|Located in an unassuming, dimly-lit cave atop a thickly forested hill in Karnataka’s Chikmagalur district, a Sufi shrine, the dargah of Baba Budhan, also known as Datta Peetha, is now the centre of a raving controversy that threatens to seriously damage inter-community relations in Karnataka. Behind the controversy is the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and allied Hindu militant groups, who make no bones about their plans to turn the dargah into the Ayodhya of the South, using the controversy to ignite Hindu-Muslim violence and thereby garner Hindu support. Ironically, the shrine has for centuries been a truly integrating centre of worship, attracting Hindus, Muslims and Dalits alike, who have traditionally worshipped there in complete amity til the VHP stepped in to claim possession of it from its Muslim custodians shortly after having tasted victory in destroying the Bari Masjid in 1992.
Baba Budhan Dargah
The history of the Baba Budhan shrine is shrouded in mystery and legend. An Urdu pamphlet that I purchased on a visit to the shrine describes it as the cave where the first Sufi to enter Karnataka, Shaikh Abdul Aziz Makki, also known as Dada Hayat Qalandar, set up his residence. It claims that Dada Hayat was a disciple of the Prophet Muhammad, who had commanded him to travel to south India to spread Islam in the region. When he arrived at the Chandradrona Hill, where the cave-shrine is located, Dada Hayat is said to have been attacked by the local chieftain for having raised his voice against the cruel practice of human sacrifice. It mentions that after displaying a number of miracles, the local Hindus realized that he was indeed a divinely-protected saint. To them, he appeared as the incarnation of their own diety, Dattatreya, whom they expected would arrive one day to put an end to their misery. Dada Hayat stayed in the cave for several years and then left it to return to Arabia.
Sometime in the sixteenth century, the booklet explains, a certain Arab Sufi named Jamaluddin Maghribi arrived in the area, and took up residence at the shrine of Dada Hayat. He brought along with him coffee beans from Yemen. Forming small teams of disciples, he sent them to various places in the vicinity to spread Islam as well as the cultivation of coffee. Today, coffee is the mainstay of the local economy. Maghribi’s descendants, who claim descent from the Prophet Muhammad, have since his death looked after the shrine till this very day. Despite being Muslims, the status of this family as custodians of the shrine was never questioned by the local Hindus.
The liminal identity of the shrine of Dada Hayat—Dattatreya does not seem to have been a problem at all for the local Hindus and Muslims. The shrine was actively patronized with generous land grants by both the Muslim Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan and the Hindu Wodeyar rulers who succeeded them. A clear indication of the unproblematic nature of the liminal identity of the shrine is the fact that in the records of the inams or land grants given to his dargah dating to the Wodeyar period , the Muslim sajjada nashin or custodian is inevitably referred to with the Hindu honorific title of jagadguru or 'preceptor of the whole world'. Accordingly, the sajjada nashins were given certain privileges on par with the heads of some leading Hindu shrines. Thus, in the Hindu kingdom of Mysore, the Sajjada Sri Guru Dattathreya Bababudanswami was among the seventeen 'gurus' to be exempted from personal appearance in the civil courts of the state, the only Muslim 'guru' to have had that honour. That the specifically 'Hindu' or 'Muslim' character of the dargah was never an issue for the general public in the past is suggested by the very name of the shrine in the land grants made to it by various rulers: Sri Dattatreya Swami Baba Budhan Peetha. While the Muslims saw Dada Hayat as a Muslim saint, some Hindus saw him as an incarnation of their god Dattatreya, but there is no record, till recently, of this having been the source of any communal conflict.
