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Karnataka Elections 2023: Will Debate Over 'Bajrang Dal Ban' Harm Congress?

A section of Karnataka Congress is of the opinion that the party should not have promised to ban Bajrang Dal.

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In 2017, ahead of the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Union Home Minister Amit Shah sought to downplay a controversy over Hindutva outfit Bajrang Dal starting self-defence training camps in the state. He reportedly said, "Bajrang Dal is not BJP,” adding that the organisation “should not be equated” with the BJP which focuses on “development.”

However, six years later, the BJP seems to have taken a contradictory campaign line in Karnataka. At the fag end of the high-voltage campaign for elections to 224 seats in Karnataka Assembly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP seem to have no qualms throwing their weight behind the Bajrang Dal.

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The Bajrangi Wave

"I am a Bajrangi. I am a Kannadiga and this is the land of Hanuman. I dare the Congress to ban me," BJP MP of Bengaluru South, Tejasvi Surya tweeted. Surya also made an image of Lord Hanuman his profile picture on Twitter.

Union Agriculture Minister Shobha Karandlaje claimed, “Bajrang Dal is a part of RSS and has been working with the youths for the nation. It has never indulged in anti-national activities.” To top it all, the Prime Minister who has been touring Karnataka before the elections exclaimed, “Jai Bajrangbali,” at a public meeting in Uttara Kannada.

Modi also asked the voters to cast their votes chanting ‘Jai Bajrangbali’ to “punish” the Congress. The Congress and Shiv Sena (UBT) have taken exception to these statements.

The statements from the BJP were in response to a promise made in the Indian National Congress’ election manifesto – “We believe that the Constitution is sacrosanct and cannot be violated by individuals and organisations like the Bajrang Dal, PFI (Popular Front of India) or others promoting enmity or hatred, whether among majority or minority communities.” The manifesto then stated such organisations could face stringent action including ban if the Congress is voted to power.

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Congress Divided on Bajrang Dal

Apart from incensing the BJP, the election promise has evoked mixed reactions from the Congress circles. A section of the party felt there was no need to promise a ban on the right-wing organisation when the Congress seemed to be at an advantage thanks to apparent anti-incumbency sentiment harming the saffron party. Others within the Congress, however, felt the announcement would not adversely impact the party; on the contrary, it could help bag votes from fence-sitters who are debating whom to choose between the Congress and JD(S).

Former Chief Minister of Karnataka M Veerappa Moily, who initially said the state government cannot ban an outfit, later clarified that the Bajrang Dal should have no fears of being banned if it keeps its activities within the ambit of law.

Will the announcement dent the Congress’ prospects? Congress spokesperson Ramesh Babu dismissed apprehensions stating, “Bajrang Dal is an organisation and the BJP is equating an organisation with Lord Hanuman. Does this mean that no action should be taken on any  organisation or institution sporting the name of a God?”

However, contrary to expectations, of all the pernicious issues, including protests against hijab, halal meat, and azan and boycott of Muslim traders at temple festivals, which were expected to be poll planks in the coastal  belt, 'Bajrang Dal ban' seems to have become the only topic that has gathered momentum. Otherwise, the key subjects for poll debates are nationalism and development.

“When we were relieved that these issues (hijab-halal) were not the talking points in the elections, the discussion around ban on Bajrang Dal has come as a spoiler. It will consolidate the Hindu voters, who were considering voting for a secular party in these regions (coastal Karnataka) and to a certain extent in Mumbai Karnataka,'‘ a Congress functionary rued.

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What’s Bajrang Dal’s Influence in Karnataka?

The Bajrang Dal was born when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad decided to start Ram-Janaki Rath Yatra to ‘awaken’ the society in October, 1984. The VHP gave a call to youth to protect the yatra as the organisation was not confident that the Congress government in Uttar Pradesh would allow the yatra to travel through the state. In response, hundreds of youth gathered in Ayodhya and the Bajrang Dal was formed with a temporary and localised objective of rallying youth in UP behind the Ram Janmabhoomi movement or the attempt to built a temple for Lord Ram in the place of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.

Years later, the Bajrang Dal, which is now the youth wing of VHP, is active in the coastal regions of  Dakshina Kannada, Udupi, and Uttara Kannada and also in Malnad comprising Shivamogga and Chikkamagaluru districts.

The BJP has been accused of turning these five districts into a laboratory for its Hindutva agenda and polarising voters along communal lines. This has helped the Bajrang Dal foster its activities of moral policing and cow vigilantism in this region.

In July 2022, the Bajrang Dal was accused of barging into a pub in Mangaluru and forcibly stopping a party organised by the students including women. Back in 2009 the Sri Ram Sene, another right-wing outfit, gate-crashed a pub and beat up party-goers, many of them who were women. Also, the Bajrang Dal was at the forefront of the anti-hijab saffron shawl protests which erupted in Mangaluru and Udupi in 2022.

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Congress Does Damage Control

Statements of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adithyanath slamming the Congress of “locking up Lord Hanuman'' is going to impact the Congress votes at least by 20 percent, a Congress leader predicted. "See the misfortune when I have come to pay my respect to Hanuman's land, the Congress in its manifesto has decided to lock up Lord Hanuman. Initially, they locked up Sri Ram. And now they want to lock up people who say "Jai Bajrangbali’," the PM had said.

Media analyst N K Mohan Ram said the Election Commission should have suo motu taken cognisance of Modi’s statement asking voters to chant ‘Jai Bajrangbali’ before they cast their votes because he violated the model code of conduct by invoking religion.

Meanwhile, KPCC President DK Shivakumar has tried some damage control by stating his party would set up a special committee to oversee the development of prominent Hanuman temples in the state. Shivakumar has also promised another committee to oversee the development of Anjanadri Hills, believed to be the birthplace of Lord Hanuman.

(Naheed Ataulla is a senior political journalist based in Bengaluru.)

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