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Faith accompli

Sharing a snack with a friend from a different faith, blacklisting students for bunking lectures — they’re all adequate reason to start a riot in Mangalore, India’s current flashpoint of right-wing politics. Reports Samrat.

india Updated: Mar 28, 2009 21:17 IST
Hindustan Times

It’s late afternoon and a few students sit with their notebooks astride the walls of the sprawling, 129-year-old St Aloysius College in Mangalore.

In the distance, down the hill, is the glimmer of the Arabian Sea. It’s a peaceful scene, one that has changed little from the days when Father Leo D’Souza studied here.

“I’ve been here since the 1930s,” says the soft-spoken, bespectacled former rector of the Aloysius institutes. “There was a lighthouse on this hill, which is why this area is called Lighthouse. There was also a famous idgah (Islamic prayer house). It was a peaceful place.”

Both the lighthouse and idgah are still there, like the Aloysius College itself, but the peace is beginning to crumble.
Even academics tends to become political now, says Father Francis Rao, the current rector and head of the Karnataka

A day earlier, there was some tension on campus after a dozen students of various faiths fell short of the stipulated attendance and were denied permission to appear for their exams.

The local chapter of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad — the students’ wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party — got involved on behalf of the Hindu students and threatened to force the college shut.

“Mangalore was never like this,” says Father Richard Rego, another priest who teaches at the college. “Why Mangalore?”
Perhaps the answer to that lies partly in what another teacher — Pattabhirama Somayaji, who teaches English at University College — has to say.

The Sangh Parivar outfits are very active in the area, says Somayaji. “Whatever the programme, whether it’s a local cricket tournament or a local practice like ancestor worship, the Sangh cadres get involved.”

The other factor he blames is the sudden economic growth.

“We now have colleges here with high capitation fees, malls, pubs... places to which a lot of local people can’t get access,” he says. “This helps the Sangh outfits gain members. They then feel empowered by Sangh membership... and gain power to beat up pub-goers, for example.”

The clash, though, is increasingly between radical Hindus and Muslims, as pub-goers are a negligible presence.

Rioting is now a regular occurrence around Mangalore, and the violence is gradually moving into the town of 4.3 lakh.

Last Tuesday, three boys from a flight steward training academy were beaten up by Bajrang Dal activists in Puttur, about 52 kilometres to the north.

Their crime: They were associating with people of other faiths. The boys, two Hindus and a Christian, were on an excursion with classmates and teachers and had stepped out of their bus at a wayside halt for refreshments when they were warned that such behaviour — standing and having a soft drink with someone of another faith — would not be tolerated.

The incident led to rioting after rumours spread that the boys were Muslims, at which the local Muslim and Hindu outfits squared off and threw stones at each other.

A couple of days earlier, a massive Hindu meet was attended by about 1 lakh people in Mangalore.

Twenty locally influential religious heads and several saffron leaders participated. Karnataka Home Minister V.S. Acharya, who is from Udupi 66 km north of Mangalore, was present too.

Speakers called on those present to oppose the four ‘evils’ — conversion, terrorism, cow slaughter and untouchability.
On their way home, some of the people who attended the rally got into a fight with a group of Muslims. A riot began, and
the local superintendent of police was injured. A mosque was also damaged.

Twenty-seven people, all Muslim, were arrested.

Home Minister Acharya postponed his trip back to Bangalore after this. Sitting in his home in Udupi the following evening, the former Jan Sangh leader said: “Things are very normal in the state.”

The English media had been treating the state government very badly, he added. The earlier attacks on churches and the Amnesia pub in Mangalore were “minor incidents”. “Even about Modi's Gujarat, similar things were written, but he won three times,” Acharya said.

Back in Mangalore, U.H. Umer, convenor of Forum for Rights and Justice, says everyone is afraid. “People are picked up by the police without any cases against them,” he says. “Divides are growing...”

The increasing attacks on minorities are a dangerous trend, says former state director general of police and Member of Parliament from Bangalore H.T. Sangliana.

“If the government fails to protect minorities, the youth may develop militant tendencies,” he says. Umer’s fear is that no one is listening.

First Published: Mar 24, 2009 00:36 IST