Is there such a thing as too much Hindutva? - Hindustan Times
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Is there such a thing as too much Hindutva?

Apr 22, 2024 10:51 PM IST

The political laboratory of Dakshina Kannada is testing a question that could have ramifications for India: Is there such a thing as too much Hindutva?

Nestled between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea, the Dakshina Kannada parliamentary constituency is at the heart of the region that has come to be known as the laboratory of Hindutva in Karnataka. The old Dakshina Kannada district included the Udupi Sri Krishna Matha which was, in several ways, the southern base of the Ram temple movement. In this round of Lok Sabha elections, the political laboratory of Dakshina Kannada is testing a question that could have ramifications for the rest of India: Is there such a thing as too much Hindutva?

Hindutva supporters dancing in Gurugram. (Parveen Kumar/Hindustan Times)(HT_PRINT) PREMIUM
Hindutva supporters dancing in Gurugram. (Parveen Kumar/Hindustan Times)(HT_PRINT)

The answer to this question is deeply embedded in the political economy of the region. Dakshina Kannada and the neighbouring district of Udupi were the heartland of the communist movement in Karnataka. It was the district where the political battle was typically between the Congress and the communist parties, both the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM). Much of the political discourse was around the issue of land to the tenant, with the Bunts being the major landlords and the Billavas being the most important caste among the tenants. Everyday politics was between the cadre of the communists and the come-one-come-all approach of the Congress.

Things changed dramatically after land reforms in the 1970s. With the Billavas being given the land they were tilling, they were no longer as attracted to the communists, especially when the latter took up the cause of agricultural labour against the new landowners. The Billavas moved to the Congress under the local leadership of the then Union minister Janardhana Poojary. The Congress dominated the politics of the region, and the communists went into decline.

Meanwhile, those who had lost land did not do too badly. The region had a long tradition of banking with Canara Bank, Syndicate Bank, Vijaya Bank, and Corporation Bank coming up in the early decades of the 20th century. Each of these banks was associated with particular castes and inclined to absorb the children of their caste brethren who had lost land in land reforms. Some of the largest landowners invested in education, including TMA Pai, in what is now the Manipal Academy of Higher Education. Brahmin landowners who were at the receiving end of land reforms took the feeding practices of temples into the market. Temple feeding offered meals at predetermined times without the option of a menu, and with an urgency in its service so that as soon as one batch had finished eating, they had to make room for the next. This approach suited the fast-food generation, and Udupi restaurants took off first in the region, and then in Mumbai and other urban centres.

With the former landlords doing better than they would have had they remained in agriculture, they began to assert their political presence. They supported traditional religious practices, especially the Bhuta that was associated with their lands. As the former tenants also shared the same beliefs the old landlord-tenant division was effectively bridged, and the Bunts were now on the same cultural side as the Billavas.

The cultural affinity swept into the political domain with the Billavas becoming uncomfortable with the free-for-all politics of the Congress. Brought up in a tradition of cadre-based politics with the Left, the Billavas began to look for non-Congress alternatives. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stepped into this vacuum. They had always been on the side of the former landowning castes. Their cadre-based politics suited the region, right down to taking over the public library culture that the Left had built. The focus of politics had shifted sharply from land relations to communal divisions, but the method remained largely the same. As a result, ever since the Dakshina Kannada parliamentary constituency was carved out in 2008, the BJP has dominated it. Indeed, the same candidate, Nalin Kumar Kateel, won the three Lok Sabha elections in 2009, 2014 and 2019 with increasing margins and became the state BJP president.

With the anti-Muslim rhetoric of Hindutva paying rich political dividends, there appeared to be nothing that could stop this juggernaut. As the aggressiveness of the rhetoric increased, so did communal tensions. The Billavas with their cadre-based approach to politics found themselves at the frontline of communal conflict. They soon developed a view that while the upper castes in the BJP raised the communal temperature with their speeches, it was the Billavas who paid the price of communal conflict. Matters came to a head when a Billava BJP worker was killed in a communal incident. His colleagues in the party reacted by attacking Kateel even as he sat in his car. Kateel is no longer the state president of the BJP and has not been given a ticket though he won in 2019 by a margin of around 2.75 lakh votes. The party has instead provided the ticket to a former army captain who is new to electoral politics and is a Bunt. The Congress has put up a Billava who has been associated with its former MP from Mangalore, Janardhana Poojary. Some of the Billava torch-bearers of aggressive Hindutva have now asked their supporters to vote for their caste irrespective of the party the candidate belongs to.

Whether the politics of Dakshina Kannada which has moved from the Left to the BJP will see another shift will only be known on June 4, more than a month after the constituency has voted on April 26. What is clear, though, is that the violence associated with aggressive Hindutva does come at a huge personal cost to those at the frontline of communal battles. When social, economic and political circumstances lead to the costs being measured in caste terms, the costs can be transferred politically to the parties of Hindutva.

Narendar Pani is JRD Tata Chair visiting professor, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru. The views expressed are personal

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