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Trouble at the Temple: Ban on Muslims a Sign of India’s New Intolerance

Different faiths were once able to celebrate together in Karnataka. Now Hindu vigilante groups are targeting those who don’t share their beliefs

For 800 years, Bappanadu Sri Durgaparameshwari temple had stood as a symbol of India’s cohesive religious past. It is said that the Hindu temple, which sits on the bank of the Shambhavi River in India’s southern state of Karnataka, was built by a Muslim merchant, Bappa Beary, after a goddess came to him in a dream. The land to build the temple was donated by a local Jain ruler.

Over the centuries, its unique origins were regularly honoured and the annual festivals, celebrations and buffalo races that took place at Bappanadu temple were attended by Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Jains alike.

“There was always this harmony,” said Dugganna Sawantha, a member of the temple committee and direct descendent of the Jain king who donated the temple land. “But last year, that’s when the troubles began.”

Dugganna Sawantha, the hereditary trustee of the Bappanadu Sri Durgaparameshwari temple
Dugganna Sawantha, the hereditary trustee of the Bappanadu Sri Durgaparameshwari temple, at his house in Mulki, Karnataka. He is the direct descendant of the Jain king who donated the land to build the temple. Photograph: Shaikh Azizur Rahman/The Guardian

Days before the annual 23-day festival was due to begin last April, Sawantha was approached by Bajrang Dal, a rightwing Hindu vigilante group that is active across the state, often targeting Muslims. It issued him a warning: no Muslims were to be allowed to set up stalls at the festival or take part in celebrations.

Bappanadu was not the only temple identified. Bajrang Dal members began to hang banners up in nearby towns and the city of Mangalore reading “no permission for those who are against the constitution and those who kill cattle”. Then, Karnataka’s chief minister, Basavaraj Bommai, from the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), issued a statement supporting the ban.

The ban then spread to other nearby temples, as BJP government officials began enforcing it. For the hundreds of Muslims who relied on selling their wares on the temple festival circuit, it was devastating. Umar, 52, who sells cosmetics, used to make about £1,500 a year from his stall – but now he barely makes £50.

“We are desperate, our traditional business is dying and I’m not making enough to survive,” he said.

While most states in India’s south have been largely unaffected by the Hindu nationalist politics that now dominate north and west India, Karnataka has long been the exception; though communal divisions have not taken root across the whole state, they are highly prevalent along the 200-mile-long coastal belt. The BJP has had political influence in the state since the 1980s.

Since 2014, the BJP has ruled India’s central government, led by Narendra Modi, the prime minister. But it was in 2018 that the party returned to power in Karnataka, beckoning in the most rightwing government in the state’s history. This week, as the state goes to the polls, the party is seeking re-election.

Under the BJP, a de facto ban was imposed on the wearing of the hijab in government schools, colleges and in exams, an “anti-conversion” law was passed in response to the unproven “love jihad” conspiracy theory that Muslim men are luring Hindu women for marriage in order to convert them to Islam and school textbooks were rewritten to remove references to Islamic leaders. Economic boycotts of Muslims were endorsed by ministers and a bill banning halal meat was also proposed.

The government has also been accused by activists and political opponents of giving groups such as Bajrang Dal a free rein to carry out vigilante acts of violence, including lynchings of Muslims – often in collusion with police. Last month a Muslim cattle trader in Karnataka’s Ramanagara district was murdered by a group allegedly led by a local Bajrang Dal activist.

As part of its manifesto in the state election, the opposition Congress party pledged to ban Bajrang Dal, casting it as a terrorist organisation. In response, Bajrang Dal, which claims to have a presence in 2,000 villages across the state, has come out fighting for the BJP in the election.

Sharan Pumpwell, the Karnataka state secretary of Vishwa Hindu Parishad
Sharan Pumpwell, the Karnataka state secretary of Vishwa Hindu Parishad, outside his office in Mangalore, Karnataka. Photograph: Shaikh Azizur Rahman/The Guardian

Sharan Pumpwell, the state secretary for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad militant organisation, of which Bajrang Dal is the youth wing, said: “I personally gave a call to Bajrang Dal members across Karnataka to come out on the streets and conduct door-to-door campaigns against the Congress party. We have to make the BJP victorious to protect cows and protect our volunteers. The BJP has withdrawn many cases that had been filed against our people.”

Pumpwell denied any allegations of illegal activity. “We only work in the interest of our religion and our country,” he said.

The BJP is fighting for re-election in Karnataka with policies on its manifesto that many fear are further attempts to marginalise the Muslim population, who make up about 13% of the state. Weeks before the polls, the state government scrapped a 4% reservation allocated to the state’s economically deprived Muslims, who are among the poorest community in the state.

In the city of Udupi, meanwhile, tensions over the wearing of the hijab began in December 2021, when a government college issued a ban on Muslim girls wearing headscarves, declaring it against the school’s uniform policy.

Muslim students protested and the issue was taken up by the BJP and rightwing religious groups. One local BJP representative said girls who wanted to wear the hijab in schools should “go to Pakistan”, while the state chief, Nalin Kumar Kateel, said the “talibanisation of classrooms” would not be allowed. In February 2022, a government order declared that restriction on the hijab was not in violation of the freedom of religion, which was then upheld by the Karnataka high court.

Though the order was not an outright ban, it was widely interpreted as such by many institutions in the state. Many Muslim girls found themselves prevented from entering classrooms or from taking exams if they did not remove their headscarves and some had teachers or police try to forcibly remove their headscarves at school gates. According to a submission made to the supreme court, which has taken up the matter, 17,000 girls did not sit their exams after the order, and thousands are thought to have dropped out of education altogether.

One 24-year-old law student was in the final semester of her law degree when the court made its ruling. “I never thought it would ever affect our college, there was always a secular and friendly atmosphere,” she said, requesting anonymity for fear of harassment. “But after the court passed the order, our college summoned all 40 girls who wear a hijab to the auditorium and asked us to make a choice if we wanted to continue attending classes.”

Like many others, she refused to remove her hijab and was banned from attending classes, missing out on the final lessons of her degree.

Another student, who also requested anonymity, dropped out of her law degree altogether and accused the government of depriving Muslim girls of their right to education. “The hijab is an important part of who I am, it’s a choice I make. I shouldn’t be forced to remove it,” she said.

Tejasvi Surya, a popular BJP MP from the state, denied the policy discriminated against Muslims even though no other religion has been affected by the new rules. “The BJP stand was not anti hijab, it was pro-uniform in a school institution,” he said.

Source : The Guardian