Debating India


Another Ayodhya?


Sunday 14 December 2003, by SRIKANTH *B.R.

Article paru dans Outlook India, ?dition en ligne du 14 d?cembre 2003.

It was Babri in 1992, a decade later it’s a Sufi shrine in the south.

A few years ago no one would have predicted that the Guru Dattatreya Baba Budangiri Swamy dargah near Chikmagalur, in Karnataka’s tranquil and picturesque Western Ghats, would become the Ayodhya of south India. The shrine of Sufi saint Dada Hayath Meer Qalandar, the Sangh parivar claims, was originally a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Dattatreya (an incarnation of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva), his mother Devi Anasuya and four disciples. While the VHP and Bajrang Dal have in recent years been demanding the "liberation" of the dargah, an overt political twist has now been added with the BJP’s Karnataka unit joining the chorus for the first time.

Ironically, the dargah has always been a symbol of communal harmony. It has an interesting blend of rituals and festivities, interweaving Hindu and Muslim. Thousands of pilgrims from all communities turn up at the shrine twice a year-once in December during the Datta Jayanti celebrations and again in February-March for Hayath Meer Qalandar’s urs. During the rest of the year, a trickle of devotees come to offer prayers and receive a talisman and sacred ash from the muzavar, the equivalent of a priest, at the shrine.

The BJP’s ploy of playing the communal card in Karnataka became official when Union cabinet discard and state unit chief Ananth Kumar disclosed his party’s intention of turning the shrine issue into "another Ayodhya" at a press conference in Chikmagalur. Ever since, the parivar and the BJP have been vowing to "repeat Gujarat". A rally was organised as part of the Hindu Viraat Samajothsav in Bangalore which was addressed by a number of seers of various maths in Karnataka and Hindutva’s fiery votary, VHP general secretary Praveen Togadia. Similar rallies were organised in Chikmagalur and other parts of Karnataka. The date couldn’t have been better-December 6-anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition.

At the Bangalore Samajothsav, the seers lamented the ’downslide’ of Hinduism, spoke on the lack of a ban on cow slaughter and on conversions. They spoke up against the discrimination of Dalits and the practice of untouchability. These discourses were followed by Togadia’s vituperative attack on the minorities and on policies implemented by various governments to retain their "votebanks".

Ayodhya seemed to have shifted to Bangalore and Chikmagalur this December 6; both were awash with saffron flags, banners and cutouts of Hindu deities. Saffron T-shirts and bandanas too were handed out to the youth at the rallies. At Chikmagalur, Sadhvi Rithambara and other Bajrang Dal and BJP figures made fiery speeches. "It’s a sacred spot where Lord Dattatreya performed penance and which his mother Anasuyadevi declared as a holy place. Muslim invaders overran it and converted it into a dargah to suit their religious needs," Rithambara thundered.

For the first time, BJP MP from Chikmagalur, D.C. Srikantappa, and the leader of Opposition in the legislative council, D.H. Shankara Murthy, used the Dattatreya Jayanti celebrations atop the windswept Baba Budan hills to demand that the shrine be handed over to Hindus. The BJP and the Sangh want a Dattatreya idol to be installed here for regular worship.

The VHP-Bajrang Dal have vowed to keep the pressure on the government with a new twist to the controversy over the shrine-they have extracted land records from the district administration to buttress their claim that the shrine belonged to the Hindus. These records indicate that Datta Peetha and Baba Budan dargah are two different shrines located one kilometre apart in the region. In addition, they claim to have secured a list of properties owned by Datta Peetha and Baba Budan dargah as another piece of evidence in support of their claim for the shrine.

The contentious turn in the shrine’s story and the various twists and turns in legal battles over the control of the shrine in recent years was set off in the mid-’60s.But at that point it was more a tussle between two administrative bodies-the Waqf Board and the Muzrai department which manages temples in Karnataka. They squabbled over a notification issued by the Waqf Board that the shrine was under its jurisdiction. Interestingly, the then sajjada nasheen (manager of the shrine) backed the Muzrai department’s stand, arguing that the dargah was not exclusively a Muslim shrine but venerated by people of both communities.

The second round was fought in 1975 when the state government ordered the shrine to be vested with the Waqf Board. But the Chikmagalur district court struck down this order in 1980. In 1991, the Bangalore High Court dismissed an appeal by the Waqf Board and ordered restoring the status quo in terms of rituals and prayers as they existed before June 1975, a verdict later upheld by the apex court. Now, the Sangh parivar wants the shrine to be entirely handed over to Hindus and an archak (Hindu priest) to be appointed to perform rituals. It has also objected to its management by the sajjada nasheen. The 14th generation sajjada nasheen, Syed Peer Mohamed Shakadri, passed away in 1999. Now his son, Syed Ghouse Mohiyuddin, manages the affairs of the dargah.

For centuries, the shrine has been an exemplar of Hindu-Muslim unity. The Hindus call the sanctum as that of Dattatreya, the Muslims describe him as Baba. A platform inside the shrine symbolises the peetha where Dattatreya performed penance, but it’s also revered as the place were Baba offered prayers. Hindus believe a stream inside the shrine was used by Anasuya. To the Muslims, the feminine presence is known as Mama Zigani.

Adding to the confusion are conflicting versions about who Hazrat Dada Meer Qalandar and Baba Budan were. Legend has it that Dada Meer Qalandar, a close disciple of Prophet Mohammed, arrived here in the sixth century. He brought Baba Budan or Sayyed Shah Jamaluddin Maghribi from Yemen in the 16th century to manage the dargah. Baba Budan reportedly brought seven coffee beans from Yemen and introduced coffee cultivation in the region. Another section holds Baba to be the grandson of Ismail Shakhadri, who was originally sent by Hyder Ali in the 18th century to collect cess and manage the daily affairs of the dargah.

On its part, the Karnataka government handled the rallies in Bangalore and Chikmagalur as well as the annual Datta celebrations with great tact. Wary of a Hindu backlash, it did not heed the appeals by noted playwright Girish Karnad to ban the entry of Togadia or clamp down on the Chikmagalur rallies. Instead, the S.M. Krishna government facilitated these rallies and celebrations with the help of a large police force (6,000 each in Bangalore and Chikmagalur). The local administration was instructed to handle them with caution and to ensure that peace was not disturbed in the region.

That won’t soften the BJP and the parivar’s determination to make this a political issue, especially in view of the assembly elections next year. Any surprise then that the Sangh parivar has activated its cadres in Karnataka?

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