Communalism

Controversy over Siva statue in Begur lake, Bengaluru, communalises an environmental issue

Print edition : September 24, 2021

The statue of Siva (covered in blue tarpaulin) on the artificial island in Begur Lake, Bengaluru. Photo: Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

Members of the Rashtra Rakshana Pade after unveiling the statue on August 11. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Satellite image of Begur Lake in 2000. Photo: Vinay Kumar

Satellite image of Begur Lake in 2005. Photo: Vinay Kumar

Satellite image of Begur Lake in 2010. Photo: Vinay Kumar

Satellite image of Begur Lake in 2015. Photo: Vinay Kumar

Satellite image of Begur Lake in 2019, when it was drained and desilted prior to the construction of the artificial island. Photo: Vinay Kumar

The dispute over the unveiling of a Siva statue in Begur lake in violation of a High Court order takes a communal turn, undermining efforts to preserve Bengaluru’s fragile ecosystem.

On August 11, Puneet Kerehalli, a Bengaluru-based activist associated with a fringe Hindu right-wing organisation called the Rashtra Rakshana Pade (Nation Protection Army) shot a video that he shared live on his Facebook page. In the video, a passionate Kerehalli, wearing a saffron scarf and a tika on his forehead, can be seen exhorting a group of around 10 similarly surcharged young men as they unveil a 40-feet-high Siva statue wrapped in tarpaulin on a concrete island in the middle of Begur lake on the south-eastern outskirts of Bengaluru.

In the video, Kerehalli said: “The covering of the Siva idol is hurting Hindu sentiments and there is no order from the court to cover the statue…. If they cover it again, we will bring Hindu activists from across Karnataka to come and unveil the statue…. Some person who is opposing our faith has filed a case opposing the development of the lake, a walking track and idol of Siva. The court says stop the work but does not say that the idol has to be covered. The public need to know what is this idol, who installed it and who is opposing it. The person opposing it is Leo Saldanha.” A person standing next to Kerehalli chimed in: “We did not fear the Mughals and the British. Why will we fear these guys? This is just the beginning…. There is still a lot to do and this is a time of Hindu Sanatana Dharma.”

Kerehalli frequently interjected his statements with rousing chants of “Jai Shri Ram” and “Har Har Mahadev” that were immediately taken up by the rest of the group. It also became clear in the video that Kerehalli and his associates were not unveiling the statue for the first time but had done it three days before as well.

On coming to know of the first incident of unveiling of the statue, Leo F. Saldanha, the coordinator and one of the trustees of the Bengaluru-based Environmental Support Group (ESG), filed a memo in the Karnataka High Court as part of the public interest litigation (PIL) WP 38401/2014, to bring to the High Court’s notice the violation of its orders on the issue. This PIL, originally initiated by the Citizens Action Group, relates to the protection of storm water drains; the ESG impleaded itself in this PIL in June 2019.

Coincidentally, when the court was responding to Saldanha’s petition on August 11, Kerehalli and his group were unveiling the statue a second time. Responding to this, the High Court bench of Chief Justice Abhay Shreeniwas Oka and Justice M. Nagaprasanna, stated in its order: “By filing the memo, a shocking incident of unveiling of the idol of Lord Siva installed by the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) on an artificially created island in Begur lake has been brought to the notice of this court. Our attention is also invited to the interim orders dated 30th August 2019, 17th September 2019 and 22nd February 2021. In the said orders, it has been held that the decision to create islands in the lake was prima facie illegal. In fact, the order dated 17th September 2019 holds that the decision to install the idol/statue of Lord Siva on the island was prima facie illegal…. The issue involved about Begur lake is about the legality of the action of BBMP in creating an artificial island for installing a statue of Lord Siva. Whether an island can be constructed in a lake is also a legal and factual issue. There is no religious issue involved in this group of petitions.”

Also read: Kin of lynching victims await justice

The court’s judgment was unequivocal on the illegality of the artificial island and the statue installed. It was clear that Kerehalli and his associates had violated an order of the High Court not once but twice.

A few days after the incident, all is quiet at Begur lake. Like most suburbs of Bengaluru, the area around the lake, which abuts Bommanahalli Industrial Area and Electronic City, has developed swiftly over the past few years with high-rise apartments visible along its edges. Large swathes of water hyacinth are also visible in the 137.24-acre lake. The squat spires of the St Ignatius Church, a pointer to the significant and historical Christian community in the area, and the three gopurams of the Pancha Lingeshwara Temple, one of the oldest temples of Bengaluru that is popularly known as Begur temple, also dominate the skyline.

The Begur temple is more than 1,000 years old; a stone inscription here dates to 890 C.E. This inscription is significant because it contains the earliest recorded usage of the name “Bengaluru” for a hamlet close to Begur.

The statue of Siva on the single concrete island in the middle of the lake has been bound in blue tarpaulin once again, like it had been since the High Court’s interim order of 2019. Three police constables were keeping vigil on a short mud track along one side of the lake while a police van was stationed just outside. The police constables said that a round-the-clock vigil is now maintained at the lake so that incidents such as the one on August 11 are not repeated.

