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Anatomy of a communal riot in Kodagu
PUCL-Karnataka recently conducted a fact-finding inquiry to go into the communal disturbances that took place in Kodagu from 9 Dec. 2001 to 17 Dec. 2001. The committee, which consisted of Prof. H. Govindayya, Dr. V Lakshminarayana, Shri Ramdas Rao, and Shri Nitin, visited Madikeri, and the towns and villages of Bettigeri, Palur, Kottamudi, Napoklu, Bagamandala, and spoke to the residents. We also met representatives of the media, the state administration, the police and Hindu religious organisations. We are bringing out the this fact-finding report for the attention of the public.
B. Historical Background:
Prior to joining Karnataka state, Kodagu had been a part of the Madras Presidency under British rule. The British had extended their colonial influence in Kodagu through commerce. The feudal social structures set up by the British, especially the master-slave relationship between the rulers and the ruled, continued even after independence. After the Amar Sulya rebellion was put down in the 19th century, there was no significant movement for independence in Kodagu nor any effective anti-caste, non-Brahmin struggle. In other words, Kodagu is characterised by the absence of either any liberal tradition, a strong democratic struggle or a stable public opinion.
More recently, in reaction to the situation of internal colonialism, there have been voices for a separate state for Kodagu. In addition, due to the price fluctuations induced by liberalisation, the economic situation in Kodagu remains uncertain. This background forms an important historical context for understanding the communal events that took place in Kodagu in December 2001.
C. Brief Account of the Disturbances in Kodagu from Dec. 9 to Dec. 17, 2001:
The genesis of the communal disturbances in Kodagu is said to be the vandalism perpetrated on Harishchandra temple in the village of Palur. The temple is a dilapidated structure on the banks of river Kaveri, surrounded by fields, without access to a road, and gets partially flooded during rains. It is one of the many dotting the countryside, lacking worshippers, neglected and exposed to the elements. It is only during the festival of Bagamandala that it draws worshippers, especially those who are unable to go to Talakaveri, the source of the Kaveri river.
The exact date of attack on the temple and the extent of damage are not yet fully determined, but available accounts suggest that sometime during the period from 6 Dec. to 8 Dec. 2001, the temple was vandalised, with many roof tiles being damaged and cow dung (or excreta) reportedly thrown in the temple precincts. The temple lingam is intact, and so is the rest of the temple.
As soon as the vandalism was discovered, there was an immediate outcry by the Bhaktha Jana Sangha, a Hindu religious organisation, which called for a meeting of Hindus at the temple on Dec. 10. This call was published in the front pages of Shakti, the leading local newspaper. The meeting was addressed by K.G. Bopayya, Vittala, Sunil Subramani, and other leaders of BJP and Bajrang Dal. The police imposed section 144 in the area and gradually in the whole district-but to no avail.
After the meeting, a crowd of 2500 people, armed with knives and other weapons marched through Kottamudi, a predominantly Muslim village just outside the temple, and stoned, looted, and burnt many houses and shops. It is important to note that the police accompanied this rampaging mob throughout and did not do anything to stop the looting and arson. Before reaching Kottamudi, the crowd had attacked a Muslim plantation adjacent to the temple, and looted 80 acres of standing crops (areca nut, coffee and pepper) and set fire to the entire plantation. The crowd cut down many trees, blocking the highway and denying access to police reinforcements-a strategy that was to be followed systematically in the next few days throughout Kodagu. The police burst tear gas outside the mosque in Kottamudi and lathicharged an angry Muslim crowd which was throwing stones at the procession.
