Ground report: Saffron flag or the Tricolour? How polarisation unfurled in Mandya ahead of Lok Sabha polls

The issue began when a member of Gowrishankar Trust hoisted a religious flag, while having permission only for the national or state flag.

ByBellie Thomas

Published Jan 31, 2024 | 10:00 AMUpdated Jan 31, 2024 | 10:00 AM

Ground report: Saffron flag or the Tricolour? How polarisation unfurled in Mandya ahead of Lok Sabha polls

The Indian national flag, the Tricolour, was fluttering atop a newly constructed 108-feet flag post in Keragodu village of Mandya when South First visited on Monday, 29 January. The shiny new high-mast flagpole is visible from every corner of the village.

Dozens of feet below the Tricolour, a photo of Hindu God Rama and a triangular saffron flag on a wooden stick is tied, as if in a mark of protest, to the flagpole that is now surrounded by police barricades. Villagers had shut down businesses in a “voluntary bandh” on Monday, protesting against police for replacing the saffron flag with the national flag a day earlier.

The flag post, contradictory to claims, is not on temple land but across the road from an old Hanuman temple. The land belongs to the government but the flag post, the villagers proudly claim, was built using funds they pooled together.

In the last week, this flag post has been used to hoist a saffron flag with Hanuman’s image and the Indian national flag, alternatively, several times. While everyone knows who hoisted the national flag, nobody seems to know who hoisted the saffron flag with a religious chant of “Jai Shri Ram”, especially since it was hoisted in violation of rules.

A flagpole that has unfurled polarisation

This newly installed high-mast flagpole in Keragodu of Mandya district has turned into the epicentre of communal turmoil, just in time for Lok Sabha elections 2024. This village is now divided between a saffron flag and the national flag. A visit to the village reveals a tale of mobilisation for the assertion of “Hindu identity”, subversion of mandate to break rules and eventual outburst of public outcry against the administration aided by half-truths and polarisation.

Saffron (Kesari) bunts adorned the Mandya-Gubbi Main Road, featuring flags depicting Lord Rama and Hanuman. These vibrant displays lined the main road, creating an unmissable welcome for commuters passing through Keragodu.

The village boasts of three heritage temples: The main Anjaneya (Hanuman) temple, the Basaveshwara temple, and the Vigneshwara temple. The latter two temples stand 100 feet apart on opposite sides of the road. The Gowrishankar Trust has been actively conducting religious programmes relating to all three deities of the village.

The flagpole in Keragodu, featuring a motorised flag hoister and lowerer is a sight to behold for the locals. Trust member Byre Gowda told South First, “One has to attach the flag to a frame and just press a switch, and the flag gets hoisted. There is another switch to lower it.”

Another Trust associate Shankare Gowda told South First that the flagpole was funded entirely by the villagers, who collected a total of ₹3.6 lakh, “Even daily-wage labourers contributed whatever they could to make it happen. There was absolutely no help, financially, from the village panchayat or the government for the installation of the flagpole.”

Also Read: BJP and JD(S) lead state-wide protests; VHP, Bajrang Dal, Shri Rama Sena extend support

Permission sought, granted, and violated

Prior to the high-mast flagpole, there used to be a smaller iron flagpole.

Mangala Gowramma, a resident of Keragodu, told South First, “There would be frequent bhajans and pujas at the Anjaneya temple on Saturdays and we used to hoist the Hanuman flag on that small flagpole during Hanuma Jayanthi. We associate ourselves very closely with the Anjaneya temple, which is believed to be centuries old in Keragodu.”

Mangala Gowramma showing the permission letter she sought from the Panchayat

Mangala Gowramma showing the permission letter she sought from the Panchayat. (South First)

Gowramma was just returning from the “padayatra” protest towards the District Collector’s office. “There is not even a single Ram temple in the entire Keragodu village. There is only this auspicious Anjaneya temple, which is the villagers’ favourite. We have been observing and celebrating all Hanuman festivities for the past 40 years. As the Ram Mandir was being built in Ayodhya, we thought that we would conduct a 48-day ritual starting from 22 January — the day of its consecration — and continue with bhajans and pujas at the Anjaneya temple,” she said.

Despite permission obtained from the village Mandal Panchayat for the Hanuman flag, Gowramma said that authorities unexpectedly replaced it with the Tricolour after Republic Day, leading to accusations of disrespecting the national flag.

“We observe two national holidays — Independence Day and Republic Day — by hoisting the Tricolour, and also Karnataka Rajyotsava by hoisting the Karnataka flag. We hoist the Hanuman flag during some occasions,” she said.

