The ‘Othering’ of Muslims in Karnataka: Is this the last page of our history?

The divide is slow but steady, with minorities perpetually living in the shadow of violence, dislocation, displacement, and the “fear of the other."
Members of right wing group Bajrang Dal holding a rally.
Members of right wing group Bajrang Dal holding a rally.
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For the first time in post-colonial history, Karnataka which is otherwise known as a ‘tolerant state’ or ‘progressive state’ is losing its sheen to communal politics. Communalism, both as an ideology and as politics, has become an everyday phenomenon, even as it is entering the dishes of the dining table and the kitchen. The days of treating communalism as largely an urban, metropolitan or even cosmopolitan phenomenon are gone. The days of discussing communalism as an aberration, or as a cultural phenomenon are gone. The day is not too far when we see even the drinking water divided into "Muslim water" and "Hindu water" as it happened during the colonial period in Punjab or the North-Western region. The divide is slow but steady, with minorities perpetually living under the shadow of violence, dislocation, displacement, and the “fear of the other."

All this is happening amid history's amnesia. Karnataka never witnessed the partition — neither did it witness its severity, nor the historical memories. For a large number of Kannadigas, unlike north Indians, partition was a textual point of reference and also a textual narrative, rather than an experience. There was no Saadat Manto or Amrita Pritam or even Urvashi Butalia to document the experience of partition for Kannadigas. What Karnataka had was a bunch of rationalist writers beginning with Pampa, Ranna, Kuvempu, Ananthamurthy, PT Narasimhachar, Gorur Ramaswamy Iyengar, Nisar Ahmed, Devanooru Mahadeva and others, who unquestionably constructed Kannada identity as a romantic vision than a communal one. Alur Venkata Rao's Karnataka Gatha Vaibhava was the earliest text (1912) that gave Hindu colour to Kannada history. This tradition, even though continued by Chidananda Murthy and others during the post-independence period, did not succeed.

Strong social movements, be it the Dalit movement of the 1970s, the farmers movement of the 1980s, anti-beauty pageant movement in the 1990s, anti-globalisation movement during the post-1990s, added to the vibrant secular, rational political landscape. One cannot forget the non–Brahmin movement of the 1920s, which converted old Mysore into a role model for accommodating hundreds of subaltern castes into the political structure. Its influence is still felt, albeit to different degrees, in contemporary politics. It is true that unlike north India, Karnataka never witnessed the pillage of religious places, or forcible conversion, albeit with some exceptions in its history. Rather, Karnataka witnessed dialogue between two dominant cultures — which is reflected in the Dasa tradition as well as Sufi tradition — even as it created a mass of fuzzy communities with borderline religions.

In north Karnataka, it was difficult to demarcate the line between one religion and another. Shishunala Sharif, Baba Budan, etc represented such a blend. Even Bappa Beary, known for constructing the Durga Parameshwari temple at Mulki, wherein Muslim merchants were denied the right to do business during a temple festival in recent days, is another example. There are reports of Hindus constructing mosques in history. In Karnataka, Babu Setty had constructed a stone mosque in Sidlaghatta of Mandya district in 1537 AD. This mosque was called the Kalla Masithiya Devasthana (Temple of stone Mosque). There is another story about the King of Penukonda converting a temple into a mosque for the sake of Sufi saint Baba Fakrudin, and constructing a dargah or shrine after his death. In another story, the emperor of Vijayanagara Devaraya II constructed a mosque for the Muslim soldiers of his army inside his fort. There are stories that Muslim Spirits or Bhootas, Bobbarya and Chamundi, became worshipped spirits of backward classes or castes in the coastal belt. This belt has now turned into a laboratory of Hindutva politics. All this, over the years, strengthened the secular fabric as well as protected Karnataka from falling into the trap of communal politics and also the Hindutva agenda.

It is a paradox that in the present context, the fringe elements of Hindutva are the ones setting the agenda or calling the shots rather than the political party in power: the agenda that Hindu majoritarianism has come to stay forever to dictate terms to minorities. This is a shift from the victimhood syndrome that earlier Hindutva created, to the triumphalism of majoritarianism. This shift is discernible even in other narratives: that the Hindus are no more chicken-hearted, every Hindu has become a masculine character, Hindu agenda is the only one agenda that the state should address...Hindu cultural life — whether it is vegetarian food, jatka meat, etc should be the dominant culture. Any reference to other cultural practices such as Salam Arathi, a pooja offered every day in the name of Tipu Sultan in two temples in Karnataka, or any reference to Tipu as "Tiger of Mysore'' in school textbooks, even the participation of Muslims in temple festivals, is anathema to the very identity of Hindus.

Interestingly, Hindutva is hard pressed to focus on its pet topic of nationalism or even referring to Pakistan. This does not mean that both are dead subjects. Both are alive, but they were prominently used during the time of the election. Although the election is not far away, the current trend is "othering the minorities." But this is not happening at lightning speed when compared to, say Uttar Pradesh.

This is why Hindutva is sequentially inventing new narratives and issues, followed by new cultural icons. Here lies some sort of defeatism as well. For example, in the matter of halal meat, azaan and kesari jihad, the defeatism is quite obvious, as the matter received far less reaction than expected. Tipu is now re-invented, other than the stereotype argument about mass conversion, as the destroyer of the temple in Srirangapatna which he purportedly converted into a mosque, in his capital city in Mysore. Even the colour green is being invented as an identity marker of Muslims — this is why the convocation dress code of a University came under severe contestation.

The other side of the invention is outside the realm of minorities. The birth place of Hanuman is invented around the areas of the Vijayanagar Empire, a symbol of Hindu pride. Suddenly a Kashmir ruler, who is completely unconnected to the history of Karnataka, is being invented for textbooks. Now, kesari jihad or saffron jihad is being invented against love jihad. Sadly, there is neither backlash nor the requisite support for its larger project. There is deep silence of the minorities on the issue of azaan, halal meat, trading etc, although they reacted by observing bandh immediately after the verdict on hijab.

The othering of Muslims is not complete, even though Muslims have been excluded from doing business, their shops have been destroyed, they were prevented from selling halal meat, their cultural practices have been condemned, they have been abused as ‘rapists’ or as perverted people etc. This is the second time that the whole community has undergone such trauma of social exclusion — earlier during COVID, the same vendors were attacked, socially and economically boycotted, and even prevented from accessing medical facilities. In this midst, the transformation of Karnataka into a Hindutva state is not complete. It is a fact that the historical factors, such as the existence of syncretism, fuzzy communities, absence of partition and the memories of medieval history, have come in the way of completing this project.

Paradoxically, the rhetoric of the Hindu state is slowly gaining currency in the everyday discourses and practices. Hopefully, this is not the end of history.

Prof Muzaffar Assadi is a Professor of Political Science, Dean, Faculty of Arts at the University of Mysore. Views expressed here are the author’s own.

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