Lok Sabha elections 2019: Sangh push to Karnataka BJP campaign
As two military green helicopters hum noisily overhead, two lakh plus people climb onto railings and each other in a large maidan in Karnataka’s Chitradurga town. Old young, men and women, grandparents and grandchildren have been waiting for two hours. Finally, Narendra Modi arrives and addresses them with an opening line in Kannada. “Nimma Chowkidar Narendra Modiya namashkaara galu. Greetings from your chowkidar Narendra Modi.” Among them is Rangaswamy, in a bright orange t-shirt with Modi’s face on it. A BJP party worker at the most basic level, the electoral booth, he says: “We collected 5,000 bucks last night and hired a bus. 65 of us, from about 60 kilometres away.”
“The main issue in this election is The Nation. Modi is development, Modi is everything.”
Behind Rangaswamy’s fandom, an industry of saffronization has been at work in Karnataka. That story begins on top of a lush green hill three hours, or a 150 kilometres away, in the popular vacation spot of Chikmagaluru. Where, around the time of the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, a story was being woven around a dargah in the area that Muslims and Sufis worship as the shrine of Baba Budangiri, the name affectionately given by the people in the area to the Sufi saint Baba Hazrat Hayat Qalandar. Believers say the saint draws his lineage to the first three disciples of The Prophet and came to spread Islam in India in the 17th century, in 1670 AD, and brought with him the one Arab invention he could not do without - coffee. For over 400 years, the dargah remained a syncretic site. Then, in the 1990s, a group of men from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or the VHP, said it was actually the site of a temple to Lord Dattatreya, the re-incarnation of the Hindu holy trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
The “bring Baba Budangiri back to the Hindus” movement gained currency over the following two decades. It turned the hilltop into the Sangh Parivar’s Ayodhya of the South. The Sangh Parivar - the umbrella of Hindu institutions that includes the VHP, the RSS, the Bajrang Dal and their political face, the BJP, changed the politics of central Karnataka. The lines lead directly from its foot soldiers to those gathered in Chitradurga for Modi’s election speech.
The architect of this political force for the most part is the man who has won four consecutive state elections from the region, CT Ravi. Bearded and ambitious Ravi, 51, started his career with student politics in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) student wing, the ABVP, in 1985. He comes from a non-political family. “I hadn’t ever thought about politics. But then when it came to the ABVP, I realized, I am full of aggression,” he said. So it made sense, is what he implied. And added a catchphrase like a professional politician,”First activity, then ideology.”
That activity was the scaling up of the Budangiri issue into the Dattapeetha movement. At first, there was just a handful of people that went to the shrine and demanded to perform a puja in the sanctum sanctorum - a series of damp, low caves cut into a rock face. The present Qadri or the head of the shrine, Moiuddin Ghouse, claims that his father, being a true Sufi and therefore truly syncretic, did not object. Ghouse, sitting proudly under the portraits of his father, grandfather and great grandfather, says they come from a sect of Sufis that is inclusive.
“The real meaning of the Sharia law applies only when you become a perfect Muslim. So in Sufism they said whoever is there, allow them to come in.” That, Ghouse says, was the beginning of what they didn’t see it coming.
Soon, Ravi and his team increased the activity at the shrine. And created a new set of traditions to build a following of Hindus that were angry and whose anger could therefore be harvested.
“People didn’t join the movement immediately,” Ravi explains. So he took the idea to the people, door to door, village to village, covering first the Chikmagaluru area, then the entire block, then the whole district. From 1996, he along with members from the Sangh started a shobha yatra, or a pride march.
An annual festival dedicated to Lord Dattatreya called Datta Jayanti was started at the shrine in 1989 and over the following decade, with the active work of the Sangh, it gained popularity. As it grew, it also helped grow the institutions of the Sangh. It began as a one-day festival and then extended to three days. In 1999, Ravi added a new tradition - of garlanding themselves to mark a period of fasting in honour of Lord Dattatreya.
In the state election Ravi contested in 1999, he lost very narrowly, by a margin of just over 900 votes. But he has won all four assembly elections ever since. And defended the fact that the state administration has in recent years prevented Muslims from entering the shrine altogether during the three days that Datta Jayanti is celebrated in December. This despite the fact that the ownership of the shrine is being decided in the Supreme Court. Never mind the court, says the four-time state legislator. “Dattapeetha is a Hindu institution. Its capture by Muslims is wrong.”
He does not think this violates anyone’s rights. “This is a religious place. The constitution is a separate matter. The temple code is different.”
And then adds,”Datta Jayanti is only for Hindus.”
Waiting in the wings, copying Ravi’s style entirely, is a Bajrang Dal and VHP leader from the same district and village as Ravi who is now a rising star in the Sangh Parivar - Tudkur Manju. The Dattapeetha movement is what attracted him to the Sangh when he was a student in the year 2000. “There were protests and Chikmagaluru shut down,” Manju says. “Ravi is my role model.” Manju has been to jail six times, mainly in agitations connected with the shrine and related Hindutva activities.