Later the mosque was destroyed. Hindu Jagran Vedike declared bandh and raastaa roko in the entire district. Over the next week, this pattern was repeated as roads were blocked, houses and mosques were ransacked and burnt and businesses destroyed. The areas affected included Bettigeri, Napoklu, Kargonda, Hoddur, Kakkabbi, Neliji, Bavalli, Virajpet, Somwarpet and so on. All the houses and shops attacked in these disturbances belonged to the Muslim community. In addition, several mosques and madrassas were burnt in Gonikappa, Balamuri, Balele, Hudikeli, Shanivarasanthe, and Gudugalele, and worshippers coming out after offering namaaz were attacked. Masjids in Tiththimarthi and Devapura were raided and prayers stopped. Telephone booths, small retail establishments (TV and vegetable shops and hotels) belonging to Muslims were targeted, looted and burnt. According to official figures, destruction and loss of property has been estimated at Rs. 26.5 lakh in Madikeri taluk, Rs.15.4 lakh in Virajpet taluk, and Rs. 2.29 lakh in Somwarpet taluk. Some Muslim youths reportedly damaged cars in a number of places, which were followed by reprisals. In Madikeri, people living near a mosque injured several policemen in an attack. The police entered the mosque and lathicharged the gathering.
The police have arrested many people, belonging to both the communities, and investigations are underway. But the police have not yet arrested leaders like Jagdeesh Karanth and Sunil Sundermani who gave the call for the protest rally. Bopayya, the local BJP legislator was briefly arrested and released without being produced in court. According to the police, 14 people have been injured. Property worth Rs. 50 lakh is officially declared to have been destroyed, though considering the extensive damage of houses, mosques, and businesses throughout the district, the actual figure is likely to be much higher. All of this property belonged to Muslims. The state administration has promised compensation worth Rs. 7 lakh for 62 houses, Rs. 23 lakh for 76 shops, Rs. 75000 for 2 plantations, and Rs. 7.4 lakh for 17 mosques; a sum of Rs. 14 lakh has been specially sanctioned by the administration for restoring the Palur temple.
In the meanwhile, Home Minister Kharge has stated that Bajrang Dal was involved in the attack on the Palur temple, a claim that is supported by the evidence collected by the state administration and the police. (However, for reasons of his own, Kharge has chosen to retract this statement.) But the police have yet to take any action in this regard. In the meanwhile, a sense of fear and helplessness continues to grip the Muslims in this area.
D. Versions of Different People in Kodagu:
The PUCL team interviewed many people in Kodagu to gauge their reactions to the week-long disturbances, including the administration, the police, the media and the general public. The following section presents a summary of these reactions.
Residents of Kottamudi village: Kottamudi village (Uddur panchayat), which is situated just outside the Palur temple, has a population of approx. 3000, overwhelmingly Muslim. The village bore the brunt of the attack on 9.12.01. During our visit to the village, we talked to Karim, ex-member panchayat, who said that poojaa was performed in the temple only on one day in the years, during Bagamandala festival. On 8.12.01, the temple pujaari Arun Kumar, who lived in the village and had cordial relations with everybody, phoned Karim at night and told him that some roof tiles in the temple had been destroyed. When Karim went to the temple the next day, an angry crowd had gathered with the pujaari vainly trying to pacify the crowd; a police force had also gathered. Karim noticed that only a few tiles had been broken but later in the day many more tiles were found to be broken. The pujaari filed a complaint which did not mention any names; the complaint was torn up by the crowd which wrote up a fresh complaint implicating 4 boys of the village, Abdul Rahman, Moinuddin, Hamsa, and Aris, who were completely innocent. They have been remanded and are still in police custody, though the police had assured the villagers that they would be released the next day.
The Bhaktha Jana Sangha, which was formed on the occasion, issued a call for a rally for the next day. The Bhaktha Jana Sangha included Sadhu Poonacha, KG Bopayya, Vittala and Sunil Subramani, known supporters of Bajrang Dal; Subramani is reported to have asked people to bring in knives and other weapons to the next day's meeting. At the end of the meeting on 10.12.01, a crowd of about 2500 led by the leaders mentioned above took out a procession which instead of taking the usual northern route out of the temple took the western route with police permission into the village of Kottamudi--with predictable and disastrous results. On the way, they looted the adjacent coffee plantation which was owned by a Muslim and destroyed the standing crop. In Kottamudi, they ransacked many shops in the village and burnt them. The attackers came from neighboring and distant places, with the neighboring villagers guiding the arsonists. Section 144 was imposed in the area, but this had no effect on the crowd. The police followed the procession, not stopping or arresting any of the attackers. The crowd put up road blocks on the main road leading to and out of the village in order to prevent police reinforcements and to have a free hand in the looting and burning.
