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Karnataka Muslim official issues temple invites, Hindu groups take offence

Ramakrishna Upadhya | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 6:00 IST

The invite

  • The Shree Mahalingeshwara Temple car festival (rath yatra) in Puttur, Karnataka, is to be held next month
  • The invite for this has gone out in the name of Dakshin Kannada district deputy commissioner AB Ibrahim

The ire

  • Hindu groups are up in arms that the invite has gone on behalf of a Muslim official
  • They say it\'s against the Karnataka Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowment Act, 1997

More in the story

  • Who is Ibrahim and what\'s the VHP and Bajrang Dal\'s objection to him?
  • How the region\'s proximity to Kerala may have something to do with this outrage

The bustling town of Puttur, in the Dakshin Kannada district of Karnataka, is in the eye of the storm. A controversy is raging there because an invitation for a temple festival has been printed in the name of a Muslim administrator.

Local VHP and Bajrang Dal activists have taken strong exception to the fact that the invitation to the Shree Mahalingeshwara Temple's car festival (rath yatra) next month has gone out in the name of the deputy commissioner of the district, AB Ibrahim.

Their objection is to a Muslim being given pride of place in a Hindu festival, claiming it is against the provisions of the Karnataka Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowment Act, 1997.

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They quote Section 7 of the Act, which says, "The commissioner and every deputy commissioner or assistant commissioner and every other officer or servant, appointed to carry out the purposes of this Act by whomsoever appointed, shall be a person professing Hindu religion and shall cease to hold office as such when he ceases to profess that religion."

But the state government and several former bureaucrats have strongly backed Ibrahim, saying the invitation issued in the name of the deputy commissioner is a 'routine matter', as he is the head of 28 government departments, including Muzrai department, which administers state-owned temples.

They point out that the religion of a bureaucrat has never been made an issue earlier and, in fact, over the last two years that Ibrahim has been deputy commissioner, invitations to functions at many other temples in the district, including the famous Kukke Subramanya (where Sachin Tendulkar and his family performed pooja some years ago), went in his name and nobody objected.

Political silence

A devotee of the temple has approached the Karnataka High Court, and Justice AS Bopanna, who heard the petition, has asked the government to produce its rules and notifications.

Interestingly, none of the mainstream political parties, including the BJP, have spoken out on the issue, as Ibrahim, a Beary Muslim from Mangaluru, has earned the respect of the local people.

The invites to the Mahalingeshwara Temple car festival have been issued in the name of AB Ibrahim

The Congress MLA from Puttur, Shakuntala Shetty, who initially backed the demand for printing a new invitation, backtracked after criticism within the party. A BJP legislator earlier, she had joined the Congress just before the 2013 Assembly elections.

The mild-mannered Ibrahim, who had earlier functioned as the commissioner of the Mangaluru city corporation, said: "My name was on the invites of many other temples in the same region, and there was no problem... As deputy commissioner over the last two years, I have held more than 25 meetings with temple authorities."

History of the region

Puttur, much like the rest of the Kanara or coastal Karnataka region, is an egalitarian, highly cosmopolitan taluk, where Hindu, Muslim and Christian populations have lived in relative harmony and have respected each other's religions, customs and traditions.

Apart from the 11th century Mahalingeshwara temple built for Lord Shiva, Puttur also boasts of the Milagres church constructed in 1680, and the Mai De Deus church built in 1830 by the Roman Catholic missionaries, who brought the Portuguese influence from Goa.

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There is also the Juma Masjid, which was built about 300 years ago when Tipu Sultan occupied Puttur.

Recording the political turmoil of that period, a historian recounts that, "....believing that the local Christians had conspired against him with the British during the Second Anglo-Mysore War, Tipu captured about 60,000 Mangalorean Catholics in 1784 and herded them to his capital at Srirangapatna (about 350 miles away.) He also destroyed 27 churches, including the Milagres church."

Another historian points out: "The Kanara region has been a melting pot. People of different races who came as invaders, marauders, sheer traders or proselytising missionaries have mingled with the local Tuluvas, Konkans and Brahmins to create truly cross-cultural people, whose eventual wealth, prosperity and domination was resented by the locals leading to frequent clashes."

Politically, it was a Congress party bastion for a long time, with Oscar Fernandes winning from Udupi for five terms and Janardhana Poojary from the Mangalore constituency for four terms in the Lok Sabha, before the BJP started making serious inroads in the mid-1990s.

VHP and Bajrang Dal contend that this is against the Karnataka Hindu Religious Institutions Act

The RSS has had a strong base here and the Jana Sangh captured the Udupi municipality in 1967, making its maiden foray in the south. The Sangh has rallied behind the Hindu traders and upper caste landlords, who lost precious lands after the implementation of the land reforms by the Devaraj Urs government in 1970s.

Home to five of the biggest banks in the country - Canara Bank, Syndicate Bank, Vijaya Bank, Corporation Bank and the Karnataka Bank - and a legion of educational institutions, including the nation's first private medical college, the region has seen huge economic prosperity for all communities.

Coastal Karnataka has been a melting pot of cultures, with famous temples, churches and mosques

Christians of the region have always co-opted the Hindus for their own survival, but the rise of the Muslims through education and jobs in the Gulf has not gone down too well with the other two. The building of huge mosques and the alleged involvement of some youth from Bhatkal in supposed 'anti-national' activities have only added fuel to the fire.

The aggressive Hindutva cadres have countered the 'love jihad' allegedly indulged in by some equally militant Muslim bands of youth, and there have been frequent clashes about this. The vigilante groups have converted even normal interactions and pranks between Hindu and Muslims students into 'wars' that invite harsh punishment. So much so that when a photograph of a Muslim boy lying across five Hindu girls' laps appeared on Facebook, it led to the girls' suspension by the college authorities.

Impact on neighbouring Kerala

In the backdrop of all these developments, the manufactured ire over Ibrahim should be seen as an attempt to polarise voters in the neighbouring Kerala, where Assembly polls are being held next month.

Puttur is close to the Kerala border, and there is a sizeable Kannadiga population in Manjeshwara and Kasaragod. BJP has never ever won an Assembly or parliamentary seat in Kerala, and it would like to make a beginning somehow, somewhere.

Edited by Shreyas Sharma

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First published: 21 March 2016, 6:46 IST
Ramakrishna Upadhya @rkupadhya9

Ramkrishna Upadhya is a senior journalist based in Bangalore, currently working with TV9. Earlier, he was with Deccan Herald, The Telegraph and The Indian Express.