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Unhappy hours in Mangalore

How did this cosmopolitan university town become so intolerant? Purva Mehra finds out

india Updated: Jan 31, 2009 22:28 IST
Hindustan Times

A portrait of Bhagat Singh hangs from a peeling wall in the basement of an abandoned building in Mangalore. The Students’ Federation of India and the Democratic Youth Federation of India use this as their den. Today’s meet here is about a protest planned against the Sri Ram Sene’s vandalism at a pub on January 24 and the attack on women. Thankfully, few are making this a gender issue. The bigger threat to this university town has, so far, been repeated attacks on its cosmopolitan fabric.

“They’ve gone too far. I cannot stay mute, especially when the attack was so close to home,” says Shameem Kunil, a playschool founder.

Mangalore is speaking out. There are angry voices from the street. Women protestors are obstructing traffic and holding up placards. ‘The Sri Ram Sene must pay dearly,’ reads one. Colleges are on strike.

“There is trouble here almost everyday. A riot no longer raises an eyebrow, it’s just the targets that keep changing,” says Gregory D’Souza, a taxi driver who has stayed clear of these protests. “Mine is a battle to feed the stomach. I stay out of this mess by not aligning with any party.”

It is this business-as-usual approach that has cost Mangalore dear. In the absence of debate and reaction within civil society, right-wing fascism has struck deep roots. “There have been repeated attacks against Muslims but I never uttered a word,” admits Kunil. Kunil has been trying to rally the women of her neighbourhood. Some of them will be addressing the public in Mangalore’s most popular stretch of green, Kadri Park, for the first time.

“I hope this fervour doesn’t fizzle out,” says homemaker Kripa Alva.

Transforming the city
Mangalore’s secular credentials have been suspect over a year. In September 2008, Bajrang Dal cadres attacked shrines and prayer halls of minority communities. A decade earlier, the 1998 Surathkal riots (the first time inflammatory speeches against other communities were openly made in the BJP-majority state assembly) had set a bitter precedent. Intermittent incidents laced with communal tension occured in the interim.

“When the BJP came to power, we had expected them to do a lot of good. But they played the religion card to get re-elected.
I’ve been persuading other communities not to retaliate. If they do, there will be bloodshed,” says William D’Souza, a realtor.

In the ‘good old days’, Mangalore was a multi-cultural society. “It was a time when inter-community dances went on till 5 am. Grandparents, parents and children would all attend these merry occasions. Our closest friends and neighbours were Hindus and Muslims. It felt so safe. We could leave our doors open and women could come home at 3 am without once looking back,” recalls Flora Hislop, a long-time resident. Regurgitating it now, however, betrays a sense of nostalgia, an attitude of escape.

It was the Rome of the East and an important maritime trading centre. It did business with Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Arab
world. The young and the industrious migrated to Bombay, Madras and the Gulf, as was the town’s culture. “Mangalore has modernised, but it respected an individual’s religious identity,” says activist Vidya Dinakar. There is greater mistrust and both the Sangh Parivar and the Congress have played a role in this by polarising the voters, he says.

The disparity in social classes — between old money and new, and those without — has also played a part. Father Swebert D’Silva of the reputed St Aloysius College in Mangalore has drafted a letter of appeal to the President. “This is not an isolated incident,” he says. “But we have to consider why this is happening. Money is flowing into Mangalore through NRI connections. The disparity between the wealthy and the poor is widening. This makes it easier for the systematic brainwashing of the youth, especially those who have no faith in the system.”

These tendencies have arisen, he says, because of the inability of the system to deliver; minority communities are feeling the heat. “On several occasions, the police have told us they cannot protect us because they had direct orders not to. There has been hardly any public outcry before this incident because the media is also controlled by the ruling government. The number of strikes we have had as an educational institution is appalling. This has all made us very distrustful,” D’Silva says.

Picking up the pieces
The crippling impact of the pub attack on Mangalore’s nightlife — an almost 50 per cent drop in business — is evidence of the insecurity and fear weighing people down. Though the management at Amnesia claims their business is back on track, at Liquid Lounge, barely 20 steps away from Amnesia, the number of customers, especially women, has dwindled.

“There is little to do in Mangalore as it is,” rues L.K. Sudhir, owner of the pubs The Liquid Lounge and Froth On Top. With the rest of the country looking to Mangalore’s next move, voices of protest have emerged with the intent of denting the coastal complacence. And although after a week people haven’t moved beyond strikes and public addresses, they seem united in challenging status quo. “I went back to Amnesia on the same day of the attacks, but in the evening. I was afraid, my parents and friends were too, but we had to show these goondas that they cannot restrict our freedom,” says 21-year-old Riya D’Souza.

Seventysix-year-old advocate Clarence Pais is looking at the Amnesia incident somewhat philosophically. Aberrations are a way of the universe, he says. “Our basic unity has not changed. We condemn these as acts of terrorism, but also know that there isn’t a magical solution for these cancers,” he says, earnestly believing that Mangalore will return to its glory.

He refers to Tennyson’s words from ‘The Passing of Arthur’ to justify his optimism: ‘The old order changeth, yielding place to new,/ And God fulfills himself in many ways,/Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.’

First Published: Jan 31, 2009 22:27 IST