The constables looked embarrassed when asked how the High Court order was violated in the first place, considering the Begur police station is only two minutes away. Vinay Sreenivasa, an advocate with the Alternative Law Forum, who has followed the issue closely, blamed the police and the BBMP for the August 11 incident. He said: “This [unveiling of the Siva statue] has happened under the watch of the BBMP and the police. We need to hold them accountable.”

Two first information reports (FIRs) have been filed in the case so far, the first on August 11 against unknown persons and the second on August 16 against Kerehalli, his associate Santosh Karthal and others. According to information from the Begur Police Station, Kerehalli and Karthal were arrested but have since been released on bail.

Island as encroachment

When one looks at the satellite images of the lake that have been collated from Google Earth over the past 20 years by the Bengaluru-based aeronautical engineer Vinay Kumar, the gradual encroachments on the wetlands surrounding the lake are clearly discernible, showing how the fragile ecosystem of the lake was already under threat.

Even though this was amply clear, the BBMP embarked on an ambitious plan to build three artificial islands on the lake in 2018. One of these would have the statue of Siva, with the approval for the construction of the statue given by the Karnataka Tank Conservation and Lake Development Authority and the BBMP Council on August 26, 2018, and February 15, 2019 respectively.

The first interim order of the High Court staying the constructions was delivered on August 30, 2019, after the court was made aware of BBMP’s plans, by which time one of the proposed islands had already been built and the statue hurriedly installed just a day before the hearing.

In its petition that preceded this order, the ESG had made the court aware that “sewage drainage infrastructure” was being built inside the lake bed, that there was “encroachment of the lake to the south by BMIC road and to the northwest by temple road”, and that there was a plan for the construction of a “boat jetty to turn the lake into a tourist destination”. The petition argued that all these proposed developments along with the artificial islands and the statue were in gross violation of the guidelines contained in the report of the Justice N.K. Patil Committee titled “Preservation of Lakes in the City of Bangalore” (submitted in February 2011) which was part of the final order in ESG and Others vs State of Karnataka (WP PIL 817/2008) delivered in April 2012.

After the 2019 order, the BBMP applied to have the ban on the construction of artificial islands lifted, but the court, in subsequent judgments, held that it would not reverse its orders in the absence of expert opinion, while also asking the BBMP to make its stand clear on the removal of the idol. In its order on March 5, 2021, the High Court said: “We make it clear that the object of making an island cannot be to install an idol thereon.”

There are two issues that the incident of August 11 raises. The first is the brazen manner in which the High Court’s orders were scorned by a fringe Hindu right-wing outfit, and the second is the dangerous communalisation of an environmental issue that has taken place just because one of the petitioners in the case happens to be a Christian.

Also read: The virus of hate

In the nebulous space of social media where ignorant and prejudiced commentary often finds legions of supporters, it was easy to target Saldanha and couch the entire saga of the Siva statue as a Christian conspiracy. Several right-wing Hindu pages on Facebook freely shared pictures of Saldanha and accused him of stymieing the unveiling of the statue. Provocative posts with titles such as “Hindus Beware of the Christian Missionary Conspiracy to Remove Shiva Statue: Hindu Organisations Must Come Together” were shared on social media. Calls for violence against Saldanha were also made in the comments that followed such posts.

An environmental activist who has been following the entire issue spoke to Frontline on the condition of anonymity. He said: “The PIL was filed in 2019 against the heavy use of concrete pilings on the [Begur] lake bed that will cause irreparable damage to the lake. The fact that some people have made it into a communal issue now when BBMP elections could be slated soon shows their ulterior motive. If this project is allowed, not only do we legalise acts that damage our environment, but we also set a precedent of allowing our commons to be usurped by religious forces for political needs. Every person has rights to the commons and it is the duty of the state to preserve those rights and not allow any one particular group to take over what belongs to all of us.”

Once a city of lakes

Modern visitors to Bengaluru may find it hard to believe, but the city was once known for its many lakes. Historically, lakes played an important role in meeting the water needs of the city as no major river flows through the city. Over the past few decades, many lakes in the city have disappeared owing to urbanisation while the ones that remain, such as the Begur lake, are severely polluted and encroached upon. By giving a communal angle to an environmental issue, the larger effort at preserving the fragile and compromised ecosystem of Bengaluru, of which lakes are an important part, is being thwarted further.

In a letter dated August 31, a group of Bengaluru-based civil society members, academics and environmental activists have urged Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai “to ensure that the protection of lakes as commons is not subordinated to any illegal demands and sectarian, class or caste interests”. The letter also requests the Chief Minister to “direct your officials to immediately approve BBMP’s repeated appeals to the State government to rescind the BBMP Council’s illegal resolution to install the statue inside the lake, and also the subsequent illegal approval accorded to the act by the Karnataka Tank Conservation and Development Authority.”

Also read: How hate is brewed in Hindutva's lab

It remains to be seen whether the State government will continue to delay a resolution to the issue and assuage the fringe Hindu right-wing or whether it will take a progressive stand by prioritising the environmental health of the lake.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor