Editor's note: This is the fourteenth reported piece in an 18-part series on the contemporary history of Hindutva in coastal Karnataka. The series features interviews, videos, archival material and oral histories gathered over a period of four months. Read other articles of the series here
In his 2011 book, The Lost Years of the RSS, Sanjeev Kelkar wrote: "In March 1981, the Karnataka RSS saw an unprecedented concept executed with consummate organisational skill-the Hindu Samajotsav, a festival of the Hindu society itself, as a whole."
I knew Aerya Lakshmi Naraya Alva was old even before I dialled his number. My source had said that Alva was probably in his late 70s. Debating whether I should show up at his house instead of calling, I reluctantly called him. I had decided to introduce myself as a researcher but instead blurted out that I had come across a VHP newsletter from 1981, which credited him as the founder of this meet called 'Hindu Samajotsava'. I was curious why he had conceptualised this. "There is too much to say over the phone. If you come home, we can chat," he told me.
Alva is 92-year-old and has lived in Bantwal all his life. At first glance, I wondered if the man had anything to do with Mahatma Gandhi. My guess was right. Alva was a Gandhian who turned into an RSS man after the Emergency of 1975. He went on to witness the demolition of Babri Masjid with Uma Bharati at his wake, bellowing "Ek dhakka aur do, Babri Masjid tod do."
Alva's predecessors were landowners, like many others who belong to the Bunt caste. An agrarian community spread across Dakshin Kannada, Bunts accrued land for services they offered to rulers and Brahmin communities. It is also believed that when Jain chieftains left Dakshin Kannada after being defeated by Keladi rulers, Bunts, who were caretakers of these lands up until then, usurped some of these land blocks. This land was jointly owned and couldn't be sold. The men in the family divided the land among themselves and cultivated it.
Aerya Lakshmi Naraya Alva is 92-year-old and has lived in Bantwal all his life. Image by Greeshma Kuthar
They also allowed others to cultivate the land as tenants. When the land reforms came in 1964, Alva's family lost most of their land. "But see, there were Bunts who were tenants too. They retained their land. So, while some lost land, others didn't. Some also tried to do kitha-pathi (a Tulu word referring to fraudulent activities) to keep their land," recollects Alva. The land reforms led to large scale migration of Bunts to Mumbai, Gulf and other places in search of employment.
During this time, the Brahmins of the Sangh, who realised that they required others to take leadership positions to expand the organisation beyond the Brahmins, now tried to recruit Bunts for their early projects. Alva pioneered one such project.
The Hindu Samajotsava is a yearly show of strength of the Sangh Parivar in Coastal Karnataka. The first such rally was held in Mangalore in April 1981 when Alva was serving his term as the district president for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). The theme that year was 'unity of Hindus.' The motive, according to Alva, was to send a message that there is no discrimination in Hinduism and that 'everybody is one'. The Utsav commenced after a VHP delegation, led by Vishwa Theertha, went to a Dalit locality in Mangaluru.
"See, the way I conceptualised it was very unique. It was a different time."
It might have just been a month since Vishwa Theerta of the Peejavara Mutt had returned from a small town 700 kilometres from Mangaluru, where he had tried to engage with more than 1,000 Dalits who had converted to Islam. The Hindu Samajotsava happened exactly two months after the mass conversions of Meenakshipuram, an event which shook the Sangh like never before.
But the time that Alva is referring to isn't pertaining to this event. He is referring to the birth of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after its split with the Janata Party with Atal Bihari Vajpayee as its president. In the formative years, Vajpayee tried to project the BJP as a centrist force and put forward various principles by which the BJP would function, one of them being 'positive secularism'.
The Jan Sangh and the RSS had existed hand in hand in all these years but the BJP tried to distance itself from this method. Other organs of the Sangh Parivar were strengthened, most noticeably the VHP. A conscious attempt was made to project VHP nationally and strengthen its reach as a force that was looking to bring Hindu's together, with religious leaders at its forefront.
"With this in mind, we set out organising a program which would bring together Hindus from across the region (Dakshin Kannada)," says Alva. "The first Hindu Samajotsava was a phenomenal success. There were rallies from different temples which led to Nehru Maidan. Gurus from different mutts across the country attended the program. Swami Chinmayananda, one of the founder's of VHP was present. So were many distinguished politicians." But he says the ones responsible for this turnout were RSS karyakartas. "They worked really hard at the grassroots level to ensure close to a lakh attended the program."
Hand stitched saffron flags with Om emblazoned on them, close to 20,000 of them, lined the city streets for the first time. "We took a vow to unite as "Hindu' irrespective of caste. In fact, we started the day by entering into scheduled caste colonies. We wanted every Hindu to do away with caste differences. We warned that conversions would keep increasing if this continued."
Many Congress leaders were part of the first Hindu Samajotsava. "Leaders like Aerya Laxminarayan Alva requested me to be a part of the new initiative which was called the Hindu Samajotsava. I was told it was going to be an apolitical program," recollects a local Congress leader Suresh S Suresh, who was part of the first organising committee of the program. "We wanted to show our force as we felt like RSS could outnumber us. So we tried to mobilise as many cadres as possible. But when we reached the venue, the dais had a backdrop which said 'VHP'. We were conned."
But in spite of this, Suresh and other Congressmen were part of the organising team for at least three more Hindu Samajotsavas.
This soft approach shifted after the 1984 general elections, when the BJP, in a major embarrassment, managed to win only two seats. The seeds of a more aggressive Hindu mobilisation was launched with Lal Krishna Advani at its helm as party president and the invoking of the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign. What is curious is that until 1983, none of the previous manifestoes of the Jana Sangh or articulations of RSS leaders had any mention of Ram Janmabhoomi.
In 1983, a year before general elections, the VHP formed the Dharmasthan Yukti Yagna Samiti, stating that henceforth they'll focus on liberating Hindu religious spaces. A year after, the VHP formed the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Mukti Yagna Samiti and as the first program, a rath yatra was organised from Ayodhya to Lucknow. The Sangh threw its entire weight behind this program, up until the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992. The Hindu Samajotsava in Mangaluru, which preceded this program, created a base for the Ram Mandir kar seva mobilisations. Door-to-door collection of ittigas (bricks) was a huge success in the region.
"This kind of a mass rally was new. People from around where I live participated in this Hindu Samajotsava. Some of them dressed up in Yakshagana attire, others in their traditional attire. All of us thought it was a cultural celebration. Only after a few years did we realise what it really was," says Muneer Katipala, a CPM leader from Surathkal.
Muneer is an oddity in the politics of Dakshin Kannada. He refused to do away with his Muslim identity, something unusual in a party like CPM and in fact goes a step further and says publicly that he is the progeny of Koti and Chennaya, who are celebrated as gods by the Billava community. It is believed that Bearys is a community that emerged out of inter-marriage between Arab traders and women of local Tulu communities such as Billavas, who Muneer is referring to. The Beary community comprises the majority of the Muslim community in Dakshin Kannada.
During the 2011 Hindu Samajotsava in Mangaluru, VHP leader Praveen Togadia was heard as saying:
"A Hindu might have killed another human being, but please note, from Vedic times till now, if there was one crime that a Hindu has never committed is killing of cows. Look at how amazing we are. We might kill other humans, we might kill our own brothers, but we will never kill cows. When did killing cows begin in India? It is when these temple-destroying Muslims set foot in India. And now, we are preparing laws to stop this. I've heard that the Karnataka government has initiated a law to put a stop to these killings. But the Governor of this state, Bharadwaj " please note, he is named after the gotra of Rishi Bharadwaj " you (Bharadwaj) still haven't signed the law? Are you Bharadwaj or Nihal Mohammad? How can this be that in a country like this a Governor doesn't sign a law so that the Muslims are happy? Arey Bharadwaj, are you the Governor of Karnataka or Pakistan?"
"The first time I heard Praveen Togadia speak was at the Hindu Samajotsava in 1985. I was amazed. I could envision the purpose I had been looking for. He pointed the fingers exactly where it should be, at the Muslims. They've been plundering us and exploiting us for centuries, finally, we were speaking up about it," says Jagadish Sheneva, the district president of Vishva Hindu Parishad and media's favourite Sangh spokesperson from Dakshin Kannada.
Like his role model, Sheneva is popular for his inflammatory statements and his calls to root out forces that endanger the lives of Hindus in Coastal Karnataka. His allies Sharan Pumpwell and Asha Jagadeesh, both leaders of VHP and Matra Mandali respectively, repeat what he has to say, verbatim. Asha goes on to add, "If we don't save our girls from eloping with Muslims, their families threaten to attack us. What do we do, the situation has come to this now. People look at us as saviours."
With the launch of the campaign to rebuild Ram Janmabhoomi, the RSS and the VHP cadre collected bricks from all households. "They first performed a pooja within the premises of the person's house donating the brick and then move on to the next house. Some of us also donated bricks. What else to do? Anybody would've quickly turned on us and attacked us if we had opened our mouth," says Suresh.
The leaders of Dalit Sangarsha Samiti tried to warn people against participating in this movement. One of them was a teacher and writer Devdas. He points out that amassing support by invoking religious feeling was the easiest strategy for the Sangh. "None of the other parties realised what was happening, in fact, many others participated too. In Karnataka, this campaign was most popular in Dakhin Kannada. RSS pretty much sealed the region as their base after the work they put in during the years before the destruction of Babri Masjid".
In The Lost Years of the RSS, Kelkar writes: "Sometime in 1983 or so, the serial Ramayan started on television. Soon it was the rage of Hindustan. The anti-Hindu elements in Kerala switched off the electricity officially at the transmission hours of 9:30 in the morning. Protests erupted and the government had to yield. It was rumoured that even Rajiv Gandhi's Cabinet meetings on Sunday began only after Ramayan was over."
AK Kukilla, editor of Sanmarga Weekly recounts how in the early 1980s, he and his friends watched Yakshagana together, which were usually centred on epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana. By the end of that decade, some of them were part of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. "When the serial Ramayana was released, there was one TV set in our village where we could watch it. Everybody started talking about this new god, Ram. The conversations had changed from what it had been ten years ago. We were suddenly faced with a distrust which we hadn't felt or seen before". Kukila's neighbour travelled to Uttar Pradesh with ittigas (bricks) to take part in the Ram Mandir kar seva but was arrested midway.
The real identity politics was played by RSS at this time, says Lolaksha, an intellectual and writer. "To bring about a social order which is in line with what your organisations represent, you need a social base. This is what the Sangh set about creating." The Sangh, like in the rest of the country, decided to use Ram to capture the imagination of people in Dakshina Kannada.
"Ram was the representative of the ideology the Sangh was trying to project. A false sense of righteousness, purity, love for Hindu identity. It worked, people bought into Ram here, too." The Sangh Parivar tried different methods to forge a connection between this social base and the ideology that the Sangh Parivar was trying to get them to follow.
The early 1980s was also a time when a major section of the agrarian population had moved towards urban spaces like Mangaluru. A new crop of first-generation graduates emerged. While many migrated outside Coastal Karnataka for work, the rest were stuck in a region, which at that time, was reeling under a poor economy. Opportunities were almost non-existent. Due to high rates of unemployment, low self-esteem among youths was common.
"The Sangh perfectly understood this. They created social positions for youths who were otherwise considered a waste " as members and leaders of Bajrang Dal, Hindu Yuva Sena, VHP. This creation of foot soldiers involved tapping into an economic and cultural vacuum, by evoking a homogenous religion identity in a region which had its own Gods. This new identity assured them muscle power and money, and more importantly a position of respect. At the root of this 'Hindu identity' was hatred for a group which the Sangh Parivar had already isolated. Muslims came to be the target, as the community who had wronged the powerful 'Ram'," Lolaksha said.
The first public program to stoke this feeling of hatred towards Muslims was the movement of rebuilding Ram Janmabhoomi.
"But this identity is a fake identity, caste identities reigns to this day in Dakshin Kannada. You are first known as a Poojari or a Puthran or a Shetty. Do you think most of these castes, who are shudra but nevertheless touchable, would treat Dalits equally? My relative started a hotel in Belthangady, it never took off. Nobody would eat at his hotel. He eventually had to shut it down. Forget about Dalits, what about the hierarchy among these castes?" says Deekiah, a cultural artist and government employee.
Lolaksha explains that through programs like Ram Janmabhoomi the top leadership of the Sangh engineered the Hindu identity in a way that these castes would come together to take on an external threat " the Muslim. "Even this isn't that simple in Dakshin Kannada, which at the core has a multicultural existence. That is why in spite of all the talk about communalism, you'll see glaring holes in this polarised binary. Businesses, spaces of interfaith belief, though hit by these events, still survive."
But in the decades to come, this newly-introduced identity thrived. The organisations, armed with energetic youth, re-enacted all the previous programs, be it anti-conversion or gauraksha with fresh formulas. Migrants who had left the region came back with a new religious consciousness and invested in revamping religious spaces, which the new recruits captured with ease. Bhajana Mandirs multiplied across villages, poojas were organised in every village and a VHP leader would address them at these functions. Through religious and cultural activities, the Sangh was able to create a social base for people to come together, something which no other political functionary had accomplished before. Whether it translates to political gain or not won't change the fact that the word on the street about Muslims is "They have taken over completely."