IT is extensively documented that the Hindu right wing has a well-honed strategy to turn hitherto harmonious religious spaces into “disputed sites” through sheer rhetoric and physical aggression. A sense of historical grievance combined with a generous dose of communal messaging is used to legitimise dubious mythologies. This strategy yields political gains for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has a symbiotic relationship with lumpen fringe organisations. The most famous example from Karnataka is the case of the syncretic shrine of Sri Guru Dattatreya Bababudan Swamy Dargah in the hills of Chikkamaggaluru where Hindus and Muslims worshipped amiably until the Sangh Parivar muscled its way in and turned the space into a “disputed site”. With the issue now stuck in a tedious legal process, the unique nature of the shrine has been completely destroyed. (See “A battlefront in the south”, Frontline , March 2, 2018.)
Now a relatively unknown fringe organisation called the Hindu Jagrana Vedike (HJV), which is affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), has started a “controversy” in Harobele, a Christian-majority village of about 3,500 people in the bucolic hinterland of Kanakapura taluk, around two and a half hours by road from Bengaluru. The issue is a planned 114-foot-tall statue of Jesus Christ, for which Congress MLA D.K. Shivakumar laid the foundation stone on Christmas Day last year. The BJP has limited influence in south Karnataka, and the Congress leader’s involvement perhaps has the potential for political gains for the BJP.
The statue is to come up atop a hill called the Kapali betta (also sometimes called Kapala betta; “betta” in Kannada means hill) just outside Harobele. The Christian community of the village, organised under the aegis of the Harobele Kapali betta Development Trust (HKDT), was allotted 10 acres (1 acre is 0.4 hectare) of land on Kapali betta earlier in the month. Shivakumar, who represents Kanakapura in the State Assembly, was born in the neighbouring village of Doddaalahalli. He had also been instrumental in facilitating the allotment of the land, which in Revenue Department records was earmarked as “gomala”, or pasture for cattle and part of the village commons, to the HKDT when he was a Minister in Siddaramaiah’s Congress government between 2013 and 2018. Members of the HKDT had invited him to preside over the foundation stone-laying ceremony.
Members of the HJV, who oppose the construction of the statue, claim that the allotment was illegal. The HJV is also apparently apprehensive that the presence of a towering Jesus statue will turn Harobele into a prominent international centre of Christianity and increase missionary activity in the region.
On January 12, it organised a rally, which was attended by a few thousand young people in Kanakapura to “save Muneshwara betta” from the “fox-like mentality and conspiracies of Christian missionaries”, according to pamphlets distributed at the event. While the hill is widely known as Kapali betta, Hindu right-wing activists prefer to call it Muneshwara betta as they claim that the hill was a makeshift space where a pre-harvest ritual called “muni” involving animal sacrifices took place. Kalladka Prabhakar Bhat, the fiery RSS leader from Kalladka near Mangaluru in coastal Karnataka, was the chief speaker at the rally. He declared that a temple existed on top of the hill near Harobele village and stated that Hindus would not allow the construction of a Jesus statue on Muneshwara betta.
“We will construct a Muneshwara temple on top of the hill and will give Shivakumar’s head as a sacrifice to Muneshwara. If you [Shivakumar] had built a statue of Mahatma Gandhi or any Hindu god, we wouldn’t have any objection, but we are against building a Sonia Gandhi statue,” he said, accusing Shivakumar of trying to impress the Congress’ central leadership. Speaking to mediapersons at the event, C.P. Yogeshwar, BJP MLA from Channapatna, said: “Shivakumar and his brother [D.K. Suresh, who is the member of Parliament representing Bengaluru Rural constituency] are involved in serious criminal activities. Rather than focussing on development, he is installing a statue of Jesus, which affects Hindus’ feelings.”
A police picket comprising four constables has now been permanently stationed at the base of Kapali betta to fend off vandals. A short but hard trek leads up from the base to the site of the proposed statue. Most of the residents of Harobele are small landholders and practise sericulture. Ninety-five per cent of the village’s population is Roman Catholic, which makes it a Christian enclave in a region where all the surrounding villages are almost entirely Hindu and dominated by the Vokkaliga caste. (Shivakumar is a popular Vokkaliga leader.)
Recorded history shows that Kapali betta has been important for the Christians of Harobele since at least 1906: a play depicting the final moments of Jesus’ crucifixion has been performed continuously in the village every year on Good Friday since that year. The entire community treks up the hill on Good Friday afternoon, filing past 14 “Stations of the Cross”, with each station depicting a significant moment in the final hours before Jesus was crucified. Residents and visitors trek up the hill during the rest of the year as well. A large crowd gathers on the hill on the first Friday of every month.
The 14th stop is on top of the hill, where the ground flattens. Here, a model of the proposed statue has been placed behind a gigantic foot carved in granite, which will become part of the final statue. Several granite stones are strewn around a plinth and the statue will be constructed entirely in granite, which is widely available locally. The hilltop has a charming view of the surrounding hillocks and villages, apart from the Harobele dam. Construction has been halted because of the controversy that has been stirred up. If the proposed statue does come up at the site, it will be visible from afar and will loom over Harobele. The intended effect is that it will look as if Jesus is blessing the village.
