In A Time Of Religious Tension, Bengaluru’s Police & Religious Leaders Push Inter-Faith Traditions

SAURAV KUMAR
 
11 May 2022 10 min read  Share

At a time when Hindu fundamentalists, often aided by the government, have pushed or enforced bans or violence against minorities in Karnataka, a jurisdictional police chief in Bengaluru showed how the police—often viewed as biased—could not just keep the peace but increase trust and traditional inter-faith relations. His officers reached out and met the faithful in an area of 19 mosques and 100 temples, relieving tensions, even as those from other faiths joined iftars or opened their doors to Muslims during Ramzan.

Uniformed police officials serve iftar snacks at a mosque in Koramangala in Bengaluru, Karnataka, as part of an effort to build bridges and calm tensions ahead of the Hindu Ram Navami festival. PHOTO: (Saurav Kumar)

Bengaluru: On 9 April 2022, the arrival of a police contingent to the Masjid-e-Mamoor mosque in Bengaluru’s Koramangala—a tony neighbourhood known for its lush residential lanes, malls and offices of start-up companies—took those coming in to pray by surprise and some apprehension.  

 

That apprehension was well-founded. 


The next day, a series of processions marking the Hindu festival of Ram Navami had resulted in communal clashes in Karnataka and across India. Processions were repeatedly used as a platform by Hindu fundamentalists to abuse and threaten Muslims and mosques. Community leaders in Bengaluru, as in many towns and cities nationwide, advised Muslims not to react to provocation. 


On 9 April, when the faithful gathered to break their fast under the lit domes of the Koramangala mosque, hundreds of riot police swarmed outside.


"I saw police units marching in…and I was taken aback for a moment," said Mohammad Anas, a 30-year-old software engineer with a multinational company who prays at the mosque. “But in a moment I realised they were the ones who were going to organise the iftar for the evening.”


Anas had seen police units head for the mosque through the heaving street outside, lined with stalls preparing a variety of kebabs, rotis, biryanis and other food for iftar, the evening meal when the daily fast is broken in the holy month of Ramzan.


There were substantial grounds for apprehension among the state's Muslims. 


In the days leading to 12 April, police had entered mosques in Bengaluru to remove loudspeakers. Stoking further tension, Karnataka home minister Araga Jnanendra, the head of the police force, attempted to demonise Muslims by falsely lending communal overtones to a road-rage incident. 


Jnanendra claimed that calls and attempts by Hindu fundamentalists to boycott Muslim businesses in the state were a “reaction” to protests by the Muslim community against a 15 March 2022 Karnataka High Court verdict upholding a government ban on hijabs in State-run colleges. 


Instead of calming tensions sparked by Hindu fundamentalists, ministers and other elected representatives of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of chief Basvaraj Bommai had been accused of fanning anti-minority sentiments for political gain.


In December 2021, the BJP government passed a bill that criminalised religious conversion, seen as largely targeting Christians, after a violent vigilante campaign against pastors and churches. In January 2022, the hijab ban was followed by Hindu-fundamentalist demands to boycott Muslim business, ban halal eat and the use of loudspeakers for the azaan, the Muslim call to prayer. Each successive demand found support within the ruling party 


But at the Koramangala mosque, the events that followed the police march appeared to go against the general grain of fear, bitterness and anger. 


A few minutes after the arrival of the police, smiles broke out. The police had come not to offer protection or to keep a wary eye on inter-religious strife but to run an experiment of hope and faith. 


Muslims Relieved, As Police Played Hosts At Mosques

Some policemen greeted devotees at the gates of the three-decade-old mosque. Inside, officers in uniform distributed fruits and dates and joined in the iftar celebrations. 


“This is the first time that the police have taken the initiative of organising iftar within our mosque,” said Syed Sameer, a 38-year-old mosque committee member.


“When I realised that they were celebrating with us, I was relieved," said Sameer, who, like many others, confessed to initial apprehension. 


"I was relieved because their presence did not mean something bad for us,” said Anas. “I’m also filled with pride because they are now acting as a bridge between Muslims and other communities.”


In many cases of tensions and violence fomented by the Hindu right-wing, the police were specifically accused of siding with Hindus in a state that is only 12.92% Muslim and 1.87% Christian. 


