Bengaluru: On 26 September, a group of medical students belonging to different communities were allegedly stopped, intimidated and harassed by a group of Hindu men at the coastal town of Surathkal in Karnataka. Five members of the Bajrang Dal were arrested two days later, but let off on bail on the same day.
About a week earlier, on 20 September, a gang allegedly assaulted and harassed a group of three people belonging to different communities while they were eating at a hotel in Puttur. A Hindu woman who was part of the group filed a complaint, following which two members of the Hindu Jagaran Vedike (HJV) were arrested.
On 18 September, two Muslim men allegedly stalled, assaulted and abused a Hindu man for dropping his Muslim woman colleague home in Bengaluru. Both men were arrested within 12 hours, booked under non-bailable sections, and sent to prison.
On 27 August, six paramedical students were allegedly heckled, harassed and threatened in Bantwal for mingling despite belonging to different faiths. Following a complaint by one of the girls, three persons from the HJV were arrested but let off on bail.
Last week, on 8 October, two Muslim men were arrested by the Shivamogga police for allegedly waylaying and assaulting a Hindu man for dropping his Muslim woman friend.
A day later, Moodabidiri police arrested two Bajrang Dal workers for allegedly waylaying the car of a Muslim couple travelling with two more Hindu girls, before abusing and harassing them. By 9 pm the same day, they were let out on bail with the intervention of the local BJP MLA.
On 10 October, a video of a group of men seemingly intimidating, threatening a Muslim man and a Hindu women for travelling on a bike, forcing the woman’s father to arrive on the spot to take the girl away, went viral.
These are just some of the instances of moral policing in recent times in Karnataka — a phenomenon that isn’t entirely new to the state but one that has seen a sudden spurt over the last two months.
Just in the past month alone, at least 11 cases of moral policing have been reported in Karnataka. Of the 11 cases that made it to the headlines, the perpetrators were Hindus in eight, and Muslims in three.
While moral policing has been a steady affair in the coastal districts of Karnataka for over a decade, it has now, worryingly, spread to other districts.
Over the last month, three cases of moral policing have been reported from Shivamogga, Mandya and even capital Bengaluru.
Through all of this, Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai drew flak after appearing to white-wash the crimes, especially the ones involving Hindu vigilantes.
“When sentiments are hurt, naturally, there will be action and reaction,” Bommai told reporters Wednesday in communally sensitive Mangaluru. “We need morality in society, don’t we? Can we live without morality?” he asked reporters who had raised the moral policing issue.
Barely three weeks earlier, for a case involving Muslim suspects, Bommai had a different take. “My Govt (sic) deals with such incidents with an iron hand,” the chief minister had tweeted.
Bommai also got into an ugly spat with leader of opposition Siddaramaiah on Twitter.
After the Congress leader slammed the chief minister’s justification of moral policing, Bommai called Siddaramaiah “an icon of anti-Hindus” and claimed he presided over the “killing of Hindu activists as Tipu Sultan did”.
Bommai’s stand also appears to have emboldened fringe Hindu outfits in the state. Just a day after his apparent whitewashing of moral policing, the Bajrang Dal and the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) held a “Trishul Deekshe” event in Mangaluru, where they allegedly handed over sharp weapons to their cadre — a claim the outfits have rejected.
The VHP, though, doesn’t deny its involvement in moral policing. “I welcome the chief minister’s statement. When our sentiments are hurt, we will definitely react,” Sharan Pumpwell, the Mangaluru district VHP secretary, told The Print.
“There is no need to file cases against us. It is not like we are thrashing people. We feel that our women need to be protected,” he added. “It is not our intent to harass or assault women. We only want to create awareness against being trapped by Muslim men.”
Sharan owns a security firm that often doubles up as his personal information network since it deploys security personnel to malls, offices, and educational institutions, among other places. He claimed over 200 Hindutva workers have been booked this year alone for vigilantism.
“People come to us complaining about Hindu women being seen with Muslim men. Our workers, their networks, common people in buses, marketplaces, parks, on roads in hotels etc inform us of such interfaith mingling,” Sharan said.
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The politics around moral policing in Karnataka
The country first saw a real glimpse of moral policing in Karnataka on 24 January 2009, when goons of the Sri Ram Sene — a Right-wing Hindu outfit founded by Pramod Muthalik — barged into a pub in Mangaluru and assaulted young men and women. Nine years after the brutal attack, all accused in the case were acquitted.
