A call by right-wing groups such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Bajrang Dal and Sree Rama Sene to prevent Muslim vendors from setting up stalls during the temple fairs held in the villages of Karnataka has resulted in the imposition of restrictions in some temples in a few community sensitive areas like Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Shivamogga over the past fortnight. This decision has generated widespread controversy due to its potential impact on the social fabric of life and business at the state’s village level through communal exclusion.
The BJP government of Karnataka has justified restrictions on Muslim traders at temple fairs by stating that non-Hindus are barred from having shops on temple premises as per a rule issued in 2002 under Karnataka Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowments Act 1997. the temple fairs which are at the center of the controversy moreover represent the culture and traditions of specific regions where the festivals take place and are usually celebrated by people of different castes and religions.
What is the nature of annual local temple fairs in Karnataka?
In Karnataka, annual local fairs are held at temples, near dargahs called Urus, as well as churches in most rural areas. They are a representation of local culture and folklore and historians say these fairs are also documented in ancient scriptures. According to Professor NS Rangaraju, former Director of Excavations and retired Head of Department of Ancient History and Archeology at Mysore University, these fairs are the identity of a culture of a specific place. “It has nothing to do with religion, but it is about people from a specific region who practice agriculture and their culture,” says Rangaraju.
There are two types of temple fairs: one held according to religious norms and the other without strict rules. The fairs which follow the norms are mainly held by upper caste temples and those which do not follow such rules are held by backward class communities. The Maramma temple fair is an example of a backward class fair.
As many villages have their own local deities, temple fairs are also annual events to pay homage to these deities. As well as offering prayers to the local deity, the fairs are a melting pot of local culture, a place for socializing, and a break for villagers from the rigors of their agricultural life. According to Rangaraju, “people who move to urban areas visit their villages during fairs, as it allows them to connect to their roots.”
In coastal Karnataka, the essence of local culture like Kambala (cattle racing), Yakshagana (dance theater) or Bayalaata (open-air theater), and other local cultural flavors are exhibited at these temple fairs. . In the ancient region of Mysuru, there is a lot of popular art, while in the regions of Hyderabad-Karnataka and Mumbai-Karnataka, it is the presence of refined dramas, business and entertainment.
During the recent session of the National Assembly, Speaker Vishweshwar Hegde Kageri actually invited lawmakers to his village’s temple fair and sought to end the session on a Friday afternoon in order to travel to his hometown. this night. The 73-year-old former chief minister, Siddaramaiah, traveled to his hometown last week and joined friends to dance the Veera Makkala Kunitha, a folk dance from the region.
When and why do temple fairs take place?
Local fairs are a product of the agrarian economy in rural areas and usually take place between November and April. According to the researchers, farmers benefit from a break in their agricultural activities during this period because there is a gap between the last and the next cropping season. Mr Chandra Poojary, a retired professor from the Department of Development Studies at Hampi Kannada University, says: “Apart from religious activities, today’s urban class relaxes either by going on a trip or in a mall or amusement park for entertainment. These fairs were once places of entertainment and relaxation for the villagers.
Thousands of village fairs are held during this period where large numbers of people from all religions participate. For example, the Shree Durgaparameshwari Temple, also known as the Bappanadu Shree Durgaparameshwari Temple, on the coast of Karnataka is said to have been built with the contribution of a Muslim. Local belief has it that Bappa, a Muslim merchant, heard a divine voice asking him to help the Jain ruler Mulki Sawantha build a temple. The Bappanadu temple fair has been celebrated by both Hindus and Muslims for several generations. Muslim vendors have stayed away from the temple festival this year, despite calls from right-wing groups to limit Muslims to temple fairs.
In other places, despite public order problems and campaigning by pro-Hindutva groups, Hindus and Muslims participated in temple festivals together. In the village of Ashtur in the district of Bidar, prayers are offered at the tomb of Hazrat Sultan Ahmed Shah Wali as well as at Allama Prabhu by Hindus and Muslims during the fair which they celebrate together.
Shaily Prabhakar, a retired English teacher from Sullia who belongs to the Christian community, said as a child she enjoyed the temple fair at Shree Chennakeshava.
The Shree Chennakeshava temple fair usually held in January attracts thousands of people. “Then we didn’t have as many stores to buy bracelets or other items in our town. We used to save money and wait for the fair and we used to buy these things. “It was never limited to one community or one religion. Buying materials and participating in the temple fair was a celebration for us. You will be able to experience the indigenous culture and folklore of the region during the fair,” said Prabhakar.
Why have fairs become communal?
Following the hijab controversy as Muslims protested restrictions in government colleges on girls wearing headscarves and a High Court order to uphold the restriction with the voluntary closure of business establishments for a day, right-wing Hindu groups on the Karnataka coast began opposing the Muslims. having shops and businesses at temple fairs. They cited Rule 12 of the Karnataka Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowments Act 2002, to restrict Muslim traders. The rule states that “No property including any land, building or site in the vicinity of the premises shall be leased to non-Hindus”.
According to some BJP and Sangh Parivar leaders, the move to boycott Muslim vendors started in October 2021, when many Muslims in Gangolli, Kundapura area, Udupi district, Karnataka coast, allegedly stopped buying fish from Hindu vendors in protest against fisherwomen. and fish vendors who had taken part in a march against the illegal slaughter of cows. The BJP, whose leaders are the national party secretary CT Ravi, protests against the economic blockade of the time.
Newsletter | Click to get the best explainers of the day delivered to your inbox
What is the current status of trade fairs?
Most of the annual fairs, which are held after two years due to the coronavirus pandemic, have drawn huge crowds. The boycott of Muslim vendors began in coastal areas of the state where hundreds of fairs were held. The campaign is now underway in other parts of Karnataka. In some places, applications from right-wing groups are accepted by temple committees and in others they have been rejected. In Nelamangala, on the outskirts of Bengaluru, the temple committee allowed Muslim traders to participate in temple fairs. In sensitive coastal parts of the state where right-wing groups enjoy local influence, temple committees have restricted Muslim traders to temple fairs.
What is the position of political parties on the ban?
The BJP government in Karnataka says the rule prohibiting non-Hindus from doing business on temple festivals was introduced by the Congress government led by SM Krishna in 2002. However, two BJP lawmakers have raised concerns as to the banning of Muslims from temple fairs. . “This is all madness. No god or religion preaches this stuff,” BJP lawmaker H Vishwanath said. JD(S) leader and former chief minister HD Kumaraswamy has criticized the state government and said chief minister Basavaraj Bommai is “a puppet in the hands of Hindu right-wing groups”.
Biocon Ltd Executive Chairman Kiran Mazumdar Shaw also expressed concern on Twitter. “Karnataka has always forged inclusive economic development and we must not allow such community exclusion. Should IT BT become community driven it would destroy our global leadership,” Shaw tweeted. She called on Chief Minister Bommai to address the growing religious divide.