For young cadres of the Left parties in Belthangady town in south Karnataka, the ‚Äúrevolution‚ÄĚ was here and now. There was defiance in the air on the rainy afternoon of 25 October as nearly 40,000 people from every nook and corner of Dakshina Kannada district came together to demand justice for a 17-year-old girl who had been brutally raped and murdered on 9 October last year. The local newspapers had initially reported the death as suicide. In the people‚Äôs eyes, the needle of suspicion pointed at the family-owned temple complex and trust of Dharmasthala, run by a larger-than- life figure, Veerendra Heggade, who has been left to defend the sanctity of the place as well as the innocence of his nephew Nischal Jain.
With three temples, a Basadi (Jain shrine) and a massive statue of Bahubali (son of a Jain Tirthankara), Dharmasthala is a place of worship for Jains as well as Hindus of all castes. Eight hundred years ago, the Pergade Jain family is said to have laid the foundations of this confluence of Hindu gods and Jain Tirthankaras. The temple complex includes a shrine of Annappa Swamy, a deity of justice. ‚ÄúThis made the temple a court for settling village disputes with ‚Äėdivine justice‚Äô,‚ÄĚ says Surendra Rao, a professor of history at Mangalore University.
As the Dharmadhikari or Kavandha (lordship) of Dharmasthala, Veerendra Heggade enjoys the patronage of most political parties and is seemingly more powerful than any government authority in Belthangady. As a direct descendant of the Pergade family, a 20-year-old Heggade became the 21st Dharmadhikari of Dharmasthala in 1968. Over the years, he opened a slew of educational institutions and earned the approval of the Kannadiga intelligentsia as a leading promoter of literature and the arts. The Dharmasthala trust‚Äôs wealth and the ‚Äúdivine powers‚ÄĚ of the temple helped Heggade make friends with people in high places. Heggade is also revered as the ‚ÄúWalking God‚ÄĚ, having built a reputation as an interlocutor between the deities and the devotees.
Today, Belthangady town on the slopes of the Western Ghats is witnessing an interesting phenomenon: the coming together of the Right, the Left and the avowedly apolitical, to demand justice for Jyoti (name changed), the girl who was raped and murdered last October. They have been brought together by a common perception of having suffered at the hands of the ‚ÄúWalking God‚ÄĚ and the hope that he can now be made to answer for the alleged transgressions of his family members. In several places across the taluk, which has a population of around 3 lakh, one can see posters urging people to ‚Äúfight slavery‚ÄĚ.
But, even as the locals were being mobilised to take on Heggade, prominent leaders from across the political spectrum, except the CPM, came out in his support. They include the state‚Äôs Urban Development Minister Vinay Kumar Sorake, former Union minister and former Congress general secretary Janardhana Poojary, Fisheries Minister Abhay Chandra Jain and Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee spokesperson BL Shankar, besides several leaders of the BJP and the BS Yeddyurappa-led Karnataka Janata Paksha. In fact, Sorake declared in public that the Congress will not allow anyone to ‚Äúdefame‚ÄĚ the Heggade family.
So what explains the people‚Äôs rage against the ‚ÄúWalking God‚ÄĚ? In the aftermath of the 16 December gangrape and murder of a young woman in New Delhi, there were protests across the country over rising crimes against women. In the backdrop of a murky history of several unexplained deaths of women in the Belthangady region, the Jyoti rape and murder case became the focal point around which the people‚Äôs outrage found expression. A local NGO, Nararika Seva Trust (NST), had accessed certain documents, through an RTI application, which revealed that over the past decade, there had been 452 ‚Äúunnatural deaths‚ÄĚ, including that of 96 women, in Dharmasthala and the neighbouring small town of Ujire. Bodies of nearly 40 of these women had been found in different lodges in the area ‚ÄĒ some of which are run by the Dharmasthala trust ‚ÄĒ and the cases disposed of as ‚Äúunidentified‚ÄĚ. In several other instances, the bodies had been found on the shores of the Netravati river that flows through the taluk.
Shockingly, most of these cases pertaining to death under mysterious circumstances were abandoned at the initial stages without proper investigation. In fact, Veerendra Heggade himself acknowledged this at a press conference he had convened to furnish proof of Nischal‚Äôs innocence. Questioned on the shoddy investigation into several deaths at some of the guest houses owned by his trust, a shaken Heggade demanded a CBI probe to bring out the truth. (Following the widespread protests, the state government, on 6 November, decided to hand over the case to the CBI.)
‚ÄúThis is a religious place and many people come here to live their last moments. We label some bodies as unidentified because we are never sure if the names in the guest house records are real,‚ÄĚ says an officer at the Belthangady police station, requesting anonymity.
However, the suspicious circumstances of Jyoti‚Äôs rape and murder have led to an unprecedented outrage that threatens to engulf the Dharmasthala trust. On the afternoon of 9 October 2012, it was raining heavily when Jyoti, a student of SDM College, Ujire, run by Veerendra Heggade, got down from her bus at a stop near the Netravati river. After chatting with her uncle Vittala, who runs an eatery near the bus stop, she started walking towards her house located just 500 m away. That was the last time anyone saw her. ‚ÄúShe was to visit a tailor‚Äôs shop on the way, but she never made it there. We searched for her until late in the night. We found her body in the morning at a spot that we had already searched,‚ÄĚ says Vittala.
Jyoti‚Äôs body was found in the forests near her house along with her college bag. Her hands were tied to a tree with her shawl. To conceal evidence of rape, the perpetrators had filled her vagina with mud. They had also broken her neck. Vittala noticed that the books in her bag were dry despite the heavy downpour through the night, and her umbrella was missing. Also missing were her underpants, which would have given the police crucial forensic evidence. Curiously, when a police team visited Jyoti‚Äôs house a few days later, they took a bunch of her underpants with them. Vittala suspects one of these was introduced as evidence to mislead the court.