Cover Feature
Karnataka: Southern Laboratory of Fascists
by Clifton D’Rozario

India is facing an unprecedented economic crisis, heightened by the unplanned lockdowns and policies during the Covid pandemic. The cumulative impact is such that crores of people have slipped into abject poverty and struggle to survive – the income of 84% households has declined in 2021. According to United Nations, India has the dubious achievement of nearly half of the global new poor. Over the same time, the rich have only became richer thanks to Modi government reducing taxes on the rich; wealth tax is abolished, and corporate taxes reduced from 39% to 22%. The number of billionaires in India has increased from 102 to 142 and India now has the third highest number of billionaires after China and USA.

This situation is a direct consequence of fascist reign of the BJP, whose core agenda is corporate and communal. Indeed the government has used the pandemic to ram through several anti-people laws and policies, including the farm laws, Labour Codes, increased taxes on the working class, etc., while implementing its Hindutva project, which also plays the role of dividing society, on caste and religious lines, blunting possible collective resistance.

Sangh Parivar has repeatedly claimed that Karnataka would be the gateway to South India. Decades of divisive work by the Sangh Parivar has communally polarised several parts of Karnataka, particularly the coastal region. The Hindu supremacists have lynched, segregated and boycotted Muslims on various pretexts - beef, Muslims’ collective prayers, azaan, the skullcap, Urdu language, and Hijab is only the latest pretext.

Political commentator A. Narayana argues that Karnataka has seen at least three major political shifts since the 1960s which changed the nature of its ruling class. One could add that the present situation in Karnataka, characterised by frenzied communalism and vulgar corporate appeasement, represents the 4th major political shift.

The political landscape for the three decades after Independence was marked by Congress monopoly, controlled by the two dominant castes – Vokkaligas and the Lingayats. The first major political shift in Karnataka was the challenge to this caste dominance by Devaraj Urs and his AHINDA formula, the social coalition of traditionally disadvantaged social groups, which brought him to power in 1972. British scholar James Manor argues that this altered the power balance between these dominant castes and the other disadvantaged social groups and facilitated the “political prominence of groups which had suffered from both Vokkaliga and Lingayat oppression.”.

The second major political shift was early 1980s, which saw the end of electoral monopoly of the Congress and the emergence of a regional centrist political alternative in the form of the Janata Party (later to become Janata Dal). Interestingly, Congress cultivated its social base developed during the Urs era, and the Janata Party now became the new arena of battle for supremacy between the Vokkaligas and the Lingayats.

The third major political shift is the period marking the emergence of the BJP as a dominant political force in Karnataka, accompanied by the diminishing presence of the Janata Dal. By the late 1990s, H.D. Deve Gowda consolidated its Vokkaligas base to form the Janata Dal (Secular), while the Lingayats under J.H. Patel grouped together as the JD(U) and aligned with the BJP. Within a few years, Karnataka became the first State in the South to have a BJP government, as a rightward shift in the State politics was progressively entrenched. The Vokkaligas and sections of Muslims still rallied behind the JD(S) while the BJP has woven a coalition of various social groups including Brahmins, Lingayats, Kodavas, Dalits and sections of OBCs. The Congress was still falling back on the AHINDzA formula.

The political content of these three political shifts was the redistribution of power between various social groups, yet a consensus and continuum operated on the question of economic policies.

The BJP coming to power in July 2019 represents the next major political shift in Karnataka marked by frenzied communal polarisation and corporate friendly economic policies.

BJP, since capturing power at the centre in 2014, has ruthlessly pursued the economic agenda of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation while dismantling any remnants of the welfare state. Over the Covid pandemic, the BJP government indulged in, what Naomi Klein calls the “shock doctrine” i.e. the brutal tactic of using the public’s disorientation following a collective shock – wars, coups, terrorist attacks, market crashes or natural disasters – to push through pro-corporate measures which it has been aiming at since 2014. Laws relating to labour, agriculture, land ownership, acquisition of lands for industries, were all amended by the BJP governments at the centre and Karnataka, without any concern for the disastrous impact these had on the toiling masses in the State. Prabhat Patnaik argues that this neofascist assault on democracy is an effort on the part of neoliberal capitalism to rescue itself from crisis, with the backing of corporate capital providing access to massive financial resources and control over the corporate-owned media and other means of opinion-making.