The roots of the present controversy, centred around the issue of the ownership and control of the shrine, is of relatively recent origin. In the mid-1960s a dispute arose over the control of the shrine, and even then it was not between Hindus and Muslims but, rather, between two administrative bodies. The Karnataka Waqf Board issued a notification claiming the dargah as coming under its own jurisdiction, but this was disputed by the Muzrai Department, the Commissioner of Religious and Charitable Endowments in the state. Interestingly, the sajjada nashin of the dargah supported the Muzrai Department's stand, arguing against the Waqf Board's claims on the grounds that the dargah was not exclusively a Muslim shrine as it was venerated by both Muslims as well as Hindus. In 1975, the state government directed that the dargah be vested with the Waqf Board, but this order was struck down by the Chikmagalur District Court in 1980. The Waqf Board challenged this order and took the matter to the Karnataka High Court. In 1989, the Court of the Commissioner for Religious and Charitable Endowments restored the shrine to the Muzrai Department and upheld the status of the sajjada nashin as its sole administrator. In 1991, the Karnataka High Court dismissed the appeal of the Waqf Board and ordered the restoration of the pre-1975 status quo. This order was later upheld by the Supreme Court. As matters stand today, the courts have ruled that the dargah is under the jurisdiction of the Muzrai Department and not the Waqf Board; that the Muslim sajjada nashin is the sole administrator of the dargah; and that the rituals that have traditionally been carried out at the dargah, consisting essentially of the reciting of the fatiha, the opening verse of the Holy Quran, inside the cave and the breaking of coconuts in its courtyard, be continued and not be tampered with.
To repeat, then, the dispute was in no sense a communal issue between Muslims and Hindus, but essentially concerned the matter of jurisdiction over the shrine between the Muzrai Department and the Waqf Board. In this dispute, the sajjada nashin was content to let the shrine continue under the jurisdiction of the Muzrai Department, which, in turn, recognised his right as its sole administrator. It is only recently that concerted efforts began being made to communalise the affair, seeking to project it as a Hindu-Muslim dispute. From the 1980s onwards, in order to expand their limited base in south India, Hindutva groups began whipping up Hindu sentiments by raising controversies over several Christian and Muslim shrines in Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. These included a Portuguese-built church near Pondicherry, the Eidgah at Hubli and the Baba Budhan Giri shrine. This went along with strenuous efforts to expand the activities of Hindutva groups in the area.
In the late 1980s, in the wake of the Hindutva agitation to demolish the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya, the Karnataka unit of the VHP launched a campaign for the 'liberation' of the dargah of Dada Hayat. Accordingly, it set up the so-called Datta Peetha Samrakshana Samiti ['Committee for the Liberation of Data Peetha']. In 1989, for the first time, a puja to Dattatreya was conducted by a group of Brahmins affiliated to the VHP outside the cave on 3 December, which was declared to be his birthday. Following the destruction of the Babri Masjid, the VHP was further emboldened, and the so-called Dattatreya Jayanti Utsav was converted into a three-day affair, from 1-3 December, in which a three-headed figure whom the VHP leaders claimed to be that of Dattatreya, was worshipped in the courtyard outside the cave. This, of course, was a clear violation of the court's order that the traditional rituals associated with the dargah be left unchanged.
In order to further galvanise support for the capture of the dargah, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal organised a massive drive all over Karnataka in the last week of November, 1998. Involved in this campaign were senior leaders of the RSS and the BJP. Prominent among them was Ananth Kumar Hegde, BJP Member of Parliament from the neighbouring Karwar constituency, who, six years before, had personally participated in tearing down the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya. Hegde publicly announced that he would despatch 'suicide squads' to ensure the success of the campaign.
Various other Hindutva leaders made similar threatening remarks, greatly vitiating inter-communal relations all over the state. Five rath yatras [chariot processions] were launched which criss-crossed the entire state, raising Hindu passions against the Muslims in the name of 'liberating' the dargah from Muslim control. At some places, as in Hubli, violence broke out as the raths passed through. Pleas that the raths be banned for fear of raising communal tension were turned down by the government administration.
