An election under the shadow of hatred in Karnataka, India

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By Webdesk

Bengaluru, India – Growing up, Muskan Khan imagined that student life would be full of new adventures.

At a university near her home in Mandya – 100 km from Bengaluru, the capital of India’s southern state of Karnataka where the 21-year-old enrolled two years ago – there was a lot of talk about a good education for girls.

“Students and teachers came to talk about how girls can do any job and go to any university they want, but they may never have meant Muslim girls,” said Khan, whose college life had been reduced to the poster girl of a huge row over hijab, a headscarf worn by many Muslim women in the state last year.

“Since then my life has been turned upside down,” she told Al Jazeera.

On February 8 last year, a group of Hindu men harassed Khan for wearing the hijab at the entrance of her former alma mater – the PES College of Arts, Science and Commerce.

Instead of being put off by the mob asking her to take off her hijab amidst chants of “Jai Shri Ram” (“Victory to Lord Rama”, a religious chant turned into a Hindu supremacist war cry), Khan kept walking. At one point she shouted back: “Allahu Akbar” (“Allah is great”).

More than a year after the state ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) banned the wearing of hijab in educational institutions, Khan was forced to drop out of university and enroll in distance learning.

“During the process, my daughter lost a year of education. We admitted her to Indira Gandhi National Open University. Like them, many girls have either transferred to new colleges, mostly minority-run institutions, where wearing hijab is still allowed, or have stopped their education,” Khan’s father Mohammad Hussain Khan told Al Jazeera.

Khan and her father’s pain is shared by many as Karnataka – known as an economic powerhouse and India’s main IT hub – heads to the state assembly on May 10.

Strategic goals

Political commentators say the right-wing BJP, under incumbent chief of state Basavaraj Bommai, who took the reins from his predecessor BS Yediyurappa in July 2021, kept the common pot boiling.

“The BJP has strategically targeted religious minorities, especially Muslims, through a series of incidents and laws in Karnataka. This is in line with the Saffron Party’s agenda to make India a Hindu Rashtra [nation]. It is also electorally beneficial for them, as we have seen,” Mansoor Ali Khan, general secretary of the opposition Congress party, told Al Jazeera.

Critics say the BJP’s “community and divisive politics were on full display” at the launch of its election manifesto in Bengaluru on Monday.

Elections India Karnataka
Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures to supporters during an election campaign in Bengaluru [Jagadeesh NV/EPA]

In addition to promises of one million new jobs and free cooking gas cylinders, the BJP has pledged in its vision paper to implement the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) and the controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Karnataka.

The UCC seeks to replace the personal laws, based on religious texts and customs of various Indian communities, with a common set of rules that apply to every citizen of the country.

The NRC, on the other hand, is a list of legal Indian citizens. It was first proposed in 1951 in the northeastern state of Assam, where millions of Muslim migrants and refugees, mainly from neighboring Bangladesh, faced revocation of their citizenship and threat of being declared “illegal”.

Muslim groups and politicians say the two proposals in Karnataka — and eventually across the Hindu-majority country — directly target the minority community.

“The BJP wants to terrorize the Muslim community by raising controversial issues like the UCC and NRC during the elections. It wants to distribute votes in the name of religion,” writer and translator Mohammad Azam Shahid told Al Jazeera.

UCC’s opponents say it violates a constitutional right to freedom of religion. There are also fears that the DWU would introduce a “Hindu code” for everyone.

Likewise, in the name of “tracking down, depriving and deporting illegal immigrants from Bangladesh”, the NRC is supposed to target Muslims. “The UCC and NRC are non-issues in Karnataka. It’s another common ploy by the ruling party,” Khan said.

Muslims make up about 13 percent of Karnataka’s population of 60 million.

Elections India Karnataka
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi addresses a rally in Karnataka’s Kolar district [Jagadeesh NV/EPA]

‘Hindutva laboratory’ in the south

The state of Karnataka is often referred to as a “Hindutva”. [Hindu supremacist] laboratory’ or ‘South India’s Uttar Pradesh’.

The comparison to the northern state is made against the background of a series of anti-Islamic laws and policies, as well as numerous incidents of rights violations and attacks reported in the state in recent years.

Of the five South Indian states, the BJP has so far managed to form a government only in Karnataka, the first time in 2007 under the leadership of Yediyurappa, a politician from the Lingayat community, the state’s largest caste group. 17 percent of the population. its population.