Muhammad (whom we interviewed next) told us that many years ago, a drum (chandi) was broken in the temple, and a case was filed, but when a Hindu was implicated, the case was withdrawn. In another incident, the collection box (hundi) of the temple was stolen.
Balamuri identified Pramod Muthalik and Jagdeesh Karanth as the chief instigators of the attack, for violence erupts wherever they go. Their target is often Muslim property. Karanth had threatened on an earlier occasion that mosques would be bombed, a threat that was made good during the riots.
Muhammad Aji told us that it was inconceivable that Muslims of Kottamudi could be involved in the destruction of the temple. If they wanted to do so, they could have easily accomplished it during the monsoon season when the temple gets partially flooded and submerged. In fact, the Muslims have nothing but awe and respect for Harishchandra for Palur that they always protected, and they used to assist the Hindus during the Bagamandala festival by lending vessels, supplying food grains etc.The temple attack is in fact the handiwork of people who want to grab Aji's land which is adjacent to the temple.
In Kottamudi, we tried to meet Anil Kumar, the pujaari of the temple who on discovering that the temple had been damaged tried to minimise the impact of this incident; he called up not the police but Karim, the ex-member of the panchayat and Devi Prasad, pujari of another temple, who in turn called Kariyappa, member of the Palur trust; by a strange coincidence, both of these pujaris, we were told, had been called away by the police on the same day we wanted to meet them.
2. Bettigeri village
In Bettigeri village (population 800), on 10/12/01, 3 Muslim houses were attacked and burnt. Omar Haj's shop was attacked and completely looted. According to Haji, the attack, which started at 2 p.m. and went on for several hours, was led by outsiders with indirect support of some local people. He estimated the loss of property at Rs.8 lakh.
Next to the burnt house, on the walls of Hotel Swastik were 2 posters, one announcing a meeting of "Hindu Brathruthva Sammelan" on 18.11/2001 and another meeting (called "Hindu Samajothsava") at Virajpet conducted by Hindu Jagrana Vedike on 6.12.01, drawing attention to the fact that it was "Ayodhya Day." The list of speakers included Jagdeesh Karanth, B.A. Kariyappa, Vidya Prasanna Thirtha Swamy of Subramany Math, Dakshina Kannada district.
In the town of Napoklu, we met Maj. Gen. Kariyappa, one of the members of the Bhaktha Jana Sangha formed after the attack. According to Kariyappa, the lingam was displaced, and the temple wall was smeared with faeces, and the stepping stones broken. However, all this was hearsay since he himself was unable to visit the temple due to his physical condition. He informed the police and the newspaper Shakti. It was only after the newspapers report that people got really agitated, for, as he put it, "no Hindu can tolerate hearing about a desecration of this magnitude and his blood will naturally start boiling." Interestingly, while he informed Shakti about the attack on the temple, he did not ask the editor to announce the next day's crucial meeting of the Bhaktha Jana Sangha leading to the agitation.
But the editor went ahead and announced it prominently in the edition of 9.12.01, which drew thousands of Hindu bhakthas to the temple on 10th. In the meeting of Bhaktha Jana Sangha, it was resolved that a) the government should give compensation for the damaged temple, b) the guilty should be externed and banished, and c) encroachers of the surrounding land (169 acres) should be evicted.
Kariappa's friends echoed his sentiments, and admitted that they would not have been so agitated about the desecration of a temple that most of them had never visited if they had not heard such gory accounts of the incident in the Shakthi newspaper.
