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Communal work

Print edition : Oct 23, 2009 T+T-
in Chickmagalur

CONSTRUCTION work has begun at the contested shrine of Sri Guru Dattatreya Bababudan Swamy Dargah to restore a part of the cave that collapsed in June 2008. The shrine is located on the Inam Dattatreya hill, close to Chickmagalur town in western Karnataka. The work began on September 8 after bhoomi puja at the venue by senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders of the State in the presence of district officials. Members of the Karnataka Komu Souharda Vedike (KKSV; Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum), a State-wide forum of activists who have been leading the movement against the Sangh Parivars attempts to convert the syncretic shrine into an exclusive Hindu place of worship, have criticised the district administration for its lapses with regard to the restoration work. One of the allegations is that it violated a 2008 stay order from the Supreme Court.

Members of the KKSV point out that the restoration work will fundamentally alter the architecture of the shrine. Opposition leaders have criticised the State government for allowing the construction work to begin. In a press conference, H.D. Deve Gowda, the national president of the Janata Dal (Secular), accused the BJP government and the district administration of Chickmagalur of showing disrespect to the judiciary.

The Supreme Court on December 1, 2008, ordered a stay on any new activities at the shrine. The order said: Status quo to be maintained in terms of order dated 25.2.1989 passed by the Commissioner for Religious & Charitable Endowments in Karnataka. If this ruling is interpreted correctly, all the restoration activity, starting from the bhoomi puja, is illegal. Present at the bhoomi puja were D.V. Sadananda Gowda, the State president of the BJP; K.S. Eshwarappa, the State Minister of Energy; and C.T. Ravi, the BJP Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) from Chickmagalur. It was performed just outside the cave.

When this correspondent tried to visit the premises of the shrine, the Deputy Commissioner of Chickmagalur, R. Narayanswamy, flatly refused permission. He said the area was a contested one and no one could be given the permission to visit it. How then did he allow senior BJP leaders, who have no stake in the management or administration of the shrine, to perform a bhoomi puja on the shrine premises? It is our tradition to perform a bhoomi puja before any new construction work is undertaken, said Narayanswamy. C.T. Ravi made a similar statement in a conversation with Frontline.

The KKSV objects to the restoration activity because any change in the architecture of the shrine will alter the status quo and affect the spiritual ethos of the area. The proposed plan involves the erection of 52 pillars that will support a massive roof for the entire premises. Officials in the district administration say that this has been done to provide protection for the restored cave because the area is prone to heavy rainfall, and humidity is very high around the year.

The KKSV has also objected to the fact that no religious leaders, particularly from among the Sufi followers of the shrine, were consulted while envisaging such a massive restoration project. Even the Shah Khadri (chief priest) of the shrine, Syed Ghouse Mohiyudden, who in a 2000 district administration order was designated as the person to manage the religious rituals, was not consulted or shown the blueprint of the proposed construction. The district administration refused to consult me or even inform me about the proposed restoration work, he said.

The work has been allotted to a Bangalore-based private limited company called Binyas Contech, which describes itself as structural rehabilitation engineers. According to documents obtained under the Right to Information Act and which are in the possession of Frontline, Binyas was formed only in 2002. Its expertise is in demolition work and it has not been involved so far in any major construction or restoration work. The contract was awarded without a tender being floated. The recommendation was made by the Torsteel Research Foundation of India (TRFI) and the Geological Survey of India, the consultants for the project. The district administration had requested exemption from the Karnataka Transparency Act, 2003, for the process of choosing a company for the restoration work.

The haste with which the district administration has gone ahead and begun the construction is intriguing. There is speculation that it wants the work completed before Datta Jayanthi, a religious event held in December every year on the shrine premises, so that the restored structure gets the approval of Hindutva forces in the State and achieves legitimacy among devout Hindus.

Narayanswamy denied that there was any basis for any of these allegations. He said that the restoration work was unique and no company in India had been involved in the kind of engineering work that restoring a cave involved. Three companies were shortlisted for the restoration work, which is estimated to cost Rs.2.09 crore by the TRFI, but two of these companies are Mumbai-based. Binyas was chosen as it is based in Bangalore, he said.

The picturesque hills surrounding Chickmagalur town are enveloped in a misty haze for most of the year. Verdant coffee plantations, interspersed with sturdy silver oaks, surround the narrow and steep road of 30 kilometres that leads up to the cave-shrine from Chickmagalur. No one is allowed within several hundred metres of the cave. Zinc sheets cover the cave site, but thousands of devotees visit the area every day.

The trouble first started in these beautiful hills, scattered with religious ruins both Hindu and Muslim in the 1970s after the formation of the Karnataka State Board of Wakfs, which tried to extend its control over the shrine. The Shah Khadri resented the move. The shrines administration was governed by the Muzrai Department, which oversees the administration of temples. (It is an ode to the syncretic tradition of the shrine that it has traditionally been managed by a Muslim; its administration came under the Muzrai Department from the time of the Mysore maharajas.)

The shrine is believed to date back to the 11th century when a Muslim saint with miraculous powers, Dada Hayath Qalandar, is supposed to have first visited the area. While there are no written records about his visit, the legend lives on strongly in the minds of the thousands of devotees who visit the shrine from across the country.

Some others believe that the cave-shrine was the abode of Dattatreya, the incarnation of the divine trinity Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. But there was no conflict between worshippers because Dada Hayath and Dattatreya were believed to be one and the same person. Bababudan, whose real name was Jamal Ahmed Maghribi and after whom the hills have been named, was a 15th or 16th century Yemeni saint who is said to have first brought coffee to the hills. He settled in the shrine and his descendants lived on heading the administrative and religious affairs of the shrine, said the current Shah Khadri.

Written records about the shrine began to be available after this, and it is usually referred to as Bababudan Dargah or the Datta Peetha. There is a reference to this shrine in the Imperial Gazetteer of 1887. Historical documents show that the Shah Khadri of the shrine was recognised by the Wodeyars of Mysore to be the administrator of the shrine. Yoginder Sikand, a scholar of South Asian Islam, has written several articles on the issue and has cited several Muslim and Hindu practices that make the shrine syncretic.

The Wakf Boards attempt to take over the shrine led to competing claims on its status. The matter was first settled by the Chickmagalur District Court, which, in its judgment in 1980, said that the shrine belonged to both Hindus and Muslims and that it should be governed by the Muzrai Department. A series of legal battles took the issue to the High Court, which gave the Commissioner of Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowments a brief to codify the rituals practised in the shrine before 1989.

His report describes the practices prevalent at the shrine, also mentioning some practices that were prevalent in Hindu temples, such as the breaking of coconuts. The only event involving a large gathering, as recorded by the Commissioner, was the urs (death anniversary) of Bababudan, held over three days in March. The Shah Khadri was recognised as someone who could appoint the daily priests and, indirectly, administer the shrine.

In the early 1990s, Datta Jayanthi was a small affair. However, after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, efforts to make a grand affair out of the event began to gather momentum. In the late 1990s, a Datta Mala event was introduced and, along with Datta Jayanthi, it began to attract considerable media attention. As these new rituals gained some public legitimacy, the Bababudan Dargah increasingly began to be known as the Datta Peetha, a process that involved considerable erasure of public memory. While a section of worshippers had always referred to the Dargah as the Datta Peetha, it did not connote, in any way, an exclusively Hindu temple.

After the death of the Shah Khadri in 1999, his son, who had clearly been nominated to the hereditary post several years earlier, was made a salaried employee of the Muzrai Department who could manage only the religious rituals. The administration of the shrine would be under the district administration. Thus, over the past couple of decades, the nature of the shrine has been completely changed under gradual pressure from the Sangh Parivar.

Members of the Sangh Parivar claim that the actual Bababudan Dargah is situated some 3 km away, which can be reached only by hard trekking. It is a place which local residents call Jannat Nagar. To call the Datta Peetha a disputed shrine is wrong. The real Bababudan Dargah is situated in Nagenhalli village [Jannat Nagar], said C.T. Ravi. A visit to the area shows that there are some graves of Muslim saints in this gorgeous valley surrounded by green hills and forests, but none of the local Muslims has known the place as the shrine of Bababudan.

The current Shah Khadri is in a difficult position. Apart from losing out on his hereditary right to manage the shrine, he has been deserted by local Muslims because of the increasing influence of a scripturalist understanding of Islam which does not give space to sacerdotalism. He is hemmed in by an increasingly aggressive administration, which over the past decade has demolished several ancestral properties near the cave-shrine. He is not consulted by the district administration on any proposed changes, such as the restoration project.

The KKSV has filed an urgent application in the Supreme Court, pointing out that construction work is already in full swing. It hopes that the court, recognising the various lapses of the district administration, will pass an interim order stopping the construction work.

Sadananda Gowda has no regrets about having participated in the bhoomi puja and has announced to the media that the idol of Dattatreya will be a part of the restored shrine. The political implications of this move are tremendous as the BJP has used this issue to mobilise serious support for itself in the 1990s and in the early part of this decade in Karnataka. Several political leaders of the BJP in the State, including C.T. Ravi, owe their rise to the way in which this issue was communalised.

In an aggressive speech in 2002, BJP leader Ananth Kumar referred to the shrine as the Ayodhya of the South.

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