Politically, the August 11 violence in a Bengaluru locality has come as a gift to the ruling BJP, with the opposition Congress pushed on the defensive and cracks appearing in the traditional solidarity between the Dalit community and the Muslim minority, both of which are Congress supporters.
The violence, over a Facebook post perceived to be anti-Islam, resulted in the death of three people and injuries to scores of others. An outraged mob set ablaze the residence of local legislator of the Congress, Akhanda Srinivasa Murthy, several other establishments and scores of vehicles in the city’s Devarajeevanhalli (DJ Halli) locality in the eastern part of the city, less than 10 km from the central business district.
DJ Halli comprises a large population of Muslims, Dalits and others from the Hindu community. This locality is one of those areas that is almost a no-go for the BJP or the Sangh Parivar. That is because of the domination of the area by Muslims and Dalits who are Congress supporters.
The violence has willy-nilly exposed underlying fault lines locally between the Muslims and the Dalits and has provided a much-awaited opportunity for the ruling BJP to move in for the “kill”. Since the violence broke out and the rioters burnt down the house of the Congress MLA, a Dalit, BJP leaders have gone to town questioning the Congress’s real commitment to the Dalits and accusing it of siding with the rioters, most of whom reportedly belonged to the Muslim community.
Not wanting to leave anything to chance, the BJP has drummed up a campaign against the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) which is the political outfit of the Popular Front of India (PFI). Some of their leaders have been arrested and the BJP, which is in government, has accused it of planning the violence. To nail its advantage, the BJP government is now planning to ban the SDPI.
For the BJP, the PFI (and the SDPI) has been a red rag for the last few years. The PFI, which describes itself as a social movement, essentially represents the Muslim community and was launched in Kerala in 2006. It set roots in Karnataka’s coastal district soon after, arising from the cauldrons of communal conflict in the region, to represent and defend Muslims against the belligerence of Sangh Parivar organisations.
The recent agitation against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in Bengaluru was apparently backed by the PFI and similar to the Shaheen Bagh protests in Delhi, there was a similar long-standing dharna at Bilal Bagh, in addition to mass rallies in the city. All of these were supported by Muslim organisations including the PFI, besides secular groups.
Having waited for long to somehow sequester the PFI and its affiliates, the DJ Halli violence appears to have given the BJP a good reason to go ahead with what it always wanted to do.
The violence at DJ Halli is widely acknowledged as avoidable had the police acquiesced to accepting the complaint of irate Muslim community leaders against the offensive Facebook post. In the event the police did not, all hell broke loose and the mob targeted the Dalit legislator as it was his nephew, Naveen, who uploaded the anti-Islam post.
In the process, the perceived camaraderie between the Dalits and the Muslims came apart with the Congress caught in an unenviable situation of being an ally of both the perpetrator and the victim – a rare occurrence which the BJP will now use to the hilt across Karnataka.
For the BJP, the division between the Dalits and Muslims is a chance to prise open the traditional bonhomie between the two. In Karnataka, if one examines the electoral record of the BJP, there has never been a situation when the party has won any Assembly election comfortably, say winning upwards of 113 seats which is the halfway mark.
In 2008, the BJP fell short by three seats and had to cobble up government with the help of Independents and later consolidated its hold using the “Operation Lotus” route.
In 2018, the party again fell short of the halfway mark by nine seats that was quickly used by the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) to form a coalition government. A frustrated BJP, led by B S Yediyurappa, bided its time before toppling the coalition through subterfuge in July 2019.
The reason for the BJP’s inability to win big in Karnataka is the fact that it has never been able to attract the votes of the Muslims and Dalits, both of whom combined form a big chunk of the electorate and in more or less equal measure across all the 224 constituencies, save for some exceptions.
And, the Dalit-Muslim combine either vote for the Congress or the Janata Dal (Secular). As long as this remains, the BJP’s options in the state are perpetually limited. It is possible for the party to somehow attract the Dalits as it has done in the case of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). But the support of the majority of Muslims is a pipe-dream as the BJP is an avowedly Hindutva-driven party, both in word and action, to the exclusion of minorities.
The Dalit community too has issues with the BJP but they can be subsumed under the larger umbrella of “Hindu unity”, however superficial, and this is what the saffron party is aiming for. The DJ Halli violence started on the night of August 11 and ended sometime in the early hours of August 12. But the damage caused, the countrywide attention it attracted and the Congress’s discomfiture are ingredients which the BJP will milk to the maximum, politically.
As for the Congress party, it has been caught napping and unless it quickly moves to minimise any possibility of the crack among its allies deepening, the Grand Old Party may be left to rue the violence and its political aftermath.