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.
The National Highway 66 connecting Kanniyakumari with Mumbai has many a tale to tell. One among them is the story of two brothers who took the same highway from Bhatkal to infamy.
The residents of Bhatkal, once a nondescript coastal town in Uttara Kannada, are not particularly fond of the brothers, Riyaz and Yasin Bhatkal, who co-founded the Indian Mujahideen.
They have disowned the siblings, who made India frown upon Bhatkal.
The highway passes through Kumta, Honnavar and Murudeshwar to Bhatkal. The toll roads have reasonably good traffic. Police barricades in Bhatkal rural slow down the vehicles speeding on a summer afternoon.
Eateries on either side of the roads display their menus, a mix of Konkan and Arabian delicacies. Several shops downed shutters as the call of the muezzin wafted through the thin air, calling the faithful for the Zuhr.
The smell of hydrogen sulfide from the bitumen laid a day ago envelops the town. The road down south goes to Old Bhatkal Town. The town does not have a bus terminal. It was shifted to the highway in 2019.
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Bhatkal has come a long way from being a communally sensitive town in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Sporadic communal tensions have, however, left an indelible mark on its heart.
Brothers Raju and Vinu have an optical store in Bhatkal. The latter recalled the earlier days of communal riots that used to throw life out of gear.
“We were prepared to down the shutters, lock the shop, and rush to our house nearby anytime. We had taken the house on rent near our shop so that we could quickly get to safety,” Vinu recalled.
Communal violence was rampant earlier, he said. “People would engage in mob violence, pelting stones, setting fire to tyres — this used to happen now and then and the police would impose a curfew,” he said.
We had to close our shops, which affected the business. However, the situation has improved now. There has not been even a single incident in the recent past, despite it being an election year,” Vinu explained.
Was the road re-laid as part of the election? “No,” Raju chuckled. “It was the NHAI who carried out the work, not the MLA.”
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The BJP has fielded the incumbent MLA Sunil Biliya Naik for the 10 May Assembly poll. He is taking on Mankal Subba Vaidya of the Congress, and Nagendra Naik, a senior Karnataka High Court advocate, of the JD(S).
In 2018, Naik defeated Vaidya, then the sitting MLA, by a margin of 5,930 votes. The Bhatkal Assembly constituency falls under the Uttara Kannada Lok Sabha constituency.
A premier socio-political organisation in Bhatkal, the Majlis-e-Islah Wa Tanzeem, has a large say among the Muslim community in Bhatkal which is about 33%.
Tanzeem, which elected its new office bearers in November last, will announce its preferred candidate after the prayers on 5 May, the Friday before the date of polling.
Sources in Bhatkal said that since no Muslim candidates are contesting the elections, the Tanzeem will either support the Congress or the JD(S).
However, in 2018, Tanzeem supported both the Congress and BJP since its office bearers were divided on supporting a single candidate.
A Tanzeem functionary told South First that the organisation has not yet decided on whom to support.
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Bhatkal falls under the general category. It has a population of around 1.62 lakh (according to 2011 census). Men comprise 49.9 percent of the population, and women, 50.1 percent.
As per the 2011 census, total the population of Bhatkal was 1,61,576, where 80,753 are male and 80,823 are female. At present, there are 2,12,646 voters, where 1,08,412 are male and 1,04,177 are female. Of this, 64 percent are Hindus, 33 percent Muslims, and 2.05 percent Christians. While the Hindus predominantly are Naiks, the Muslims include Nawaits, Daikinis, and Bearys.
“People are unhappy with the present BJP MLA and the previous Congress MLA. They are looking for a change, and they might favour Nagendra Naik,” industrialist and contractor Raghavendra Adiga told South First.
“Of course, there is a fight among the three parties and I hope that the non-corrupt candidate will win,” he added.
“For the past 25 years, Bhatkal has been a communally sensitive area, but that does not mean that we cannot live together. It is up to the ruling party or the MLA to unite the people,” he further said.
“A Hindutva or leftist mindset will not work here. We have to bring the people together, only then we would get a peaceful Bhatkal, and that is what we all Bhatkalis look forward to,” he added.
Adiga said Bhatkal is not witnessing large-scale communal violence now. However, there have been minor skirmishes.
“People now know that politicians are creating such clashes. A person with a Bhatkal as his address in his passport or with the surname Bhatkal would be verified multiple times,” he lamented.
Manjunath, a private company employee, felt the BJP would win without any difficulty. “We have seen several Hindu temples in ruins. The BJP government renovated temples and historical places and they are taking good care of them,” he said.
Adiga opined that the fight will be tough with around 1.8 lakh registered voters and 70 to 75 percent polling.
“If we look at the BJP, Congress, and JD(S), they have a certain percentage of sure votes. The BJP and Congress might have 25,000 sure voters each. The JD(S) and others will have another 25,000 definite votes. But we have another one lakh voters who will decide the fate of the candidates on the day of polling,” Adiga said.
He, however, said JD(S)’s Naik would be a better person to represent Bhatkal in the Assembly. “Nagendra Naik is much more qualified than others. But the BJP and Congress are national parties, and it will give their candidates some advantage,” he stated.
Santhosh, a goods vehicle driver, played it safe. “Either the BJP or Congress will win. Both candidates are good. But I think BJP will have an edge over others,” he said,
Auto-rickshaw driver Nagaraj felt the Congress might have a chance if it gets Tanzeem’s support.
Naseer, another auto-driver opined that Tanzeem should not support both the BJP and Congress like it did last time.
“There is a chance for the Congress to win. I am not sure about the margin, but Tanzeem should not support both parties this time. If Tanzeem supports both, then the BJP has a chance,” he said.