An election under the shadow of hatred in India’s Karnataka

The run-up to May 10 assembly polls sees a polarising campaign by the BJP in election rallies, on the streets, and on social media.

Karnataka election
Federal Home Minister Amit Shah, centre, during a road show campaign for the BJP in Bengaluru [Jagadeesh NV/EPA]

Bengaluru, India – Growing up, Muskan Khan imagined college life to be full of new adventures.

At a college near her home in Mandya – 100km (62 miles) from Bengaluru, the capital of India’s southern state of Karnataka where the 21-year-old enrolled two years back – there were a lot of talks about good education for girls.

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

“My life has turned upside down ever since,” she told Al Jazeera.

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

Instead of being cowed down by the crowd that asked her to remove her hijab amid chants of “Jai Shri Ram” (“Victory to Lord Rama”, a religious chant that has turned into a Hindu supremacist war cry), Khan kept walking. At one point, she yelled 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 move out of college and enrol in a distance-learning course.

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

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

Strategic targets

Political commentators say the right-wing BJP, under incumbent state Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai, who took up the reins from his predecessor BS Yediyurappa in July 2021, kept the communal 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 of making 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 “communal and divisive politics was on full display” at the launch of its election manifesto in Bengaluru on Monday.

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

Along with promises of a million new jobs and free cooking gas cylinders, the BJP in its vision document has promised 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 governing 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 neighbouring 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 terrorise the Muslim community by raking up controversial subjects like the UCC and the NRC during the elections. It wants to divide votes in the name of religion,” writer and translator Mohammad Azam Shahid told Al Jazeera.

The opponents of UCC say it violates a constitutional right to freedom of religion. There is also a fear the UCC would introduce a “Hinduised code” for all.

Similarly, the NRC, in the name of “detecting, disenfranchising and deporting illegal immigrants from Bangladesh” is deemed to target Muslims. “The UCC and the NRC are non-issues in Karnataka. It’s another communal ploy of the ruling party,” said Congress leader Khan.

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

India Karnataka election
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 called a “Hindutva [Hindu supremacist] laboratory” or “the Uttar Pradesh of southern India”.

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

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

Apart from the hijab ban, other laws and policies pushed by the state in the last two years include the scrapping of 4 percent reservation in government jobs and educational institutions granted to the other backward classes (OBCs) within the Muslim community in March. At least 17 socially and educationally marginalised Muslim communities in Karnataka availed of the benefits under 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 law); Karnataka Prevention of Cow Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle Act, 2021; and Karnataka Religious Structures (Protection) Act, 2021.

The passing of these laws and policies was done amid exacerbated attacks on Muslim men and boys in the name of “love jihad”, an unproven Hindu right-wing conspiracy theory that claims Muslim men wooed Hindu women to convert them to Islam. Muslims were also assaulted and even killed over allegations that they consumed beef – the latest being the brutal murder of a Muslim trader in Mandya on March 31.

There were also calls by Hindu groups in Karnataka to ban halal meat, prohibit the use of loudspeakers for adhan, the Islamic call for prayers, and stop Muslim traders from running businesses near Hindu temples.

‘Communal polarisation more visible’

The run-up to the May 10 polls has seen a virulent hate campaign by the BJP in election rallies, on the streets and on social media.

“Compared to past elections, communal polarisation is more visible in Karnataka now,” political analyst Sandeep Shastri told Al Jazeera.

Mohammed Yusuf Kanni, vice president of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind Karnataka, a social and religious organisation, said the BJP’s campaign is laced with “provocative statements and religious animosity”.

At a rally late last month, Amit Shah, the federal home minister and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s closest aide, said Karnataka will see riots if their main opponent, the Congress party, comes to power.

The Congress said Shah made the “hate speech with a clear objective of trying to create an atmosphere of communal disharmony”. The party filed complaints against Shah with the police and the election commission.

India Karnataka election
Home Minister Amit Shah at a BJP road show in Bengaluru [Jagadeesh NV/EPA]

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

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

“We brought an anti-conversion law to stop forceful conversions. Since the cow is considered to be holy by many, our party made killings of cows illegal and punishable,” said Gurumurthy.

Shastri, however, said he was not sure if the deepening religious schism would fetch electoral dividends to either the BJP or the Congress.

“First, the Muslim vote has been consolidated with the Congress in the past. Thus, there is no question of any shift. Second, the majority polarisation has already reached saturation level in Karnataka and I don’t see any shift in this regard too,” he said.

Shaima Amatullah, a hijab-wearing research scholar from Bengaluru, told Al Jazeera, “Hate politics has permeated everywhere. It has entered our private lives too.”

“The hate against Muslims in Karnataka is no more a secret. It is sad and frightening at the same time,” she said.

India Karnataka election
A Congress rally in Karnataka’s Kolar district [Jagadeesh NV/EPA]

The escalating hate politics is more evident in coastal Karnataka, “the hub of communal politics”, as Sanjal Shastri, a scholar working on the religious politics in the region, puts it.

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

“Muslims form at least 25 percent of the population and the Hindus are 64 percent. Thus, numerically Muslims, although a minority, are in a better position in coastal Karnataka. Similarly, they have financial and political resources. The whole 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 are hoping that May 10 will see a strong anti-incumbency vote against the BJP. The anti-incumbency sentiment has been strong in Karnataka, which, since 1989, has not seen a governing party get a majority, thereby forcing them to run coalition governments.

There is also a growing civic resistance against hate politics in the state. Many activists and civil society groups started a “no to hate” campaign and urged the 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 cataloguing the number of hate speeches but also approaching the authorities to curb the menace.

“Hate and diversionary tactics are the BJP’s core agenda. They want to win elections by fuelling communal divisions,” Shilpa Prasad, 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 Bahutva Karnataka’s Vinay Sreenivasa admit that fighting against hate is exhausting but they don’t want to cede the space by being mute spectators.

Source: Al Jazeera