In the December 2021 report, “State of the States”, Karnataka ranks a lowly 10th among the 20 big states in the country. For a state known to be progressive with several achievements to its credit, this presents a rather negative image. It is particularly disturbing to see Karnataka’s performance in some sectors. In governance, its position is as low as 15, in tourism 16 and in agriculture 18; worse, in inclusive development, it has hit rock bottom by securing the last position, 20. This reflects the serious survival crisis that the majority of people in the State are facing.

During this phase there has been a change of guard in the BJP, from Yediyurappa to Basavaraj Bommai. It was unimaginable to consider the side-lining of Yeddiyurappa, the architect of the BJP’s first ever government in South India. A perception created is that he had a moderate stand on several core communal issues by citing instances like his statement on 6th April 2020, warning anyone communalising the Tablighi Jamaat, which put him in the direct firing line of prominent BJP and Sangh Parivar leaders. This perception however, is misleading.  given the spread of Sangh Parivar’s influence over Karnataka’s politics, and normalisation of communal polarisation, during this time in charge of the BJP.

His successor, Basavaraj Bommai, has accelerated the imposition of the communal agenda in Karnataka. The statement he made on 14th October, 2021, unapologetically endorsing the activities of Hindutva’s lumpen foot soldiers, provided a clue to the direction the BJP was going to take thereon for its remainder of its term before the Assembly election in 2023. Responding to a media query on the increasing incidents of ‘moral policing’ by various organisations of the Sangh Parivar including, Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Bommai stated that when “sentiments are hurt, there will normally be action and reaction”. This did not just imply official sanction to the lawlessness of Hindutva forces, but also represented the institutionalisation of Hindutva in governance in Karnataka.

Karnataka has seen communal polarisation and its manifestation as communal riots over the past few decades. However, there is no denying that Hindutva groups such as the VHP, the Bajrang Dal and the Hindu Jagran Vedike become more brazen and aggressive in their  politics and violence against Muslims and Christians, when the BJP has been in power. The consolidation of this influence is seen in the following forms and patterns of communal hate crimes in Karnataka as documented in the September 2021 report “From Communal Policing to Hate Crimes: The attack on Ambedkar’s dream of Fraternity”:

Enforcing social segregation: The Hindutva organisations, with the overt and covert support of the State machinery, ensure the social segregation of, particularly the Muslims, from the rest of society. All inter-faith social interactions from friendships to a mere conversation are prohibited by them.

Dictating Intimacies: One of the focused activities of the Hindutva organisations has been to prevent any kind of inter-faith intimate relations. Over the last few years, it has begun the bogey of “love jihad”. In this, they accost inter-faith couples, threaten them and assault them. The police then come into the picture only to take the couple into custody, inform the parents and then release them after “advising” them. There have also been instances of extreme violence carried out by these groups including the brutal murder of Arbaz Mulla on September 28, 202, by members of the Hindutva organisation, Sri Ram Sena Hindustan.

Economic Boycott: Another medium that is used to attack minorities and subordinate them is by calls for economic boycott. This ranges from calls being given not to buy from Muslim vendors to notices being issued prohibiting businesses to actually physical assaults prohibiting Muslims from engaging in business.

Vigilantism: Coastal Karnataka, which has been the hub of religious vigilantism in Karnataka for at least two decades, has also seen an escalation of activities by Hindutva groups. This has spread to other parts of Karnataka as well. The violent actions of Hindutva organizations that police the boundaries of communities enforcing social segregation, calls for economic boycott against Muslims, and attack in the name of cattle, all with the intent to segregate, discriminate and subordinate minority communities - are founded on the premise of hatred and prejudice against the minority community.

Curbing Religious Freedom: Hindutva organisations have been acting to curb religious freedom of minorities including make efforts to forcibly stop them from practicing the religion. Several churches have also been targeted by Hindutva groups after baseless allegations that they were indulging in “forced religious conversions”. The intelligence department in the State has allegedly been given the bizarre task of surveying and ascertaining the number of churches in Karnataka. All these attacks are being stage-managed by the RSS to build up pressure for the passage of an anti-conversion law in Karnataka on the lines of what we have in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.