Aside from the ban on the hijab, other laws and policies passed by the state over the past two years include the elimination of 4 percent reservations in government jobs and educational institutions granted in March to the other underserved classes (OBCs) within the Muslim community. At least 17 socially and educationally marginalized Muslim communities in Karnataka availed themselves of the benefits of the quota system.

The other laws recently passed by the BJP government include the Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Act, 2022 (also known as the Anti-Conversion Act); Karnataka Prevention of Cow Slaughter and Livestock Conservation Act, 2021; and Karnataka Religious Structures (Protection) Act, 2021.

The passing of these laws and policies came amid intensified attacks on Muslim men and boys in the name of “love jihad,” an unproven right-wing Hindu conspiracy theory that claims Muslim men courted Hindu women to convert them to Islam. Muslims were also attacked and even killed over allegations that they ate beef – the most recent being the brutal murder of a Muslim trader in Mandya on March 31.

There were also calls from Hindu groups in Karnataka to ban halal meat, ban the use of loudspeakers for adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, and prevent Muslim traders from doing business near Hindu temples.

‘Communal polarization more visible’

Leading up to the May 10 polls, there was a fierce BJP hate campaign at election rallies, on the streets and on social media.

“Compared to previous elections, the polarization between the communities is now more visible in Karnataka,” political analyst Sandeep Shastri told Al Jazeera.

Mohammed Yusuf Kanni, vice-president of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind Karnataka, a social and religious organization, said the BJP’s campaign was peppered with “provocative statements and religious hostility”.

At a meeting late last month, Amit Shah, the federal interior minister and close associate of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, said Karnataka will see riots if their main opponent, the Congress party, comes to power.

Congress said Shah issued the “hate speech” with a clear goal of creating an atmosphere of communal disharmony. The party filed complaints against Shah with the police and the Election Commission.

Elections India Karnataka
Home Minister Amit Shah at a BJP roadshow in Bengaluru [Jagadeesh NV/EPA]

The BJP denies allegations of pursuing religious politics for electoral gain.

BJP spokesman Anand Gurumurthy defended the hijab ban, saying it was meant to unite students regardless of caste and religion. “We don’t want anyone to be visibly religious in educational institutions. Actually, we are not in common,” he told Al Jazeera.

“We introduced an anti-conversion law to stop violent conversions. Since the cow is considered sacred by many, our party has made the killing of cows illegal and punishable,” said Gurumurthy.

However, Shastri said he was unsure whether the deepening religious schism would bring electoral dividends to the BJP or the Congress.

“First, the Muslim vote has historically been consolidated with Congress. So there is no question of a shift. Secondly, majority polarization has already reached saturation level in Karnataka and I do not see any shift in this regard either,” he said.

Shaima Amatullah, a hijab-wearing research scientist from Bengaluru, told Al Jazeera: “Hate politics has permeated everywhere. It has also invaded our private lives.”

“The hatred of Muslims in Karnataka is no longer a secret. It’s sad and frightening at the same time,” she says.

Elections India Karnataka
A congress meeting in the Kolar district of Karnataka [Jagadeesh NV/EPA]

The escalating hate politics is more apparent in the coastal region of Karnataka, “the hub of municipal politics,” as Sanjal Shastri, a scholar who deals with the region’s religious politics, puts it.

Shastri says the demographic profile in the coastal region is different from the rest of Karnataka.

“Muslims make up at least 25 percent of the population and Hindus 64 percent. So, numerically Muslims, though a minority, are in a better position in coastal Karnataka. Likewise, they have financial and political resources. The entire business in the region is divided among the Konkanis, Bunts and Muslim communities. So Muslims are assertive about their identity,” he said.

Many in Karnataka hope that there will be a strong anti-incumbency vote against the BJP on May 10. Anti-incumbency sentiment has been strong in Karnataka, where no governing party has won a majority since 1989, forcing them to head coalition governments.

There is also a growing social backlash against hate politics in the state. Many activists and civil society groups started a “no to hate” campaign, urging political parties to focus on real issues such as education and health.

A collective called Hate Speech Beda, or Campaign Against Hate Speech, is not only charting the number of hate speech, but is also approaching authorities to curb the threat.

“Hate and diversionary tactics are the core agenda of the BJP. They want to win elections by fomenting divisions among the communities,” Shilpa Prasad, a lawyer and member of Hate Speech Beda, told Al Jazeera.

Similarly, Bahutva Karnataka, another group, is running a campaign asking citizens to vote against hate and discrimination.

Both Prasad and Sreenivasa admit that fighting hate is exhausting, but they don’t want to give up space by being stupid spectators.

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