Ground Report: BJP faces rebel trouble as it takes on Hindutva and Congress in Puttur

Many in Puttur feel that the BJP would have won hands down if it had fielded Arun Kumar Puthila, now a rebel candidate.

ByBellie Thomas

Published May 06, 2023 | 8:00 AMUpdatedMay 06, 2023 | 8:00 AM

Shree Mahalingeshwara Temple in Puttur. (South First)

With the Karnataka Assembly elections 2023 just days away, South First is bringing you ground reports from key constituencies. This series brings you voices from the ground, the mood of the voters, and issues that matter — as well as those that don’t — as people make up their minds on who they will elect in the upcoming Assembly elections.

Anarchy blooms when the law loses its sheen.

Article 19(1)(d) of the Constitution provides every citizen the right to move freely throughout the territory of India.

However, it is not the case with Puttur, a town in Dakshina Kannada, where the citizen should be wary of his or her companion.

The Karnataka Road Transport Corporation’s terminal is bustling like any other major bus station in India. Loudspeakers blared out information on schedules. as also instructions to keep the terminal clean.

In between, an announcement said young men and women — specifically students — seen loitering together would be handed over to the police.

The corporation staff justified the announcement. They do not want any incidents of violence or moral policing in the terminal. This is Puttur, where young adults have to go by the diktat of those with muscle power.

In December 2022, the Supreme Court stated that even policemen are not required to be involved in moral policing. Puttur, however, is an exception.

The latest incident was on Tuesday, 2 May. Four men thrashed a pre-university college (PUC) student for talking and drinking juice with a woman classmate from a different faith.

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Spirituality first

Puttur is yet to come out of the festive mood of the 10-day Brahma Rathotsava of the Puttur Shree Mahalingeshwara Temple, which concluded on 20 April. The place is still crowded.

Sri Mahalingeshwara Temple in Puttur

Shree Mahalingeshwara Temple in Puttur

“You wouldn’t get a spot to stand — forget parking your vehicle — both in the vicinity of the town and in and around the 14-acre Puttur Shree Mahalingeshwara Temple,” Jagannath, a police head constable attached to the Puttur Town police station, told South First.

Jagannath and three of his colleagues have been deployed for overseeing the security of the temple and the devotees.

Jagannath is not performing his duties at the temple for the first time. This is his 18th year. He said more than a of lakh devotees throng the temple, and this time there was an increase of 20,000. He was quoting the temple authorities.

The Shree Mahalingeshwara Temple is a 12th-century structure and Lord Shiva — locally known as the Puttur Mahalingeshwara — is the principal deity.

The late underworld don Muthappa Rai even donated a Brahma Ratha (Temple Chariot) to the Puttur temple in 2010. The chariot is 71-foot tall, and 20-foot wide, and weighs almost 35 tonnes. It has a parking slot close to the temple.

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Lingering smell of blood

Opposite the bus stand, a poster put up by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) offered a bounty of ₹5 lakh to anyone who would provide credible information on Mohammad Mustafa alias Mustafa Paichar.

Puttur at a glance. (South First)

Puttur at a glance. (South First)

A resident of Bellare village in Sullia taluka, Paichar, a member of the banned PFI, is wanted in the Praveen Nettaru murder case.

The poster also promised to keep the informer’s details confidential.

Paichar is one among five absconding suspects in the Nettaru murder case. Three murders — two of them were Muslims, and one Hindu — had rocked Puttur last year.

One of the accused is an SDPI candidate for the 10 May Assembly polls.

Despite the bloodshed over faith, Puttur town has a spiritual aura, thanks to the just concluded Brahma Rathotsava.

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The Puthila factor

Vehicles on the poll campaign trail are mostly focusing on the interiors, avoiding the town. The candidates seem to have gauged the pulse of the electorate in the town.

Arun Kumar Puthila (third from left). Facebook

Arun Kumar Puthila (third from left). Facebook

Ashok Kumar Rai from the Congress, Asha Thimmappa Gowda from the BJP, Divya Prabha from the JD(S), Ismail Shafi Bellare of the SDPI, and BK Vishnu Kumar from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), are in the fray.

