At around 5 pm on September 14, 2008 then Bajrang Dal chief Mahendra Kumar called a press conference in Mangalore along with VHP leader MB Puranik.
At 10 am that morning, Bajrang Dal activists had attacked a nunnery in the city, police records show. Within the next hour, 15 more churches were attacked by Hindutva activists in Coastal Karnataka.
At that press conference, which this reporter attended, Kumar and Puranik claimed responsibility for the attacks.
In a joint statement, they warned of more attacks if Christian missionaries didn't stop converting Hindus. The next few days saw similar attacks across the state. Kumar was arrested on September 19 and later sacked from post of state convenor of the Bajrang Dal.
Six years since he issued that statement, Mahendra Kumar claims he's now a "transformed" and "secular" man.
Speaking exclusively to HT on Thursday - after the state government scrapped the Justice BK Somashekhara commission report on the church attacks - Kumar said:
"The 42 days I spent in prison gave me a lot of time to think. I no longer believe in Hindutva. I am secular now. If we have to progress as a nation, we must all work together - Hindu, Muslim, Christian..."
Kumar welcomed the ruling Congress government's decision to scrap the Somashekhara report, which was commissioned by the previous BJP government. He even joined concert with Law Minister T B Jayachandra who said that the report was "politically motivated".
"Of course the report was politically motivated," Kumar said, "The entire objective of the report was to shield the then BJP government."
He said, "The report gives a clean chit to the Bajrang Dal and indicts me. I was the head of the organisation then. How can I be guilty and the Bajrang Dal innocent?"
He points to two attacks that happened simultaneously in Byndoor (Udupi district) and Kadur (Chikmangalur district), 300 km away. "How could Mahendra Kumar be responsible for both the attacks? But that's what the Somashekhara commission report says. Isn't it silly?," he said.
But didn't he claim responsibility for the church attacks? "I never said that I personally attacked the churches. I said that I supported the attacks because missionaries were converting people by force and by inducements. Puranik also said the same thing; why wasn't he arrested?", Kumar said.
Does he still support the attacks? "No not at all. I was wrong then. Now, my focus is on the people who get coverted not on the missionaries. I have realised that people convert because of poverty and the caste system. There are many problems in Hindu society but the RSS and BJP will not focus on these issues. All they do is target missionaries for political mileage."
Has this change of heart come about because he was the singled out for punishment? "I am speaking from my heart. Please don't politicise this. I am not that petty," he said.
39-year-old Kumar revealed thay he joined the RSS when he was 17.
"I was attracted by the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. But over the years I realised that the BJP and the RSS raised the issue only to benefit electorally. Today, I don't care much for a Ram temple. How does a temple change the lives of millions of poor Hindus? What I want is Ram Rajya not Ram Mandir. That is real Hindutva"
Asked what he meant by real Hindutva, he said, "The teachings of Vivekananda are real Hindutva. It is not the RSS type of Hindutva. If I am asked to choose my icons from the Hindutva movement, the only people I can think of are Vivekananda and Shivaji."
Asked to choose a favourite from among the living leaders of the movement, he said, "The only living Hindutva leader I respect is [Prime Minister] Narendra Modi. Hats off to him. I love him more than anything else."
Has he cut off ties from all others? "I am in touch with [Sri Rama Sene chief] Pramod Muthalik. In fact, I am meeting him for breakfast tomorrow [Friday]. Many of my former comrades from the Bajrang Dal, who have been used and thrown like me, come to me for help. I am not in touch with anybody else."
Like Kumar, Muthalik too was once the head of the Bajrang Dal. He was sacked in 2005 after his arrest, in connection with a string of communal flare ups, became imminent.
Speaking of his future plans, Kumar said, "I want to write a tell-all book about my experiences. But I am not yet fully prepared. I still have a lot of reading and research to do before I write that book."
Asked to respond, MB Puranik said, "Mahendra Kumar is no longer with us. He has no principles."