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Uneasy questions after Amit Shah visits Gorta, village with violent past

Amit Shah has described his visit to Karnataka's Gorta as an initiative to 'introduce the young generation' to the history of the region which 'would have become Pakistan if it weren’t for Patel'. But the history Shah referred to is bitterly contested.

india Updated: Sep 22, 2014 16:17 IST
Sudipto Mondal
Sudipto Mondal
Hindustan Times
Maharashtra,karnataka,Amit Shah

This village of around 2,000 voters on the Maharashtra-Karnataka border is apparently unremarkable, but BJP president Amit Shah chose this as his destination when he came calling on September 17.

Shah laid the foundation for a 35-foot statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and left with the promise that he would return exactly a year later with Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the inauguration.

The answers to his choice of venue lie in history.

In the last two decades, September 17 and Gorta have become mustering points for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Hindu activists in the districts of Karnataka that were under the erstwhile Nizam of Hyderabad.

It was on September 17, 1948, that the Indian Army, sent by Patel, annexed Hyderabad and defeated the private militia of the Nizam called the Razakars.

Gorta is where a resistance group of local Lingayat zamindars suffered heavy losses in a battle against Razakars on May 5 and 6, 1948.

After the battle of Gorta, Muslim inhabitants were driven away, says gram panchayat development officer BS Chincholi.

The lines drawn then still stand. Panchayat member Rajkumar Maitri says, “The landholding Ligayat satraps maintain a ban on the entry of Muslims into the village to this day. Muslims are not allowed to work on the farms or in anywhere in the village.”

Gorta has never truly been far from the saffron sight. BJP patriarch LK Advani unveiled a statue of Patel at Gulbarga, adjoining Bidar district, in 1998.

The ceremony was to happen on September 17 but the installation triggered communal tension and finally happened a month later under tight security.

The same year, Hindutva icon Pramod Muthalik started a campaign for the installation of a similar monument at Gorta and gave the village the title of “Jallianwala Bagh of the South”.

Muthalik’s call, however, did not gain momentum and Gorta receded back into the shadows until the BJP Yuva Morcha focused attention on the village in April this year.

Shah described his visit to this remote village as an initiative to “introduce the young generation” to the history of the region which “would have become Pakistan if it weren’t for Patel”. But the history Shah referred to is a bitterly contested one.

As he was delivering his speech before nearly 20,000 supporters from all over north Karnataka, small Dalit and progressive groups held demonstrations in different parts of the region accusing Shah and the BJP of playing communal politics and “rewriting history”.

BJP activists march in Gorta ahead of Amit Shah’s visit. (Sudipto Mondal/HT Photo)

Dalit leader Vijanath Suryavanshi, who led one such demonstration in Bidar, says, “This is the land of Basava and Sufi saints who fought against the twin evils of caste and communalism.”

According to him, right-wing Hindu activists have been trying for the last 20 years to revive one, highly polarising version of the region’s history. “Their campaign has become very strong in the last three or four years.”

Although Shah did not make any overtly provocative statements in his speech, the gathering was marked by aggressive behaviour. In addition to anti-Pakistan slogans, groups of activists headed for the venue chanted provocative limericks in which they pledged to turn every village into Gorta.

Waiting for Shah’s chopper to arrive, many young activists huddled around elderly men wearing bright turbans who were witness to the happenings of 1948.

Parasuram Ekalar, 74, from neighbouring Godwadi village, bragged about how his father killed three persons from a family to avenge the atrocities of the Razakars.

Parasuram Ekalar (Right) waits for BJP president Amit Shah’s chopper to arrive.
(Sudipto Mondal/HT Photo)

The story of Gorta, says Kannada writer K Neela, is like any from the partition era, when thousands of Muslims and Hindus were killed in a cycle of violence and counter-violence.

Neela, who led a demonstration in Gulbarga against Shah’s visit, says, “Erecting a memorial that represents only one side of the story is a clear attempt to polarise society and reopen old wounds.”

For activists such as Neela and Suryavanshi, the recently declassified Pandit Sundarlal Commission (commission sent by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru after reports of large-scale violence) report has become an important tool.

The December 1948 report, which was first accessed by historian AG Noorani in 2001 and became public in 2013, notes that around 50,000 Muslims were killed in the erstwhile princely state to avenge the atrocities of the Razakars.

Karnataka BJP Yuva Morcha chief P Muniraju Gowda bristles at the mention of the massacres after the Razakars were defeated. “If the pseudo secular people are interested, let them make a memorial for those people. Our memorial is for people who fought for the country, not traitors,” he says.

85-year-old Vittal Rao, a landless Dalit from Gorta, lost his father Gundappa Kesari, uncle Narasingh Rao and relatives Madhava and Lakshman Kesari in the 1948 battle.

He wasn’t among the people at Shah’s meeting, neither were other Dalits. The 300 Dalits in the village were ordered to stay off the venue by Lingayat landlords.

“They don’t like our version of history,” says Rao.

“We were attacked by both the landlords and the Razakars. The local Lingayat landlords fought the Razakars because they wanted to protect their land. We had no land so we did not join either side. The Lingayats attacked us calling us traitors and the Razakars attacked us because we were not Muslim,” he says.

Vittal Rao(extreme right) at his house in Gotra. The Dalits live on the fringe of the village.
(Sudipto Mondal/HT Photo)

No one is sure how many villagers died in the fighting. While Rao says around 12 to 15 people died, local Lingayat leader Neelakanthappa Patil, 82, points to a plaque in the gram panchayat office that lists 20 names.

A press note circulated by the BJP, however, says, “Hundreds were martyred in a single day. The scene was so pathetic that there was no single person (sic) to perform the last rites.”

As competing narratives of a 66-year-old story swirl around, Dalits in Gorta try to draw attention to the more immediate issue of their life and livelihood. “Our houses and our convention hall were damaged in 2009 floods. Nobody wants to repair that,” says Rajendra Kesari, 35.

Children hold aloft a picture of BR Ambedkar, outside the damaged convention hall. (Sudipto Mondal/HT Photo)

Fellow Dalit Shrimanth Shinde says, “We are not allowed into barber shops, hotels and temples to this day. Will Narendra Modi solve our issues when he comes next year?”

The Dalits in the village started a series of agitations against untouchability in 2010. It got wide coverage in the local media. Community leaders say they plan to submit a memorandum to the PM when he comes next year, as promised by Shah.

First Published: Sep 22, 2014 08:30 IST