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Is a group of young Hindu radicals terrorizing the college town of Mangalore a sign of a coming culture war?
protested against the self-appointed moral police.
“Or women drinking in a pub. Or young people gathering together and drinking a little beer. That is not Hindu culture.”
Most of the incidents compiled by PUCL involved members of radical groups such as the Hindu Jagarana Vedike, Sri Rama Sene and Bajrang Dal. In January 2009, for instance, around 40 alleged members of the Sri Ram Sene attacked young men and women drinking at a local Mangalore bar called “Amnesia — the Lounge,” claiming they were violating Indian culture. In August 2011, some 30 to 40 alleged members of the Bajrang Dal reportedly broke up a birthday party being held at a local farmhouse, claiming it was a rave.
“If I'm married and I'm having children of age 20 or 25 and I flirt with a girl who is the age of 14, and my intention is to spoil her, and some alert social activists ... stop us, how can you say it is moral policing?” said Franklin Monteiro, a local leader from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“First they will ask whether they are married or they are lovers, or whether they are having the permission of their parents,” Monteiro said. “These three questions they will ask first. If they belong to the same [religious] community, they [the vigilantes] will leave, just like that.”
But in contrast, in dozens of cases compiled by PUCL, members of various right-wing outfits reportedly dragged young people off buses, sprang on couples and hauled them into the police station, or beat them up on the spot.
Many of these attacks stemmed from the real or imagined perception that a Muslim boy had sought a connection with a Hindu girl — which right-wing ideologues have characterized as “Love Jihad.” And in almost all of these instances that involve the local police, the authorities appear to have tacitly sanctioned the vigilantes' actions by holding the couple for questioning, calling their parents to retrieve them, or releasing them only after ascertaining that both the boy and girl are Hindus.
“Nobody is stopping it,” said Suresh Bhatt, vice president of the Karnataka chapter of PUCL. “We're terribly concerned that the lawkeepers, the police and the politicians, are turning a blind eye.”
Activists from PUCL and other like-minded organisations trace such incidents of moral policing — as well as dozens of reported attacks on Muslims accused of slaughtering cows and on Christians accused of trying to convert Hindus — to the recent rise to power of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Karnataka.
The BJP and the Hindu Jagarana Vedike, Sri Rama Sene, and Bajrang Dal are all official offshoots, or ideological allies, of a massive, informal political “family” known as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), PUCL activists said.
The increase in these interreligious skirmishes — whether they're related to the bogey of “Love Jihad,” cow slaughter, or conversion — is part of a well-planned RSS campaign strategy, according to critics.
“For us, the final is the Sangh Parivar (RSS family), we are all activists of the Sangh Parivar,” said the BJP's Monteiro. “For us, the final and the most holiest part of life is to protect this country, as well as the culture of this land, which has been practiced by our elders.”
In Mangalore, the campaign began in the late 1990s, when a communal clash between Hindus and Muslims offered the RSS and other proponents of its ethnic nationalist ideology of “Hindutva” or “Hinduness” an opportunity to woo low caste Hindus away from competing socialist and communist movements, according to K. Phaniraj, a professor at the nearby Manipal Institute of Technology.
But since 2008, when the BJP came to power in Karnataka, the lines have blurred between the grassroots exploitation of tensions between religious communities and official sanction from the authorities. When the government proposed a bill to ban cow slaughter, for instance, local police tacitly allowed hooligans to enforce the ban, though it never became law. And for more than a month last year, the official police website for the district that includes Mangalore featured a photo collage highlighting the supposed public service activities of the RSS (which the group's opponents say are nothing more than recruitment efforts).
“I call it Hindutva fascism,” Phaniraj said. “I make no bones about it.”
Class and caste, town and gown
As disturbing as that sounds, that aspect of the issue is little more than politics as usual for India, where the RSS and Hindu nationalism has been a potent force since 1925.
And though various speeches reported by local media suggest otherwise, some RSS members and sympathisers say that the organisation has quietly shunted to the side the outright fascist ideas of Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, one of its principal early ideologues. (In his written works, Golwalkar calls for non-Hindus to adopt Hindu culture or submit to remain “wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation” and appears to endorse Hitler's decision to purge Germany of the Jews, though perhaps not his methods).
“There might be a small section of the RSS which is anti-Muslim,” said 31-year-old Brijesh Chowta, an RSS member who cautioned that his statements represented only his personal views. “But if you look at the organisation, they say Hindutva is not a religion. Everybody can practice their religion, but it's about being Indian first.”
What's new, and of greater concern to the more liberal citizens of Youngistan, is the idea that India's modernization may not be diminishing the ranks of the true believers, and their conservatism may be contagious — encouraging Christian and Muslim fundamentalism.
At a recent regional meeting, 80 percent of the 85,000 uniformed “volunteers” that turned out were between 16 and 35, according to a 28-year-old member of the RSS who lives at its center in the city and works for the organisation full time. (He asked not to be named because he is not an official spokesman.)
Meanwhile, the regular attacks on Muslims that accompanied the Hindu vigilantes' moral policing sparked local college students to adopt the burqa and chador as a kind of badge of honor in the tussle between modernity, freedom and identity.
And the socio-economic dimensions of the conflict hint that it may soon grow more serious.
Apart from the alleged political machinations of the Hindu right, there is a class-and-caste, town-versus-gown element to these incidents of moral policing that some observers believe augurs trouble on the horizon.
While educated, upwardly mobile young people move forward to take better jobs, free themselves from the authority of their parents and embrace more liberal attitudes toward love and sex, another group may be growing increasingly lost, hopeless and angry.
According to Soorinje, the journalist jailed for his reporting on moral policing, for instance, four of the young men facing charges for the alleged attack on party-goers at the homestay in July do not have electricity in their homes.
“The reason that young people are attracted to these kind of [radical conservative] outfits is the uneven development we see in Mangalore,” Soorinje said.
“While we have so many colleges and shopping malls, the backward and uneducated tend to take what the leadership says about 'Love Jihad' and so forth at face value, because young men and women socializing together like the college students do is completely outside their sphere of knowledge.”