By Prajwal Bhat
Four years before Arbaaz Aftab’s body was heinously discarded on a railway track in Khanapur in Belagavi district of Karnataka, a man named Parashuram Waghmore was being trained to commit murder. In a secluded farm, tucked into the woods that surround Khanapur, Parashuram was recruited by the Sri Rama Sene to undergo arms training. Later, he would go on to fire the shot that killed journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh outside her home in Bengaluru in September 2017.
Before this month, headlines around violence and communal hatred in Karnataka had largely been from Mangaluru, Dakshina Kannada and Bengaluru, with little focus on the northern Karnataka towns of Belagavi and Khanapur, despite their tacit connection to Hindutva groups, ones that were ultimately accused in the sensational killing of the journalist. A member of the Sri Rama Sene, along with other fringe Hindutva groups are facing trial in Gauri Lankesh’s murder.
This month, years of whispered fears turned to shouts for justice and the cold-blooded nature of 24-year-old Arbaaz’s murder in September has brought the role of Hindtuva organisations into focus once again in north Karnataka. This time it is the Shri Ram Sena Hindustan, a breakaway group of Pramod Muthalik’s Sri Rama Sene, that is being investigated.
This is not the first time Hindutva groups have asserted themselves in north Karnataka. Pramod Muthalik, who is from Hukkeri which was previously a part of Belagavi, started the Sri Rama Sene in 2006 along with a group of Bajrang Dal activists from Mangaluru like Praveen Walke, Arun Kumar Puttila, Prasad Attavar, Anand Shetty, Subhash Padil and others. This is documented in detail in Dhirendra K Jha’s book ‘Shadow Armies: Fringe Organizations and Foot Soldiers of Hindutva’.
In fact, Muthalik told Jha that it is in Belagavi that his relationship with Hindutva was shaped. “It was in Belgaum Jail that I got the opportunity to interact with some of the senior RSS leaders in Karnataka. The ideology was not new to me. My father used to attend the RSS shakha regularly and so I grew up in that very background. But the discussions I had with RSS leaders in jail shaped my relationship with Hindutva so much that I decided to work for this ideology for the whole of my life,” Muthalik said.
Pramod Muthalik is now one of the most recognisable Hindutva leaders in Karnataka. He was the first ever convenor of the Bajrang Dal in Karnataka and was also part of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad for decades before he parted ways in 2004.
He became disillusioned with the BJP when the party denied him a ticket from Bagalkote in 2004. Muthalik briefly joined the Shiv Sena in 2005, setting up the party’s Karnataka unit. But a year later, he left the Shiv Sena. “There erupted a tussle between Marathi and Kannada language fanatics. Belgaum, which was claimed by Maharashtra as part of its cultural zone, became the centre of this debate. Kannada language groups started disrupting the Shiv Sena’s meetings, and working for that party in Karnataka just became impossible,” he said at the time about his decision.
He soon started the Sri Rama Sene along with his counterparts in Mangaluru. But in early 2007, a few months after the Sri Rama Sene was started, differences cropped up between Praveen Walke and Pramod Muthalik leading to Walke and his associates walking out of the organisation due to Pramod Muthalik favouring Prasad Attavar. Yet, the Sri Rama Sene remained active, and in 2008, its members including Pramod Muthalik’s close associate Nagraj Jambagi, were accused in a bomb blast at the Hubballi court aimed at targeting suspected Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) activists.
A year later, the Sri Rama Sene’s Mangaluru cadre made national and international headlines with the 2009 pub attack in Mangaluru. A group of Sri Rama Sene members barged into a pub and beat up young women and men claiming the women were violating traditional values by being in a pub. Their activities, particularly in Karnataka’s coastal region, died down only when Prasad Attavar was arrested in 2010 for running an extortion racket, and sent to jail. This, coupled with Subhash Padil’s departure to rejoin the Bajrang Dal, led to a shutdown of the Sri Rama Sene’s activities in coastal Karnataka, but the group remained active in the northern part of the state with Pramod Muthalik operating out of Hubballi. “This has not changed over the years and the Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad have been the two major Hindutva organisations operating in coastal Karnataka since then,” says a senior police officer based in Mangaluru.
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal, set up by VHP in 1984, are the two main Hindutva organisations in Karnataka. In its organisational structure, Bajrang Dal is divided into south and north Karnataka. It is active in the south with its convener Sharan Pumpwell leading it till 2019 before joining the VHP to coordinate its Mangaluru division (which includes Kasargod and Udupi).
Other smaller organisations like the Hindu Jagaran Vedike and Hindu Yuva Sena are also active in southern Karnataka. Hindu Jagaran Vedike activists including Subhash Padil, who separated from Sri Rama Sene, were involved in the infamous 2012 homestay attack, an imitation of the 2009 pub attack, targeting a birthday celebration. Hindu Yuva Sena was started in Chikkamagaluru by KT Naveen Kumar, who is also accused in the conspiracy to murder Gauri Lankesh.
But in northern Karnataka, it was Pramod Muthalik’s Sri Rama Sene, based out of Hubballi, that was the banner pro-Hindutva organisation. Alongside him, the Sanathan Sanstha and the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS) based in Goa shot to limelight following a series of grim murders in the last decade. Between 2013 and 2015, three prominent rationalists and activists from the north Karnataka region and its neighbouring areas were murdered.
