Controversy
The shrine in Chikkamagaluru has been a pilgrimage spot for Hindus and Muslims. The BJP, however, is demanding that the site be declared a Hindu temple.

Every year, in the month of December, the Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other Hindu groups organise a massive procession at Inam Dattatreya Peeta, located in Chikkamagaluru’s Bababudangiri Hills as a part of Datta Jayanti celebrations. 

On Sunday, just like every year, a massive procession was held on Datta Jayanti, the birthday of Hindu god Dattatreya, who is considered to be the incarnation of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

But the celebrations are fraught with tension, with around 2000 policemen deployed in the area on Sunday. This because the holy shrine Shree Guru Dattatreya Bababudan Swamy Dargah in Bababudangiri Hills has been a disputed site between Hindus and Muslims.

For decades, the syncretic shrine has been a pilgrimage spot for the two faiths. While Hindus consider the hill to be the final resting place of Dattatreya, the Muslim community believe the dargah is one of the earliest centres of Sufism in south India, with Sufi saint Dada Hayat Mirkalandar having lived there for years.

But over the years, the BJP, Bajrang Dal, VHP and other outfits have been demanding that the shrine be declared a Hindu temple.  

On Sunday, Chikkamagaluru MLA CT Ravi, who belongs to the BJP and VHP leader Suryanarayana Rao gave provocative speeches regarding the disputed site of the holy shrine.

Speaking to thousands of devotees gathered near the shrine, CT Ravi, who produced a stack of documents claimed that the “official records proved” that the shrine “belonged to the Hindus”.

Furthering MLA Ravi’s claims, Suryanarayana Rao said, “Just like the case of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, I am hopeful that our struggle for this shrine will soon yield desired results.”

Minutes after the speech was over, seven devotees gathered at the venue allegedly broke the barricades of the restricted area near the shrine and hoisted saffron flags.

“A few youths entered the burial ground and tried to damage the plaques. They managed to uproot one plaque and they also ransacked the name boards placed on some of the plaques but the police resorted to mild lathi charge to stop the situation from escalating. In the evening, some members of a pro-Hindu outfit pelted stones at a private bus. The situation was also brought under control,” said Chikkamagaluru SP Annamalai.

Stating that the devotees did not do anything wrong, CT Ravi defended their actions. “They only wanted to hoist a flag, they did not do anything else. When there is such a huge crowd, such incidents may happen but the police were there for providing protection,” he added.

What is the Bababudangiri/Dattatreya Peeta dispute all about?

Prior to 1964, the shrine Shree Guru Dattatreya Bababudan Swamy Dargah was a symbol of religious harmony, where both Hindus and Muslims offered prayers at the same shrine.

In 1964, the area was allotted to the Waqf Board by the Karnataka government. “At the time, Lord Dattatreya’s paduka (feet) and nanda deepa (lamp) were returned by the Waqf Board to the Muzrai Department. Also, a dispute regarding the management of the shrine also arose. It was after this that the land dispute began,” said Dinesh Ulepadi, a lawyer and activist.

In 1978, Annappa Shetty, a local leader of Chikkamagaluru filed a case with the district court and claimed that the property belongs to the Hindus.

The district court’s judgement pronounced that the shrine is visited by both Hindus and Muslims, and ordered that the status quo be maintained.

The court also upheld the rights of Shah Khadri regarding the inheritance. The custodian of the shrine is called Sajjade Nishin and the family of Shah Khadri has inherited the position of the custodian for decades now.

In 1989, the Waqf Board appealed the district court’s judgement and moved the Karnataka High Court. The HC upheld the district court’s judgement and in 1991, the board filed a special leave petition with the Supreme Court.

It was only after the communal clashes following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 that the pro-Hindu outfits began rallying for a “Hindu shrine”.

“They (pro-Hindu groups) wanted to make this another Ayodhya. They targeted Bababudangiri, also known as Datta Peetha Dargah only to create communal clashes and also to gain a foothold in Karnataka,” Dinesh Ulepadi added.

Prior to 1986, a small group of people would trek up to the cave, where the shrine is located, to offer their prayers. In 1986, the VHP organised a procession, where over 1000 people had participated.

In 1997, Bajarang Dal and VHP together began organising the procession and every year, over 20,000 devotees visit the shrine in December to observe Datta Jayanti.

Ulepadi said, “The shrine was owned by Shah Khadri’s family. After these massive processions, the family came under attack as people thought that the shrine was public property.”

The first incident of hoisting saffron flags was reported in December 1999 by Frontline Magazine. The report notes that Bajrang Dal had threatened to storm the shrine in order to “liberate” it of its Sufi heritage.  

“On December 3, vehicles carrying young slogan-shouting men who sported saffron bandanas and neckscarves, arrived at the shrine, evoking memories of what happened in Ayodhya six years ago,” reports Parvathi Menon for Frontline.  

Since then, VHP, Bajrang Dal and BJP leaders have repeatedly demanded that the shrine be declared a Hindu place of worship.  

In 2008, the Supreme Court reiterated that the status quo should be maintained at the shrine in response to a plea by members of the Komu Souharda Vedike (Forum for Communal Harmony).

In 2015 the Supreme Court had disposed the case.  At the time, the apex court had directed the Karnataka government to sort out the dispute. Following this directive, the state government formed a cabinet sub-committee headed by Law Minister TB Jayachandra later that year. The committee felt the need for an expert committee's suggestions and this was conveyed to the state Cabinet. In 2017, the expert committee headed by Justice HN Nagamohan Das, retired High Court judge was formed. However, the issue has not yet been settled.

 Speaking to TNM, MLA Ravi called the Siddaramaiah-led Congress government’s inaction to sorting out the land dispute a “delaying tactic”.

“The current government is indulging in delaying tactics only to ensure that they do not lose the minority votes. The election is coming up and they are forming committee after committee only to delay the process of justice. How long should we wait? We are fighting for justice,” MLA CT Ravi added.

This story was edited by Anna Isaac