Converting Bababudan dargah into a half-temple is a strategic win for the right-wing

After the Gujarat genocide in 2002, the battle cry in Karnataka by the Sangh Parivar and the BJP was that Karnataka will be another Gujarat and the Bababudan dargah would be another Ayodhya.
Datta Jayanthi procession at Bababudangiri in 2017
Datta Jayanthi procession at Bababudangiri in 2017
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In an expected and potentially dangerous development, the BJP government in Karnataka has passed an order to constitute an administrative committee comprising of Hindus and Muslims to be selected by the government to look after the religious and administrative affairs of the 'Shri Guru Dattatreya Swamy Bababudan Dargah', a historic and syncretic shrine situated on a hilltop in the dense forests of Chikkamagaluru district. The order allows Datta Jayanthi, Datta Mala and other Hindu celebrations as well as the annual Sufi Urus at the shrine. Importantly, the government order also stipulates the appointment of a Hindu 'archaka' and a Muslim 'mujawar' by the committee.

The order, which looks innocuous and accommodative to an outsider, is in fact a strategic victory for the Hindu right-wing in Karnataka which has been striving to convert the dargah into a Dattatreya temple in the wake of the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992. After the Gujarat genocide in 2002, the battle cry in Karnataka by the Sangh Parivar and the BJP under the leadership of then BJP president HN Ananthkumar, was that Karnataka will be another Gujarat and the Bababudan dargah would be another Ayodhya.

Since then, the Hindu right-wing has been fueling false propaganda that the shrine itself was a temple of a Hindu deity Dattatreya, and during the time of Hyder Ali, it was usurped by Muslims and converted into a temple.

The Hindu right-wing could not provide a single piece of historical or archaeological evidence to prove their claims, their history was completely based on the beliefs and faiths of the Hindu majority. But all the available historical records — administrative (pre British to post independence), archaeological, religious and very importantly the folklore — abundantly prove that the shrine is an abode of a Sufi saint Dada Hayat Mir Qalandar, and later the 17th century Fakir Bababudan, who came from Yemen and settled at the shrine.

Bababudan popularised the faith around the region, especially among the downtrodden of the Hindu and Muslim community. Apart from being a social reformer, Bababudan is also credited with planting the first coffee plants and introducing the beverage to the Indian subcontinent. In local folklore, the mountain on which the shrine is located is referred to as “Dada ka pahad” and the shrine itself called “Bababudan dargah,” unlike the recent and intentional sanskritised administrative references like “Chandradrona parvata”.

A peep into the history of the shrine and the dispute itself reveals how the order is strategically poised to alter the syncretic nature of the shrine, and yields to the Hindutva agenda of saffronising history.

The government order (RD/114/MUDAPRA/2022, Bangalore Dt:19-7-2022), made public on  August 18, 2022, essentially denies the Shah Qadri who is also a Sajjad-Nishan — the traditional religious and the administrative head of a Sufi shrine — all his religious and administrative authority, and hands over complete authority of the shrine to an administrative committee (comprising Hindus and Muslims) to be constituted by the government. This in turn makes it obvious that the Hindu members would be the activists of the Sangh Parivar and the Muslim members would obedient leaders from the community.

This saffronised committee will appoint the Hindu archaka qualified to perform Agama ways of worship (which is essentially Brahminical), along with the mujawar. Instead of the Shah Qadri, it would be the committee comprising Hindus appointed by the BJP government that would be guiding the mujawar in conducting his rituals at the shrine, and also the Urus. Even the Urus, the order mandates, should be observed on the dates decided based on the Hindu calendar. More than all this, Datta Jayanthi and the Datta Malas, which were not part of the celebrations at the shrine prior to 1997, have been officially recognised and are mandated on the committee to facilitate it regularly and officially. The order also stipulates the committee should facilitate “other Hindu celebrations,” hinting at what is coming in the future.

Dargahs — a spiritual abode of the subaltern

A dargah by definition is a “Muhammedan shrine or tomb of some reputed Muslim holy person, and which is the object of pilgrimage and adoration.” But throughout India, such Sufi shrines are not confined to Muslims, they're also venerated by Hindus, especially from the lowered castes who were excluded from Brahminical Hindu society.

‘Shri Guru Dattatreya Swamy Bababudan dargah’ has a recorded history of at least 250 years where lowered caste Hindus and Muslim fakirs visited the place and offered prayers. The nature of worship at the dargah is ancient and unique. It has traces of both non-Vedic Hindu and non-Wahabi Sufi Islamic practices.