Gowramma questioned the timing of hoisting the flag at 3 pm and the failure to lower it after sunset, deeming it an insult to the national flag.

Also Read: Mandya flag row: Panchayat officer suspended as BJP-JDS jointly take on Karnataka government

Who hoisted the saffron flag?

Undertaking by Gowrishankar trust members.

Undertaking by Gowrishankar Trust members. (Supplied)

Meanwhile, Keragodu Mandal Panchayat President Naveen Kumar TS told South First that the new flagpole was installed by Gowrishankar Trust members and villagers, and was inaugurated on the evening of 20 January.

The trust sought permission from the panchayat on 29 December, 2023, after giving a written undertaking that they would hoist only the national and state flag on the newly-installed flagpole.

An undertaking dated 17 January, signed by seven members of the Gowrishankar Trust, assuring that no norms will be violated and taking responsibility for ensuring no unsavoury incidents take place, is also with the panchayat.

However, “someone” hoisted a Hanuman flag on the same night of the inauguration against regulations.

“Since the Hanuman flag was already hoisted and the Ram Mandir consecration in Ayodhya was the next day (22 January), we did not want to rake up any controversy and immediately called for a ‘Santhane Sabhe’ — a mediation meeting with all the Gram Panchayat members and the villagers,” Kumar said.

He added that a majority of villagers wanted the Hanuman flag to remain hoisted at that time, and only a couple of panchayat members objected to it, stating that if the panchayat gives permission for a religious flag this time, then other religious organisations might approach and seek permission to hoist their flag during some occasions.

The politics of a flagpole

A former Panchayat member, KL Krishna, told South First that the village of Keragodu is a JD(S)-dominated area. It was evident from the buzzing junction with tall hoardings and banners of JD(S) leader HD Kumaraswamy, his son Nikhil Kumaraswamy, along with local party leaders.

“A group of JD(S) and BJP workers, joined by Bajrang Dal activists, went around the village and collected around 1,000 petitions demanding that the panchayat grant permission for the Hanuman flag to be left hoisted until such time that the Anjaneya rituals are concluded,” Krishna said.

While on the ground, South First spotted a few Congress youth workers who had come wearing saffron shawls. They asserted that they were for Hindutva and hence, their presence there. They noted that though it is a JD(S)-dominated area, it looked like the BJP and the Bajrang Dal workers had already hijacked the JD(S)’ supporters.

When the petitions reached the village panchayat, they called for a general Gram Sabha meeting on 25 January between the villagers, comprising mostly of the Gowrishankar Trust members, and the opposing panchayat members who wanted to follow the norms and rules.

The panchayat decided that the villagers would observe “status quo” until the conclusion of the meeting as it was Republic Day the next day.

The panchayat members finally drew up the violations committed by the trust members for having hoisted a religious flag without permission. They immediately annulled the permission granted to the trust and directed them to lower the Hanuman flag and hoist the national flag.

However, the Hanuman flag continued to soar in the Keragodu skies and panchayat president Naveen Kumar maintained that he was unable to lower the religious flag — fearing for his life.

He, subsequently, brought the matter to the notice of higher officials, including the Executive Officer (EO), the Panchayat Development Officer (PDO), and the Taluk Panchayat Officer (TPO), who granted Kumar three days’ time to set right the issue.

Meanwhile, on the morning of Republic Day, the Gowrishankar Trust members, associates, and a few villagers brought down the Hanuman flag and hoisted the Tricolour with a decorated photograph of Mahatma Gandhi placed beneath the flagpole.

However, on the same evening, a member of the trust lowered the Tricolour and again hoisted the Hanuman flag.

This development was brought to the notice of the panchayat president, who inquired with the Gowrishankar Trust regarding who hoisted the Hanuman flag. The trust members maintained that they did not know who was responsible.

Also Read: ‘Conspiracy to incite riots,’ says CM Siddaramaiah as BJP stages protests over Karnataka Hanuman flag controversy

The drama that followed

Though the Gowrishankar Trust members and associates played a pivotal role in installation of the high-mast pole in the village, they told authorities that they did not know who hoisted the Hanuman flag on the evening of 20 January and again on the evening of 26 January.

Gram Panchayat President Naveen Kumar brought this matter to the knowledge of his EO, along with other panchayat officials from the district administration, and also informed the Superintendent of Police (SP) about the law and order situation.

On Saturday, 27 January, all the panchayat officials from the district administration, along with police security personnel, visited the flagpole spot and conducted discussions with the Gowrishankar Trust members, associates, villagers, and the panchayat members headed by Naveen Kumar. The authorities explained to the villagers that the norms of the panchayat should not be violated.

