January  2004 
Year 10    No.95

Breaking Barriers

Battle over Baba

Non-communal Hindus and Muslims join hands to frustrate the sangh parivar’s bid to polarise Karnataka society by staking saffron claim over the Baba Boudhangiri dargah


December 28. Sunday morning in Chikmagalur. There was still a nip in the air as the sleepy town woke up to see people from various towns and villages of Karnataka pouring in. While some came in groups with their organisation’s banner held high, others, mostly individuals, walked silently towards the now dried up tank bed on the outskirts of the town. When we reached the place, there was already an atmosphere of celebration.

For some of us, there was a more joyous reason to celebrate. The venue had a special significance for nearly one thousand of us who had gathered at the same location three weeks ago, on December 7 to be precise, defying an almost emergency-like police vigil bent on preventing anyone who wanted to hold a peaceful protest meet against the sangh parivar-sponsored Shobha Yatra to be held the same day. With a quirk of irony, the Congress government had done what even a hardcore BJP government might hesitate to do: preventing progressives and secularists from meeting while letting the communalists have a field day.

But some of us had managed to hoodwink the police and arrived at the appointed time to join the small crowd of cricket players who were actually activists in disguise! The moment we jumped into the tank bed, they threw out their cricket gear and unfurled the banners. Soon all those who were hiding in the nearby lanes and mud houses joined us. Someone even managed to smuggle in a public address system.

As the small posse of policemen watched, the scene quickly metamorphosed into a makeshift conference, with speeches, songs and slogans, everything in order. Since the district administration had not expected this show of defiance, it took them some time to mobilise themselves and build a police cordon around us. For defying the ban we were promptly arrested. We were taken to a newly built but still incomplete jail on the outskirts of the town. Little did we expect to spend two days in that woefully inadequate place, with such fun and spirit of solidarity! Notwithstanding the scarcity of food, water, space and even power, we celebrated every moment of our stay. We were the first inmates of that jail and what a glorious way to inaugurate it!

And now here we were again at the historic ground, greeting each other, recollecting and re–living our cherished moments in jail, penalised for promoting communal peace and harmony. People started pouring in and the crowd swelled. As the inaugural function ended and the long march to the venue of the afternoon conference at the town centre began, the numbers multiplied. Even by conservative estimates there were more than 20,000 people present.

In every aspect it was a stark contrast to the sangh parivar’s procession. Theirs had been a menacingly homogeneous, saffron–coloured, Muslim–bashing mob. Ours was a multicoloured, heterogeneous, peaceful rally made up of more than 200 organisations. Their crowd was sponsored, ours was voluntary. They were spitting venom on the minorities, we were asking for peace and oneness... The participants included writers, intellectuals, farmers, various women’s and Dalit groups, besides a large contingent of the Karnataka Vimochana Ranga and the youth wings of the CPI and CPI (M). The event was organised by ‘Baba Boudhangiri Souharda Vedike’ – a platform for secular, progressive and non-communal individuals and organisations in Karnataka.

Our procession too had the colour saffron adorning the front row. But it was a different kind of saffron – a difference perhaps the sangh parivar never understands. There were three religious heads representing three different non-Brahminical Mutts leading the procession. Protecting them on both sides from curious onlookers and the jostling crowds were the white-capped Muslims. Just behind them was the revolutionary ballad-singer Gaddar, inspiring one and all to fight communalism. As the procession marched through the streets of Chikmagalur, many locals, most of them Muslims, joined in.

The noticeable factor of this year’s Harmony Meet was the Muslim community’s active participation in large numbers. Last year the local Muslims had supported the rally and the conference rather hesitantly and pitched in their support at the last moment. This year they felt more emboldened and had worked for the success of the Harmony Meet from the beginning. There was a marked understanding that the core issue of communalism was not a fight between Hindus and Muslims but between secularists and communalists. This seems to be one of the most singular achievements of the Baba Boudhangiri Harmony Meet.


The Dattatreya-Baba Boudhan movement in Karnataka has thrown up a number of issues – some familiar, some new – regarding the rise of communalism in India and the nature of secular resistance that needs to emerge to confront such communal forces. In fact, it has once again brought into sharp focus the merits and demerits of the oft debated issue of the secular v/s the communal. And in that process it has led us to reconsider a range of issues: from what it means to be ‘secular’ in the Indian context; the social and political dimension of peoples’ religious experience; the Brahmanical hegemony and the Shudra consent, and the role of the State and civil society in contesting communalism. Above all, it has drawn our attention to the horrid dimensions that communalism has acquired today and its deep nexus with the forces of globalisation.

Academic debate on secularism apart, it needs to be mentioned that secularism, both as idea and as practice, has been a highly contested terrain. The indecisive and highly ambivalent nature of this concept is both a bane and a boon. It has, for example, emboldened the communalists to term anyone who upholds minority rights as pseudo-secularist and anyone who criticises Hindutva as anti-Hindu. At the same time, any attempt to equate secularism with rationalism – as a means of criticising irrational and atavistic religious practices – has been critiqued as stemming out of a non-Indian understanding of the concept and hence deeply flawed and culturally inappropriate to understand either religion or secularism as it operates in this country.

But it is crucial to note that secularism, since its founding moments in the Indian polity, is neither understood nor practised in India in the way it has been normally described in the West: as a strict separation between the modern State and traditional religion. The Indian versions of this concept, where the State is either required to remain equidistant from religion (dharma nirapekshata – religious neutrality) or provide equal treatment to all religions (sarvadharma samabhava – non-preferentialism) are also found inadequate because of their setbacks and pitfalls. For instance, as Partha Chatterjee argues, the former description is unsuitable because religious neutrality can lead to the Hindu right to bulldoze and persecute the minorities as is happening in Baba Boudhangiri in the name of Datta Jayanthi. Ill equipped and weak-kneed as they are, the political parties, can, ironically, turn neutrality into religious discrimination in actual practice by their refusal to act at crucial times as has happened in Baba Boudhangiri. Non-preference, on the other hand, can lead to either unchecked religious liberty or, given the uneven and even undemocratic nature of religious laws (like personal laws of various religious communities), to selective and arbitrary interference.

In this sense, the secular State can hardly be secular because today it seems that secularism is what ultimately justifies it: there are too many fault lines in accepting it as a normative category. In other words, debates on what constitutes secularism in India depend on conditions that make secularism possible. In a nutshell, the Baba Boudhangiri episode in Karnataka can be seen as an attempt to set some of the conditions that make secular practice possible. We believe that our struggle to thwart the communal agenda of the sangh parivar in Baba Boudhangiri was just that: to forge a non-communal (which need not be ‘secular’) forum comprising various members of civil society, including religious heads, and put up a social, cultural and political resistance to communalism.

Crucial to the Baba Boudhangiri issue is the struggle between the Brahmanical hegemony and the Shudra resistance to such an appropriation. While the upper caste Hindus were happy to establish their power over the Sufi shrine and endorsed the sangh parivar’s efforts to sanskritise a subaltern culture, the orthodox and fundamental Muslims remained indifferent, and couldn’t care less about the loss of a dargah. The emphasis from the beginning, therefore, was not so much on bashing the communal elements as it was on addressing non-communal Hindus and Muslims to come together as one voice and understand the divisive communal agenda of the sangh parivar.

The ill-conceived move of the state government to arrest the progressives and allow the sangh parivar to carry on with their show of strength helped us, in a way, to forge this solidarity better. This struck a sympathetic cord among all sections of people who voluntarily participated in the procession in large numbers. It was a historic meeting in several ways, since it disproved many myths, reconfirmed the need for a secularisation process and clarified many misgivings. Simply put, the Baba Boudhangiri ‘dispute’ is a metonymical representation of the problems as well as the possibilities of combating communalism in India.


Sri Dattatreya Swami Baba Boudhan Dargah on the Bababoudhan hills, about 35 km. from Chikmagalur town, has been a long-time symbol for religious tolerance, cultural plurality and communal harmony. For centuries, the dargah of Baba Boudhan, one of the oldest Sufi shrines in South India, has been a much revered place for such diverse peoples’ traditions like Sufis and Natha Panthis. Baba is also known as Dada Hayat and as Dattatreya by local Hindus. Dattatreya is considered to represent a union of otherwise antagonistic Shaivite and Vaishanavite traditions. Thus, it is a living example of a syncretic cult for centuries and in modern times a symbol for what secularism and communal amity mean in the popular consciousness.

It is precisely for these reasons that it has been targeted by the sangh parivar for advancing its communal agenda in Karnataka. They have started inventing new myths through their propaganda that Baba Boudhangiri was originally the holy abode of Dattatreya Swami (a different Puranic God, an incarnation of all the three principal deities – Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara) but was later captured by Muslims. The sacred task, according to the sanghis, is to ