Celebrating syncretism

Written by Gauri Lankesh | Published on: January 1, 2005
A victory for the Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum and all secular forces as the state government decides to curb renewed attempts by the sangh parivar to communalise annual celebrations at the Baba Boudhangiri shrine

Every December, the sleepy little town of Chikmagalur in Karnataka would be swathed in saffron and resonate with hate speech. On the pretext of celebrating Datta Jayanti at the Dargah atop the Bababoudhangiri Hills, a mere 35 km from Chikmagalur, the sangh parivar organised thousands of people at this town for a political event titled Shobha Yatra. Over the last few years, such hate-mongers as Praveen Togadia of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Pramod Muthalik of the Bajrang Dal have participated in the Shobha Yatras and spewed venom on the minority Muslim population.

In the state of Karnataka – which the Bharatiya Janata Party has for long claimed as its ‘gateway’ to power in the South – the Baba Boudhangiri Dargah issue provided an opportunity to whip up communal hatred. Though for centuries the Dargah has been the centre of communal harmony with both Muslim and Hindu followers offering prayers, the sangh parivar launched a vicious campaign of hate and lies saying it would ‘liberate’ the shrine. They claimed it was a Hindu shrine that had been appropriated by Muslims, they declared they would install Dattatreya’s idol inside the cave shrine, they insisted that a Hindu (read Brahmin) priest should be appointed in place of the Muslim Mujawar. Their campaign had hit such shrill tones that Praveen Togadia, grinning widely, declared to television cameras three years ago: "We will make this the Ayodhya of the South!"

Unfortunately for the sangh parivar, the secular forces in the state got their act together and last December Chikmagalur saw a marked difference. This time there were no saffron flags, no hate speeches, no banners, no rally, no nothing. In fact, the situation was a total contrast to what had happened the year before. December 2003 had seen nearly 1,000 secular activists put behind bars while the saffron brigade was allowed to conduct its vicious campaign on the streets of Chikmagalur. But December 2004 saw a few BJP legislators, Bajrang Dal leaders and sangh parivar supporters cooling their heels in various police stations while 5,000 secular activists gathered at the neighbouring district capital, Shimoga, for a ‘victory’ rally.

In effect, the sangh parivar’s ‘Datta Peeta’ juggernaut had been brought to a grinding halt. More importantly, the sangh parivar’s attempts to gain political mileage in the guise of saving ‘Hindu religious traditions’ stood completely exposed.

How did this change come about? The answer lies in a combination of factors. The consistent campaign of the Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum and the Left parties, the ‘secular’ compulsions of a Congress-Janata Dal (S) government, which formed a post election coalition and assumed power with the avowed intention of keeping the communal BJP out, the fortunate posting of a determined district commissioner and superintendent of police to Chikmagalur, and finally, the results of some by-elections which proved to the Congress party that ‘soft Hindutva’ brought it no electoral dividends!

Though in December 2003 the Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum had put up a stiff resistance, we realised that we needed to make a more concrete effort. Therefore, throughout 2004 we pursued a two-pronged approach to counter the communal forces ideologically as well as programmatically.

The first resulted in constituting a study committee to investigate the socio-cultural and legal history of the Baba-Datta tradition. It was aimed at finding out whether there was any semblance of truth in the sangh parivar’s claim regarding the practice of Datta Jayanti. The study committee culled out facts from historical documents such as official declarations from the time of Tippu Sultan and the Maharaja of Mysore, land records from the time of British rule, the Government Gazetteer, court judgements and the sangh parivar’s own affidavits. The committee found no basis for the sangh parivar’s claims. The study committee published its findings in the form of a report, which was placed before the public. Based on the findings, the Forum also threw a challenge to the sangh parivar to counter the report, which of course, it has so far failed to do. (The report has now metamorphosed into a full-fledged book entitled Benkiyagalollada Belaku – meaning ‘light that could not be turned into fire’ – which was released this month. An English translation is now in the process of being published.)

Our second strategy was to adopt a suitable programme of action to counter the communal forces face to face on the streets and at the grass roots level. This programme was twofold: to have detailed discussion sessions with local media persons and politicians, and to carry out a district and taluka level campaign. Both action plans were flagged off, symbolically, in Chikmagalur. The meeting with the media and political persons was fairly successful as the Forum could convince them, in the light of the findings of the study committee, that the claims of the sangh parivar were totally untenable and baseless. The Forum also produced a film on the hate speeches made by leaders of the sangh parivar during the Datta Jayanti celebrations in previous years, which also had the desired effect.

Simultaneously, the Forum kept up the pressure on the State from the day the coalition government assumed power. Besides, we had also sought permission to hold a ‘communal harmony meet’ on the very days when the sangh parivar would hold its Yatras in Chikmagalur, thus pressurising the government to tackle a street confrontation between the secular and the communal elements.