4. The Version of the state administration and the police
a. At Napoklu police station, we met D. Kumar, the station-in-charge, who said that investigations are not yet fully under way because the police is still trying to establish peace. In Napoklu, the police had managed to chase away miscreants who did not damage any property within the town. But in Vrajpet, a lot of destruction of property had taken place. He confirmed that a few vehicles were damaged by Muslim youths in Kakkebbe; in revenge, many Muslim houses were burnt and destroyed.
b. At Madikeri, we met the District Commissioner G.V.Ramachandra who attributed the communal riots to the overreaction of Hindus to the vandalism of Palur temple; after all it had been in disuse for a long time, with hardly any worshippers. He suggested that there was definitely a conspiracy to communalise a minor incident, and connected it to the furore over Blossom School in which the Bajrang Dal had raided the school and assaulted 2 girls for refusing to sing the national anthem.
c. At Madikeri, we also met Umesh Kumar, SP of Madikeri district, who stated that 135 people had been arrested so far (35 Muslims and 100 Hindus), FIRs have filed against 126. The police haven't yet been able to determine the exact date of the attack on Palur temple. He confirmed that the temple was dilapilated and not in use for a long time. He defended the conduct of the police saying that if they had not observed restraint, there would have been not only more losses but even killings. He felt that losses and casualties have been minimised considering the scale of communal violence and the obstacles and difficulties the police faced in reaching help to the victims. He supported Home Minister Kharge's statement that Bajrang Dal was behind the incident. He stated that Bopayya and his supporters are definitely under investigation, and they are likely to be arrested soon. He dismissed the theory that Muslims from Kerala were behind the attack on the temple.
D. Our Findings
A close study of the communal incidents in Kodagu as well as of the reactions of different people reveals that the vandalism of the Palur temple on Dec. 10 was not an isolated incident but part of an ongoing communal conspiracy that had been set in motion by the Sangh Parivar earlier and will generate more communal tensions and violence in the months to come. The following developments are especially significant in this context:
1. Establishment of units of Bajrang Dal in many major towns and villages in Kodagu in recent months. This was followed by the formation of 2 Hindu fundamentalist organisations, "Hindu Brathruthva (Brotherhood) Sammelan" "Hindu Samajotsava" that held meetings for one month before Dec. 10 to commemorate "Ayodhya Day." Along with "Hindu Jagrana Vedike", and "Bhaktha Jana Sangha", they are part of a chain of communal outfits that the Bajrang Dal and the Sangha Parivar have established in order to orchestrate a frenzy of pro-Hindutva sentiment that could easily turn a minor incident into a full-scale communal flare up.
2. One of Bajrang Dal's first activities was the assault on 2 students at Blossom School in Nov. 2001 on the ground that they had refused to sing the national anthem in school. The 2 students, who were Jehovah's Witnesses, stated that singing the national anthem went against the tenets of their religious faith. It is to be noted that the Supreme Court has upheld a citizen's right not to join the singing of the national anthem. In assaulting the 2 girls, the Bajrng Dal's intent was to create a communal spectacle of branding members of a religious minority as unpatriotic.
3. The temple at Palur itself has been chosen in the past for a number of stage-managed incidents of vandalism and theft. Once, the collection box was stolen, but when a Hindu was implicated, the case was withdrawn. Again, when the bell of the temple was stolen, the case was similarly suppressed. The design behind these incidents was undoubtedly to give it a communal colour and to put Muslims in the area on the defensive.
4. There has been a long-standing attempt to grab property of Muslims in the area around the temple through fictitious land disputes. Years ago, a pujari of the temple had obtained possession of this land from the Land Tribunal whose Hindu members significantly upheld the pujari's claim but it was opposed by a Muslim member. Later, the pujari sold it to a Muslim. There was no compulsion or illegal occupation involved in this transaction. The land adjacent to the temple indubitably belongs to the Muslims, not withstanding the baseless claims put forward by some Hindus.
5. The regional language press played a crucial role in generating communal tension and hatred. When we talked to the editor of the leading newspaper Shakti, he insisted that his newspaper had been impartial in its coverage of events. However, a perusal of its issues during the critical period of 11-14 Dec. 2001 reveals the following:
a. the widespread destruction of Muslim property is presented not as an outbreak of communal violence but as the spontaneous upsurge of people's indignation at the desecration of the temple.
b. Shakti kept harping on the enormity of the desecration of the temple but not of the desecration of mosques which only receives passing mention through ministerial statements.
c. Similarly while the arrest of the Muslim youths in connection with the attack on the Palur temple is highlighted, there is no mention of those who destroyed Muslim property.
d. there is extensive coverage of statements by VHP and Bajrang Dal demanding strict action against those found to be guilty of desecrating the temple, and denouncing statements of those (e.g. Home Minister Kharge) who suggested the complicity of Hindu organisations.
e. On 9 Dec. 2001, Shakti carried a prominent box item on the top right hand corner announcing that all Hindus should rally for a meeting the next day to protest the desecration of the temple. This announcement brought thousands of Hindus to the temple on Dec. 10 with predictable and disastrous results.
