The mysterious death of 19-year-old Paresh Mesta has become a rallying point for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which is trying to grow in communally sensitive coastal Karnataka, even though Mesta, who was from a family of fishermen, himself had no known affiliation with any ideology.
Mesta was found dead on 8 December, two days after he went missing in Honnavara in Uttara Kannada. The BJP claimed he was tortured by ‘jihadi’ elements and that the government had turned a blind eye towards attacks on Hindus. In an unprecedented move, the state police on 11 December released a detailed response by a forensic science laboratory which stated that there was no evidence to suggest Mesta was tortured.
With its eyes on next year’s assembly election, the BJP has demanded a probe by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) into the death of Mesta.
Though coastal Karnataka does not wield the same influence over state politics as other larger regions—north and south Karnataka—analysts say it has become a battleground where the Congress is trying to break the grip of right-wing ideologies.
Narendar Pani, political analyst and professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) says this is an area where the BJP will transcend caste politics to retain its ideological influence over the region which has supported the Congress in assembly elections but voted for BJP in the general elections.
Uttara Kannada, Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Chikmagalur account for 24 of Karnataka’s 224 assembly seats. Of this, the Congress won 14 and the BJP five in the 2013 assembly election.
However, the BJP won all three parliamentary constituencies of the four districts in 2014. There are 28 parliamentary constituencies in the state.
“As divisive forces attempt to disrupt our social harmony, let us come together to safeguard the very idea of Karnataka. The government and the people of the state will not tolerate any attempt to tamper with our secular, inclusive heritage,” Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah said on 14 December and asked secular forces to unite and defeat communal forces.
His statements came after several BJP leaders made allegations that Mesta was tortured and killed by Islamist extremists.
This year’s clashes in coastal Karnataka started with the killing of Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) leader Ashraf Kalayi on 21 June. Then came the attack on Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) worker Sharath Madivala in early July, increasing tensions and leading to further ghettoization of communities.
Recent speeches by BJP leaders like Anant Kumar Hegde and Shobha Karandlaje have only served to raise the pitch in the region where tensions have prevailed since the riots that followed after the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992.
According to People’ Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), a human rights advocacy group, clashes between communities peak just before elections.
The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) at the centre also made Hegde—known for his controversial remarks against Muslims—a Union minister in September. Analysts say that this was to give more representation to such leaders and the coastal Karnataka region.
Pani says there is a following for Hegde’s “violent kind of politics” in the region—and that the BJP is looking beyond caste equations in these districts.
Harish Ramaswamy, political analyst and professor at Karnatak University, Dharwad, said since colonial times, Hindus were not dominant in the region, and some have tried to gain traction by stoking communal sentiments. Many Christians and Muslims in the region who left to work in the Gulf countries in the early 1990s have since returned wealthier, investing into the region and gaining influence. “Suddenly, the Hindus have realized that they want their share and their political space is possible only when there is polarization,” Ramaswamy says.