In the 12 years since, Karnataka has seen instances of moral policing — largely in the coastal districts of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi — especially on Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve. Now, vigilantism fueled by religious intolerance appears to be spreading across the state.
Talking about Bommai’s statements on moral policing, sources in the BJP say he is being careful to impress the party’s ideological fount, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), to offset any criticism of him not upholding the ideology of the BJP and Sangh Parivar. Bommai doesn’t have roots in the RSS.
“Hindutva will be the primary poll pitch for the BJP in Karnataka in 2023,” a national general secretary of the party had earlier told The Print.
Another reason for the spurt in such cases, a Karnataka Congress office-bearer said, was his party’s silence.
“Whether it is the goons of Bajrang Dal or VHP or PFI or SDPI, vigilante activities in Karnataka are rising because the Congress is refusing to speak up about it,” he said.
“The Congress is under the wrong impression that if it stays away from speaking about moral policing and peddles soft Hindutva, it can win back Hindu votes. That will never be true.”
Unlike Hindutva organisations that take pride in moral policing, however, the Popular Front of India (PFI), a controversial Kerala-based Muslim organisation, denies involvement in such cases.
“It might have been true that our workers were indulging in moral policing a few years ago but it has not happened in recent times… As part of our training and policy we prohibit such activities,” Anis Ahmed, national general secretary of the PFI, told The Print.
Many, meanwhile, have called for new legislation to deal with these cases.
“We desperately need an anti-vigilante law in India. Whether it is moral policing or lynchings or opposition to interfaith relationships or conversion vigilantism, a law against vigilantes is the need of the hour,” Congress spokesperson Lavanya Ballal said.
Ballal herself allegedly came under attack from vigilantes. On 30 September, a man claiming to be a Hindutva worker phoned in and threatened Lavanya with assault on a live television debate. She has filed two complaints against the man who threatened her but, 16 days after the incident, the identity of the accused has not been established.
Karnataka Home Minister Araga Jnanendra, however, said there was no need for such laws.
“There is no need to bring in a new law to curb moral policing. Miscreants will be punished by police within the tenets of existing laws,” he told ThePrint. “Our laws are strong enough. This is a social issue and society should discuss this. There is a need for creating awareness because everything cannot be solved with laws.”
A deputy superintendent of police-rank officer told ThePrint that accused in cases of moral policing are often let off on bail almost immediately.
“There are no sections specifically designed for moral policing but we use certain IPC sections like 504 (intentional insult), 506 (criminal intimidation), 339 (wrongful restraint) and 153 (A) (Promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race),” the officer said. “The nature of the crime, or rather mischief, is categorised as petty. But its repercussions are very deep.”
The Karnataka Congress Saturday shared photos of BJP MLA Umanath Kotian at the Moodabidiri police station allegedly demanding the release of two accused who were booked for alleged moral policing. Both accused, according to the BJP MLA’s claim, were let out on bail at 9 pm on the same day.
Civil society hits back at Bommai
Less than 24 hours after CM Basavaraj Bommai’s statement on moral policing, a group of 58 activists, authors, artists, advocates and even a former high court judge, Justice H.N. Nagamohan Das (Retd), wrote an open letter condemning the remarks.
“Your administration was quick to take action in the immoral policing incident in BTM Layout and you even issued a statement condemning the same and assuring action. Why are you not taking swift action where the victims are minorities and the accused are members of Right-wing Hindutva groups?” the letter says.
“What the chief minister essentially is saying is that it’s a ‘free for all’. All kinds of extremist elements can hold sway in the district and authorities and rule of law will no longer matter. We as citizens feel very let down,” said Vidya Dinker, one of the signatories of the letter and a prominent voice against moral policing in Dakshina Kannada district.
Some police officers too told ThePrint that when a chief minister, who had been home minister earlier, makes such a statement, it is “disappointing”.
“It reflects very poorly. The chief minister should be asking everyone to stick to the law of the land. Moral policing is a crime and it cannot be underplayed irrespective of what political spectrum the perpetrators belong to,” a senior IPS officer told The Print.
The officer added that irrespective of political comments, police will do what the law requires them to do but did not deny political pressures. “We cannot have a 2008-like church attack again,” the officer said.
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)
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