Ban on Muslim traders in Karnataka temples citing 2002 rule: Understanding what the law actually says

After the Karnataka High Court (HC) ordered that hijab will not be allowed inside educational institutions a fortnight ago, Muslim traders i...

After the Karnataka High Court (HC) ordered that hijab will not be allowed inside educational institutions a fortnight ago, Muslim traders in coastal Karnataka downed shutters in protest. The fallout of that demonstration is grave. Now temples across the state are putting restrictions on businessmen from the community, denying them permission to set up stalls on shrine premises or at temple fairs.

A law passed during the Congress rule in 2002 has been constantly citied. But what does the law really say?

First ban in Shivamogga, others follow

The ban first started in Shivamogga. Following pressure from Hindutva groups, the organising committee of the historic Kote Marikamba Jatra decided not to give tenders to Muslim shopkeepers. Only those belonging to the Hindu community are permitted to open stall during the festival, which is held once in two years, and attracts lakhs of people of all religions and castes from neighbouring districts.

Now, other temples have taken cue and imposed similar bans. Temples in Karup, Udupi, Tumkur, Hassan, Chikmagalur, and other districts have decided to allow only Hindu vendors on temple premises.

At the Mahalingeshwara Temple in Puttur, organisers of the annual festival to be held in April have barred Muslims from participating in the auction. The Hosa Marigudi temple in Udupi’s Kaup imposed a similar rule, refusing to allot stalls o Muslims.

Locals were outraged that Muslims kept their shops closed after the HC verdict. The ban comes in response to that.

In Dakshina Kannada district, a hoarding of the Bappanadui Sri Durgapameshwari temple’s annual festivities stated, “People who don’t respect the law or the land and who kill the cows that we pray and who is against the unity will not be allowed to do business. We will not allow them to do business. Hindu is aware”, according to a report in The Indian Express.

Mangaluru city police commissioner N Shashi Kumar told the newspaper that they were looking into the matter. “If the civic agency is ready to file a complaint, we will consult our legal team and take action accordingly,” he said.

Among the other famous temples which have barred Muslim traders are the Belur Channakeshava in Hassan, Siddhalingeshwara in Tumkur, and the 800-year-old Bappanadu shrine near Mangaluru. Ironically, in Bappanadu premises is the Durgaparameshwari temple, built by Muslim merchant Bappa Beary of Kerala; it’s considered a symbol of communal harmony. This is the first-time ever that there is a ban on Muslims from bidding for leases at its festival.

When the issue came up in Karnataka Assembly

The issue was raised in the state Assembly by a Congress MLA, saying that the ban on Muslims was further creating a divide in society. “The history of the coastal district has several examples where Muslims and Hindus have co-existed in harmony, and have celebrated festivals together. Some cowardly people are installing hoardings that Muslims are not allowed. It has set a bad precedent, but, fortunately, at some places the Hindus have taken a stand against such diktats,” he said.

However, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has defended the ban, saying that rules formulated by the Congress in 2002, when the party was in power, prohibited the leasing of land or buildings near temples to non-Hindus.

Karnataka Law and Parliamentary Affairs Minister JC Madhuswamy had said that the government does not encourage the ban, but he went on to cite the 2002 law. On 24 March, Madhuswamy said that Rule 31(12) of the Karnataka Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowments Act, 2002 states that no property including land, building or site, situated near the institution, shall be leased to non-Hindus.

“Citing these rules (under the Act), posters and banners have been put up,” Madhuswamy said, backing the boycott. “If any obstruction is being caused to them outside the premises of a religious place, it will be rectified and action will be taken. If things are happening (other community vendors trading) within the premises, they will have to follow the rules.”

What the law actually says

Rule 31 of the Karnataka Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowments Act, 2002 (the parent legislation is from 1997) talks about the terms of the lease and renewal of immovable property of a notified institution that comes under the Act. Sub-rule 12 under this Rule 31 says that any property — land, building, or area — which is located near a Hindu institution or temple shall not be leased to non-Hindus, The News Minute says in a report.

The law minister’s argument then does not stand, since stalls at temple fairs are not immovable property but temporary instalments which can be dismantled.

“(It is) a deliberate misinterpretation of the provision, as Rule 31 only deals with long-term leases of immovable property owned by a temple (up to 30 years for land, and five years for shops and buildings). It does not deal with the short-term licences which would be used to allot stalls or spaces to vendors during a festival,” People’s Union for Civil Liberties Karnataka has said in the letter to Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai and Karnataka Governor Thawar Chand Gehlot, according to The News Minute.

Politicians speak

There has been no word from the chief minister, as the ban spreads across the state.

Leader of Opposition in the Karnataka Assembly H D Kumaraswamy has slammed Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai over his government’s, calling him “a puppet” in the hands of right-wing organisations.

“Our chief minister is a puppet of some organisations. He is running the government on their orders. To save his chair, he is listening to whatever they say. Where is the stand of the government on calls for boycotting a community in business matters? No decision has been taken by the government,” Kumaraswamy said.

However, two BJP legislators have spoken up against the ban. AH Vishwanath, an MLC, and Anil Benake, an MLA, have called the restrictions “wrong” and “undemocratic”.

“No God or religion preaches these kinds of things. Religions are inclusive and not exclusive,” Vishwanath said.

“Under the Constitution, everybody has equal rights. Anybody can conduct business anywhere and people must decide where they want to buy from, that is all. We will not impose restrictions,” said Benake.

While the debate rages on, Muslim vendors continue to suffer heavy losses. November to April is fair season in Karnataka and the traders who have already been hit by the pandemic are further losing out.

With inputs from agencies

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