This dispute itself had roots in the classification and transferring of Muslim wakf properties to the newly formed Wakf Board in 1975. Since the shrine was a dargah and the religious authority was a Muslim Shah Qadri, it was classified as a wakf property. Even though both Hindus and Muslims were devotees of the shrine, the law itself did not have room for a syncretic place of worship; a place where shrines with both Hindu and Muslim practices could be governed by a single entity. A religious place had to be either under Muzrai which looks after Hindu shrines, or transferred to the Wakf Board.

In this dispute, the Muslim Shah Qadri, the religious and administrative head of the dargah, expressed no objection in transferring it from the Wakf Board to Muzrai Department, for it was governed with a special status as a Muslim shrine under the Muzrai Act since 1927. The Wakf Board contested the transfer. Adjudicating on this dispute, the Karnataka High Court had not only upheld the dargah nature of the shrine and religious authority of Shah Qadri over the shrine, but also had praised the syncretic nature of the dargah lavishly. Even the Supreme Court had upheld the HC verdict in May 1991. The court order categorically laid to rest the ownership and the religious nature of the shrine more than three decades ago.

Hindutva agenda and administrative complicity

A new dispute was engineered by the emboldened Hindutva forces after the demolition of Babri Masjid. Their claim was that since Hindus venerate this as the abode of Lord Dattatreya, new rituals like Anasuya Jayanti and Satyanarayana pooja should be allowed.

The irony is that the HC itself, while adjudicating on another dispute regarding the shrine, had ordered the Endowment Commissioner (EC) to look into and ascertain the rituals practised at the shrine. Following this, the EC conducted a public hearing through the district Muzrai Officer and codified the rituals. Orders were passed saying the Shah Qadri is the ritual head of the shrine and only the mujawar appointed by the Shah Qadri could enter the sanctum-sanctorum. It was stipulated that the mujawar should light the lamp and take responsibility to distribute padi (rice and jaggery mix) to devotees. It also was decided that the Sufi Urus should be the only annual congregation at the shrine.

This codification was passed on Feb 25, 1989. Yet, the new Hindu-Brahminical practices were allowed at the shrine by so-called secular governments. In 1992, the Congress government in Karnataka led by Veeerappa Moily allowed an annual congregation in the name of Datta Jayanthi. In 1997, the Janata Dal government under Chief Minister JH Patel allowed the week-long Datta Mala celebrations.

After the 2002 riots and Modi’s return to power in Gujarat, the nature of intervention at the shrine by the Sangh changed qualitatively. Since 2002, the demand has been to snatch the dargah from Muslims. Dattapeetha as Ayodhya of the south, and Karnataka as the Gujarat of the south was the clarion call.

Accordingly, a new petition was filed in the High Court in 2003 (WP 43621/2003), by Sri Guru Dattatreya Peeta Devasthana Samvardhana Samithi, pleading the annulment of the EC’s order of 1989 which codified the rituals, since, the group claimed, the shrine itself was a Dattatreya temple usurped by Muslims during the period of Hyder Ali.

The new dispute challenging the religious nature of the shrine was filed before the High Court of Karnataka 12 years after the Places of Worship Act was passed. This law prohibits the conversion of the religious nature of any places of worship, and instructs the state to retain the religious nature of the places as existing on Aug 15, 1947.

Yet, the Karnataka HC admitted the plea and passed an order in February 2007, annulling the 1989 codification by the EC. The single bench order asked for a fresh public hearing to determine whether the religious nature of the shrine was changed during the period of Hyder Ali, and if so, consider appointing a Hindu archaka and allow the rituals according to the Hindu Agama way.

This was challenged by the Shah Qadri and also progressive individuals and organisations in front of a division bench of the Karnataka HC, and later in the SC. The government advocate representing the then BJP-JD(S) government did not pursue the case of the state before the division bench, and so the single bench order was upheld.

In 2008, a Special Leave Petition (29429/2008) by organisations and prominent individuals of Karnataka and Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) challenging the HC order was admitted in the Supreme Court. The court said that status quo will be maintained as per the 1989 codification by the then Endowment Commissioner; however, it also asked the present Endowment Commissioner to conduct a public hearing to determine the religious nature of the shrine prior to 1947, and give a report to the SC in a sealed cover without acting on it.

