Udupi, Kapu, Mulki, Mangaluru: Since he was a child, Rihan*, has lived all his life in the town of Mulki, along the Shambhavi river and Karnataka’s lush coast, known for the ancient diversity of its people and religions and its more recent status as a premier Indian surfing destination.
A small-time trader, Rihan is 34, and he has lived that diversity, a Muslim with friends of all religions, and whose life has been intricately linked to a local 800-year-old shrine, the Bappanadu temple and its annual fair, which attracts not just Hindus but Muslim and Christian devotees.
The Bappanadu temple fair is one of the most popular in what the locals call Tulunadu, where Tulu is the predominant language, separated into the districts of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi. The Bappanadu temple is officially called the Durga Parameshwari temple, built in the 13th century by Bappa Beary, a Muslim sailor and merchant whose boat ran aground in the Shambhavi river.
Bappa Beary is said to have had a vision in which Durga, the multi-armed goddess, instructed him to build an abode for her. Dugganna Sawant, a Jain and the king, provided land for the temple, and for eight centuries people of all faiths have flocked to the shrine, offering jasmine to the goddess.
The goddesses’ prasada, or devotional food offering, is delivered to Beary’s descendants to this day. The temple priests delivered the prasada to the Beary family this year as well.
Rihan and his three brothers always made their jasmine offering and never missed the Bappanadu fair, a colourful event with giant wheels, carousels and hundreds of stalls selling flowers, coconuts, snacks, clothes, toys and imitation jewellery.
“Not one fair has passed when we did not get Devi’s jasmine and prasada (offering) home,” said Rihan, who requested that we not use his real name. “All three of us brothers grew up actively participating in the temple fair. This was our fair.”
But as the fair began on 24 March 2022, a Thursday as always, Rihan did not go. “This is the first time I did not feel like going,” he said. “How could I?”
Rihan was hurt by two things: a call by local Hindu fundamentalists to stop Muslims from running stalls and making it clear they were not welcome; and the silence of friends and families that he had grown up with.
His feelings revealed how a 1,200-year-old shared identity was suddenly in danger. This shared culture had largely surviving the Hindu and Muslim radicalisation evident over the last three decades in a region with a literacy rate over 90% and where 11 of 12 (Dakshina Kannada district and Udupi combined) members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) are from India’s Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The head of the Bappanadu temple committee and the king’s descendant, also called Dugganna Sawant, said the link with Muslims has remained over the centuries: in another event called Bhrahmakalasha, Muslims are part of the festivities and serve on the jeernodhara or renovation committee. “Here, harmony has lived on,” said Sawant.
Except, this year, despite an invitation from Sawant and his Hindu colleagues, fearing the threats from fundamentalists and hurt by the absence of support for them, the Muslims did not come.
“Everyone was silent,” said Rihan, visibly disturbed. “It felt like we weren’t welcome there any more.”
‘The Hindu Is Awakened’: The Govt Steps Aside
The Kannada posters that came up before the Mulki fair made it clear that Muslims were no longer welcome. “Neither will we do business with or allow any trade with bigots who don’t respect the law of the land,” said a poster in Mulki. “The Hindu is awakened now.”
Over the next seven days, similar posters appeared near tens of Hindu temples all over the state across eight districts: Udupi, Dakshina Kannada, Chikmagalur, Shimoga , Tumkur, Hassan and Bengaluru urban, many using the argument that Muslims should not have shops in a temple area.
That contention, swiftly endorsed by the BJP government of chief minister Basavaraj Bommai was a misinterpretation—a deliberate one, said some—of an obscure 2002 law that states non-Hindus should not be allowed to lease property within and near temples.
In any case, said legal experts, the chief minister is sworn to uphold the Constitution. Standing by while the temple-fair bans take effect is a “clear violation of Article 15(1) and Article 15(2)”, said Arvind Narrain, a law researcher, author and founding member of Bengaluru’s Alternative Law Forum (ALF), a legal advocacy group.
Article 15 (1) says: “The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them”. Article 15 (2) elaborates on that point to forbid any “disability, liability, restriction or condition” with regard to access to “shops, restaurants, hotels” and more.
“The state government does not have a legal leg to stand on, nor a constitutional leg," said Narrain.
“Once the chief minister of Karnataka said the rules allow for keeping Muslims out (of temple fairs), it became government sanction,” said a senior police officer in Mangaluru—a seaside town of 700,000, 400 km west of state capital Bengaluru—speaking on condition of anonymity.
