VU George, 61, remembers the precise day he arrived in Mangalore from Kochi as a nervous teenager: June 6, 1970. “It was raining heavily,” says the publisher and editor of Mangalore Today, a 17-year-old local monthly magazine. His elder brother, an engineer working in Mangalore, didn’t turn up at the station as he’d promised.
The platform cleared out and George, who knew only Malayalam and some broken English, stood there alone. A woman in her mid-40s approached him and asked him where he wanted to go. He showed her a piece of paper with his brother’s address. Even though it was out of the way, she dropped him off. “I decided to stay in Mangalore forever,” says George. "It was like heaven."
He emphasises the word ‘was’.
For years, Mangalore has enjoyed the reputation of being an idyllic student town, with a history of religious tolerance and a balance of Indian and European influences, the latter remnants of Portuguese colonisation between 1526 and 1640. An educational hub known for its engineering and medical institutions, it has a literacy rate of 94.03%, according to the 2011 census. The city’s colleges and IT companies, such as Infosys, attract youngsters from all over the country.
“Eight years ago, boys and girls could be seen sitting together in and around parked cars on New Year’s Eve till 3 am,” says Joy Lasrado, 27, a management graduate. “No one bothered us.” The city shuts down by 9 pm, but its thriving though small nightlife — mostly pubs playing rock and electronic music — goes on till midnight.
Over the past five years, roughly coinciding with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coming to power in Karnataka, this atmosphere has rapidly changed, say locals.
In 2009, activists of Sri Ram Sene, a right-wing Hindu group, attacked women in a pub. A week ago, activists claiming to represent a similar organisation, the Hindu Jagarana Vedike, attacked youngsters partying at a resort just outside the city.
This incident has inflamed the city, revealing a growing tension between right-wing Hindu groups and a multicultural Westernised youth. Pressured by public outrage, on Sunday, a day after the incident, the police filed an FIR against 28 people, including Naveen Soorinje, the journalist who shot the horrifying video, and have so far made 23 arrests. On Monday, the All College Students Union of Mangalore University called for a college bandh, protesting against the incident. On Wednesday, C Manjula, chairperson of the Karnataka State Commission for Women, blamed the police for inaction against illegal homestays running without proper licences, such as the one in which the incident took place. She also suggested that women obtain police permission before attending such parties.
The Vedike denies it planned the attack, but admits that some of its members were involved. “On the pretext of parties, girls are lured to homestays, where illegal activities take place,” says Satyajit Surathkal, convenor of Vedike in the south. “Eight boys and five girls, all between the ages of 18 and 22, partied with alcohol in a bungalow with three bedrooms. What do you think is going to happen? Do I need to spell it out?”
The police say they found no drugs on the premises and that all the youngsters were of the state’s legal drinking age, 18. Two of the victims, Gurudath Kamath, a 24-year-old event organiser, and Vijay Kumar, a 23-year-old DJ, have come forward and spoken about their ordeal, but the young women are unwilling to file any FIRs.
They did not answer their mobile phones when HT called them. “We have been trying to get them to speak about the incident openly, but they’re too scared,” says Kamath. “We were doing nothing wrong or illegal. If they register complaints, we will have a stronger case.”
Clash of cultures
Since the BJP came into power in the state in 2008, Hindutva activists have been stirring up trouble in many ways, says Mangalore Today’s George.
“Mangalore is a hardcore RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) place,” he says. “Not a leaf flies in this town without its knowledge.”
Besides the attacks on youngsters, some celebrate the anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition, December 6, as Vijayotsava, on Car Street in the heart of the city by making inflammatory speeches, and the police don’t do anything, he says. “They impose a section 144 order (prohibiting public gatherings) across the city. Are these programmes not a violation of this?” he asks.
Subhas Chandra, assistant commissioner of police, denies that such events take place. “We clamp down on pujas and other events being held on December 6,” he said.
Students at St Agnes, a reputable girls’ college, say they are regularly stared at and even threatened by Hindutva activists, who regularly warn them against hanging out with boys of other faiths.
TR Jagannath, assistant commissioner of police, Mangalore (south), says extremist elements from both Hindu and Muslim communities cause problems. “This period, between Ramzan and Dussehra, tends to be very volatile,” he says.
But there appears to be a growing mistrust of the police. On Monday, when the students of St Agnes attempted to protest against Saturday’s incident, the police took videos of the girls who were protesting, said several students, who wished to remain anonymous. “A senior police official threatened to present the video in court as evidence of us flouting a curfew ,” said one student. Asked Sister Prem D’Souza, principal of St Agnes College: “Are we supposed to ask the police for protection or are we supposed to fear them?”
The police deny the students’ allegations. “The videos were being taken by the media,” said Subhas Chandra, assistant commissioner of police. “We were merely telling the students to stay within the college premises and to not come out, because we had imposed a curfew. They were within their rights to protest within the premises, not outside.”
The police had imposed a curfew in certain parts of the city on Sunday, which they lifted only on Thursday evening.
For their part, Mangalore’s youngsters are fed up with rising moral policing. After the latest incident, the youth, particularly the women, say they feel uneasy about having a social life. “I was supposed to go for a friend’s farewell party this week, but we’ve cancelled it,” says Liane Noronha, a 21-year-old college student.
Sister D’Souza says that, over the past week, she has been receiving several calls from worried parents when their daughters don’t return home within an hour of classes ending.
“It used to be a lovely place for young people,” says George. “I will continue to stay here, but I don’t blame today’s youth for wanting to leave.”