This includes an instance in December 2017 when about 50 Hindutva activists tore the barbed wire fencing around the shrine and moved the gravestones within the premises. “I tried to prevent them from moving the graves, but they were out of control,” Manju remarks even as he justifies the desecration. “Karyakarta bahut aakroshit me aata hai (The activists were very angry).”
There are other activities Manju is in charge of - to grow the followers of the Bajrang Dal in central Karnataka, an erstwhile Congress bastion, cow protection, and tackling love jihad. “Where the police fail to catch cow thieves, we step in,” he explains, outlining the modus operandi of a network of Bajrang Dalis.
And there is the question of separating Hindu women from their Muslim lovers, on the belief that they have been coerced as part of a grand design of Muslims to convert Hindu women by seducing them (this is called love jihad). There’s no proof that such a concept exists but Manju says he has “case studies”. “The law is one thing but our culture doesn’t change.” “A woman does have the right to decide who she falls in love with but why can’t she choose someone decent? Those people (Muslims) can have up to four wives,” he argues.
Manju is very clear about the BJP’s core platform.
“The BJP has one agenda - Hindutva. And we are also working for Hindutva. The Dattapeetha is also for Hindus. So Hindus think that if the BJP comes to power in Karnataka then it is possible for the Dattapeetha issue to be resolved favourably,” Manju explains. “There is no difference between the Dattapeetha issue and the Ram temple at Ayodhya.”
Whether Manju is right about this or not, the numbers tell their own story. Ravi has won four elections with the Dattapeetha issue as the core of his campaign. The Bajrang Dal has grown in the last two years alone from 50 branches in Chikmagaluru to 150. And the RSS has grown vastly in this part of Karnataka. It has 3,500 branches in Dakshin Karnataka alone. Across the state it has a total of 5,000 branches, or shakhas.
Not surprisingly, in the last three general elections, the BJP has won more than half the seats in Karnataka: 18 in 2004, 19 in 2009 and 17 in 2014.
And even though the JD(S)-Congress alliance formed the government after the state elections in 2018, the BJP won the most seats, 104 in an assembly of 224. The link between the Sangh’s Hindutva rising and the political gains for the BJP is clear. In the district adjoining Chikmagaluru, the coastal district of Dakshin Kannada, past coconut groves and a view of the Arabian Sea, is Mangaluru. Hindutva politics has set into the sediment of the place people say almost as inextricably as prawn ghee roast - a specialty in these parts. At the apex of this transformation is a senior RSS pracharak who did not want to be named, but who is credited with rolling out the Sangh’s long-term game plan that goes well beyond this election.
“There are six lakh villages in India. So far the RSS is present in 80,000. But we plan to increase this to about four-five lakhs by 2025, which will mark a hundred years of the RSS. In Karnataka, we have covered nearly half the villages in the state.”
Dattapeetha is definitely an idea the Sangh backs, he confirms. It’s all part of the plan. As we speak, RSS, VHP and Bajrang Dal volunteers are out campaigning in this election, asking people to vote for the nation. And for this, Prime Minister becomes the “protector”. In Mangaluru alone, there are 1,860 electoral booths and 15,000 workers going door-todoor to spread the word.
A prominent VHP leader who has made his way from the ranks in the Bajrang Dal, Sharan Pumpwell has a term for this. “Third party campaign,” is the term he uses, since the Dal and VHP are not a political party and cannot officially campaign for the BJP. Over 20,000 Dal members have fanned out across the state, according to Pumpwell, doing this form of indirect canvassing. It began in 2018 as a campaign to vote out what they termed an anti-Hindu chief minister. And in this election, it has morphed into, “Modi is needed to save the nation.”
He has specifics too: Save the nation from “anti-national forces” like those who “forcibly entice Hindu girls towards Muslim men.” He cites an example of a girl he tried to “save”. She ran away with a Muslim man, when he and his Dal members got wind of the elopement. They produced the girl and boy before the police and then whisked the girl off to an undisclosed location for some “counselling”.
Save the nation from cow killers, Pumpwell says, adding that the Dal does not use violence to enforce its code, although he concedes that when violence is used by an angry crowd, if the Dal thinks the anger is legitimate, they “support it.
Back at Modi’s rally, it’s work such as this, by Pumpwell and Manju and Ravi, that inextricably links, in the minds of many in the audience, years of work by the Sangh Parivar to save Hindus and the campaign to save the nation.
At the rally, the audience is convinced. “The Congress party is the reason for terrorists coming into the country,” says one.
(Vikram Gopal is with the Hindustan Times. Revati Laul is an independent journalist and film-maker and the author of `The Anatomy of Hate,’ published by Westland/Context in December 2018. She tweets @revatilaul)