Hindu-fundamentalist organisations enforced an economic boycott of a few thousand Muslim traders at more than 60 temple fairs in Udupi and Karnataka over 20 days in March 2022, according to Mohammed Arif, a spokesperson of the Udupi Street Vendors’ and Traders' Association.
The Mulki poster’s reference to “bigots who don’t respect the law” was linked to a 17 March shutdown announced in many Muslims areas statewide to protest a 15 March verdict by the Karnataka high court upholding a state government order earlier that month banning the hijab, or head covering, for female Muslim students in government colleges with uniforms.
The Mulki poster did not use the fig leaf of the law and did not attract any attention from the police, who have in the past routinely invoke criminal provisions relating to promoting disharmony or enmity between communities in reaction to posters or speech with provocative intent.
Rapid Escalation: From Hijabs To Temple Fairs To Meat
Emboldened by the high court’s hijab verdict, and once it was apparent that the government supported them over keeping Muslims out of temple fairs—an act previously held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court (here and here) Hindu fundamentalist groups on 28 March demanded a ban on halal meat, alleging “economic jihad”.
On 30 March, Bommai said his government would “look into” demands made by his party’s national general secretary C T Ravi that shops selling halal meat should be boycotted. Ravi alleged that the practice of halal, a method of slaughtering animals by draining the blood, as per Islamic practice, was “economic jihad” against Hindus.
With calls for boycotts of Muslim escalating, Arif took a multicultural delegation of Muslims and some Hindus and Christians, to Udupi’s powerful seer, Vishwaprasanna Theertha, in the hope that a “reconciliation” could be arranged with Hindu fundamentalist groups. The seer was intransigent, echoing the stand of most extremists.
“Peace cannot be maintained only by one community,” said Vishwaprasanna Theerta. “Hindus are hurt—because of cow slaughter and the hijab row—and their rage has exploded," said the priest. Hindu society is fed up with injustices.”
With the BJP government linked to Hindu fundamentalist groups, the police were frozen into inaction. “Everyone from the home minister to the state DGP (director general of police) knows what is happening in Mangaluru and Udupi,” said the Mangaluru police officer quoted previously. "We are waiting for orders.”
“Even I don’t know what’s happening,” home minister Araga Jnanendra told Article 14, blaming Hindus and Muslims. "Both sides have to follow the patya (drink the bitter juice). If you argue from only one side, the other side will find it wrong.” Later on, he said Muslims themselves were to blame for the bans on them.
On 29 March, The All India Lawyers’ Association for Justice criticised the police and local administration for informing them in a letter that calls for boycotts did not constitute an offence, even though they were bound to register first information reports (FIRs), the starting point for a criminal investigation.
These boycott calls, the lawyers said, fit crimes under the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860, including “promoting enmity between different groups” (section 153A), “imputations, assertions prejudicial to national integration” (section 153B) and “statements creating of promoting enmity” (section 505 (2)).
“We are ensuring nothing untoward happens. For now, things are calm,” Mangaluru district commissioner N Shashi Kumar told Article 14. He refused to respond to other questions.
The man who could answer those questions, home minister Jnanendra—much like Hindu fundamentalists—blamed the temple-fair bans on protests by Muslims over the hijab verdict.
“They (Muslims) called a strike against the court order,” said Jnanendra. “They said we have nothing to do with the constitution of this country or law of the land. People have taken it to heart. You have to start from there. You can’t start from just one event. It seems wrong if you miss the context. All hearts are broken."
On the same day he spoke to Article 14, Jnanendra, hardened his stance. Speaking to reporters in Koppal district, he clearly endorsed the action and arguments of Hindu fundamentalists. “Those who do not respect the Constitution and honour the court verdict should be taught a lesson,” said Jnanendra.
The Police: Frozen Into Inaction
Former police chiefs said the reluctance of the police to act against Hindu fundamentalists violated the rule of law and exhibited bias.
“Irrespective of (political and other) developments, the basic question remains the rule of law. Law must protect everyone equally,” former Karnataka director general of police Ajai Kumar Singh Akhilesh told Article 14.
“The authorities who have the power to take action, must take action without waiting for anyone's orders,” said Akhilesh. “Discussion with superiors may be necessary before taking actions. But consultation should result in action as per law, not suspension of action."
“I’m sorry to say, but the police administration, too, has got communalised and politicised,” said another former DGP, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of commenting on former colleagues. “But I understand their compulsion too. Unfortunately the government is so communal, I can see why police officers would not want to rock any boats.”
Article 14 sought comment from Karnataka DGP Praveen Sood, sending WhatsApp messages and reminders. There was no response. If he does respond, we will update this story.
