Dalit organisations and monks claim that Hindu groups are trying to appropriate a historical Buddhist site in Gulbarga. Imran Khan reports
A HISTORICAL Buddhist site near Gulbarga, 584 km from Bengaluru, where the first inscribed image of Ashoka was discovered, has become the latest communal flashpoint in Karnataka. For the past two weeks, Dalit organisations and a Buddhist monk have been protesting against what they claim is an attempt by Hindus to appropriate the monument by placing a Durga idol.
Four Dalits and a Buddhist monk have been arrested for removing the idol. However, the protesters claim that they had removed the idol only to take it to the deputy commissioner’s office when they were arrested.
In 1986, a Buddhist stupa dating back to 1st century BC was discovered in Sannati, around 70 km from Gulbarga. It is believed that Ashoka sent his son Mahindra and daughter Sanghamitra as emissaries to spread Buddhism in this region, which is now considered the most backward district in Karnataka. Subsequent excavations by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) have established Sannati as an important historical site.
“On 5 February, a group of Dalits led by a Buddhist monk tried to forcibly take away the Durga idol,” says R Vishal, deputy commissioner of Gulbarga city. “The area is a protected monument and ASI is conducting excavations there. When ASI men tried to stop them, they pushed them and ran away. Before the situation could get out of control and communal tension could be created, we caught them. A case has been lodged.”
Buddhist monk Bodhidhamma Banteji, who is in judicial custody, says, “A sinister plan has been carried out all over India. Look at the cases of Khaneri, Elephanta and Mahalakshmi in Mumbai and Karla and Mansari in Nasik and Nagpur. Efforts have been made to ascribe a Hindu connection to Buddhist places of worship.”
“I have been coming to this place for the past 10 years as part of my dissertation on Sannati. I never found this idol or any Hindu relic at this place. Suddenly we saw rituals taking place and this idol sprouting up,” says Banteji.
Banteji and four Dalit leaders have been booked under various IPC sections for promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of peace, unlawful assembly intended to outrage religious feelings. Surprisingly none of the accused have been booked for trespassing, theft or damaging a historical site.
When contacted, DK Ravi, assistant commissioner of Sedam taluk (where the complaint has been lodged) and administrator of Sannati Budhha Stupa Development Authority, refused to comment. The accused allege that the complaint was filed based on Ravi’s insistence.
“When I saw this idol, I immediately informed the local authorities and the district administration. Even after my constant reminders, they didn’t take any action. I couldn’t have just sat back and watched the cultural heritage of Buddhism being destroyed,” says Banteji.
“Look at the absurdity of this case. The complaint has been lodged by a Muslim (ASI worker Azeem) against Buddhists and Dalits for hurting his religious sentiments. Whereas the deity in question is a Hindu idol,” says the defendants’ lawyer Mazhar Hussain. He claims Banteji has been targeted specifically as he’s been instrumental in converting over 15,000 Dalits to Buddhism since 1995.
ASI Deputy Superintendent Dr JK Patnaik rubbishes the claims. He cites a study conducted by ASI in 1989 to prove that the practice of Durga worship was prevalent at the time when the government acquired the place in 2002, and subsequently declared a protected site in 2003. “The idol dates back to the 9th century AD — Rashtrakutas period — and had not been installed there,” he says. He admits that ASI is allowing rituals to take place as discontinuing the practice would incur “the wrath of locals”.
Local Hindu groups led by BJP MLA Valmiki Nayak have been demanding puja to be allowed at the site. “Twenty years ago, the site belonged to a villager who used to worship Durga. Hence we demanded that puja should be allowed. Those who say that the place only belongs to Buddhists and that this place is only Buddha Vihar are troublemakers,” he says.
Imran Khan is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.