Field Notes: 'India Is For Everyone'

G Vishnu

The April sun was beating down on the 800-year-old Bappanadu Durgaparameshwari in Mulki town on the coast of Mangalore in southern Karnataka. 

The weather report on Google read, “33 degrees—feels like 41”. 

I was reporting how Hindu fundamentalists had stopped Muslim traders from the annual temple fair for the second year in a row, with neither the temple authorities nor the police intervening. 

The temple is said to have been built by a Muslim merchant. A board called it a “testimony to communal harmony” where “non-Hindus have participated in the temple activities for the longest time”.

Christians in the nearby town of Shankarpura grow most of the jasmine flowers offered to the Hindu goddess. Local Muslims from Mulki set up jasmine shops at the temple fair. 

This time, there were none. 

Although I was at a temple fair filled with joyous rides, games, sweets, imitation jewellery, clothes, and a giant wheel, I could feel a sense of being in prison and being watched.

Young Hindu men in saffron scarves and bandanas watched all that was happening at the temple fair, occasionally scrutinising the Aadhaar cards of traders they suspected of being Muslim. 

After scores of interviews, I realised that the Hindu traders felt ambiguous about Muslims being kept out. While some felt uneasy, others were indifferent. 

Most invariably used the terms ‘us’ and ‘them’ while discussing Muslims.  

After several interviews, I was unconsciously lulled into the “us” and “them” jargon and found myself referring to Muslim traders as “anya mateeyaru” (the others). I was shocked and deeply ashamed of myself. I realised then how the language we hear repeated around us or read again and again seeps into our subconscious. 

Muslims and Christians in Karnataka are often called “Anya matheeyaru” by Kannada newspapers and some news channels. For the Kannada media, it would appear that Hinduism is the default faith of the land, while “the others” have to reconcile to be treated as such. 

Walking around the fair with a heavy heart, I met a 23-year-old toy seller, a Hindu, with his two-year-old daughter and wife. 

While munching on boiled corn, I chatted with him about the toys he was selling: inflatable plastic aeroplanes, bears, roosters and turtles that cost between Rs 30 to 150.

I soon figured this was a young man who had seen better days.

The toy seller had travelled 1,200 km by train to Mangaluru from Yavatmal in Maharashtra to sell toys he'd bought in Mumbai. 

This was his third year at the Bappanadu fair. 

Back in Yavatmal, the toy seller had three acres of land where he grew soya beans, lentils, wheat and chickpeas. 

However, Yavatmal and much of Vidarbha had been ravaged by drought year after year, sending farmers into debt. 

Like hundreds of farmers in that region, the toy seller had suffered consecutive crop failures. 

The Covid-19 pandemic nearly destroyed his family as the debts mounted. 

In 2022, the toy seller lost more than Rs 35,000 after off-season floods ravaged his farm. 

The toy seller and his wife had been wandering the country for the last three years, going to 10 to 15 fairs a year, selling toys. They make about 2,000 rupees in profits at each fair. 

Poverty and hardships notwithstanding, even on bad days, the young couple laughed together. 

On the second day of the fair, I had a glimpse of their world. Even though it was a bad day for business, the young couple played fake-shooting games with their toy guns, amusing themselves and their child.

At some point, I asked the toy owner if he thought Muslims should be kept out of the temple fair, given that it could benefit Hindu vendors like him. His answer was simple yet profoundly moving. 

“India belongs to Muslims too. India is for everyone,” he said. “It’s good when we live together. We have to co-exist.” 

His wife, observing the interview, was apprehensive about speaking to a reporter. The toy owner asked me not to reveal his name in the video. When this issue was flagged by the Article 14 editors—the oddity of showing his face while not telling his name and showing his face when his wife was uncomfortable about it—I called them up. 

The toyseller reiterated that he was fine with his video being out, but what his wife said surprised me. Familiar with how television channels demonised Muslims, she feared I would provoke her husband into saying “anti-Muslim things.” 

When she saw the video, his wife said, “I, too, believe what he said is completely right.” 

Yet, here we were. An editorial team is scared for the toy owner and the possibility of hate mongers finding his identity. Saying that Muslims are equal citizens of this country should not require courage. While his words make me hopeful, I cannot help being scared for the toy seller and his idea of India. 

Watch G Vishnu’s full story here

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