“The magnitude (of Hindutva chatter about economic boycott on social media) is staggering; we are worried,” said the senior Mangaluru police officer. “Political parties have their agendas in keeping this alive. But, we don’t: when things get out of control, we see something spilling on to the streets. I don’t know where we are headed.”
Rapid Escalation: From Hijabs To Temple Fairs To Meat
If the hijab ban and its aftermath—the state government illegally violated and widened the high court order on 27 March by stopping all students from appearing in 10th-standard exams in a hijab—sparked a cycle of Islamophobia, the temple bans exacerbated it and threatened to shred the syncretic culture evident in many towns statewide. The state government's inaction, said legal experts, violated the law and the Constitution.
In terms of legality, the Hindu Religious Endowment Act allows for a prohibition on the lease of immovable property. A lease is a permanent transfer of ownership. But a license, which is what Muslim stall owners at fairs receive, is not transfer of ownership, explained Narrain of the ALF, but “merely allows you use that land in a particular way”.
In a temple fair, said Narrain, Muslim traders were not getting a lease but a license, after paying Rs 500 or Rs 1,000. “Calling this a lease is stretching the imagination,” said Narrain. “Mr Bommai's argument is that person A may sub-lease the property. The rule explicitly prohibits sub-leasing. His position is completely untenable.”
"If the government was constitutionally minded, why is Mr Bommai quoting a rule?” said Narrian. “He's sworn to the office to uphold the Constitution of India. The core tenets of constitution mandate the state will not discriminate on the grounds of religion, neither will it allow such discrimination.”
Taken together, the hijab ban and the temple boycotts marked an escalation, said many observers, in what is now apparently a nationwide effort by Hindu fundamentalist organisations linked to the BJP to push Muslims to the margins of Hindu society.
The successful boycott at Mulki and the silence of local Hindus has become a template that is evident across Karnataka, especially in places where Muslims were intricately connected with and linked to Hindu religious affairs.
The state of affairs even worried many BJP legislators, with two speaking out in a party not known for variations from the official—or unofficial—point of view.
“No god has told you this (to boycott Muslims), no religion has told you this,” said A H Vishwanath, a BJP member of the legislative council (MLC). “Don’t allow this man in, don’t allow that man. No. The government has to intervene.”
“This is unacceptable,” said BJP member of legislative assembly Anil Benake. “How can you say that buyers should visit only some shope and not others? That is wrong. The government cannot enforce such rules, nor can any organisation….if anyone tries to enforce such an unconstitutional boycott, we will stop it.”
The Changing Spirits & A Place Of Fraying Harmony
Two days before the Mulki fair, posters demanding that Muslims be kept out appeared outside the Maari fair, at the shrine of the goddess Mariamma, in the taluka of Kapu bordering Udupi district.
In these parts, Kapu Mariamma is not a goddess in the Hindu pantheon but one of several bhutas—spirits that watch over Tulunadu.
Historian T G Aravamuthan said bhutas were spirits “of what is, what exists, what is formed or created, a being; so it includes everything inanimate and animate. It also means what has been… gods to beasts to the living to the dead”.
A Panjurli bhuta may be a manifestation of the wild boar, Koti Chennaya bhutas are spirits of famous Tuluva warriors. True to its character, bhuta worship is community agnostic. For instance, another major shrine in Kapu taluk is dedicated to Bobbary bhuta, named after Bobba, a Muslim sailor.
On his last voyage, a massive toofan (storm) took his ship to the bottom of the sea. Bobba, the lone survivor of the shipwreck, swam to Kapu with newly acquired mystical powers and became a bhuta, so goes the legend. A Hindu Billava toddy tapper is said to have built the Bobbarya shrine in Kapu.
The all-powerful Kapu Mariamma is the bhuta of epidemics. Parents often bring children with chicken pox to the shrine, begging the darshana patri (a medium who gets possessed by Mariamma to speak to devotees) for a quick cure.
Bhuta worship, an avowedly non-Brahmanical custom, predates the arrival of vedic culture in the region about 1,400 years ago. Hindu groups have made attempts to change that custom.
"For several years now, the Sangh Parivar has been Brahminising bhuta traditions,” said Purushottam Bilimale, a former professor of linguistics at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. For instance, a spirit called kaluda bhuta is now being called Kaldeshwari; and another with a Muslim connection called jumadi bhuta is becoming Dhumavathi.
“This is distortion with nefarious intent,” said Bilimale. “There’s an attempt to break historic bonds."
Kapu town has three Mariamma shrines: they are called the old shrine, the second shrine and the Kalya shrine. All hold three Maari festivals each year, corresponding to three seasons. Maari involves ritual sacrifice of roosters and sheep. Traditionally, over 70% of trade at Maaris used to be run by Muslims.
On 22 March 2022, when the Suggi Maari fair at Kapu began, there were no Muslim traders.
Apocryphal stories suggest a Muslim ugrani or administrative officer in the kingdom of Tipu Sultan, a Muslim ruler now hated by Hindu groups, played a major role in founding the old Maari temple in late 18th or early 19th century.
Hindu-Muslims Ties Come Under Pressure From The Sangh
On the festive night of 22 March, even as local Muslims stayed away, the shrine reverberated with the sound of the nadaswara, a wind instrument, through much of the night. The man playing the nadaswara was 53-year-old Sheikh Jaleel Saheb, a veteran nadaswara player, the sixth generation of artistes from the Saheb family to play at Kapu's Maari shrine.
“I don't pay much heed to what's going on outside,” said Jaleel, a devout Muslim who prays five times a day and has been playing at the shrine since age 12. “My ancestors told me I have to respect this occupation. And I have. The amma (goddess) here is everyone's amma.”
"From what I know,” said Jaleel, “Hindus and Muslims here belong to one household.” But out in the fair, the discord had affected the household.
“I have not seen a Maari with such a small turn out ever,” said Prashanth, a Kapu local who requested we only use his first name. “Mogaveeras, Bunts, Billavas and Beary Muslims here are inseparable.”
Since fishing is the main occupation, ties and traditions between communities have extended over centuries.
“Our childhood friends have invariably been from all communities,” said Prashanth. “Even BJP leaders here trade with Muslim partners.” BJP leaders in Kapu agreed. An influential local BJP leader, speaking to Article 14 on condition of anonymity for fear of offending party officials, expressed regret over the banning of Muslims.
“It should have never come to this,” said the BJP leader. “Kapu is a place of harmony. We can’t have enmity here.” Yet, there is clear evidence that the animosity against Muslims is growing, spread rapidly by Hindu-fundamentalist groups that are emboldened by government protection.
Kapu Mariamma temple committee members, who earnestly talk of shared Hindu-Muslim heritage at their shrines, would not go on record but freely acknowledged the pressures they face from Sangh Parivar groups.
A senior committee member at one of the Kapu Maari shrines said he was “scared” about what had happened, referring to his committee’s decision to bow to pressure from Hindu fundamentalists and keep Muslim traders out this year.
“You can’t go against her (Mariamma’s) will,” he said. “If it’s her wish, for them (Muslim vendors) to set up shops during Maari, there should be no one to object it. I don’t know what she’s thinking. She wants everybody; she does not discriminate. But still I pray, because she knows in what capacity I have taken the decision (to bow to the Sangh’s pressure).”
‘Muslims Have No Place Here…Even Yogi’s City Did Not Trouble Us’
When we met them, Imran, Hamid and Furqan (they asked we identify them with one name), street vendors from Bulandshahr district in Uttar Pradesh, had travelled three days from Delhi to arrive in Mangaluru, just in time for the summer season’s Hindu temple fairs.
All three of them have been selling clothes—trousers and shirts—in temple fairs nationwide over the last two decades. On 24 March, they set up their stalls at Mulki’s Bappanadu Durga Parameshwari temple fair.
It was a wasted journey.
Barely half an hour after they had set up their stalls, several young men of Hindu-fundamentalist Bajrang Dal, sporting saffron shawls illegally demanded to see their Aadhaar cards, identification linked to a national database.
A few moments later, Imran, Hamid and Furqan were told “Muslims have no place here”. Local reporters, including Article 14, were called by the Bajrang Dal to record the ousting of the Muslim traders. “Undu edde highlight avod, ava!” (This must be greatly highlighted!)” screamed one of the Bajrang Dal men, as he hustled the three Muslim traders from the fair ground.
“We could not read the poster that said no Muslims allowed,” said Hamid, who spoke to Article 14 later from an undisclosed location. “We are not sad about the losses we incurred. We are used to enduring losses in business. But our regret is that we were told to leave just because we are Muslim.”
“We have gone to the Kumbh Mela,” said Hamid. “We have done business in Yogi’s (UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath) city (Gorakhpur). We were never told to leave a place because we are Muslims.”
“Today, for the first time, an objection was raised against us because of our religion alone,” said Hamid. “It’s happening to Muslims all over the country. But we did not expect this here. We have maal (good) worth Rs 2 lakh with us… what do we do with this?”
