The dry months ahead of the monsoons mark the season of temple fairs and chariot festivals in Karnataka, attracting huge crowds that offer an opportunity for small traders, cutting across caste and community lines. However, this year, Hindutva groups have lent a communal colour to the festivities by forcing the local administration and temple committees to bar Muslim shopkeepers from putting up stalls at these events.
During the Kote Marikamba Jatre in Shivamogga in southern Karnataka, which began on March 22, leaders of Vishwa Hindu Parishat (VHP) and Bajrang Dal succeeded in ensuring that Muslims did not put up shops. Every year, a number of Muslims would not only do small trade but also offer harake (fulfilment of a vow) to the deity. This year, Hindutva leaders allegedly threatened the person who had been awarded the tender to manage stalls, demanding that Muslims should not be allowed to set up stalls. Given the coercion, the person eventually gave up the tender and the festival organizing committee handed over the responsibility to the VHP and Bajrang Dal leaders themselves.
On similar lines, the managing committee of Hosa Marigudi Temple at Kaup in Udupi district too did not allow Muslim traders to put up stalls during the annual “Suggi Mari Pooje” from March 22.
According to Ramesh Hegde, president of the committee, Hindutva organisations had appealed to the committee against allowing Muslims to participate in the auction of stalls allegedly to “counter” the move of Muslim traders who shut down in protest against the Karnataka High Court verdict on hijabs in schools. Later the committee took a decision on the ban “to prevent any law and order issues,” he said.
Members of Hindutwa groups have raised similar demands in several other places in Karnataka. The Government has not stepped in to stop this trend, but cited rules framed in 2002 to justify the demand. Speaking in the Assembly, Minister for Law and Parliamentary Affairs J.C. Madhuswamy cited Rule 31 (12) of Karnataka Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowments Rules, 2002, that bar non-Hindus from participating in auction of stalls during jatres.
Indeed, the demand by Hindutva groups is not altogether new, at least in coastal Karnataka. The Mahalingeshwara Temple at Puttur in Dakshina Kannada has been allowing only Hindus to put up their stalls during its annual fair since 2014, citing the same rules. This temple hit the headlines in 2016 due to a controversy over its managing committee printing the name of the then Deputy Commissioner of Dakshina Kannada, A. B. Ibrahim, in the invitation card for the annual jatra. After a public interest litigation petition was filed before the Karnataka High Court questioning it, the court directed the government to reprint the card, omitting his name. The government admitted that printing the DC’s name was against Karnataka Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowment Act, 1974.
As the demand for disallowing Muslim traders in temple fairs spreads, what is at stake is not only communal harmony but also business and livelihoods of small traders.
A juice maker Harish (name changed) who has been putting up his stall in the annual jatra in Kaup for several years said the fair had not been held for the last two years due to COVID-19 restrictions and the response this year was poor. “Earlier over 400 stalls used to come up for the fair. This year it was reduced to about 150-200,” he said.
Official bans aside, the threat of violence is all too real. Mangaluru Divisional Secretary of the VHP Sharan Pumpwell went on record at a press meet in Mangaluru on March 23 to say that if any non-Hindus were found trading in the vicinity of temples, VHP and the Bajrang Dal activists would not hesitate to take the law into their hands.
Dugganna Sawant, hereditary trustee of the Bappanadu Durgaparameshwari temple in Mulky, Dakshina Kannada, said the temple had permitted nearly 50 Muslim traders to put up their stalls in the temple area during the on-going annual fair. But the traders had not set up shop fearing violence.
Escalating their demands, Hindutwa leaders like Pramod Mutalik, Sri Ram Sene founder, have called on the government to vacate Muslim vendors from all temple premises. This has left many traders seriously worried. Sheikh Suban, whose family runs a shop selling fruits and pooja materials at the Saundatti Yallamma temple in Belagavi district, asked, “What will we do if we are driven out of the shops tomorrow? My brother and I have two shops here. They were set up 50 years ago by my grandfather.”
Meanwhile, the All India Lawyers’ Association for Justice (AILAJ) has questioned the constitutionality of the rule cited to enforce such bans. “The said rules are delegated under the Karnataka Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowments Act, 1997, which deals with immovable property belonging to, or given, or endowed to the institution. Thus it cannot at all be said to govern public property through which jatras or processions pass,” AILAJ said in a statement.
Moreover, it said the Supreme Court had in 2020 stayed a similar provision in the Andhra Pradesh Charitable and Hindu Religious Institutions and Endowments Immovable Properties and Other Rights (other than Agricultural Lands) Leases and Licenses Rules, 2003, prohibiting non-Hindus in participation of tender-cum-auction process of shops or otherwise to obtain lease or license to carry on business in immovable property belonging to temples.
(With inputs from Mangaluru, Hassan and Belagavi)