The Karnataka state government is seeing crime through the prism of the religion column mentioned in the FIR.
Will the Congress live to regret its original plan to withdraw cases against people only belonging to the minority community in Karnataka?
On 25 January, the state police department sent a letter to 22 district SPs and police commissioners in Mangaluru and Belagavi, asking for details of cases filed against members of the minority communities in the course of communal disturbances in the last five years. This was the third reminder to the circular that had been first sent in December 2017.
On the face of it, there could not have been a more brazen way to indulge in minority appeasement. In effect, it saw crime, minor or major, through the prism of the religion column mentioned in the FIR.
Soon after the letter was leaked, the BJP promptly took the Congress to the cleaners, both online and offline, accusing Siddaramaiah of being “anti-Hindu”. The hashtag being used on social media was a provocative #CongKillsHindus.
Forty eight hours later, after much flak and reportedly an expression of disapproval from the Congress high command in Delhi, an amended circular was issued. This time, the word “minority” was removed and replaced by “all innocent”. But the damage had already been done. Even the amended circular is not perfect. If the idea now is to withdraw cases against “all innocent”, why were they put in jail in the first place?
In the divisive political ecosystem we have become, what it has done is to push the Congress into the Muslim camp. In the BJP’s book, you cannot bat for both Hindus and Muslims. And wiser from the Gujarat experience, where Rahul Gandhi’s temple run gave the Congress an opportunity to play catch-up in the game of Hindu identity politics, the BJP this time wants to ensure the skull cap is firmly on Siddaramaiah’s head.
The circular ensured the Congress gave an issue on a platter to the BJP, ahead of the Karnataka polls in May. It has given an opportunity to the opposition party, looking to make a comeback in the state it sees as the gateway to power in south India, to mould Hindu opinion that the Congress is only pro-Muslim.
The Congress move fitted well with the BJP narrative that has been focussing on 22 Hindus killed in the last three years, allegedly by members of the Popular Front of India (PFI). The BJP has been demanding a ban on the PFI and the noise in Karnataka is intended to embarrass the Congress, accusing it of encouraging PFI and its political arm, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) of targeting activists of the Sangh Parivar, especially in communally-sensitive coastal Karnataka.
The Congress charges the BJP with lying, saying only nine of those deaths were communal in nature and the accused in those cases arrested. The others, it says, were cases of suicides, road accidents or personal rivalries. But the timing of the circulars just before the elections is bound to raise suspicion even among the politically non-aligned about whether it is a ruse to push anti-social elements into the mainstream to foment trouble.
What the circular has done is that the Congress stands to lose the perception battle, magnified as it is by an aggressive social media campaign by the BJP. It comes on the back of Yogi Adityanath questioning Siddaramaiah’s Hindu credentials, asking him to ban beef in Karnataka if he was a true Hindu. This follows the BJP’s campaign against the Congress government celebrating Tipu Jayanti, as it sees Tipu more as a Muslim bigot who persecuted Hindus in Coorg than as a brave son of Mysore who dared to take on the British.
Politically, the move to bat for the Muslims is a significant departure from the party strategy in Gujarat, where the Congress did not utter the M-word. It possibly has to do with the apprehension that SDPI could take away a critical 2,000-odd votes in every constituency it contests in, thereby eating into the Congress kitty. The BJP has alleged that the Congress therefore wants to have a tactical electoral understanding with the SDPI and the proposal to release Muslim prisoners was a quid pro quo.
The ruling party, on its part, has indulged in whataboutery, pointing to UP CM Adityanath withdrawing cases against himself. It has called the BJP criticism a case of the pot calling the kettle black, referring to the BJP regime in Karnataka between 2008 and 2013 dropping cases filed against Sangh Parivar members involved in attacks on churches in coastal Karnataka.
To buttress its claim that it has no malafide intention, the Siddaramaiah government has given a breakup of cases withdrawn by it between 2015 and 2017. Of the 414 cases withdrawn involving 3,164 accused, 2,806 were Hindus and 341 Muslims. It is a low in Indian politics that every prisoner is marked by his or her religion and not solely by the merit of the case.
Like in Gujarat, the ‘Vikas’ electoral plank has been missing in the pre-campaign phase in Karnataka so far. The indelible ink remains captive to ‘Brand Religion’.
T.S. Sudhir is a freelance journalist and commentator who writes on the southern states.