The far-right Bharatiya Janata Party and its Hindutva ideology are becoming more deeply entrenched in the country’s south, with sinister consequences for Muslims and other minorities.
Gauri Lankesh was a feisty journalist who wrote acerbic pieces against religious hatred, bigotry and social inequalities. Her words stung those at the receiving end of her criticism, and a plot was hatched to silence her.
In one of the pieces she penned years before being shot dead by assailants suspected to be affiliated with a right-wing Hindu group in 2017, Lankesh lamented the rapidly deteriorating communal situation in her home state of Karnataka.
“Karnataka is unfortunately and irreversibly hurtling towards its new position as the Gujarat of the South,” she concluded, writing on what she felt was the systematic targeting of minority groups – particularly Muslims – for the purpose of establishing the dominance of majority Hindus in the state.
The comparison she drew with Gujarat had unmistakable political overtones. Gujarat, once ruled by Narendra Modi before he became the Indian prime minister, had witnessed blood-curdling anti-Muslim riots in 2002. It led to hundreds of deaths and left Modi facing accusations of deliberate indifference from critics like Lankesh.
No matter the political nature of the parallel drawn – and despite the fact that Modi was never found guilty in a court of law – many now find what Lankesh wrote more than a decade ago prophetic.
Though famous for several things – including its temperate climate, abundant natural resources and above all, its regional capital Bengaluru, touted as India’s Silicon Valley for hosting IT giants – the southern state is hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Right now, it’s the indecent assault on the hijab or headscarves worn by Muslim women and girls that has pitchforked the province into global notoriety.
It started in December 2021, with six girls being mysteriously stopped from entering their government-run school one day. The girls protested and stood outside the school gate for several weeks.
Then, the Karnataka government, run by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), entered the scene, formally banning the girls from attending classes on the grounds that the hijab was not part of the school uniform.
Right-wing groups rallied in support of the government. They mobilised students – both boys and girls – across the state who then marched to their respective schools, sporting saffron caps and scarves identified with Hindu religion.
The whataboutery had the desired result. The government banned those wearing the saffron scarves too, giving the impression that they were being even-handed and that all students had to abide by the school uniform.
Tempers rose, and students came dangerously close to a face-off before all schools in the state were hastily shut. But the administrative intervention followed what seemed to be only unabashed instigation by those in power in the state.
The state’s chief minister Basavaraj Bommai made all the politically correct statements, insisting that none would be allowed to disrupt law and order.
Other ministers, however, gave away whose side they were on. One questioned the need to wear a hijab, while another said wearing one amounted to school indiscipline.
The closure of schools helped matters cool down. While the right to wear the hijab has always been a matter of debate in India, Karnataka high court judges are now deliberating whether it should be allowed in schools.
But the present reprieve seems only temporary, mainly because the state has been a communal cauldron for a long time. Already, several schools – citing an interim court observation – are forcing girls to take off their hijab while entering. Those who refuse to comply are being turned back.
The orchestrated “campaign” against the hijab also shows early signs of starting in other states, such as BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh, where some schools are also demanding that girls stop coming with a hijab.
Right-wing groups spurred by their desire to establish Hindu nationalism have been active in Karnataka for decades, particularly since the 1990s, when the movement to build a temple where the now-demolished Babri mosque stood gave the Hindutva campaign a tremendous boost.
The BJP has been piggy-backing on the right-wing groups. Ideologically aligned, they worked in tandem, and both aimed to benefit by communalising Karnataka, where Muslims accounted for no less than 12 percent of the population.
The polarisation has resulted in the consolidation of Hindu votes, and the BJP has gained undoubtedly. Once seen as a party of north India where people predominantly spoke Hindi, it has gained more than a toehold in southern India with different languages and cultures.
The party is in power in Karnataka and is looking to make inroads into other southern states such as Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
But minorities have been bearing the brunt of its aggressive – some say regressive – Hindutva. Even Hindus who disagree with Hindutva have had to pay a heavy price.
Some two years before Lankesh was gunned down, scholar MM Kalburgi was killed in his hometown of Dharwad in the state. He was killed because his demand for his Lingayat sect to be considered a separate religion was seen as anti-Hindu.
Women were beaten up, and their faces blackened by right-wing goons for daring to visit pubs in the city of Mangaluru in 2008.
This periodic violence has now grown more frequent, with the BJP government in the state contributing in no small measure to deepening the wedge between religious communities.
Beef eating is associated with Muslims, and the Karnataka government has brought in laws prohibiting slaughter and trade in cattle in recent months. It is in the process of legislating against religious conversions, including interfaith marriages, ostensibly to stem so-called Love Jihad – a term used by radical Hindus to accuse Muslim men of converting Hindu women by marriage.
Right-wing vigilantes have possibly never had it this good in the state. So much so, that when they recently threatened to disrupt a church congregation, the police asked the church management to cancel the programme instead of reining in the mob.
The public was outraged, and the police roundly criticised. But what mattered most was that the mob was never chastised. They remain as emboldened as ever in Karnataka, a state which many say has evolved as Hindutva’s laboratory.
Whether Karnataka is another Gujarat or not, it does not change the facts on the ground.
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