Despite a Karnataka High Court stay order, a Shiva statue built on an artificial lake island created on one of Bengaluru's oldest lakes was unveiled last week allegedly by right-wing groups. The High Court had issued the stay order in August 2019 stopping the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) from constructing the statue in the middle of the Begur Lake in the city since it did not have authority to reduce the area of the lake and make islands in it.
But over the last two weeks, pro-Hindutva organisations have circulated posters and videos and questioned the stay on the statue, propagating a claim that it was due to objections raised by the Christian community. There have also been attempts to consecrate the statue.
Despite the stay order, the statue was unveiled and saffron flags were raised near the lake some time in the past week. Punith Kerehalli, an activist with the Rashtra Rakshana Pade, a pro-Hindutva organisation, was among those vocal about the issue and he asked in a video â€” shot on July 31 near the lake with the statue in the background â€” that Hindus should unite over the issue. "Why is no one raising questions over this? If a Shiva statue is unveiled in the middle of this lake, apparently it hurts the sentiments and inconveniences Christians. This is why they went to court and got a stay orderâ€¦ This is not Italy or an Arab country," he claimed in the video. In this video, the statue was not visible and was covered by a blue tarpaulin sheet.
Posters of the statue claimed that Hindu organisations had come together to unveil the statue after it was blocked by "Christian missionaries who claimed that water levels in the lake will decrease.â€ť The posters had the logo of Postcard News, a fake news website. Its founder Mahesh Vikram Hegde was arrested in 2018 for spreading fake news about a Jain monk being attacked by a Muslim youth.
The petition in the court challenging the BBMP's plan was filed by the Citizens Action Group (CAG) about the plight of the city's lakes and the August 2019 order was passed after observing an intervening petition filed by Environment Support Group's Leo Saldanha. ESG, a not-for-profit NGO was founded in 1996, with Leo Saldanha as the coordinator. The petition contested that 137 acres of land on the lake was being used for infrastructure purposes including creating an artificial island with a Shiva statue on it.
The protesters have mainly targeted ESG and Leo. But speaking to TNM, Leo Saldanha said that the court case is only about the encroachments in the lake. "Their actions are not only communalising this issue but it is also an attack on the judiciary. The court has stayed all operations at the lake and we are arguing the case to protect the lake from encroachment," says Leo Saldanha.
Over the years, ESG has filed a number of public interest litigations against the encroachment of lakes and has won landmark cases. This includes an order from the Karnataka HC in 2011 asking for an action plan to support lakes and an order against arbitrary privatisation of lakes in Bengaluru in 2012.
"In one of the cases, we had fought a case of encroachment in Subramanyapura Lake by slum-dwellers and we made it a point to ensure 850 families were rehabilitated by the Slum Development Board. Our only point is to reduce the encroachments in lake beds and it is the state's duty to protect them," says Leo Saldanha. He says that the Shiva temple close to the Begur lake boundary could be the location for the statue.
However, opposition is mounting against the unveiling of the statue. Bengaluru-based advocate and civil rights activist Vinay Sreenivasa in an open letter said, "It needs to be noted that communities who built these lakes (irrigation tanks) over hundreds of years, never used lakes to install any idol or to build islands or walking paths within them. This is because they understood the importance of the space for harvesting surface runoff of water to build food and water security for all." The open letter was endorsed by three organisations - Citizens for Bengaluru, Campaign against Hate Speech and CIVIC Bengaluru - as well as 45 other individuals from different civil society organisations by Tuesday evening.
Vinay Sreenivasa called for action to be taken against those who violated the court order and unveiled the statue. The next hearing in the High Court is on Wednesday, August 11 and the BBMP is expected to make its stand on the issue clear.
High Court stays construction in Begur Lake
The High Court bench headed by Chief Justice Abhay Oka, in its observations when passing the stay order in 2019, had said that the BBMP did not have authority to reduce the area of the lake and that it had erroneously permitted construction that prohibits inflow and outflow of water in the lake. "While we appreciate the intention of the BBMP to create a tourist spot near the lake, prima facie, BBMP has no authority to reduce the area of the lake and to make islands in the lake. In view of the doctrine of Public Trust, BBMP cannot reduce the area of the lake," the order had said.
The BBMP had planned to build artificial islands in Begur lake and install a Shiva statue in one of the islands. A Shiva temple is located near the lake boundary in Begur and the water body has a historical significance dating back to the Ganga dynasty in the 5th century. Ganga-dynasty inscriptions were found near Begur lake in 2018. The extent of the encroachment in the lake is 6 acres and 37 guntas, including the area of 3 acres and 26 guntas occupied by two public roads.
The High Court, however, had asked the BBMP to respond to the affidavit and not carry out any further work within the lake area of 137.24 acres. The BBMP is yet to make its stand on the statue clear in court and the next hearing is set for August 11. In March 2021, the BBMP had sought time from the High Court to make its stand on the removal of the statue clear.