However, by then, messages had spread on WhatsApp that authorities had come to take down the Hanuman flag. A huge crowd gathered to protest against the panchayat officials. Since it was a sensitive matter, the officials attempted to explain to the villagers about the permissions and the norms of such a flagpole being installed on public land.

However, the villagers, by then, were joined by hundreds of others from surrounding areas such as Pandavapura, Basaraalu, Besagarahalli, Maddur, Mallavalli, Allegere, and Bilidhegalu at Keragodu mobilised by WhatsApp messages. Since the crowd grew exponentially, the authorities chose not to lower the Hanuman flag on Saturday but informed them that the Tricolour would be hoisted on Sunday.

On Sunday morning, around 10.30 am, around eight battalions of Karnataka State Reserve Police (KSRP) — headed by a Deputy Superintendent of Police rank officer — were deployed for maintaining law and order in the village. The district administration officials arrived at the flagpole to lower the religious flag and hoist the Tricolour.

They were once again opposed by villagers, who this time resisted along with a large number of women folk from the village and surroundings areas in the front of the flagpole. Allegations of administration and government being “anti-Hindu” flew thick and fast.

When the villagers refused to move away, the police resorted to lathi-charge, and the protesting women were taken into preventive custody. Three people were injured in the lathi-charge and they were taken to the hospital, administered first-aid, and sent home. The authorities lowered the Hanuman flag, hoisted the Tricolour, and barricaded the flagpole.

They further imposed Section 144 (curfew) in the village.

It was after this incident that BJP leaders like Ashwath Narayan, Leader of the Opposition in Legislative Assembly R Ashoka, and others visited the village and inquired into the matter. Ashoka slammed the ruling Congress for its “anti-Hindu” stand.

Also Read: Karnataka: School bus and tractor collide in Jamkhandi killing 4 children, injuring 22 others

The fiery protest

As a response to the state government’s actions and the highhandedness of the police, on Monday, thousands of villagers were mobilised by the BJP and Bajrang Dal, who gathered initially at the Kaalikamba temple off the old Mandya-Mysuru highway, which is around 5 km from the Mandya District Collector’s office.

There were trucks loaded with high-decibel speakers and generator sets, and smaller vehicles following these trucks, distributing water bottles to the people who were participating in the padayatra to the DC’s office. It was a display of brash religious fervour with saffron flags bearing both Lord Rama’s and Hanuman’s pictures, songs of Bajrang Dal — a rather rare sight in Vokkaliga-dominated Mandya town.

Along with Bajrang Dal’s music blaring and the crowd going berserk while dancing on the road, it was a spectacle for the general public, who were clearly entertained.

Hundreds of Hanuman flags were distributed by the organisers of the protest to the general public.

By the time they reached the Mandya DC’s office, the entire government office was dotted with saffron flags. Leaders heading the rally continued with their speeches after which a memorandum was handed over to the Deputy Commissioner to allow the villagers to hoist the Hanuman flag on the flagpole.

They also stated that the ruling Congress government was attempting to incite communal violence by lowering the Hanuman flag.

Local politics

On its way ti the DC’s office, the rally briefly stopped at a junction where hoardings and banners of Congress MLA Ravikumar Gowda alias Ganiga Ravi were put up. He won the last Assembly elections by a thin margin of 2,019 votes against the JD(S) candidate BR Ramachandra who contested from the Mandya Assembly constituency.

The crowd started pelting stones, water bottles, and slippers at his banners. The police immediately resorted to lathi-charge and took control of the situation. They insisted that the rally keep on moving. Banners and hoardings placed along the entire stretch of highway running through Mandya town were torn and even set ablaze by agitators.

A few youth activists of the Bajrang Dal, who spoke to South First, said that the flagpole was built by a group of Trust members in Keragodu who are loyal to former prime minister and JD(S) leader Deva Gowda, HD Kumaraswamy, and his family.

As JD(S) contestant Ramachandra had lost the recent elections by a thin margin against Ganiga Ravi, the latter was not invited for the inauguration of the newly-constructed flagpole. They claimed that, for this reason, Ganiga Ravi settled scores by having the district administration intervene in the matter.

Mandya SP N Yathish told South First that there are a total of three cases registered in connection with the flagpole row.

“We have registered a case under Section 353 (assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of his duty) of the Indian Penal Code against the villagers in Keragodu on 28 January. On 29 January, when the protest rally was taken up, we registered another case under Section 353 against unknown persons for pelting stones, at Mandya East Police Station. We have taken up another case of damage to public property at Mandya West Police Station,” SP Yathish said, adding that no one has been arrested so far.