As a result of all these efforts, when the state government convened an all-party meeting on December 8, 2004, the non-political Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum was also invited. Since we had already managed to convince local leaders of the Congress and the Janata Dal (S) and had given them copies of our report, that meeting ended with everyone – Congress, Janata Dal (S), Communist parties, the Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum – agreeing that under no circumstances should hate-mongering be allowed. The dissenters, naturally, were the BJP members and organisations sponsored by the sangh parivar. They insisted on continuing what they called a "long held tradition" by celebrating Datta Jayanti at the Baba Boudhan Dargah.

Fortunately, the government had posted deputy commissioner Kataria in Chikmagalur district. A no-nonsense officer, he had in the month of October thwarted the Chikmagalur MLA, CT Ravi’s attempts to install an idol of Dattatreya in an area belonging to a local Muslim organisation. This attempt was only a precursor to the kind of mischief the sangh parivar had planned under the guise of celebrating Datta Jayanti. Kataria had taken a firm stand establishing that he would adhere to court orders.

II

To understand the issue in its entirety, it is necessary to review the history of the shrine and the genesis of the sangh parivar’s campaign. Popular lore has it that Baba Boudhan, a contemporary of Prophet Mohammed, came to this region a long time ago and strove for the uplift of the lower castes in the region who were being exploited by the upper castes. Baba Boudhan gradually acquired a number of followers, some of whom converted to Islam while others preferred to remain in the Hindu fold. He is also credited with having introduced coffee to this region, the economic mainstay of most people even today.

Gradually, Baba Boudhan came to be known as Dada Hayat to his Muslim followers and as Dattatreya to his Hindu followers. The Dargah where Baba Boudhan is said to have meditated soon acquired the syncretic name of Sri Dattatreya Swami Baba Boudhan Dargah.

It is one of the oldest Sufi shrines in South India and for centuries both Muslim and Hindu devotees have been offering their prayers there making it one of the best symbols of a syncretic-secular culture. It is precisely for this reason that even though the Dargah was under the supervision of a Muslim Shakadri, the shrine had remained with the Muzarai department instead of the Wakf Board.

However, in the ’70s, the then Congress government decided to bring the Dargah under the control of the Wakf Board. The Shakadri, who opposed this move, argued before the Chikmagalur civil court that since Hindus also worshipped at the shrine it should not be brought under the purview of the Wakf Board. When the case (No. OS25/78) went up to the Chikmagalur district court, scenting an opportunity, the sangh parivar entered the scene. A sangh parivar sympathiser, Nagaraj Rao joined issue and appealed before the courts that since both communities worshipped at the Dargah, bringing it under the Wakf Board’s control meant that Hindus would be denied their right to offer prayers.

In 1980, the Chikmagalur district court ruled that "this shrine belongs to both communities and that the Sajjade Nishan is the religious head of both Peeta-Dargah. The Wakf Board has no claim over the shrine." The Court not only said that the management, control and affairs of the shrine should continue as they were prior to June 1975, the court also said it should be reverted to the Muzrai department.

The Wakf Board, however, was unwilling to let go. It appealed to the high court, which upheld the district court’s judgement. In a related development, on a complaint by sangh parivar sympathisers that the Shakadri had failed to provide proper amenities to devotees during the annual Urs that is celebrated at the Dargah, the district administration took monetary control of the Dargah away from the Shakadri. He questioned this too before the high court, which ruled "the management of this Peeta, also known as Dargah, the Urs celebrations and the management of this property should revert back to (the) situation existing prior to June 1975. The endowment commissioner should conduct enquiries as to the situation which existed prior to ’75 and ensure its implementation."

Following this, the district administration conducted enquiries and listed the traditions that existed at the shrine prior to June 1975. It should be pointed out that while doing so, the administration had taken into account the appeal filed by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad as also the Shakadri’s statements before the courts. Based on the district commissioner’s report, the endowment commissioner issued an order listing out the forms of worship that were in practice at the shrine before June 1975.

According to that list the Sajjade Nishan is the religious head to the shrine, a Mujawar appointed by the Sajjade Nishan is the only person authorised to enter the sanctum sanctorum and offer blessings to the devotees, that the faithful offer coconuts and camphor as part of their prayers, that all financial transactions during the annual Urs celebrations should be under the control of the Sajjade Nishan.

In the meantime, the tussle between the Wakf Board and the Shakadri went up to the Supreme Court. There too, the district court’s judgement that the status prior to June 1975 should be maintained was upheld.

It is significant that in none of the appeals before the courts had the sangh parivar sponsored organisations made any mention of Datta Jayanti being celebrated at the Dargah. Also, nowhere had they claimed that Hindus were being denied the opportunity to offer prayers at the shrine.

But the late 1980s saw the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation gaining momentum. Inspired by this, the sangh parivar spawned a local organisation called the Datta Peeta Protection Committee. In order to convey the impression that Datta Jayanti had been traditionally observed at the Dargah even prior to 1975, they seek permission to observe Datta Jayanti celebrations at the Dargah for the first time in 1988!