Hate Speech: Hate Speech is especially weaponized in the region by right wing Hindutva leaders to deny the exercise of fundamental rights to members of minority communities. All platforms available to these groups ranging from social media to News media to Print media are used as platforms for hate speech. Hate speech seeks to demean, degrade those of minority faiths and deny them the ability to operate in society as full citizens of India.

The BJP government has gone out of the way to implement its communal agenda through the introduction of laws and policies as well. The anti-conversion law using the bogey of conversions by Christian missionaries and the Church is being pushed by the BJP government. “The Karnataka Prevention Of Slaughter And Preservation Of Cattle Act, 2020”, was passed with the conspicuous and unprecedented conduct of a “cow puja” in the legislature building. In the November 2021 report “Criminalizing Livelihoods Legalising Vigilantism” by the Ahara Namma Hakku (Our Food Our Right) collective, it is found that though the cattle slaughter ban is to bring the Muslim community to economic destitution, it also effects farmers, cattle traders, butchers, vendors and consumers and has dealt a debilitating blow to the livestock, leather and meat economy of Karnataka. Beef, which is consumed by Dalits as a staple diet, has been snatched away from them, additionally, Dalits employed in the cattle trade including leather business have all lost their jobs.

Further, going by the Rangayana example, it is apparent that the Sangh Parivar is hellbent on capturing all public institutions. Rangayana known for its progressive outlook is now headed by Addanda Cariappa, self-proclaimed RSS worker and the only hurdle to this takeover is the spirited opposition of progressive artists, organisations and citizens.

The BJP government is making obvious the privileging of Sanskrit over Kannada by approving 100 acres of land and Rs 359 crore for setting up a campus for Sanskrit university. This when the government denies even Rs 2 crore to the Kannada university in Hampi. This too has met with serious protests by pro-Kannada organisations who question the government giving land and money to those who are opposing Kannada language in undergraduate courses.

And now the Sangh Parivar stokes communal fires using the hijab as a pretext. What started at Udupi's Government College in December 2021, has snowballed into a major controversy spreading to various institutions across the state. ABVP/ RSS, through the saffron shawl campaign, is trying to radicalise the majority Dalit and Bahujan communities who attend government colleges, against the Muslim community effectively pitting these economically weaker sections against each other. These are the very same communities who secured the right to education through the valiant struggles of Jyotiba Phule, Savitribai Phule and Fathima Sheikh against the brahmanical order that proscribed education to Dalits, Bahujans and women.

Even as the process of reducing Muslims to second class citizenship is underway, the question being raised by many, including Harsh Mandar, is whether genocide is an inexorable outcome of the Hindutva project. In the meanwhile, normalisation of second-class citizenship of Dalits and Adivasis is inescapable.

There is an increased atrocities on Dalits across Karnataka, including various manifestations of untouchability. Between 1st April 2020 and 31st March 2021, there were 2327 reported caste atrocities in Karnataka, including 87 murders and 216 rapes. This is an increase of over 54% from the previous year in which there were a total of 1,504 cases registered. While Arbaz Mulla was beheaded and mutilated for his relationship with a Hindu girl, Danappa a dalit youth was murdered for his relationship with a girl from a dominant caste. The actions of the state also see a clear assault on their cultural rights, most evidently through the cow slaughter ban, which is as much an attack on the food habits of Dalits as it is on Muslims. Attempts to stop eggs in midday meals and enforced vegetarianism also point to the attempts at brahminization in the state.

The engineering of caste and communal polarization is not merely a distraction – it is an agenda; it is not merely a ploy for securing electoral gains – it is the politics; it is not the activities of fringe organisations – it enjoys political patronage and support of the administration. These everyday acts of terror, are inevitably by mobs of men, radicalised by Hindutva, and perpetrated on ordinary citizens of the country, who are more often than not, Muslim, and who have been, over a period of time, dehumanised by majoritarian politics.

Karnataka, thus, stands at this crucial political crossroads, where, as Janaki Nair writes, the state and its institutions have become subservient to national goals of becoming a “Hindu Rashtra”, and, it should be added, to the neoliberal global order.

Karnataka_Southern Laboratory of Fascists