But Bengaluru’s Madiwala police division hoped to use Ramzan and iftar to showcase the unifying and calming role the police could play in ensuring peace and the rule of law, even if that inadvertently went against popular Hindu-extremist ideology and government attitudes.


To be sure, it isn’t as if there were no attempts to disturb the peace in Madivala. 


On 10 April 10, a raucous procession of 300-400 Hindu devotees, many from the militant Bajrang Dal, marched from Koramangala to neighbouring Adugodi, passing deliberately in front of the Masjid-e-Mamoor. Hundreds of Muslims stood at the roadside, conveyed Ram Navami greetings, and a few even offered water. Police were in attendance and watched carefully, an officer said.  


Iqbal Noor (50), a member of Masjid-e-Mamoor mosque committee, said the Ram Navami procession was welcomed with “joy and warmth”. 


An Officer & His Ideas Of Peace

A police official associated with the police outreach, and who spoke on condition  of anonymity, given the sensitivity of such matters in Karnataka, said weeks of planning ensured that local policemen reached Madiwala mosques by 6 pm on many Ramzan days.


Madwala’s assistant commissioner of police Sudhir Hegde said four station house officers (SHOs)—in-charge of the day-to-day functioning of a police station—personally visited temples and mosques and met religious leaders in his jurisdiction. 


“There are 100 temples and 19 mosques in the Madivala range. We covered all mosques by the end of the Ramzaan,” said the police officer previously quoted. 


The idea of involving the police in iftar celebrations was the brainchild of the 54-year-old Hegde. In his 26 years as a policeman, he has served in several communally-sensitive areas in the state and learned that peace does not come by accident or force. 


In 1998 and 1999, when Hegde was sub-inspector at Sangtrashwadi in hot, backward Gulbarga district (now Kalaburgi) in northern Karnataka, the region was on knife’s edge, after violence during a 1998 Ganesh Chaturthi procession and the Ramzaan of 1999 turned the area into a seething cauldron of communal tensions. 


Encouraging the police force to celebrate both festivals with the locals became one of the ways of reducing tensions in Kalaburgi. After a year of peace, Hegde's reputation grew in the region. 


An ardent follower of the Hindu Sringeri Mutt, he also became the only Hindu to be allowed during the Urs (death anniversary observations) of the Sufi saint Bande Nawaz at the Hazrat Khwaja Nawaz dargah in Kalaburagi. 


“Among all the crimes for the police to tackle, a communal riot has the most devastating impact,” Hegde told Article 14. “Crimes can be forgotten, but even the anniversaries of communal riots are remembered in a society. A crime affects an individual or a family, but a communal riot ruptures the existence of the whole society.” 


The best antidote, said Hegde, was to ensure that the police remain a symbol of hope during festivals of all religions. 


“Celebrating festivals across faith is what defines India," said the soft-spoken officer. "It validates our diversity.” 


At A Mosque, Kindred Spirits

The police gesture even came as a surprise to Masjid-e-Mamoor's committee president Rehan Wahab (50), but it coalesced with his philosophy. 


A tall, well built man, Wahab had taken over charge of the mosque 1.5 years ago and had made it a mission to include non-Muslims in the Ramzan festivities. 


“I wanted to confront anti-social elements who are trying to divide us on the basis of religion," said Wahab. "And one of the key ways is to participate in festivals of other faiths. We wanted to reach out to mandir communities to celebrate iftar with us.”  


The call to have an interfaith with people of other religions paid off at the mosque. Along with the police, numerous Hindus and members of Hindu organisations joined in. This included committee members from the nearby Ganesha and Sai Baba temples. 


Hindu right-wing extremists, as Article 14 reported on 1 April 2022, aim to cleave the syncretic culture that mosques and temples have traditionally shared in Bengaluru and across Karnataka. 


Bengaluru’s Karaga, a major Hindu festival, includes a stop at the Tawakkal dargah for blessings. In Belur, some 150 km West of Bengaluru, the annual temple processions begins with the recital of a few lines from the Quran. Despite modern-day tensions, inter-faith traditions and links are evident statewide.


“The past few months have made me sad, and instilled fear in Muslims in Karnataka and India,” says 45-year-old Munawar Sheikh, a restaurant owner in Koramangala. 


