In April 2021, Syed Ishaq’s library, with thousands of books promoting Kannada literature, was burnt down in Karnataka’s Mysore.
In December 2021, protests against hijab-wearing students by saffron-shawl clad men became widespread across Karnataka.
In February 2022, ‘halal’ meat eaten by Muslims became a flashpoint in the state.
In March 2022, Hindutva vigilantes destroyed the watermelon cart of Nabisaab Killedar, a Muslim vendor, in Dharwad district. This took place outside a temple where he had been selling fruits for several years. It was around the same time when Muslim vendors were banned from the state's temple fairs for the first time in history.
In January 2023, Muslim writers weren’t invited to the 86th Kannada Sahitya Sammelana, a government-funded literary fest.
These are only some of the instances that have transpired in the last few years that depict the rise of communalism and hate in Karnataka in the last few years. The state has popularly been referred to as the ‘laboratory’ of Hindutva in South India. But as communalism has risen in the state, so has the voices resisting it. Several progressive individuals and civil society workers in Karnataka have been using arts, literature and grassroot outreach to counter communalism.
Library Burnt Down, Thousands Send Over Books To Help Re-Build It
Syed Ishaq, a 64-year-old labourer in Mysore had studied only till 8th grade, and so always felt a void for literacy in his life. “I felt that no one should go illiterate like me,” he says.
So in 2011, he started a library with several thousand books, mostly in Kannada. The library had eleven thousand books, including three thousand each of the Bhagwad Gita, the Quran and the Bible, all in Kannada language. A Kannada nationalist, Ishaq’s overt emphasis on spreading the Kannada language wasn’t received well by Hindutva groups as well as by some members of his own Muslim community living in the area. “Some days I would see the library’s board has been blackened, other days I would have to face so much hate and abuse from locals,” he recalls.
Then in April 2021, Ishaq was woken up in the dead of a night, with people informing him that his library has been burnt down. “I rushed to the spot but everything had been burnt to ashes. I was shattered. I put out the video of the burnt library on my Facebook,” he says.
Among the people who saw the video was Muzaffar Assadi, a professor of Political Science at Mysore University. “My immediate reaction was of disgust. I felt that in this moment I must stand by Ishaq sahab,” Assadi recalls.
On a whim, Assadi put out a Facebook post, urging his followers to contribute books — not money — to help rebuild Ishaq’s library. In a matter of days, Assadi received over six thousand books not just from all over India, but from Indians living in different countries too.
“The diversity of contributions also represented the diversity we stand for. This came at a time when so many of us were losing faith in the idea of India, but this one incident helped me revive that faith,” Assadi says.
Muslim Fruit Vendor Attacked By Goons; Writers Invite Him To Inaugurate Lit Fest
Karnataka has had a vibrant culture of literary festivals which honour arts and poetry. “But most literary festivals are usually just about the mutual back-scratching, and include the same writers and poets who speak in echo chambers,” says KP Suresha, a development analyst and activist.
“But May Sahitya Mela is different, here we try to center the voices of people who have either been targeted or victimised by hate and fascism," adds Suresha, who is one of the organisers of the festival.
The May Sahitya Mela has been an annual occurrence in Karnataka every May, for the last few years.
In the 2022 leg of the festival, Nabisaab Killedar was invited to inaugurate the event.
Killedar is a vendor in Dharwad district, and a video of his watermelon cart being thrashed and destroyed by Hindutva goons went viral two months prior in March. Killedar had been selling fruits outside the temple, where the incident took place, for many years.
“When he came to the stage and began speaking...we were all so moved by the sincerity of his words,” Suresha says.
In his speech, Killedar had thanked all those who stood by him, and said that he has no gripe with his attackers.
“Because those people behaved like that I don't have prejudice against them. What happened, happened. Not all people are like that. It was just one incident. It was just a cart. The cart's time had come,” he had said.
Muslims Excluded From Lit-Fest, Writers Organise Parallel Meet To Fight Back
Unlike the May Sahitya Festival, the Akhila Bharata Kannada Sahitya Sammelana or All Indian Kannada Literature Conference is a government funded programme, which has an over eight decade long history.
In January 2023, the event organisers were accused of not inviting a single Muslim writer in for their festival. To make a statement, a group of progressive thinkers and writers came together and organised a parallel meet, calling it the ‘Jana Sahitya Sammelana’ on the same dates as the government-funded fest. “Here we made it a point to invite several Muslim writers, since they had been excluded from the Kannada sahitya fest. We also gave an open invitation to any progressive minded writer wanting to attend,” says Pallavi Idoor, political thinker who was one of the organisers of the parallel fest.
The parallel fest ended up seeing a footfall of over two thousand people, with many eminent people also showing up in solidarity, like actor Prakash Raj. "The festival ended up becoming a much bigger feat than we would have imagined,” Pallavi says.
Creating Counter-Narratives Through 'Eddelu Karnataka: Wake Up Karnataka'
Besides writers and poets, Karnataka also has civil society groups acting as pressure points, directly engaging with political parties, as well as acting on ground.
Ahead of the 2023 state polls, multiple civil society groups came together to create a movement called ‘Eddelu Karnataka’ or ‘Wake Up Karnataka’.
"The idea is to create counter-narratives to fight the hateful messaging and communalism, often a result of fake news,” says Mallige Vasu, an activist part of Eddelu Karnataka.
For instance, one of the narratives that the group worked to bust was the false information of two characters Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda, having ‘killed’ Tipu Sultan, when it is well documented that he died while fighting the British in the fourth Anglo-Mysore war of 1799.
“It’s important to work on the ground and engage with people at grassroot level to counter this fake news,” she says.
Another conglomeration of several civil society groups came together to prepare and then hand over a ‘people’s manifesto’ to Karnataka’s political parties. Historian Ramchandra Guha presided over the event.
Representative of multiple political parties showed up at the event and accepted the suggestions.
The people’s manifesto included points such as “scrapping the anti-conversion law” in the state, denouncing and taking immediate action to “halt, curb and control the growth and power of vigilante groups”, and that parties “should not indulge in hate politics, divisive sectarian and casteist agenda and polarisation.”
“Civil society groups have historically played a very important role in Indian politics, and it’s important for political parties to engage with them to build a more robust democracy,” Ashok Maridas, filmmaker, and one of the writers of the People’s Manifesto, says.