Netravati Nettaru: A riveting exposé of Mangaluru's fringe right | Azad Times

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Naveen Soorinje’s book contains numerous stories showcasing the unholy alliance between Hindu vigilante groups and the local police in the Mangaluru region, often resulting in brutal custodial torture of innocent minorities.

If you read political scientist Corey Robin’s much acclaimed book The Reactionary Mind, you will come away with a distinct idea of conservatism in the western world as a mercurial and shape-shifting entity. For Robin, conservatism begins as a reaction to the excesses of the French Revolution, and it has thereafter only survived by absorbing the ideas of the Left in varying measure, and ‘reacting’ to the unspeakable outrageousness and audacity of the revolutionary spirit. Conservatism has often had to reinvent itself, don various colours, and take desperate measures to realise its strong impulse to defend power and privilege against movements demanding freedom and equality. It is all part of the never-ending back-and-forth of history, where opposites seem to coincide, and things are never really what they seem to be.

If we had to survey the rise of Hindutva in India through a similarly dialectical approach, we would come to similar, often baffling, conclusions. Indeed, the Right has inevitably had to absorb the ideals of its adversaries – the BJP has been forced to address the caste question in its political organisation, and it even anointed India’s first ever Adivasi president last year. Yet, its morals and ideals remain bankrupt, only perpetuating pre-ordained caste hierarchies and religious hate. Mangaluru-based journalist Naveen Soorinje’s book of stories Netravatiyalli Nettaru (Blood on the Netravati) is a gripping documentation of how this sinister ideology has dangerously manifested itself in the Mangaluru region, and of the confounding contradictions it has spawned in its wake.

Naveen Soorinje is one of those intrepid journalists with an uncanny knack for being in the wrong place at the right time. For more than a decade now, he has been covering the rise of communal violence in the region, manufactured by infamous extreme-right organisations like the Bajrang Dal and the Sri Ram Sene. Most of the stories in his book are ones which he has directly reported on, or indirectly been a critical observer of. 

The title of the book gets its name from a harrowing incident that happened near Mangalore in 2009. Some infirm cows are being transported from a farm, in a vehicle driven by two Muslim men – Mohammad Asim and Mohammed Mustafa. As they arrive on a bridge overlooking the river Netravati, their path is blocked by a menacing group of Bajrang Dal activists teamed up with the local police. In such a case, the most the police are allowed to do is to seize the vehicle and file a case. However, the murderous tendencies of the Bajrang Dal are well-known to the two cattle-transporters, and they choose to flee instead of risking imminent torture. When the ambushers start to give chase, and the two realise that there is no escape – they jump into the river, not unlike the courageous Rajput women of yore who jumped into fires before inevitable capture. 

The book contains numerous stories such as this, showcasing the unholy alliance between Hindu vigilante groups and the local police, often resulting in brutal custodial torture of innocent minorities, and incidents such as the storming of churches, and brutal assaults on women.

The paradoxes (which aren’t really paradoxes once one realises the hollowness of the ideology that facilitates it) that Soorinje uncovers in his journalism are deeply revealing of the hypocrisy that hides behind the ruling establishment. For instance, he writes of the curious case of the City Centre Mall in Mangalore, which affords a unique freedom to its visitors. Here, young girls and women may freely wear modern clothing, and may even speak to Muslim boys without any fear. Lovers of all castes and creeds may traipse around in peace. All this for a very simple reason – the mall’s security has been outsourced to none other than the Bajrang Dal. Even a single episode of violence can lead to their contracts being cancelled, and serve as a death-knell to a substantial income. Hence this picture of peace and calm. 

Another chapter narrates the story of a man named Namdev Shenoy, an RSS man who took on the guise of a Marxist trade-unionist, infiltrated a Left-led bank union in Madurai in the 1960s, and eventually transformed it into the first unit of the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (the trade-union wing of the RSS) in Tamil Nadu. Yet another chapter points out how Muslims are not the only ones involved in the beef business, and that none of the beef exporters in the region are Muslims at all, but actually Hindus and Jains – a fact that is true across India, and very well-documented in this Caravan piece. A Bajrang Dal leader named Anil Prabhu, who had actively taken part in cow protection propaganda, was actually arrested for illegal cattle smuggling and slaughter in December 2020. What these tales demonstrate is the chameleon-like ability of Hindutva to profess one thing on the political stage, and entirely subvert it in its real-world machinations. 

Soorinje even goes to the extent of arguing that the main reason for these machinations are the land reforms of the 1970s, brought about by the Congress (under Devaraj Urs’ leadership) and the Communists who supported them. He argues that these land reforms (which were a huge success in the South Canara region) put a lot of land into the hands of lower caste tenants (such as Billavas), thereby posing a pressing question of prestige to the upper-castes. Thus, when Hindutva resurfaced in the nineties, they grabbed on to it with glee, and have since re-established their status quo. Today, the foot-soldiers of organisations like the Bajrang Dal are predominantly Billavas, who are the ones who die on the streets and languish in prisons, while the upper-caste leaders, who are mostly Bunts and Brahmins, comfortably puppeteer these vigilante actions from positions of immunity. Soorinje undoubtedly has a firm understanding of social realities in the region, having grown up as a Bunt in Mangaluru during the nineties. However, this argument is made only casually in the introduction, and lacks the deeper engagement one might expect later in the book. 

All in all, Netravatiyalli Nettaru is an eye-opening primer to the fringe-right operating in South Canara. It shows us the moral vacuum at the heart of an ideology’s crassest practitioners, and the masquerade required to hold on to power. If the cyclical nature of history is anything to go by, the hope remains that such gross designs will soon be upturned and dismantled, in favour of more egalitarian politics and values. 

Srikar Raghavan is an independent researcher and writer from Mysore. He is currently working on a book project chronicling social and literary movements in contemporary Karnataka, under the wings of the New India Foundation.

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