Such a slanted coverage had the effect of inciting communal passions, and provoking collective violence; as one of the Bhaktha Jana Sangha followers admitted, the Hindus wouldn't have been aroused to such a high pitch of hysteria and hatred but for the inflammatory accounts in the newspapers of the attack on the Palur temple that would be enough to "make any Hindu's blood boil."
1. The police and the district administration have failed in their measures to prevent and control the communal incident on Dec. 10 and its aftermath. Throughout the months of Nov. and Dec. 2001, leaders of Bajrang Dal such as Jagdish Karanth had been making incendiary statements that completely vitiated the atmosphere. For instance, on Dec. 6 at Virajpet, when Muslims protested at the bursting of fire crackers near a mosque, Pramod Muthalik had threatened to bomb mosques. Jagdish Karanth had also branded those who refuse to sing the national anthem as unpatriotic and this was followed up by an attack on 2 school girls. If the district administration had taken preventive action to check such provocative behaviour, much of the ensuing communal violence could have been avoided.
2. In fact, throughout the communal flare-up, the police refrained from enforcing the law. During the protest march on Dec. 10, the police imposed Section 144 to prevent public disorder and yet gave permission to let such an agitated mob pass through the predominantly Muslim area of Kotamudi instead of the northern route bypassing the village altogether, thereby causing widespread destruction and violence. While on the one hand, the police remained silent spectators to the rampage by a Hindu mob in Kottamudi, they burst teargas in the direction of the mosque and fired in the air to restrain Muslims there. The police have been afraid to take action against the culprits behind the violence including leaders of the Sangh Parivar. The routine explanation is that investigations are going on, intelligence is being collected etc.
3. Home Minister Kharge has held Bajrang Dal as being responsible for the communal disturbances on the basis of the evidence collected by the police, but to this day no one has been arrested and produced before the court. If the district police had detained leaders such as Jagdish Karanth, BJP leaders such as Somayya, Devayya and Sunil Subramani, much of the ensuing communal violence could have been avoided. There has been a complete breakdown of the police intelligence machinery.
4. It would not be an exaggeration to say that from Dec. 9 to Dec. 17, the state machinery was not functioning and there was no rule of law, and the communal leaders had complete freedom to accomplish whatever they wanted.
1. We could not find any evidence linking the attack on Palur temple with the Muslim community or, for that matter, any motivation for such for such an attack. On the other hand, there is strong circumstantial evidence, as the govt. has indicated, linking Bajrang Dal to the attack on the Palur temple.
2. The Bajrang has firmly established itself in Kodagu over the last few months and its provocative actions have created a feeling of insecurity and dread among the minorities.
3. Even though communalism is the chief source of recent violence in the district, the State by its inability to restrain it bears equal responsibility for the violence.
4. Many local newspapers, especially Shakti, have been the mouthpiece of the Sangh Parivar.
5. Communalism has been able to rear its head in Kodagu due to the weaknesses of the secular and progressive forces there.
1. The chief instigators of communal riots in Kodgu, Jagdish Karanth, Pramod Muthalik, Bopayya, Devayya, Somesh and Sunil Subramani must be immediately arrested and externed. Otherwise, there is every danger of communal recrudescence.
2. Activities of extremist communal outfits must be constantly monitored.
3. The state govt. must order a judicial inquiry in order to obtain a complete picture of the communal riots and identify and punish the guilty.
4. The PUCL appeals to the people of Kodagu to work to root out communal prejudices in their midst and to understand and beware of the sinister designs of Hindu communalists.
Secular and democratic forces must unite in order to face the onslaught of communalism in the state.
[PUCL Bulletin, July 2002, Karnataka PUCL] q
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