UDUPI, India (RNS) — Babu Habibullah, 44-year-old seller of miniature kitchen utensil sets, was busy setting up his stall at a fair at a Hindu temple in Mulki, a village in Karnataka, a state on India’s southwest coast, last month. After a gap of two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Habibullah was happy to be back amid the hustle and bustle of devotees. As is his custom, he planned to offer the value of his first sale of his toylike wares to the temple.
Before he could sell anything, however, a group of young people approached his stall and asked for identification. When they realized that Habibullah was Muslim, they asked him to leave. They warned customers around not to buy anything from him. Habibullah immediately packed his utensils and returned home to Udupi.
“Annual village fairs across Mangalore and Udupi are my life,” he said. “I sell utensils at over 100 fairs per year for 25 years. How could I disrupt the auspicious and religious environment by arguing with those thugs?”
There are hundreds of small vendors like Habibullah in Karnataka, an information technology hub, who have been banned from doing business at local temple fairs.
Mohamed Rehmatullah, a 36-year-old Muslim vendor who sells ice cream at temple fairs in and around Udupi, said the ban has spread to Hindus who sympathize with Muslims.
“Hindu vendors who support us or even hire Muslim laborers at their stalls are also asked to remove stalls,” Rehmatullah said. “Temple committee members tell us that they are forced to issue such orders.”
Village or temple fairs, connected with religious beliefs and often celebrating the harvest season, are annual events held for a day or more. Fairs in Karnataka are generally held from November to April. Thousands throng to the fairs to pray and take in entertainment or cultural programs. Buying toys, food and clothes from hawkers in makeshift tents is part of the attraction, and selling at the fairs is a livelihood for many.
But since March 15, Karnataka’s highest court denied permission to Muslim girls to wear traditional headscarves in schools, saying that hijab is not an essential part of Islam. Local Muslim traders closed their shops in protest, and in retaliation, Hindu rights groups such as Bajrang Dal have tried to prohibit Muslim traders from doing business at temple fairs. Banners have been placed near temples saying Muslim traders are not allowed to set up stalls.
Other Hindu nationalist organizations have approached temple committees to ask them to refuse non-Hindu traders, citing the Karnataka Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowment Act, 2002, which prohibits non-Hindus from doing business near temples. The state government, controlled by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, supports the ban.
Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi was elected in 2014, his BJP has targeted Muslims, the largest minority in India. Muslims have been lynched after rumors that they had slaughtered cows. Many states ruled by BJP have criminalized conversion by means of marriage, an act known as love jihad.
“There has been a progression on attacks on minorities in Karnataka,” said Samar Halarnkar, editor of the watchdog website Article 14, citing attacks on pastors and churches that began last year, when the state also passed an anti-conversion bill. “Now Muslim traders are banned from fairs and a campaign has begun against halal meat. It seems apparent that the state government and Hindu fundamentalists groups are working in coordination.”
Halarnkar said radicalization of Hindus in the area is part of a BJP plan to boost its support at the ballot box.
Muslims, who have high rates of poverty and illiteracy compared with the overall population, constitute 11% of India’s workers. More than half are self-employed and more than a quarter work at casual labor. Only 21% hold salaried jobs, according to “Muslims in India’s Economic Sphere,” a report by Khalid Khan of the Institute of Dalit Studies in New Delhi.
“There have been efforts to disempower Muslims for a long time,” said Apoorvanand, a professor at Delhi University. “Now they are trying to destroy them economically.”
Calling differentiation between Muslim and Hindu businesses “social apartheid,” the All India Lawyers Association for Justice has asked the Karnataka government to withdraw the decision on hijab and provide equal space for businesses to all communities, including Muslims. AILAJ has also questioned the law itself, saying it infringes on the fundamental rights of Muslims.
“Denial of the rights of Muslims to do business in equal footing with other communities is denial of their equal citizenship,” said Maitreyi Krishnan, coordinator of AILAJ.
In the meantime, Muslim traders hope to avoid more trouble with right-wing Hindus. Many Muslim vendors at Udupi refused to talk to a reporter, fearing severe backlash.
Their hope is that Hindu vendors might speak out further. After a meeting of the union of vendors in Koteshwara in Udupi, Shamsuddin, another vendor, said: “We, Hindu and Muslim traders, are one community. They support us, but cannot show solidarity due to the wrath of right-wing goons. We as union have decided to approach police and administration requesting them to resolve the issue.”
Restless and disappointed, Rehmatullah said at the union meeting: “We have all identity cards of India. We are born and stayed here throughout our life. But we don’t have any right.”