Rising Communal Divisions Threaten Religious Harmony in Karnataka, India

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For centuries, the Bappanadu Sri Durgaparameshwari temple in Karnataka, India, stood as a symbol of the country’s cohesive religious past. Built by a Muslim merchant, Bappa Beary, with land donated by a local Jain ruler, the temple’s unique origins were celebrated, and its annual festivals attracted people from various religious backgrounds. However, in recent years, communal tensions have escalated, leading to a breakdown in the religious harmony that once characterized the region.

Last year, trouble began when right-wing Hindu vigilante group Bajrang Dal approached Dugganna Sawantha, a member of the temple committee and a direct descendant of the Jain king who donated the temple land. Bajrang Dal issued a warning, demanding that no Muslims be allowed to participate in the temple’s festivities. This ban quickly spread to other nearby temples, enforced by government officials from the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The impact on the Muslim vendors who relied on these festivals for their livelihood has been devastating.

Karnataka, unlike most states in South India, has experienced a rise in Hindu nationalist politics. The BJP’s influence has been strong in the region since the 1980s, and in 2018, the party formed the most right-wing government in the state’s history. Under the BJP’s rule, policies and actions that marginalized the Muslim population were implemented. The hijab was effectively banned in government schools and exams, an “anti-conversion” law was passed based on the unproven “love jihad” conspiracy theory, textbooks were rewritten to remove references to Islamic leaders, and economic boycotts of Muslims were endorsed. Furthermore, vigilante groups associated with the BJP were accused of carrying out acts of violence against Muslims, sometimes in collaboration with the police.

As Karnataka goes to the polls, the BJP is seeking re-election, and communal tensions are at the forefront of the campaign. The opposition Congress party has pledged to ban Bajrang Dal, describing it as a terrorist organization. In response, Bajrang Dal has mobilized its members to support the BJP, emphasizing the party’s protection of cows and volunteers.

The BJP’s manifesto for the state election includes policies that many fear will further marginalize the Muslim population. The state government recently revoked a 4% reservation for economically deprived Muslims, who are among the poorest communities in the state. In addition, the issue of the hijab has caused significant tensions, with some institutions interpreting a government order as a ban on wearing it. Thousands of Muslim girls have faced obstacles in accessing education, with some being forcibly asked to remove their headscarves.

The escalating communal divisions and threat to religious harmony in Karnataka are deeply concerning. The erosion of the inclusive and diverse fabric of Indian society undermines the values of unity and coexistence that have been integral to the country’s identity. It is crucial for political leaders and society as a whole to prioritize dialogue, tolerance, and respect for religious diversity in order to rebuild trust, bridge divides, and safeguard the rights and well-being of all communities.