Siddharamaiah, Karnataka Chief Minister

The newly-installed Congress government in Karnataka has begun the process of restoring the communal balance in the State that was upset by the previous BJP government led by Basavaraj Bommai.

The composition of Chief Minister Siddharamaiah’s cabinet indicates that a fair deal is in the offing for the State’s minorities, marginalized under the five–year rule of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The Bommai government, imitating the Narendra Modi regime at the Centre, had completely marginalized the minority Muslims and Christians with the aim of eliminating them from the politics of the State and its structures of governance.

Communalism, marked by shrill anti-Muslim and anti-Christian rhetoric (along with corruption) was the order of the day during Basavaraj Bommai’s rule for four years. The Bommai government enacted the Prevention of Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle Act, 2020 targeting Muslims and Christians in the beef trade. The Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Act, 2022 made religious conversion a criminal act. Hijabs were banned in classrooms. The 4% reservation for Muslim Backward castes was scrapped. The anti-halal movement was launched as “a war against economic Jihad” while romantic relations between Muslim men and Hindu women were condemned as “Love Jihad” punishable by vigilante violence.

To underline its Hindu identity, the BJP did not put up a single Muslim or Christian candidate in the May elections. Its campaign was also overtly communal. In January, a Dakshina Kannada MP and Karnataka BJP President Nalin Kumar Kateel asked people to “prioritize “larger issues” such as Love Jihad over “minor issues” such as roads, infrastructure and development. Kateel’s statement went viral on the social media.

Coastal Karnataka, comprising Uttara and Dakshina Kannada districts, was turned into a hotbed of violent communalism, marked by murders of activists of Hindu and Muslim communal organizations. Between 2015 and 2017, there was a series of murders of young men working for Hindu and Muslim organizations. 2017 saw the highly publicized murders of the (Muslim) Social Democratic Party of India worker Ashraf Kalayi and the RSS worker Sharath Madiwala. These killings were exploited by the BJP in elections. The BJP’s Jana Suraksha Yatre held a massive rally in Mangalore.

In July 2022 a Muslim youth was killed in Sullia (Dakshina Kannada). In retaliation, Praveen Nettaru, a BJP Yuva Morcha leader, was killed on July 27. On July 28, one Mohammad Fazil was stabbed in Surathkal. These affected the voting pattern of voting in the May 2023 polls in coastal Karnataka.

With communal tension heightening, Hindu militant organizations like the Sri Rama Sene began to grab headlines with their actions. The Sri Rama Sena, a puritanical Hindu outfit, disturbed Valentine’s Day celebrations condemning them as an undesirable and morally corrupting un-Hindu practice.

Communal Hotbeds 

According to The Hindu, communalism has not had a consistent all-Karnataka appeal. Its hotbed has basically been the coastal Karnataka districts of Uttara and Dakshina Karnataka.

The appeal of Hindu communalism and the better performance of the BJP in Coastal Karnataka have been due to the area’s historical links with nationalistic Hindu organizations like the Arya Samaj and the Brahmo Samaj from the 1880s onwards. By the late 1920s and early 1930s, RSS shakas had come up in this area, the paper says.

The appeal of Hindu nationalism there was also due to the conspicuous presence of Catholics and Muslims in Coastal Karnataka. Muslims have been a particular irritant in the eyes of the Hindus because they were a successful business community with links to the Gulf countries and also the Moplah Muslims of Kerala, another prosperous trading community.

While the BJP’s dominance in Coastal Karnataka could be attributed to a pre-existing communal divide in the social and economic sphere, its weak position in the rest of Karnataka, as seen in the just concluded elections, could be attributed to the absence of suitable objective conditions. Congress Chief Minister Siddharamaiah put this succinctly in his interview to Frontline.

Speaking of Karnataka as a whole he said: “Karnataka is known as Sarva Janaangada Shantiya Thota (a garden of communal peace) and in the true sense, we are a party that practices the philosophy of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas [With all, development for all). If you notice the profile of Congress MLAs, you will see that the Congress is the only party that provides representation to all castes and communities. This is not appeasement but social justice as everyone must get political representation.”

Communally Inclusive Cabinet

Siddharamaiah has implemented the “garden of communal peace” concept in cabinet formation. In contrast to the Bommai cabinet, which had no Muslims or Christians, the Siddharamaiah cabinet has four ministers from religious minorities, including two Muslims, one Christian and one Jain. And for the first time, a Muslim, U.T. Khader, has been made Speaker.

In contrast, the BJP had not put up a single Muslim or Christian candidate in the recent Assembly elections. If the BJP had won the elections, Karnataka would not have had a single Muslim or Christian minister.

Known for his cross-caste and cross-religious appeal, Siddharamaiah has ensured a fair representation of all castes and communities in his cabinet.  There are eight Lingayats, four Vokkaligas, five Scheduled castes and 3 Scheduled Tribes in his 34-member cabinet. The only noticeable lacuna is the fact that there is only one woman in it, though women had overwhelmingly voted for Congress.

Asked if he planned to repeal the communal laws, Siddharamaiah said: “We will reverse all anti-people decisions taken by the BJP government. We have already announced that we will rescind the anti-cow slaughter law. The hijab issue is now in the Supreme Court, but our position on that is clear and we will consult our legal team before we take the next step. We had also opposed the anti-conversion law and we will take steps to withdraw this legislation.”

Siddharamiah further said that the 4% reservation for Muslims was scrapped without any study by the Backward Classes Commission. “Legally, this is not tenable, and we will take steps to withdraw that order,” he added.

Since a caste census is a must for ensuring social justice, the Congress Chief Minister said: “The caste census was incomplete in my term and was submitted during the term of the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular)] coalition government. We will take steps to table the findings of the caste census in the Assembly, and this empirical data will help my government in formulating a scientific reservation policy in Karnataka. It was not merely a caste census but a survey that scientifically records the educational and social information of Karnataka’s population. Taking this survey as a first step, we will work towards enhancing reservation in the State.”

Tipu Jayanti

During the election campaign. BJP stalwart and Indian Home Minister, Amit Shah, had accused the Congress of wanting to restore Tipu Sultan’s rule, which according to the BJP, was one of Islamic bigotry.

From 2016 till 2018, the Congress government in Karnataka celebrated “Tipu Jayanti” on November 10 every year as the 18 the. Century ruler of Mysore had died fighting the British and had made Mysore the most prosperous part of India when much of Central and North India was in a chaotic condition.

According to Tipu’s biographer, Prof. Mohibbul Hasan (History of Tipu Sultan published in 1951) Tipu was not communal. He forcibly converted only those who had rebelled against him like the Nayars and the Coorgis. And the Catholics of Mangalore had earned his ire because they had sided with the British.

Would the Congress government under Siddharamaiah start observing Tipu Jayanti as part of its agenda to bring about communal understanding and harmony? He might go slow on this, as the subject is sensitive because of the consistent and high-decibel propaganda against Tipu by the BJP from 2016 onwards. Furthermore, the Congress has to defeat the BJP in the May 2024 parliamentary elections.

Siddharamaiah might choose to tackle less controversial issues first and postpone the restoration of Tipu Jayanti to a later date.