Voters are of the view that SDPI fielded Shafi to prove that he was into social service and not involved in crime. He would not get any votes here, they said.

However, Arun Kumar Puthila, who was an aspirant for a BJP ticket in Puttur, turned rebel after the party’s high command nominated Asha. The saffron party is of the view that with Asha, they could garner the Gowda votes.

Puthila, an active RSS member, is now an independent candidate. He claimed to be still an active member of the BJP and wanted to strengthen the party in Puttur.

He has 28 criminal cases against him, all related to communal issues. Puthila’s poll symbol is a cricket bat.

However, Puthila seems to be the most popular leader in the town. “He had made himself available and accessible for his followers and supporters every time they needed him,” a shopkeeper, who requested anonymity, said.

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Show of strength

A week after the Brahma Rathotsava, Puthlia held a massive roadshow in Puttur town.

“There was a river of people, who took to the streets in support of Puthila through the town. The rally was a befitting reply to the BJP for denying him a ticket,” he added.

Puttur’s electorate numbers 2,12,753, with 1,04,918 male voters and 1,07,832 women. In 2018, Sanjeeva Matandoor of the BJP defeated Shakuntala Shetty of the Congress by a margin of 19,477 votes.

Not all are impressed with Puthlia’s show of strength. A local BJP mandal president, Ashok Shenoy, was visibly miffed. “We are against the Congress, and we want the BJP to win,” he told South First.

Shenoy’s words reflected the BJP’s apprehension over Puthlia’s candidature.

Ashok, a tailor, felt that the BJP would have won hands down if it had fielded Puthila.

K Achuta Prabhu, a businessman and an RSS worker in Puttur, wants the BJP to win. However, he did not expect Asha as the candidate.

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Asha disappoints many

“Asha Thimmappa is from Sullia, and her husband Thimmappa Gowda’s house is in Kadaba, and she stays there. How can she come and attend to the problems or issues here in Puttur,” Prabhu wondered.

An employee of Prabhu seconded his employer. “For every issue, the first person to arrive would be Puthila. Even after Praveen Nettaru’s murder, the incumbent MLA Sanjeeva Matandoor came only after Puthila had visited Nettaru’s family.

The employee, who did not want to be named, also said that Puthila would get around 20,000 to 25,000 votes, but Asha might win since she is the BJP’s official candidate.

“The Congress’ Ashok Kumar Rai has also been working hard and he would win around 40,000 votes,” he told South First.

Congress’s Rai has been doing his footwork well in Puttur, according to residents, and would easily secure a good share of votes since he is popular.

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Hindutva vs BJP

According to Congress sources, there were multiple ticket aspirants from the party, a couple of them being ex-MLA Shakuntala Shetty and Kavu Hanumantha Shetty.

Auto-rickshaw driver Bhaskar in Puttur

Auto-rickshaw driver Bhaskar in Puttur. (South First)

However, Rai was given a Congress ticket even though he had previously attempted to secure BJP tickets twice before switching loyalty to the Congress.

“The BJP is the major party here. Arun Kumar Puthila has the Hindutva group’s support. However, there are chances now that the Congress could get a good share of votes as Puthila is not a BJP candidate,” auto-rickshaw driver Bhaskar told South First.

“If Puthila was given a BJP ticket, the BJP would have won. Now it seems like a fight between Hindutva and BJP, which the Congress would be taking advantage of,” he added

Rai’s brother K Subramanya Rai’s house in Mysuru was raided by the I-T Department officials. It was claimed that ₹1 crore was found in a bag hidden on a treetop. However, since Subramanya Rai’s house is in Mysuru, it would not make much difference for Ashok Kumar Rai in Puttur, sources said.

According to the 2019 electoral rolls, Puttur has 2,04,524 voters who would cast their votes in 220 polling stations.

The voter turnout in was 82.47 percent in the 2018 Assembly elections. Hindus form the majority of the population (69.97%).  Muslims make up 2.35 percent, and Christians 7.32 percent of the population. Others, including Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists, make up the rest.