After Protests From Seers, HC Stalls MP Govt's 108-Ft Adi Shankaracharya Statue Project

The statue was going to be built on the 'Om'-shaped, revered Mandhata hill.

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Bhopal: In a jolt to the Madhya Pradesh government, the Jabalpur bench of the Madhya Pradesh high court on Friday (July 8) stayed the Bharatiya Janata Party government’s plan to install a 108-feet-tall statue of eight-century philosopher Adi Shankaracharya over the ‘Om’-shaped, revered Mandhata hill.

Issuing notice to the principal secretary of the state culture department, director of the Archeological Survey of India and others, the court sought a reply in the next four weeks and said the ongoing construction should be stopped with immediate effect while the matter is sub judice before the court.

Eyeing the upcoming assembly elections, the Madhya Pradesh government in February this year accepted a proposal for the construction of a 108-feet-tall statue of Adi Shankaracharya, with a museum dedicated to him and an international Advaita Vedanta Sanstha, at the cost of Rs 2,141 crore. To speed up the work, the state government made a provision for Rs 700 crore in the budget presented in the Vidhan Sabha in March and began the project without delay.

In the 70-page petition filed by Indore-based NGO Lokhit Janwadi Samiti before the high court, it has been alleged that the state government is destructing the “Om”-shaped Mandhata hill – a sacred place for Hindus and among the three jyotirlingas in the state – for political benefit. The government is turning a jyotirlinga into a picnic spot by cutting hundreds of trees, petitioner’s advocate D.K. Tripathi told The Wire.

Mandhata, also called Shivapuri or Mahismati, is a riverine island in the Narmada river in Khandwa district of Madhya Pradesh. Omkareshwar Jyotirlinga is situated on the southern part of the island. The name “Omkareshwar” is due to the shape of the island, which appears to be an Om. It is about two km long and one km wide.

The project is overseen by the Acharya Shankar Sanskritik Ekta Nyas, a trust with chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan as chairman and 14 other trustees. The trust is working in coordination with the state’s culture department and was scheduled to complete the statue by the end of 2023. Madhya Pradesh will see an assembly election in November that year.

No sooner had the state government started the project, locals, seers and tribals began opposing construction and demanding the project’s relocation. “The Om-shaped hills is a sacred place for Hindus as it is among the three jyotirlingas of the state and it should remain untouched,” said Munindar Das Kabir, a seer who has been living there of a decade. “It’s a sacred hill mentioned in our Vedas and digging it up with a JCB is amounting to hurting religious sentiments. The BJP claims to be a pro-Hindu government, but only to get votes.”

Abhay Jain, president of the Bharat Hitraksha Abhiyan who quit the RSS almost a decade ago, pointed out that for the construction of the statue, around 4,000 trees would be felled on the hill top, besides the hill itself is being dug up to create a base for the statue. This, he said, will alter the shape of the hill whose structure resembles an ‘Om’.

“We are not opposing the project itself; the statue should be constructed but just not on the Mandhata hill. We are staunch supporters of the Hindu faith but not the Hindutva propagated with political interests. We firmly believe in the teachings of Advaita Vedanta but not at the cost of destroying the natural aura of the religious place and a sacred site,” Jain added.

Jain has also published a seven-page magazine to highlight their struggle and the damage done to the hill during construction.

To raise the issue, seers and members of Bharat Hitraksha Abhiyaan, an Indore-based NGO, met culture minister Usha Thakur in the first week of May, demanding relocation of the project.

When the meeting did not go well, to drum up support, locals, seers and NGOs launched signature campaigns in various districts. Between April and June, signature campaigns were held in in Khargone, Gwalior, Indore, Bhopal and Omkareshwar. This was followed by a 90-km foot march from Indore to Omkareshwar and protests outside the office of Khandwa district collector Anoop Singh, Indore commissioner Pawan Kumar and in the state capital Bhopal.

With over 50,000 signatures, the NGO sent a memorandum to Prime Minister Narendra Modi opposing construction on the sacred hill and seeking his intervention.

Under the banner of the ‘Omkar Parvat Sangharsh Samiti, a group of locals and tribals have been also sitting on a hunger strike. The residents have joined the protest after the Khandwa district administration razed 12 homes and another 12 structures including ashrams after identifying them as illegal.

To raise their issue in Bhopal, the devotees and seers ran a two-day signature campaign before launching a protest at Roshanpura Square on the afternoon of June 7. Over 50 devotees and seers who were protesting peacefully with placards saying “Hinduo ke dharmik asthal ko tutne se bachayein” or “Dharmik sthal ko picnic spot na banayein” were forcefully removed by the police.

Speaking on the project, a government official said that only 100-odd trees had been cut so far for the approach road, while 36 hectares of land is being acquired for planting 30,000 trees for which tenders are being floated.

The officer further said, “Mandhata hill is spread across 260 hectares while 11.5 hectares in total is to be acquired for the construction of the statue and museum. That is about 5% of the total area. It will only be on one part of the hill. There is no damage to either the parikrama path taken by devotees or the general structure.”

Kashif Kakvi is a journalist with Newsclick.