Sheikh said he often celebrated Ramzan with Hindu friends, and reciprocated their gestures during Ganesha puja by donating blood. On Ram Navami, he visits a Sri Rama Temple in nearby Adugodi to distribute sweets to Hindu devotees.

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In a corner of the mosque, Shahey Alam, a 57-year-old Muslim who works at a real estate company, served fruits and sherbat with 55-year-old Nagesh Gowda at the mosque. Nagesh Gowda is a realtor who said he was there because he wanted to be there and felt what he was doing was more important than ever.  


“It’s my sixth year here to celebrate Ramzaan with my Muslim friends," said Gowda. "There is nothing more Indian than respecting all religions.” 


For Alam, who had been coming to the mosque for more than two decades, having Hindu involvement made Ramzaan “more pure and colourful”.

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Nearby, Murli, a swarthy 21-year-old undergraduate student with a red tilak on his forehead and who identified himself with one name, handed over plates of biryani to Muslims who had finished maghrib or evening prayers. 


Murli and his friends, Abhishek and Rakesh, students of Christ University nearby, who also used their first names, have been doing this every Ramzan evening—a tradition they have followed since they were teenagers. 


“We are performing our duty,” said Murli. “We won’t allow communal violence to disturb the peace between Hindus and Muslims.”


‘An Overwhelming Feeling Of Unity’

The impact of the Madiwala police initiative was tangible, not just in the Koramangala mosque but other places in the city. 


It was also a reminder of the state’s strong syncretic traditions and the role police and local authorities traditionally played in bringing communities together.


"The decision (by the Madiwala police) to host an interfaith iftar is an endorsement of communal harmony and we need more such functions,” said former director general of police F T R Colaso. “I am glad that the Bengaluru police took this initiative because police in many parts of the country are getting a bad name for siding with communal elements."


On 23 April, policemen and many from Hindu organisations joined an inter community iftar at the Shababul Islam mosque in the prosperous southern suburb of Jayanagar. 


“The event at Masjid-e-Mamoor (in Koramangala) was the inspiration,”  said Amjad Khan, 54, of the Masjid-e-Eidgah Bilal mosque committee, also in . “It made us happy.”


Among those who celebrated iftar was Peter Machado, the Archbishop of Bangalore, who joined evening prayers with several other priests at the Masjid-e-Mamoor. 


When the state government passed the anti-conversion bill in December 2021,  Machado had said that the BJP government was attempting to dampen Christmas celebrations. At the time protests against the bill included those of other faiths, a reciprocity that is more strongly evident these days. 


“I ensure my presence every year during Ramzan, just like our visit or messages during Ganesha festival or Deepavali of the Hindu community,” Machado told Article 14. “This year, the attention we are getting from the common man reflects our growing bond.”


The assault on Muslims prompted other faiths to reach out. 


At the Mahabodhi Loka Shanti Buddha Vihara, a prominent Buddhist temple in central Bengaluru neighbourhood of Freedom Park, Muslims were invited to break the fast within the temple premises, use the temple loudspeakers for the azaan and recite the Quran in the presence of Buddhist priests. 


There was symbolism at play here: if mosque loudspeakers were being seized on government orders,  then places of worship of other faiths would step forward to lend a helping hand. These gestures have not gone unnoticed within the Muslim community, who increasingly fear they are being alienated. 


“With a sense of pride I can claim that Muslims have witnessed festivities along with saffron-clad priests, Christian priests and Buddhist monks during the month of Ramzan,” said the chief imam of state’s largest Jama Masjid in KR Market in east Bengaluru, Maqsood Imran. “We have an overwhelming feeling of unity. And we pledge to reciprocate the same so that this togetherness continues.” 


Simple interaction, it is evident, goes a long way in building confidence.


Anas the software engineer narrated how at the interfaith iftar he was talking to a friend when he felt a gentle pat on his shoulder. It was a police officer.


“With a smile that was enough of an indication of love, he asked me to be part of the queue (to receive iftar),” said Anas. “And seeing Hindus volunteers serving Muslim devotees re-affirmed my trust in the beauty of diversity in the holy month of Ramzan.”


(Saurav Kumar is a freelance journalist based in Bengaluru.)