath. “Police and state government are not able to control them. These jihadi forces are also joining political circles and the main Dravidian parties have been helping them and encouraging them in the name of minority votes,” he accused.
Sampath and his party members too have been at the receiving end of violence in the state. On September 7, a pandal set up by the Hindu Makkal Katchi in Gingee, to celebrate Vinayaka Chathurthi, was torched after the group concluded worship and left. A day later, the house of Mahesh, district organiser of the Hindu Munnani in Vellore, was attacked with petrol bombs. A couple of days later, in Dindigul, an SUV belonging to another Hindu Munnani local leader was burnt. A Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) worker in Hosur named Suri was subsequently killed. On September 20, Hindu Munnani state secretary Shankar Ganesh was attacked in Dindigul and is currently recovering in a hospital in Madurai. Petrol bombs were hurled at a shop belonging to a BJP (Bhartiya Janata Party) worker in Tirupur later in the month, and another party worker’s car was burnt last week in Dindigul.
All of these incidents have taken place in September 2016 alone. A spate of murders since 2013, mostly unsolved, has angered not only right-wing outfits but also the BJP, which had made it a key talking point in the campaign for 2014 Parliamentary polls in the state. The BJP’s own general secretary V Ramesh, an auditor hailing from Salem, was hacked to death in 2013. “A total of 120 murders of Hindu leaders has happened in Tamil Nadu in the past few years,” said Sampath of the Hindu Makkal Katchi. “The state government is not bothered about it because in any issue relating to minorities, they come together and protest without heed to the law. These people [Muslims] are making the government bow down in the name of pandering to minorities. Minority welfare is one thing but encouraging jihadis is altogether another,” he added.
Flashback to the 1980s
State historians point to the early 1980s as the beginning of ties worsening between Hindus and Muslims in an otherwise communally peaceful state. For example, 1981 saw the conversion to Islam of 300 Dalit families in Meenakshipuram in Tirunelveli district. This incident sent alarm bells ringing through the Sangh Parivar across the country, say political experts. “Dalits had been denied basic rights so they chose Islam--that was it,” said MH Jawahirullah, leader of the Manithaneya Makkal Katchi, a Muslim political party in Tamil Nadu. “Until then the RSS or so-called right wing organisations were not known to anyone. It is only after this Meenakshipuram incident that on a large scale, leaders of BJP and RSS descended on Tamil Nadu. Vajpayee and Advani visited Meenakshipuram. The Hindu Munnani was floated after this,” he said.
Alongside these developments, Islamic fundamentalist groups too came together in retaliation. “Everyone has the right to form their own organisation but what happened was that these groups like Hindu Munnani began attacking Muslims in a very derogatory manner verbally in meetings and in pamphlets,” said Jawahirullah. “These vicious speeches provoked Muslims. For example, there was a patti mandram (public debate) in Chennai around 1982-83 - the topic of the debate was ‘Kaama veriyil iruppavar kanni neri Khadija-va Maniyammai-ah?’ (Is Khadija - Prophet Mohammed’s wife - more lustful or is Maniyammai - Periyar’s wife - more lustful?) Some Muslims too began to oppose and retaliate. Finally it led to clashes. Many Muslims died -Imam Ziauddin of Coimbatore, Imam Qasim of Dindigul, a Dravida Kazhagam member Hakim was killed in Coimbatore. There was retaliation from the Muslim side too,” he said.
The first major attack on a prominent Hindu leader was in 1982,when Jana Krishnamurthy (one of the founders of the BJP, and National General Secretary at the time) was attacked, allegedly by Muslim groups, at a public meeting. He would go on to become the Law Minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s cabinet and held the post of BJP president from 2001 to 2002. Hindu Munnani founder Ramagopalan was similarly attacked in 1984, but escaped death.
By the mid-eighties, Islamic fundamentalist groups such as the Al Umma had become active and posters were put up across Coimbatore city warning Hindu right wing activists that they would be killed. Arjun Sampath, who was then in the RSS, was one of those who featured on these posters, although he did not face any attacks at the time. In 1989 though, Hindu Munnani Secretary Veera Ganesh, another Hindu leader who was warned through these posters, was killed in Coimbatore.
