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In the name of Ram

How did a soft-spoken RSS worker known for his inspirational storytelling become the face of intolerance? The wayward career of Pramod Muthalik.

india Updated: Jan 31, 2009 11:32 IST
BR Srikanth & Yogesh Joshi

Why hadn’t we heard of Pramod Muthalik before January 24, when his Sri Ram Sene goons went on the rampage at a Mangalore pub in view of obliging TV cameras? Perhaps because Muthalik is not one of those media-savvy rabble-rousers — though he has a track record that warrants attention.

In November 2008, for instance, the 54-year-old founder of the Sri Ram Sene (Lord Ram’s Army) was in Pune for the death anniversary of Nathuram Godse (a journey he makes every year) and distributed calendars bearing pictures of Godse. Some of them even had a picture of Muthalik reverentially holding an urn containing the ashes of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin.

That didn’t make the headlines. Neither did many of his other contributions to the right-wing cause: Muthalik has been, at various times, a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Bajrang Dal and Shiv Sena. The man who always answers his phone with a “Hari Om” has set up many RSS shakhas in south India, helped the BJP during elections, and made his share of incendiary speeches. But now, he has become a source of embarrassment and irritation for the Sangh Parivar and it has quickly distanced itself from him.

Muthalik’s loyalty to the Hindutva cause goes back to childhood. Growing up in a Marathi Brahmin family in Hukkeri, 40 km from Belgaum near the Karnataka-Maharashtra border, young Pramod got his first lessons in Hindutva from his father Hanumantrao, a zamindar who later became an RSS pracharak (full-time worker). None of his three brothers has jumped onto the right-wing bandwagon — the eldest is a chartered accountant and the second opted to farm the family land.

But Muthalik plunged into the cause when he moved to Belgaum in 1972 to do his BCom at the Gupte Commerce College. The Jan Sangh and RSS were then fighting the Emergency and Muthalik worked for the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the RSS’s students wing, rising to become the RSS district coordinator. “The next step was to become a pracharak,” says Vilas Pawar, a close aide who has known Muthalik since college. “He also decided to remain unmarried forever so that he could spend his life as a pracharak,” adds Sanjay, Muthalik’s youngest brother and a journalist in Hukkeri.

One of the things he clearly enjoyed as a pracharak was narrating heroic tales of Shivaji and Indian mythology to young boys in Mysore. One of them remembers, “All of us used to wait for his sittings because he was a very good storyteller.” In 1992, however, the soft-spoken storyteller transformed into the fiery Hindutva radical we know today. The trigger was the demolition of the Babri Masjid. According to Sanjay, it was Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Ashok Singhal who spotted his brother’s “organisational skills”.

Muthalik joined the Bajrang Dal, and his thundering speeches drew large crowds and applause. Misinterpreting the response as a growing support base, he sought a ticket from Bagalkot in north Karnataka for the 2004 assembly polls. The BJP refused. Besides, his seniors did not even bail him out when he and his supporters were imprisoned for breach of communal harmony. “He was dejected and decided to walk away with his team,” recalls advocate Hanumanth Shiggaon, who worked with Muthalik in the Bajrang Dal.

In August 2005, he drifted into the Shiv Sena but quit that as well in 2006.

Smarting from rejection and disillusionment, he vowed to win an election on his own through a new political entity — the Rashtriya Hindustan Sena (RHS) and its non-political wing, the Sri Ram Sene. However his party drew a blank in the 15 seats it contested in the May 2008 assembly elections.

“Muthalik has decided not to contest any elections,” says Vilas Pawar, RHS general secretary, while Sanjay insists, “Pramodji has never contested elections so far and is determined to maintain the tradition throughout his life.” Dhananjaya Kumar, former Union minister and spokesman for the BJP in Karnataka, however, declares, “On the one hand, he’s knocking on our doors for re-entry, but on the other, he seems to be working to enhance his support base and emerge as a political force in north Karnataka. We have nothing to do with him.”

Muthalik’s folly, according to Mohan Limbikayi, BJP member of the legislative council and an advocate in Hubli, is that he is not practical. “He is an emotional person who has neither read the sentiments of local people nor thought of the consequences of his deeds,” he says. (What better proof of that than the Mangalore attack?)

The police are not too fond of him either. Before the Mangalore pub incident, he was wanted by the police in 11 districts and also found mention in the Malegaon blasts case chargesheet.

His family sticks by him. Says Sanjay, “Pramodji visits Hukkeri once or twice a year. But since he has decided to devote himself to Hindutva, he wants to give us his share of land. He has told us we can even donate it to an old-age home, if we wish.” Given the many troubles Muthalik finds himself in now, perhaps he should reconsider that decision.

First Published: Jan 31, 2009 11:30 IST