Though the Sangh Parivar has officially disassociated itself from the posters calling for Muslims to be kept out of—they attribute the posters to “Hindu society”—the Mulki sanchalak of the Bajrang Dal, Amith Shetty, owned up.
“We put them up,” said Shetty. “And still traders of the other community (Muslims) turned up today. There were about 15 of them. We asked them to leave in a peaceful manner.” The next day, on 25 March, the Dal similarly ousted 16 Muslim traders, he said, from the Bhagavati temple fair in the neighboring town of Sasihithlu.
‘If Hindus Don’t Rise, We Will Have Mangaluru Files’
At a meeting with Article 14 in a shopping mall in Mangaluru, Shivanand Mendon, a district secretary of the Hindu-fundamentalist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), argued that temple fairs should be restricted to Hindus.
“We have poor people in the Hindu community too,” said Mendon. It’s fair to say poor Hindus should get a chance to set up stalls in Hindu fairs. Plus, we have a law that explicitly states that. From now, Hindu society will ensure only Hindus put up stalls in these fairs.”
As we spoke to Mendon, senior leaders of Mangaluru’s VHP unit were busy chaperoning a group of sadhus and sadhvis, Hindu holy men and women. The VHP had arranged a special screening of Kashmir Files, a controversial movie about the Hindu Pandit exodus from Kashmir in the 1990s, when between 85 to 600 were killed by terrorists and hounded out of their homes.
“Kashmir Files has definitely helped with a new spirit,” said Mendon of the movie that has excited Hindu passions and made Muslims fearful. “Hindus have woken up. Hindus have realised, if we don’t rise up, there may come a day when we will have Mangalore Files.”
In justifying boycotts after the shutdown called after the Karnataka High Court hijab verdict, many Hindu organisations alleged that Muslims were “terrorists”, slaughtered cows and did not respect Hindus or the high court. Anti-Muslim posts issued by Bajrang Dal and VHP cadres on social media using these allegations have gone viral in the region, especially as WhatsApp statuses.
“They called a bandh in which they even shut medical stores and essential shops,” said Mendon, who deployed some of those allegations. “They (Muslims) do not respect the high court. They do not respect our sentiments. They slaughter cows, knowing well it hurts us. It’s only fair, we draw clear lines from now on.”
The threats implicit in Mendon’s statement ignores and discards a 12-century long history of coexistence between Jains, Hindu, Muslims and Christians that has merged into a unique “Tuluva” identity, which transcends religious differences, said locals and experts.
At Risk: The Tuluva Identity, Shared Over 12 Centuries
Tulunadu’s merchants over the centuries developed trade contacts with ancient Greece, Egypt, Syria, Mesapotomia and China for spices, silk, horses and metals, paving the way for globalisation and the melding of cultures.
Mangaluru (called Maganur) and a Malpe chieftain called Malpe Naik, finds a mention in Greek explorer Ptolemy’s diaries from 150 AD. Tulunadu became a centre of learning and discourse. The dwaita school of philosophy, propounded in 13th century by a Brahmin Hindu philosopher called Madhvacharya, is at the heart of existential questions that Brahminical Hinduism asked of itself, along with its antithesis, adwaita.
Madhva’s philosophy was born in Udupi, where a historian, the late Gururaj Bhatt, pondered in a magnum opus called Studies in Tuluva History and Culture, if certain Christian values may have shaped the Madhava philosophy, since the arrival of Christianity in Tulunadu may have preceded the birth of Madhvacharya.
“You cannot tell stories of Kapu and Bappanadu without Beary Muslims and the brotherhood of Mogaveeras, Billavas and Bunts (all Hindu backward castes) have forged over the centuries,” said Amritha Shetty Athradi, a scholar and an activist. “That’s our past. That’s our destiny. The fact that the Sangh Parivar has gone after Bappanadu and Kapu, shows they wanted to completely burn to ground our syncretic past and impose their vedic Hindutva.”
Bilimale, the former JNU professor, referred to trade bonds that between Mogaveeras (fishermen) developed with Muslims of this region. “The bonds were built on the rough seas,” said Bilimale. “But there’s more to this relationship than just trade.”
Back in Mulki, the ban in Muslim traders was a shock that has been hard to accept, beyond the financial losses. About 80 Muslim shop keepers paid Rs 500 each for a tender from the temple youth committee to set up stalls, as they had been for decades.
When the posters calling for the boycott of Muslims came up, 30 traders took back their money. The other 50 did not. They considered it their offering to goddess Durga.
This story was updated on 2 April 2022 to reflect the views of Karnataka’s home minister.
(G Vishnu is a freelance reporter based out of Udupi.)