Is BJP’s Hijab-Halal Strategy Bound to Fail in Karnataka?

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During his visit to rural Kannada (now Karnataka) in 1927, Gandhi asked a local, “Who rules Mysore?” The surprising answer he got was, “Some god.” Ninety-seven years later, in 2023, if the same question is asked, the answer would likely be, “God knows.” The hapless citizen of rural India would then plead for relief from inflation, corruption, and poverty.

Corruption and Failure of Governance in Karnataka

Amidst the sustained campaign by political parties in Karnataka for the elections scheduled on 10 May, several Opposition parties, including the Congress, have accused Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai of failing to govern the State. They have held him responsible for the high levels of corruption. These charges need attention: there is an impression, on social media and in conversations with Karnataka residents, that the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government is the “40% sarkar”. This is a reference to the “commission” rate prevailing in the State.

A contractor, Santosh Patil, affiliated with the Karnataka unit of the ruling BJP wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year, alleging that rural development and panchayati raj minister, KS Eshwarappa, had demanded such a commission. Patil later died by suicide, and the concerned minister had to resign over corruption charges. He was cleared of charges related to Patil’s death. There are denials of any wrongdoing, but such events create a perception that something is not quite right.

Combined with pressing issues of livelihood, corruption is getting widespread attention in this election. As a result, with elections in less than two weeks, the BJP’s three-and-a-half-year rule, after it dislodged the Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) government, is in deep waters.

This is not to predict the outcome of the election: The BJP may or may not form the government in the State. It may beat its record and emerge the single-largest party, or the Congress might sweep the polls, or the JD(S) may emerge a key player in government formation. What is evident, however, is that a bewildered BJP is at its wit’s end with its strategy to polarise Karnataka’s voters along religious lines, by taking up hijab and halal issues is not working at all.

Roots of Communal Polarisation

Local socio-economic issues are entirely dominating the State in the run-up to this election, having taken over the polarisation strategy of the BJP. Shaikh Mujibur Rehman, who teaches at the Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi, recently described in The Hindu newspaper the extent to which the BJP’s communalisation tactics succeeded over the years, as it developed Karnataka as its bastion in South India. Its systematic ideological campaign spread the “Hindu Navella Ondu—Hindus are One” message, as a result of which, today, sections of media in the State describe the Muslims and Christians as “anya Bharatiya—the other Indians or “anya komu—the other religion”.

Hijab and Halal

Against this backdrop, the ultimate weapon of the BJP, anchored in a carefully crafted communal divide and bitterness, disallowed Muslim girls and young women from wearing the hijab in schools, and orchestrated boycotts of halal meat, which Muslims prefer. But it failed to consolidate and mobilise Hindus in its favour. Even calls for social and economic boycotts of Muslims are not working in Karnataka.

The BJP, which owes its origin to Syama Prasad Mukerji’s Jana Sangh, is conveniently oblivious that in his “Memorandum on Minorities” dated 17 April 1947, Mukerji quoted the Sapru Committee Report, which had recommended in 1945 that the rights of the Sikhs to use jhatka meat shall be protected. Mukerji submitted that memorandum to the Constituent Assembly, indicating that he only sought to protect the rights of the Sikhs and did not demand provisions against halal meat.

By raking up cultural differences in preferences, and appealing to Karnataka residents to boycott halal meat, did not the BJP negate the vision of its founder? In May last year, just before Ugadi celebrations in Karnataka, the BJP’s national general secretary, CT Ravi, compared halal meat to “economic jihad”.

The Karnataka Chief Minister’s political secretary, MP Renukacharya, called for the State government to ban madrasas, which he said taught lessons “opposed to national interests”.

The Hindu Janajagruthi Samithi, a right-wing outfit in Karnataka, declared a campaign against halal products on the specious argument that an animal slaughtered as per Islamic practices cannot be offered to Hindus.

Strangely, Chief Minister Bommai responded to the controversy created by Hindutva organisations by saying they were “serious objections” to halal meat, which his government would examine.

Congress leader Mallikarjuna Kharge said at the time the BJP has “no issues for the people, so it is raising Kashmir Files, economic bans on minorities, and halal meat”.

Treat Jhatka and Halal Equally

Yet another instance of equal treatment of Jhatka and Halal meat is available from the documents of the Constituent Assembly in the second volume of B Shiva Rao’s edited book, The Framing of India’s Constitution. Its “Memorandum on Minorities”, prepared by Ujjal Singh and Harnam Singh in March-April 1947, states: “The preparation and use of Jhatka meat in public institutions shall be allowed, and Jhatka meat shall be treated at par with Halal meat.”

These instances from documents submitted to the Constituent Assembly offer invaluable lessons not to impose any restrictions on meat over religious or cultural practices.

The BJP, to polarise people in the name of faith, employed hijab and halal as weapons to consolidate members of the majority religion behind itself. It nursed hopes of dividing Karnataka’s voters along religion, creating a situation where it would get the votes of the Hindus. But it is evident the strategy is not working from Bommai’s remark in response to questions about ‘hijab and halal’ issues: He said the media cannot divide people by raising such matters.

Indeed, Operation Lotus may have dislodged the Congress-JD(S) government and installed the BJP in power for over three years, but if the BJP faces a severe defeat in Karnataka, it will prove that South India will set the trend for the 2024 Lok Sabha poll.

The author served as Officer on Special Duty to President of India KR Narayanan. The views are personal.

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Disclaimer: Is BJP’s Hijab-Halal Strategy Bound to Fail in Karnataka? - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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