In the wake of nationwide communal tensions over the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, the Muslim community was in turmoil as large numbers of Muslim youth were arrested under the now-defunct draconian Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, better known as TADA. In 1997, 18 Muslim youth were killed by Hindu groups in Coimbatore in revenge for the death of a Hindu leader called Selvaraj. A few months later, in February 1998, the city witnessed serial bomb blasts that claimed 46 lives and wounded over 200.
‘Convergence of communalism and casteism’
Sociologists explain that there is a deeper method to the madness of the Hindu right wing in Tamil Nadu. “There are two dimensions to this,” said AR Venkatachalapathy, professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies in Chennai. “Fundamentalist groups are active on both sides - Hindu and Muslim. Now Hindu fundamentalists are more emboldened following the ascendance of the BJP at the Centre, so they are taking a more provocative attitude here,” he said.
Muslim leaders agree with this observation. “Since Narendra Modi took over as prime minister the Hindu groups in Tamil Nadu have become more vocal and provocative, especially on social media,” said Jawahirullah. “One BJP leader said in a Facebook post that he wished that as many Muslims in Tamil Nadu would die as those who were killed in the Mecca tragedy recently. This is only an example. There are many other such statements being said in an effort to provoke. This needs to stop,” he said.
Experts argue that fundamentalism has found more takers in the recent past due to a lack of political space for the nouveau riche - those that have seen sudden money with the real estate boom in the country before 2008. “If you look at the pattern of these killings, most of these are done by lower level goondas and thugs who are largely in realty and other such sectors and they are getting into fundamentalist outfits. There is no space in the mainstream political parties like the DMK [Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam] or the AIADMK [All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam], so they are going towards these groups,” Venkatachalapathy said.
Chalapathy, as he is better known in intellectual circles, also points to what he calls the “convergence of communalism and casteism” in the southern state. “Hindu fundamentalists are roping in the intermediate castes which are feeling threatened by the rise of the Dalits and the other so-called lower castes,” he explained. “Using culture and tradition and religion is a convenient way of bringing together the intermediate castes. So there is a convergence between communalism and casteism. We saw that in the Perumal Murugan affair,” he said.
Things are heating up in the western belt of the state - areas like Coimbatore, Tirupur, Erode, Namakkal - where caste tensions have arisen in the recent past. This, experts like Stalin Rajangam and C Lakshmanan say, is due to the fact that the Dalits of the southern belt had consolidated in the 1990s itself and intermediate castes in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu, like the Thevars and Nadars - have been witness to Dalit uprisings for at least three decades now.
In the western belt, though, Dalits have been pushing back only in the recent past and the intermediate castes in the area, namely the Gounders, are aghast at this assertion. “The challenge to Kongu Vellalars (another name for Gounders) has been only in the past 10years or so because they are not used to Dalits agitating against them,” said Chalapathy. “The Dalits of the western belt are yet to consolidate fully and rise up. But the rest of Tamil Nadu is used to this kind of a push back against casteism. So the violence is now being seen more in the western belt of the state,” he added.
The only point that both opposing sides agree upon that the state police and the mainstream political parties, the DMK and the AIADMK, are to blame.
“I have been petitioning the Centre to take action in the state against these jihadis since the state government is not bothered,” stated Arjun Sampath of the Hindu Makkal Katchi. “The Home Minister has to intervene and protection has to be given to leaders of Hindu organisations. We need a unit of the NIA (National Investigative Agency) in the state,” he said.
Muslim leaders are also anguished at what they see as lack of action against provocative Hindu groups. “Let the police punish those responsible for the crimes but to target the entire Muslim community for the acts of a few is not correct,” added Jawahirullah.
As the finger-pointing continues, a state that was once free of communal clashes and tensions is now disturbed. It is in the hands of major political leaders to ensure that no tears appear in the social fabric of Tamil Nadu.
Professor Venkatachalapathy advocates firmer emphasis on preventive measures by the state police. “The people of Coimbatore are upset, the business community is worried,” he stated. “Their peace has been disturbed. If more violence is engineered there will be repercussions in the electoral fray. This cannot be treated as a law and order issue - you cannot react once the problem arrives, you need to have information beforehand and prevent it in a pre-emptive fashion. No provocative propaganda should be allowed and fundamentalist organisations of all religions must be cracked down upon.”
(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media.)