Frontline Volume 20 - Issue 25, December 06 - 19, 2003
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THE STATES

A communal campaign

PARVATHI MENON
in Bangalore

The Sangh Parivar carries on a motivated campaign to Hinduise a Sufi shrine in Chickmagalur, noted for its syncretic form of worship, as the State administration hesitates to enforce relevant court rulings.

THERE has been a spate of public statements by leaders of the Sangh Parivar in Karnataka in recent weeks threatening to convert the Guru Dattatreya Baba Budan Dargah in the Baba Budan Giri range of Chickmagalur into the "Ayodhya of the South". Apart from leaders of the Bajrang Dal in Karnataka and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) general secretary Praveen Togadia, this comment was also made in Chickmagalur by H.N. Ananth Kumar, the newly appointed president of the State unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The new political focus given to an issue which the Sangh Parivar has tried for the last eight years to transform into a flashpoint of communal conflict appears to be linked to the State Assembly elections which are due in 2005. While the BJP needs a religious peg to hang its political campaign on, the actual campaign of communalisation of the Baba Budan Giri Dargah issue is in the hands of the more extremist components of the Sangh Parivar, notably the Bajrang Dal and the VHP. Gujarat, Narendra Modi, Godhra and the celebration of a Gujarat-type violence are now firmly part of the rhetoric of this campaign.

K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

The entrance to the cave-shrine, surrounded by security forces, a file picture.

High up in a little cave on a wind-swept mountainside of the Western Ghats in Chickmagalur district sits the Guru Dattatreya Baba Budan Dargah, the target of the Sangh Parivar's campaign of Hinduisation. This Sufi shrine of great antiquity and veneration is a proud cultural symbol of syncretic worship and religious pluralism in Karnataka. Believed to have been the seat of a Sufi mystic known as Dada Khalandar or Dattatreya, the shrine, which commands a spectacular view of the Western Ghat ranges and shola forests, attracts lakhs of devotees from all religious persuasions each year, especially during the annual Urs festival of its patron saint.

The dargah is believed to have been one of the earliest centres of Sufism in South India. According to legend, Hazrat Dada Hayath Meer Khalandar, who was a disciple of Prophet Muhammad, founded it. It is believed that Khalandar came to this region with his followers and set up camp in the cave. This centre of Sufi learning and Khalandar's line of successors find mention in several inscriptions, grants and endowments by successive Muslim and Hindu dynasties in Karnataka from the medieval period onwards. Baba Budan, after whom the hill range was named, was one of Khalandar's disciples. It is believed that he came from Mocha in Arabia and brought the first coffee seeds to the region.

In time the Sufi traditions of this centre acquired several coatings of myth and legend, some of them Hindu in origin. Dada Khalandar is also called Dattatreya Swami by Hindus, who believe that he was an avatar of Vishnu. Forms of worship are equally syncretic. The priest who performs the worship in the shrine is called the Mujavar and is a Muslim. He is appointed by the Sajjade Nishan or head of the shrine. This post has passed from father to son through a family that traces its lineage to the Prophet. Devotees break coconuts and offer flowers at the shrine. The Mujavar lights the lamp in the inner chamber of the shrine and offers teertha (consecrated water) to the devotees. The practice of taking a vow and tying a thread, common to most Sufi shrines, is also practiced here.

THE Sangh Parivar has made its agenda for the dargah clear enough, which is to convert it into a Hindu temple and rid it of its Muslim priest and the Sajjade Nishan. In 1996, the VHP formed a Dattatreya Puja Samiti and introduced a number of Hindu rituals into the worship at the shrine. It first introduced Dattatreya Jayanti, a day different from the date of the traditional Urs held in March every year. A day's celebration soon became three days of festivities, and by 1999, the Bajrang Dal, taking advantage of a pliant district administration, took Brahmin archakas or priests to the shrine with an idol of Ganesha to perform puja during the three days of Dattatreya Jayanti. The Mujavar was asked to leave the premises during that period. In addition to the Dattatreya Jayanti, they also introduced a Datta Maale function along the pattern of worship at the Sabarimala shrine in Kerala, where prospective pilgrims must vow to observe a period of ritual purity before visiting the shrine.

This year the Sangh Parivar is threatening to escalate the campaign and mobilise widely for the three-day Datta Jayanti festivities from December 6 to 8. Praveen Togadia is slated to be a participant in the Datta Yatra, or procession to the shrine. What they have perhaps underestimated is the strong counter-offensive by political parties, student and youth organisations, intellectuals and cultural activists, and sections of the media, to their campaign.

"All of their demands are a contravention of the verdict delivered by the District Court, which was later upheld by the Karnataka High Court and the Supreme Court," says Gauri Lankesh, the Editor of the popular Kannada weekly Lankesh Patrike. "In fact, the Supreme Court has ruled that only those practices that were prevalent prior to June 1975 should continue at the dargah and no new practices be allowed. This ruling says that no priest should be appointed, the graves of Muslim saints at the site should be protected, no idol should be allowed to be placed in the shrine, and the syncretic nature of the shrine should continue as it was prior to 1975," she said.

K. GOPINATHAN

A six-member delegation of writers, editors and academics, which included (from left) Lankesh Patrike Editor Gauri Lankesh and theatre personalities Girish Karnad and G.K. Govinda Rao, when it submitted a memorandum to Chief Minister S.M. Krishna (third from right). State Chief Secretary B.S. Patil is at extreme right.

"The legal position is very clear," A.K. Subbaiah, a leading lawyer from the Janata Dal (Secular), told Frontline. "In 1975 the Supreme Court held that the shrine came under the Muzrai Act and the rituals, to be performed only by the Mujavar, are specified. The whole campaign of the Sangh Parivar is illegal."

A delegation of prominent Karnataka-based writers, editors and academics, comprising Girish Karnad, K. Marulasiddappa, G.K. Govinda Rao, Gauri Lankesh, V.S. Sreedhara and Shudra Srinivas, has submitted a memorandum to Chief Minister S.M. Krishna, drawing his attention to the "newly invented practices like Datta Jayanthi, Shobha Yatre and Datta Maala and the performing of yagnas" which are in direct contravention of the court orders. "The situation is hugely explosive and may erupt into violence, justifying the political claim that Karnataka may be turned into another Gujarat," they noted. They have demanded that the Datta Jayanthi, Datta Maala and Shobha Yatre be banned as they are "incendiary and provocative acts which have no religious significance or tradition". They have also given a call to all political parties, organisations, writers, artists, film-makers and intellectuals to join a `Souharda Samavesha' or communal harmony meet on December 7 and 8.

Since 1999, the Sangh Parivar has conducted the Datta Jayanthi celebrations with impunity, encouraged by a pliant district administration. In that year the District Commissioner set up a managing committee to look into the so-called financial irregularities in the shrine by the Sajjade Nishan. "The committee comprises largely Bajrang Dal activists and Sangh sympathisers," Subbaiah says. He argues that the allegation of financial irregularities was only a ruse to take control over the management of the shrine. Irregularities can be looked into separately, he argues. "Will they allow the finances of a Hindu mutt to be scrutinised by the government?" he asks.

The participation of the District Commissioner in a puja conducted at the shrine during the Datta Jayanti celebrations has come under considerable criticism. The delegation led by Karnad submitted a photograph of Minister for Law and Parliamentary Affairs D.B. Chandre Gowda, who is also the District Minister in charge for Chickmagalur, taking part in a puja at the Baba Budan Giri Dargah.

In 1998, the J.H. Patel government came down firmly on a plan by the Bajrang Dal to "liberate" the shrine, forcing the organisation to call off its campaign. However from the next year onwards, the State government accorded the organization permission to conduct the yearly Datta Jayanti celebrations for three days, during which time the shrine is converted into a Hindu temple.

"We found that the Dalits and tribal people of Chickmagalur district, who form the majority within the plantation labour force, would join us for economic struggles, and join the Sangh Parivar when it came to religious mobilisation at Baba Budan Giri" Shivaraj R. Biradar, State Secretary of the All India Youth Federation, told Frontline. In 2002, the AIYF conducted a major campaign in the district to break the propaganda of the Sangh Parivar. "We mobilised around 10,000 of our committed cadre to observer December 8, 2002 as a Bhavaikyatha Datta Jayanti, or a solidarity day. This was a resounding success and made a big difference in changing the mindset of the local people," Biradar said.

This year too the Souharda Samavesha at Chickmagalur promises to be a major mobilisation of people opposed to the Sangh Parivar's project. "We have received tremendous response to our call," Gauri Lankesh told Frontline. "If the government has given permission for the Datta Yatra, then in all fairness they must give us permission too. Otherwise let them ban both processions," she added. The stage seems to be set for a confrontation, which can be averted if the State government abides by the court rulings on the case.

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