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Bengaluru: The latest manifestation of the Bharatiya Janata Party government’s relentless saffronisation policy in Karnataka is the formation of an administrative committee to manage the religious and administrative affairs of the historic Bababudan dargah – with the power to appoint an archak and mujawar to observe Hindu Agama ways of worship.
The government has also invited applications from the Hindu and Muslim communities for membership in the administrative committee, which would comprise four members from each community – of which two will be women and one from the Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe community.
But what looks like an apparently democratic process is essentially a communal ploy with the aim of gradually destroying the shrine’s syncretic nature and converting it exclusively into a Dattatreya temple.
A brief recap of the communal polarisation surrounding this historical shrine makes the point clearer.
Known officially as the “Sri Guru Dattatreyaswamy Bababudan Dargah”, the historic dargah is situated in the Western Ghats at the top of a hill popularly known as “Dada Ki Pahad” – referring to Dada Hayat Mir Qalandar, a Sufi saint. Recorded history suggests that it became more popular as Bababudan Dargah, after the saint Bababudan, who is believed to have arrived from Yemen in the 17th century and is credited with introducing coffee cultivation in the area – also a first in the country.
Within a short time, faith in the saint and the shrine became very popular among the downtrodden from both Hindu and Muslim communities for its inclusive character and compassionate spirituality. Records available since the time of Tipu Sultan – from 1792 to be precise – suggest that the shrine was provided grants by the Mysore kingdom and later by the British. The vivid description of the shrine by British historians and Mysore government records prior to independence suggests that the dargah was managed by a Shah Khadri of Islamic faith and his family.
In the post-independence period, when the Waqf Board was constituted in the late 1970s and waqf properties were enlisted and transferred, a controversy around the dargah erupted for the first time. The Hindu devotees and the Shah Khadri himself refused the transfer of the shrine’s management to the Waqf board. The board considered it as waqf property and ensured its transfer as a waqf.
In the long and convoluted legal battle that ensued in the later decades, its transfer to the waqf board was annulled by the high court and the Supreme Court – even as the syncretic nature of the shrine and the administrative and religious authority of Shah Kadri – belonging to the Islamic faith – was upheld at all levels. Even the Hindu devotees only demanded their unhindered right of entry and prayer at the shrine and never demanded Hindu ways of prayer or an appointment of a Hindu archak or claimed it as a temple until the late 1990s.
Hindutva groups emboldened
But after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and the Gujarat genocide of 2002, the Hindutva organisations were emboldened to create a dispute around the dargah.
By the late 1990s, the Bajrang Dal and the BJP started to observe Datta Jayanthi and Datta Mala at the shrine as a counter to the traditional Urs conducted annually. The Hindutva narrative propagated a falsehood that the shrine is essentially a Dattatreya temple which was usurped by Muslims with the support of Tipu Sultan. Thus – after 2002 – the war cry was to “liberate” Dattadevasthana in the style of Ayodhya.
A frivolous writ petition was lodged by a hitherto unknown entity called “Sri Guru Dattatreya Samvardhana Samiti” in 2003, arguing that the shrine is a temple that was worshipped by the Hindus through a Hindu archak in Agama ways and was converted to a dargah during the time of Tipu Sultan. Hence, the petition demanded that a Hindu archak be appointed by removing the mujawar who was conducting rituals at the shrine under the guidance of Shah Kadri.
The plea was allowed by the Karnataka high court, discounting the Places of Worship Act, 1991. The court asked the commissioner of the Hindu Charitable and Religious Endowments to conduct a public hearing to ascertain whether the shrine was a temple before Tipu Sultan’s reign and take steps to appoint a Hindu archak if the findings of the petition are proven true. This was challenged by various secular organisations in the Supreme Court in 2008, which in turn ordered the retention of the status quo but allowed the public hearings to continue and that the report be presented to the apex court with its recommendations.
Accordingly, a public hearing was held and the report was submitted to the Supreme Court in a sealed cover to the bench comprising Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice NV Ramana. The report, which was opened in 2015, had not considered any evidence and records that show the shrine had been a dargah all the time. On the contrary, the commissioner relied entirely on the oral averment made by Hindu devotees and their faith and strongly recommended the appointment of a Hindu archak and Hindu ways of worship at the shrine.
The Supreme Court itself did not pass any order but passed the buck to the state government to take “suitable steps”, overlooking the possible violations of the Places of Worship Act if the commissioner’s recommendations were implemented.
The then Congress government under Siddaramaiah constituted a high-level committee under the chairmanship of retired high court Justice H.N. Nagamohan Das to hear all the concerned parties and recommend the steps to be taken by the government. The committee eventually recommended that the status quo of the Dargah’s syncretic nature be retained, since the Hindu counterparts failed to produce any evidence to prove “conversion” of the shrine during the Tipu period.
It also believed that the appointment of a Hindu archak and Hindu Agama ways of worship would change the religious nature of the shrine and hence violate the Places of Worship Act. The government accepted the recommendations of Justice Das and passed an order in March 2018 to retain the status quo. Predictably, the BJP created a furore and accused the state government of “appeasing minorities”. The government order was subsequently challenged by Hindutva organisations in the high court, which stayed the order.
The scales tilt
After the BJP government came to power, the advocate for the government renewed the demand to appoint a Hindu archak at the shrine. The state government’s change of stance tilted the scales in favour of the Hindu petitioners, who had challenged the status quo.
The high court gave its order in September 2021, completely upholding the averments made by the Hindu devotees, deriving its spirit from the apex court’s Ayodhya judgment which had privileged the faith of the majority over material evidence. It also went to the extent of completely denying the applicability of the Places of Worship Act to the shrine. The court, however, also asked the government to conduct another public hearing and then appoint a Hindu archak.
The Basavaraj Bommai-led BJP government passed an order on August 18, 2022 (after two public hearings) to form an administrative committee to govern, supervise, and guide all administrative and religious activities.
Such an order effectively means the exclusion of Shah Kadri, the hereditary head of the dargah, from all authority and responsibilities of the shrine. This was more than what even the petitioners wanted.
The committee would comprise four members from the Hindu and Muslim communities, for which applications have been invited. Though the formation of the committee appears to be a democratic measure, one can easily contrast the government’s approach with similar litigation on the succession of Hindu mutts and shrines. In all such litigations anywhere in India, the BJP and the Sangh parivar insist on traditional, hereditary and customary rights over any democratic processes – thus proving once again that the Hindu Right invokes democratic standards only to curb the traditions of non-Hindus. They privilege tradition over modern democratic structures and processes when Hindu customs are questioned.
The order also empowers the appointment of an eligible Hindu archak and mujawar to conduct daily rituals. In all dargahs, anywhere in the world, the mujawar is appointed by the Shah Kadri of the respective shrine. However, the current order empowers the committee to guide the mujawar on religious matters too.
The order gives official status to the Datta Jayanti and Datta Mala celebrations at the shrine, which are new and ill-intentioned introductions by the Hindutva organisations in the late 1990s. The order also says that the committee will facilitate other Hindu rituals, opening up the possibility of further Hinduisation of the shrine. Even the annual Urs, the order says, would be observed only according to the Hindu calendar.
The order has built a wide road for Hindutva organisations to gradually convert the dargah into an exclusively Hindu temple in the future. The Bababudan Dargah was representative of the syncretic culture of Karnataka. The collusion of the judiciary and the administration with the saffron forces in demolishing that very belief system will go down as one of the darkest episodes in modern Indian history.