The Forgotten Political Murder That Changed Bhatkal’s Fate Forever
The surname Bhatkal is now a liability for many.
For years, the name Bhatkal has been associated more often with two infamous terrorists than the town that bears the name. It’s a terror tag that this coastal Karnataka town finds hard to shed, almost as if the entire town is suspect.
But a few decades ago, Bhatkal was an inconspicuous, Muslim-majority fishing town, which stayed peaceful even after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992.
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The roots of the town’s terror links come from its often-ignored political history. A turf war between the Sangh Parivar and Muslim organisations for political control that changed the face of the town.
The murder of a popular RSS leader, who was the first MLA to be assassinated while in office, changed the town’s political climate. This one crime eventually led to the creation of terrorists like Yasin and Riyaz; and the rise of far-right Hindu leaders like Anant Kumar Hegde.
The RSS Man the Town Loved
For years, only Muslim candidates were elected from the Bhatkal constituency and the presence of Hindu right-wing organisations was limited.
As part of their attempts to establish their presence, the RSS decided to send a full time Karyakartha to the town. The candidate chosen for the task was a doctor from the Dakshin Kannada district – Dr U Chittaranjan.
Although an RSS man, Chittaranjan became popular in Bhatkal because of his service as a doctor. “More than political activities, he used his profession to win over people in the town. Be it Muslims or Hindus, he used to charge less than Rs 5 for consultancy. This made him popular,” said Radhakrishnan, a senior journalist from Bhatkal.
Chittarajan’s popularity soon laid the strong foundations of the RSS and the BJP in Bhatkal. Junior leaders like Anant Kumar Hegde soon joined the newly-formed Hindu movement in the town.
However, despite his popularity, he lost the elections twice.
The 1993 Violence And Following Election
The Nawayaths, once a prominent sect of the Muslim community in Bhatkal. A business community, the Nawayaths speak the Nawaity language, which is very close to Persian. As members of the community migrated to the Gulf, their financial status improved. But this led to a financial disparity between Hindus and Muslims, and became the grounds for communal friction.
Though the town saw no violence after the Babri Masjid demolition, the distance between the communities did widen. Things spiralled out of control when stones were pelted at the chariot procession at the famous Hanuman temple in the heart of Bhatkal. As a result, in 1993, the town saw communal violence for over 9 months. 19 people were killed in riots – 10 Muslims and 9 Hindus. Many residential areas were attacked during these riots and religious ghettos formed as a result.
In the aftermath of the riots, the BJP, led by Chittaranjan, came to power in Bhatkal in 1994. Even after winning the elections amidst communal tensions, Chittaranjan kept working for both communities. But things took a shocking turn 2 years later.
The Chittaranjan Assassination
GU Bhat, a senior journalist from the region, vividly remembers 10 April 1996, the day Chittranjan was assassinated. On reaching home that night, Chittranajan was waiting for dinner and as always, he had tuned in for the 8 pm news.
The bullet went through his head, killing him instantaneously. His body was found in the middle of the room, in a pool of blood, while the bullet was found in the wall on the other side.
The investigation was soon handed over to the CBI, but even after 8 different teams investigated the case, his murder remained a mystery. The investigation could not even conclusively ascertain whether the murder was carried out by Muslim groups or Hindu – some investigators found that the use of a foreign bullet suggested a Muslim hand, while others found the timing suggestive of a Hindu hand using the death to galvanise the organisation.
Rise of Anant Kumar Hegde
Chittaranjan was the first MLA to be assassinated while in office, and it created a sympathy wave for right-wing parties across coastal Karnataka. Anant Kumar Hegde, then a junior RSS leader who lived in the Chittaranjan’s house, emerged as the new face of Hindutva. But unlike Chittaranjan, Hegde believed in polarising the communities for electoral gain.
Within two months, Hegde was elected as MP from Uttara Kannada district in 1996, and his political clout has remained undisputed ever since. The murder also resulted in a political movement by the right-wing parties against the ‘terror activities of the Muslims’, which ensured a violent polarisation of Bhatkal and the region.
Foreign Links and Terror
As the Hindutva movement gained traction and power in Bhatkal, youth employed in Gulf countries became the backbone of the Muslim resistance. A senior intelligence officer pointed out that the localised conflict soon saw the influence of international players, who tried to support the Muslim resistance against the rise of Hindutva. A Muslim doctor and community leader from Bhatkal said:
When you are targeted at your home, constantly harassed by Hindutva forces and intelligence agencies, several youths chose to opt for the international support Bhatkal received. Results of which was the emergence of people like Yasin and Riyaz Bhatkal. But this was just a few, but because of that, an entire community has been framed as terrorists.
Reaping Benefits of Polarisation
Ahead of the 2018 Assembly Elections, the BJP is confident of winning from this coastal town. Even though Bhatkal town has a large Muslim population, the Bhatkal Assembly constituency has 60:40 (Hindu:Muslim) voters.
The death of Hindu activist, Paresh Mesta, who was killed in the nearby town of Honnavar, is the latest trump card for BJP to keep the voters polarised in the area. As the Jana Surakha Yatre led by Anant Kumar Hegde reached Bhatkal on 5 March, they ensured that BJP conducted a show of strength, with over 1,000 BJP workers marching through its Muslim ghettos.
Despite a literacy rate of over 90%, the polarisation that began in the mid 90s continues to dictate elections in this part of Karnataka. The political history of Bhatkal has been lost in the narrative of terrorism shrouding the town, but the BJP continues to reap the benefits of the polarisation that followed Chittaranjan’s death.