First, in August 2013, Narendra Dabholkar was shot down by assailants when he was out for his morning walk in Pune. In February 2015, Govind Pansare was similarly attacked by gun-wielding assailants in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district which shares a border with Belagavi. A few months later in August 2015, MM Kalburgi was shot dead at his residence in Dharwad. Two years later, Gauri Lankesh was killed in the same manner in Bengaluru.
Investigating officials, of which there were four different agencies, deduced that all four killings were carried out by the same group linked to the Sanatan Sanstha. The arrests in these cases include members of other organisations like Sri Rama Sene, Abhinav Bharat, Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, and Shivpratishthan Hindustan.
The base for Hindutva has existed in Belagavi, Bagalkot, Hubballi and Dharwad for many years, a senior member of Sri Rama Sene tells TNM. The primary reason is the city’s proximity to the border of Maharashtra and Goa. In addition to Hindutva organisations in Karnataka and Goa, other groups in Maharashtra have also influenced the youth in this region. The Shiv Sena and the Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti (MES), which is primarily a linguistic organisation, have also been instrumental in mobilising people in favour of Hindutva. There are other groups like the Tiger gang, previously led by Hubballi blast accused Nagraj Jambagi, that have been involved in violence in places like Gokak, Bagalkot, Belagavi and Hubballi. A senior police officer told TNM that their ‘rigorous’ training involved hunting wild boars.
In 2018, a group of Hindutva leaders in Belagavi decided to break away from Pramod Muthalik’s Sri Rama Sene and form the Shri Ram Sena Hindustan. Both Pramod Muthalik and Ramakanth Konduskar, who now heads the breakaway faction, say that they decided to split over ‘personal differences’. A local journalist based in Belagavi says that it was once again to do with linguistic differences. “Pramod Muthalik is from Hukkeri and is a Kannadiga but if you see, most of the members in the Shri Ram Sena Hindustan are Marathi-speakers,” says the journalist.
But despite the split, the new breakaway organisation has been operating in the same vein as the Sri Rama Sene and many in Belagavi simply refer to them as ‘Ram Sena’.
In 2020, when a flurry of sedition cases were filed against young students and activists in Karnataka, including one case in Hubballi, there was massive opposition from Hindutva groups to the release of three Kashmiri students from KLE Institute of Technology in Hubballi after they were detained on the charges of sedition for allegedly singing pro-Pakistan slogans in a video. Initially, the trio were questioned and sent back to their hostel with station bail. But they were later arrested again and charged with sedition as the right-wing group Bajrang Dal staged a protest inside their college premises.
The Hubballi Bar Association even passed a resolution saying that the trio should not be represented. They wrote to the state bar association to direct lawyers across the state to follow the resolution. When lawyers from Bengaluru turned up in Dharwad to represent the trio, they were heckled by local lawyers in an incident described by the Karnataka High Court as “sheer militancy”.
Around the same time, a Sri Rama Sene member, Siddalinga Swamy, had offered Rs 3 lakh as bounty for the tongues of the three Kashmiri students. Another Sri Rama Sene leader, Sanjeev Maradi from Ballari, threatened to kill Amulya Leona, a student from Bengaluru accused of sedition. “What these incidents showed was that the presence of Hindutva groups were still strong in north Karnataka regions and they were not afraid of threatening violence,” an activist based in Bengaluru says.
From the VHP and Bajrang Dal attacking a chief engineer for his ‘anti-Hindu’ comments in 2008 to all these groups protesting against a biryani chain that used a Hindu saint’s photo in 2021, they have indulged in violence and labelled themselves as saviours of Hindus in the last two decades. But their activities are not limited to this.
“Hindutva organisations involve themselves in social causes whether it is related to cow protection or rehabilitating homeless people. They also extravagantly celebrate Hindu festivals and act as muscle power during the elections. It is only during the elections that the linguistic differences between pro-Kannada and pro-Marathi Hindutva leaders become visible – the rest of the time they are aligned by their ideology,” says a social activist from Belagavi.
Despite Konduskar and Muthalik’s apparent split, the Sri Rama Sene and the Shri Ram Sena Hindustan work together whenever their interests are aligned. “For example, a couple of years ago, an ‘activist’ from Sri Rama Sene got a tip off that cattle are being transported to a neighbouring village in Maharashtra. He asked for help from Shri Ram Sena Hindustan workers to get details of who the cattle is for on the other side of the border as they had more connections in Maharashtra. In what they call a ‘joint operation’, they managed to ‘foil’ the plan,” a Sri Rama Sene member says.
They consider themselves ‘cow protectors’ and are on the lookout for signs of cows being transported — particularly in the past year since the state government in Karnataka brought in an anti-cattle slaughter law. The organisation also ran ambulances to provide free funeral services to COVID-19 victims during the second wave.
They also make no attempts to hide the fact that they want to break up interfaith relationships in Belagavi. “We are active in Belagavi and work with the (police) department when young Hindu women are in love with men from other communities,” Ramakanth Konduskar of the Shri Ram Sena Hindustan says. He claims that his organisation has ‘counselled’ many young women against marrying men from other communities.
But in the last few weeks, the Shri Ram Sena Hindustan’s activities in Belagavi have become public discussion after the Belagavi police arrested seven members of the organisation and unraveled a plot hatched by Arbaaz’s girlfriend’s parents and Pundalik to kill Arbaaz over the interfaith relationship. Despite Konduskar’s attempts to distance his organisation from the acts of murder, evidence has stacked up against Pundalik who is the taluk president of the Shri Ram Sena Hindustan.
The same ambulance that ferried COVID-19 victims has now been seized and police believe that the vehicle was used to gag and transport Arbaaz to the railway tracks where he was found murdered.