Over the next few years they managed to observe a one-day celebration in connivance with a pliable local administration that was more than glad to allow Hindutva elements to have their way. In 1993, the Babri Masjid was destroyed. This gave the sangh parivar impetus and they started mustering more and more people in the name of Datta Jayanti celebrations. Simultaneously, they introduced new ‘traditions’ such as a month long ‘Datta Maale’ (on the lines of Shabarimale), ‘Datta Abhiyana’ and ‘Shobha Yatra’ rallies. Also, in total violation of court orders, they started organising Vedic rituals such as Homas and Havans at the Dargah. (For more details on how the sangh parivar is trying to replace people’s culture with Brahmanical Vedic rituals, see Communalism Combat, Nov.-Dec. 2004.)

Things reached a crescendo in 1999 when the BJP-led NDA government came to power at the Centre. That year they declared they would ‘liberate’ the shrine from the clutches of the Muslims, they would install Dattatreya’s idol and nominate a Hindu priest in the place of the Muslim Mujawar. At the same time they also started inventing new ‘myths’ around the shrine. Their propaganda claimed that Baba Boudhangiri was originally the holy abode of Dattatreya Swami, which was later captured by Muslims. Therefore, the sacred task of the sanghis was to ‘liberate’ the place from the Muslim hold, re-establish the ‘original’ deity and carry out Hindu rituals.

Secular forces had been countering this false propaganda by the sangh parivar since the late ’90s, but to no avail. In 2002, over 200 organisations comprising farmers, Dalits, women, progressives, intellectuals and others got together to form the Baba Boudhangiri Souharda Vedike. In association with the Left parties, the Vedike organised a rally to counter the sangh parivar. But it was only in 2003 that the secularists decided to tackle the saffron brigade head on. The Vedike decided to hold a rally for peace on the same day that the sangh parivar was holding its Shobha Yatra at Chikmagalur.

But the then Congress chief minister SM Krishna decided to toe the soft Hindutva line. He jailed nearly 1,000 secularists and allowed the saffron brigade to conduct its hate-mongering Shobha Yatra. The result of this foolhardy decision was felt during the elections held to the state legislature last year. All three Congress MLAs from Chikmagalur district who were also ministers in Krishna’s cabinet lost miserably. In their place, all three seats were won by the BJP.

Just as Rajasthan’s Ashok Gehlot and Madhya Pradesh’s Digvijay Singh, Karnataka’s Krishna too had learnt that ‘soft Hindutva’ simply does not win the Congress any electoral dividends! This electoral lesson was fortunately not wasted on Krishna’s successor, Dharam Singh, or the Congress’ coalition partner, the Janata Dal (Secular). Additionally, in the by-elections to the Bidar parliamentary constituency held later on, the Congress managed to wrest the seat from the BJP without playing the soft Hindutva card. This was a significant victory since the BJP had earlier won from Bidar a record eight times. Election results in Maharashtra (of polls held around the same time as the Bidar by-elections) also proved that even the supposedly emotive issue of ‘insult to Savarkar’ did not pay off for the BJP.

Perhaps all these factors as also the pressure exerted by the Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum and the compulsions of managing a coalition government whose raison d’être was to keep the communal BJP out, added up. The government finally decided to act relatively ‘tough’. First, deputy commissioner Kataria imposed Section 144 on Chikmagalur and denied permission to the sangh parivar to hold the Shobha Yatra a day prior to Datta Jayanti. The district administration also pulled down the saffron banners and flags. Then the entire district was cordoned off so that no sangh parivaris could enter. Later, all the BJP leaders were rounded up and detained at the nearest police stations.

Despite all this, the government still shied from declaring a ban on the illegal Datta Jayanti for fear of losing ‘Hindu’ votes. And when the BJP denounced the ‘State-sponsored’ Datta Jayanti because rituals such as Homas or Havans were not being held, the government succumbed enough to invite three pontiffs to the celebrations in contravention of court orders. The government could have taken a firmer stand and adhered to the court orders both in spirit and letter.

Yet, the saffron brigade and the BJP today stand totally exposed. In a desperate attempt the BJP declared that it would host its own Datta Jayanti at some future date and organise Homas and Havans across the state as a form of protest. So far, however, none of this has taken place. More importantly, even the non-devout Hindu knows that a Datta Jayanti held on any day other than that prescribed in the lunar calendar has no significance.

It has been clear to everyone for a long time that the sangh parivar was never really keen on ‘rescuing’ the shrine by celebrating Datta Jayanti. Instead it was more interested in the rabble-rousing Shobha Yatra held a day prior to the Datta Jayanti. For it gave the sangh parivar ample opportunity to fan communal passions in the name of ‘protecting’ Hindu religion. But with the government allowing Datta Jayanti and banning the Shobha Yatra, the sangh parivar lost its steam. The resistance it put up was so weak that less than a 100 people – including MLAs and other leaders – courted arrest. Compare this with the 1,000 secularists who faced jail the previous year and the contrast is glaring.

For the Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum, it was partial yet sweet success. Our aim now is to ensure that in December 2005 the government will be forced to comply with the court orders in full. Because we realise that in achieving that goal, we will not only be honouring the law of the land, but we will also have succeeded in preserving our secular heritage as epitomised for centuries in the Sri Dattatreya Swami Baba Boudhangiri Dargah.



Archived from Communalism Combat, January  2005. Year 11, No.104, Breaking Barriers