The failure of the Karnataka authorities to stand against religious intolerance has yielded sad yet expected results

Incidents of communal violence have risen sharply in Karnataka state in recent months, and anti-Muslim sentiments are on the rise.

First there was the hijab controversy that began on 28 December 2021 when the authorities of an educational institution in Udipi, Karnataka banned six Muslim girls from entering with their hijabs (headscarves) on. Several other colleges followed suit with bans that were upheld by the Karnataka High Court on 15 March 2022.

State-sanctioned intolerance    

Ministers in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), meanwhile have not shied away from expressing their radical agenda. In February 2022 the senior BJP leader in Karnataka, K S Eshwarappa, said that a day would come when the ‘saffron’ flag (a symbol of Hindu nationalism) would become the national flag.

The livelihoods of some Muslim vendors are now under threat. In the days after Eshwarappa’s comments, right-wing Hindu groups demanded a boycott on Muslim owned businesses, encouraging Hindus to stop buying fruits from Muslim vendors and using Muslim cab and tour operators. In one incident in the city of Dharwad, in the north of the state, a Muslim vendor’s fruit cart was overthrown and the fruits destroyed.

Then, in late March 2022, these calls extended to attempts stop Muslim vendors from setting up stalls in the vicinity of Hindu temples during Hindu religious fairs. Although these annual temple fairs have historically been of a very secular nature, with people from different faiths often attending, these demands were acceded to and reports emerged of banners being put up outside temples across the state saying that Muslim vendors would not be allowed to sell there.      

The government later justified their stance by referring to a rule under the Karnataka Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowments Act, 1997, which states that non-Hindus are barred from having stores in the temple premises. However, the rule (31) of the Act only deals with long-term leases of immovable property ‘owned’ by a temple and not with short-term licences which are used to allot stalls or spaces to vendors during a festival, as was the case here.

Tensions rose further still in early April, when right-wing groups called on all Hindus in the state to boycott halal meat (meat cut in accordance with Islamic laws). In several areas, members belonging to right-wing organisations were seen distributing pamphlets calling for the boycott. According to one report, around 10 to 15 activists from the right-wing group known as Bajrang Dal assaulted a chicken shop owner in Shivamogga district demanding that he sell non-halal meat. A few hours later the same group attacked a hotelier, alleging that he was using halal meat.

Again, the BJP’s response has proven inadequate, with C T Ravi, the General Secretary of the BJP in Karnataka, reported as saying that selling halal meat was a part of an economic jihad by the Muslim community and that by doing so they wanted to ensure that business remains within their community. In addition, Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai stated that the grievances of the Hindus would be considered and acted upon.

A predictable outcome: communal violence

This inability to respond to the intolerance encouraged by Hindu nationalist groups has yielded sad yet unsurprising results. On 3 April a clash broke out between Hindus and Muslims after Hindus reportedly played songs on loudspeakers near a mosque. The clash left two Muslims injured as both the groups pelted stones at each other.

Just over a week later, on 16 April violent clashes broke out when Muslim protesters threw stones at police as they felt insufficient action had been taken against a Hindu youth who had reportedly posted pictures of a saffron flag atop a mosque. In response to the violence, the police imposed Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code, which prohibits gatherings of more than four people.

A political strategy that favours Hindus

The BJP government in Karnataka has claimed that they do not encourage anti-Muslim sentiments and that fringe elements are trying to incite communal conflict. However, CSW’s sources report that minorities feel that the decisions taken by the government seem to favour Hindus. The rising animosity among Hindus and Muslims in Karnataka, who once lived in harmony, is deeply worrying.

The state government’s failure to intervene in situations of communal violence, coupled with the implementation of rules which appear to favour the Hindu majority over Muslim and other religious minorities, is only fuelling tensions.

Karnataka is heading towards elections in 2024 and political analysts believe that the BJP is trying to keep communal tensions high until then as part of their political strategy to gain Hindu voters. So far, Karnataka has a history of electing alternative governments every term. However, the state is also seen as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS, the BJP’s ideological arm) stronghold in South India, and gaining victory here would be the first step to spreading their Hindutva ideology across the rest of the region.

By CSW’s India Desk