The five raths reached Chikmagalur on 30 November, and the dargah on 1 December, 1998, amidst unprecedented police protection. Although the district administration had clamped prohibitory orders in a 10-kilometre radius around the dargah under Section 144 banning the assembly of four or more persons, no ban was placed on the assembly of Hindutva activists at the shrine itself, which, by 3 December, had swelled to more than 10,000. A large rally was then held outside the shrine, in which fiery speeches were delivered against the Muslims. Among the Hindutva leaders present were VHP-affiliated Brahmin priests from Gujarat, the all-India convenor of the Bajrang Dal, Prakash Sharma, Jaya Basavananda Swami of the Basava Peetha, and the secretary of the VHP, Babu Rao Desai. Addressing the rally, Swamy Sadanandji of the Ajjampura Math declared, much to the joy of the mobs gathered there: 'The shrine will be liberated or a blood-bath is certain'. Impassioned cries of: 'We will shed blood to save the Datta Peetha' were raised. It was falsely alleged that the sajjada nashin was obstructing Hindus from worshipping at the dargah.
On 2 December, activists of the Bajrang Dal tore down the green flags fluttering near the dargah and, in their place, hoisted saffron Hindutva flags. The police and the local administration remained mute spectators to this vandalism. The Deputy Commissioner of Chikmagalur, K.S.Manjunath, and the Inspector General of Police [Western Range], B.N.Bhonsale, claimed that this 'could not be stopped' as it would lead to a confrontation. Emboldened thus, Hindutva activists carried an idol purported to be that of Dattatreya inside the cave and worshipped it. The Muslims protested to the administration, arguing that this was a clear violation of the court's orders., but their plea was turned down on the flimsy grounds that removing the idol then might result in communal violence As a result, for the first time an idol was worshipped at the dargah, and this continued for three days, till 3 December. A group of Brahmins associated with the VHP also sought to take a two-foot idol of Ganesha inside the shrine, fully aware of the tradition that once an idol of the elephant-headed god is installed at a particular spot it cannot be removed. The administration did not let them take this idol inside, although they were allowed to worship it at the entrance of the cave. After this, the idol was taken by the Deputy Commissioner, K.C.Manjunath, to be handed over to the Muzrai Department. Manjunath told visiting newspersons that at an earlier meeting with VHP leaders he had agreed that any 'offering' that they made to the shrine 'would be accepted'.
After the puja gave over, a dharma sabha [religious council] was organised outside the dargah, which was addressed by senior VHP and Bajrang Dal leaders. They announced that they were giving the government a year's ultimatum to hand the shrine over to them, failing which they would be forced to 'choose the path of confrontation', promising a ' blood-bath' and threatening to send suicide squads for 'liberating' it. They also demanded the removal of the present sajjada nashin and the appointment of a Hindu [read Brahmin] priest in his place and the offering of Hindu-style puja at the dargah every day. The state convenor of the Bajrang Dal, Pramod Mutalik, demanded that the annual Sufi urs festival, which has been held for several centuries at the dargah, be discontinued forthwith. Hindutva leaders insisted that their final aim was to convert the dargah into 'a purely Hindu place of worship'. The all-India general secretary of the Bajrang Dal, Prakash Sharma, demanded that only Hindu pujas should be allowed at the dargah. While he claimed that Muslims would also be allowed to worship at the shrine, at a rally at Chikmagalur town he thundered: 'If Allah and Christ do not accept Saraswati Vandana, why should our Dattapeetha accept Muslims?'
For the last few years the so-called Datta puja, organized by the VHP, has become a regular affair every December. In December 2002, the VHP organized a massive rally at the dargah, demadning that it be turned into a temple, threatening large scale bloodshed if its demands were not met. This year, too, in early December, the VHP plans to organize a massive so-called puja at the dargah, using it as a means to whip up anti-Muslim sentiments. Because of the VHP's activities in the area, Hindu-Muslim relations are today extremely strained and could erupt into open violence at the slightest provocation. The government's own acts of omission and commission have themselves further complicated matters, allowing the VHP to carry on its campaign somewhat unhindered. In many respects, this seems a repeat performance of the government's policy vis-à-vis the Babri Masjid issue, where inaction and covert support for the Hindutva agenda brought in its trail a storm of destruction and violence on an unprecedented scale. Every effort, then, needs to be made to prevent the Baba Budhan Giri dargah from being made into a second