Chinnaraj S., a non-practising lawyer based in Harobele who is loosely affiliated to the HKDT, spoke to Frontline about the controversy. “The land allotted is ‘gomala’ land. There is no doubt about that, but the Christians have been using the hill since 1906 when Father Lazarus was the priest. It was Shivakumar who advised us to get the land formally allotted to us when he visited Kapali betta in 2016, after which we began to follow the due process to get the land allotted and converted,” he said. “Shivakumar also personally gave us a cheque for the land conversion fee of Rs.10,80,065 when he came for the inaugural puja and cake cutting on Christmas last year. Shivakumar has donated land and money for several temples in the area, so what is wrong if he supports us as we are also in his constituency? And the government can allot only ‘gomala’ land, what other land is there?” He also showed a Kannada translation of the Bible where the term “Kapali betta” is used for Calvary, the site where Jesus was crucified, dismissing suggestions that the hill is called “Muneshwara betta”. (Conversations with older Hindu residents in the surrounding villages also attest to the fact that the hill has always been popularly known as Kapali betta and has been a Christian centre of worship.)
The allotment order (the final order from the Deputy Commissioner’s office at Ramanagara providing 10 acres of land in survey No. 283 of Harobele village, Uyamballi Hobli, Kanakapura taluk, to the HKDT on a long-term lease for an unspecified duration is dated December 4, 2019) clearly states that the land has been allotted to the trust. Thus, as far as current ownership is concerned there is no scope for any wrangle. But Venkatesh H.G., who is based in Kanakapura and is the district secretary of the HJV, alleged that the HKDT used the land illegally in the years prior to the allotment. “While only 10 acres has been allotted, the Christians are using the entire hill for their activities and only converted Christians have been allotted land around the hill, while Hindus and Dalits have not been allotted any land,” he said.
Venkatesh argues that Shivakumar’s influence facilitated the allotment. He is also sure that now that the BJP is in power in Karnataka, the allotment will be rescinded. Notably, both Venkatesh and his associate K.R. Suresh, another prominent activist of the HJV in Kanakapura, are aware that their objection stands on flimsy legal ground. But they are convinced that their fight is against “the anti-national activities of Christian missionaries”.
“If the statue is built, Harobele will become more famous that Vatican City,” Suresh said, adding that this would lead to an increase in conversions in the region. Asked whether conversions were in any way forced or involuntary, Venkatesh said: “These missionaries are teachers in many schools in the area. After school, they take the children home and have a quiz on Christianity and the children are given prizes, such as geometry boxes. Through activities like this, they are completely brainwashing the local population.” He and Venkatesh claimed there were many cases of “forced conversions”, yet neither could cite a single such incident or identify an individual who had actually been converted. Both spoke profusely about a “global Christian conspiracy” to convert. “Why do the missionaries have to go around asking people to renounce their faith and believe only in Jesus?” Venkatesh asked.
As far as Harobele is concerned, there is some evidence to show that the first Christian missionaries arrived in the region in 1660 and that there are no recent converts to Christianity in the village. The church’s history in the region has been chronicled in Father I. Antappa’s book Kanakapura Talookinalli Mattu Suttamuttalalli Kraista Dharmada Ugama (The Origins of Christianity in Kanakapura Taluk and its Neighbouring Areas). The relations between the Christians and the small population of Hindus in the village have all along been convivial. Harobele has always maintained harmonious relations with the mainly Hindu neighbouring villages of Thavaragatte, Mulegondi and Chambalikedoddi.
Ground-level activists such as Venkatesh claim that the real challenge for the HJV is Christian missionaries rather than Shivakumar. Yet, the speeches by senior leaders of the organisation at the January 13 rally showed that Shivakumar was clearly a target in the campaign. The popular Congress leader, who has a reputation of being a trouble-shooter for the party, is currently out on bail. He was lodged in Tihar Jail for 50 days after being arrested by the Enforcement Directorate in a money-laundering case. Shivakumar, who has been a contender for the post of Chief Minister in the past, has established a strong base in Kanakapura, along with his brother. He is the frontrunner in the race for the position of Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee president. Over the past few years, he has emerged as a pugnacious fighter who challenges the BJP on the ground.
In the 2019 parliamentary election, the Congress managed to retain only one parliamentary seat in Karnataka, Bengaluru Rural. D.K. Suresh won it, albeit with a lower margin than earlier. His brother Shivakumar’s presence in the region cannot be missed, with his posters visible even in the smallest village.
After the BJP engineered the downfall of the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) government in July 2019, the party won in a few constituencies in rural south Karnataka, pervading the Vokkaliga heartland, which it has always struggled to breach. It is only Kanakapura and its surrounding constituencies that remain loyal to the Congress, thanks to Shivakumar’s influence. The sudden aggression by RSS affiliates in Harobele is part of an established pattern of religious polarisation with political goals. If the polarisation attempts are successful, the BJP will certainly reap the benefits. In an interview to the media after the January 13 HJV rally, Shivakumar said: “Who is that [Prabhakar] Bhat? Let hundreds of RSS leaders come and shout and go. The villagers have taken a collective decision to build the statue.”
The HJV has presented to the State government an ultimatum, which expires by the end of January. After that it intends to start a State-wide agitation. “We will not rest until the plan to build a Jesus statue is abandoned,” said Venkatesh.