The hijab ban and several other controversies in Karnataka state have compromised Bengaluru's status as India's Silicon Valley.
“Pack your bags and move to Hyderabad,” Kalvakuntla Taraka Rama Rao wrote on Twitter in response to a Bengaluru-based entrepreneur who complained about the Indian city's crumbling infrastructure.
Rao, the information technology minister for Telangana state, where Hyderabad is located, was making a larger point that did not go unnoticed.
Though long favoured for its moderate climate and cosmopolitan character, many fear that Bengaluru — with its cherry blossom-lined boulevards — is losing much of its sheen.
What the minister tweeted only amplified the suspicion that many nursed in private, but few dared to air in public.
Considered India’s Silicon Valley, Bengaluru serves as the capital of Karnataka state and hosts thousands of information technology companies. In fact, global tech giants such as Infosys and Wipro were founded in the city of 10 million, which accounts for more than 60 percent of the province’s revenue.
The city has always attracted the best, both in terms of investments and intellect. It currently boasts some 13,000 technology start-ups, and about 40 percent of India’s unicorns — unlisted companies valued at more than a billion dollars each.
But the rush has also meant the city is rapidly becoming unlivable. Civic amenities are proving inadequate, while traffic has virtually choked. A one-way trip to the airport during rush hour could take as long as three hours.
For many, even more suffocating is the rising religious strife that is threatening Bengaluru.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rules Karnataka and considers it to be a vital springboard for eventually expanding its footprint in the other four southern states.
Karnataka, therefore, has become a kind of a Hindu nationalism laboratory, where the BJP has been experimenting with bringing about larger Hindu consolidation through means of religious rhetoric and communal provocations.
Muslims account for no less than 12 percent of Karnataka’s population. But the BJP sees the support of the overwhelming number of Hindus as crucial for its electoral success.
For drumming up Hindu support, right-wing Hindu activists aligned with the BJP have been on overdrive to deepen the Hindu-Muslim divide and stoke hatred.
Virtually endless episodes of orchestrated indignations are ratcheting up tensions.
First, some months ago, Hindu mobs took exception to Muslim girls wearing hijab — the Muslim headscarf — while attending schools. The hijab, they claimed, went against India’s secular principles and also violated the school dress code.
The state high court upheld the ban. But then the mobs picked up one more issue to become outraged over. And then another.
Activists seeking to establish Hindutva, or the primacy of Hindus, have launched an angry, abusive campaign against Halal — the process that certifies products, including meat, as being compliant with Islamic practices.
At the receiving end are mostly Muslim meat traders. Several in Bengaluru have had their shops raided and vandalised.
The mobs are having a virtually free run, with the Karnataka government headed by chief minister Basavaraj Bommai paying only lip service to the cause of religious peace and harmony.
Many say the government itself has been complicit in instilling the fear of a tightening siege among the minorities.
Last year, it banned the trade and slaughter of cows traditionally associated with Muslims. The government is now working to include the Hindu holy book Bhagavad Gita in the school curriculum.
All these and more have emboldened supporters of Hindutva, who have now moved on to their next targets.
Muslim traders have been physically barred from setting up shops in temple fairs, something that they have done for generations. Muslim mango sellers are the newest targets of the Hindutva mob, who have now reportedly set their sights on “cleansing” the fruit trade.
The rising “hatred” disturbs the calm and tranquillity that are essential for businesses to prosper, and captains of the corporate world are alarmed.
Kiran Majumdar Shaw, the chairperson of Biocon — a leading biotechnology firm — was among the first to speak out.
“Karnataka has always forged inclusive economic development and we must not allow such communal exclusion…@BSBommai please resolve this growing religious divide,” she tweeted a couple of days ago, tagging the chief minister.
Being a very important voice, BJP politicians promptly responded and assured her that no damage would be allowed to the state’s business environment.
But it is unlikely that the damage already done to the dignity and right to livelihood of Karnataka’s Muslims can be repaired.
It will also be equally difficult to repair the dent in Bengaluru’s reputation.
The city’s loss, Telangana minister Rama Rao calculates, will be beneficial to Hyderabad.
Home to mega defence and aerospace industries, Telangana’s state capital has assiduously nursed its ambitions of replacing Bengaluru as India’s IT hub.
Now that chinks have surfaced in Bengaluru’s armour, Hyderabad — or more appropriately, its IT minister — has moved in for the kill.
In luring entrepreneurs, like the one who complained over “unlivable” Bengaluru, to move to Hyderabad, Rama Rao is offering several incentives.
“We have better physical infrastructure & equally good social infrastructure. Our airport is one of the best and getting in and out of the city is a breeze. More importantly, our government’s focus is on the 3-I Mantra: innovation, infrastructure & inclusive growth,” Rama Rao said in his tweet.
His sales pitch for Hyderabad elicited a strong response from a senior opposition politician of Karnataka. “My friend, I accept your challenge,” tweeted Doddalahalli Kempegowda Shivakumar, the state Congress president.
“By the end of 2023, with the Congress back in power in Karnataka, we will restore the glory of Bengaluru as India’s best city,” he added.
Ironically, Karnataka’s own information technology minister seemed unfazed by the veritable storm over the challenge to Bengaluru’s coveted status.
“We are competing globally,” insisted Chikkakalya Narayanappa Ashwath Narayan, choosing to ignore the challenge from Hyderabad, some 550 kilometres away.
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