In 2010, the EC conducted a public hearing. While the implication of the Places of Worship Act 1991 was brought to the EC’s notice by the Communal Harmony Forum (Karnataka Komu Souharda Vedike), the then commissioner declined to take cognisance of the Act and commented thus:

“It is contended by many individuals and organisations that after the enactment of the Places of Worship Act 1991, in the year 1991, it is compulsory to maintain the position as it was existing as on 15th August 1947 except Babri Masjid and hence any change in the religious affairs in Sri Guru Dattatreya Bababudansvamy dargah would be violative of Places of Worship Act 1991. This issue cannot be discussed by this authority as he is directed to hear codification of the rituals by the Honourable High Court of Karnataka and Honourable Supreme Court of India. It is open for the contenders to raise this issue in the pending proceedings before the Honourable Supreme Court Of India.'' (p. 115, Enquiry Report)

After the hearing, the EC recommended the appointment of a Hindu archaka, and instituting the Agama way of rituals along with a mujawar continuing the practices codified by the earlier EC. So partisan were his recommendations, that he endorsed all the demands made by the Sri Guru Dattatreya Peeta Devasthana Samvardhana Samithi, which did not produce any convincing historical or archaeological evidence. The piles of documents provided by the other side were not even acknowledged in his report, leave alone commenting on it.

Role of judiciary – helping Hindutva by pausing secularism

In September 2015, a division bench of the Supreme Court of Justices Ranjan Gogoi and NV Ramana opened the sealed cover given by the EC and gave its verdict. They said, “We are of the view that, at this stage, the State should be left free to take its decision on the result of the Enquiry of the Commissioner as indicated in his Report. The State Government will naturally be duty bound to take into account all objections that may be raised against the said Report including the objections raised by the parties to the present appeals, as indicated above. Thereafter, the State Government will decide the matter.” (CA 2685/2010)

Thus the highest court refused to act decisively in upholding the law and its secular principles. Instead, it helped the Hindutva movement by giving legitimacy to their claims with its reluctance to invoke the Places of Worship Act. Later, one of the judges in the bench, Justice Gogoi, became the CJI and was part of the Ayodhya judgment, which privileged the faith and beliefs of the majority in deciding the religious nature of the places of worship, rather than historical evidence or proof.

In 2017, the then Congress government in Karnataka constituted Justice HN Nagamohan Das (retd) committee to hear the parties in the case and give its recommendations. The committee heard the public and both the parties in detail. It recommended retaining the rituals as codified in the order of the EC in 1989, arguing that the Places of Worship Act does not permit the appointment of Hindu archaka or Agama rituals, since it amounts to changing the religious nature of the shrine. The government accepted the recommendations and passed an order in March 2018 to continue the rituals as codified in Feb 1989.

This was again challenged in the Karnataka HC by the Sri Guru Dattatreya Peeta Devasthana Samvardhana Samithi. (WP 18752/2018)

In 2019, the BJP came to power in Karnataka through Operation Kamala. Prosecutors were appointed based on their ideological leanings, and the then government advocate who was to defend the government's order and argue the case in the spirit of Places of Worship Act, hardly did his job. The other organisations which argued the case in the support of the Act before the SC, were denied the locus standi in the case and were asked to assist the government advocate.

Repetition of Ayodhya judgment

On September 29, 2021, the HC denied the applicability of Places Of Worship Act to the dispute. The reasoning was that the ownership of the shrine was given to the Muzrai department before the Places of Worship Act came into existence. That the HC in February 1991 and the SC in May 1991 had endorsed the dargah nature of the shrine while upholding the transfer from Wakf to the Muzrai Department was not taken into account in the ‘finality’ argument. So, if that was considered as finality, then the case of the Devasthana Samiti should have been dismissed. The fresh dispute squarely questioning the religious nature of the shrine was filed by the Devasthanam Samiti in 2003, 12 years after the Act came into existence.

The HC also said that by appointing a Hindu archaka and instituting Agama pooja rituals, a change of religious nature does not occur since the Muslim mujawar would continue his rituals simultaneously.

Pretence of public enquiry and a predictable order

The BJP government constituted a Cabinet sub-committee in September 2021 to implement the favourable court order through a sham public enquiry. Even before the public enquiry started, Cabinet ministers and senior BJP leaders declared that the court order is to remove the mujawar and all traces of a Muslim past from the dargah, which has been judicially declared as a Dattatreya temple. Thus the public hearing was itself contrived as an exercise to provide procedural credence to the state’s next move.

The Government Order is one step towards the complete saffronisation of the shrine. The mujawar and the Sufi-Islamic practices at the shrine will be completely marginalised and excluded in the coming days, just as the Shah Qadri has been shunted out today. This victory of the Hindutva right-wing is also a result of judicial reluctance and administrative culpability in the project of Hindutva.

Views expressed are the author's own.

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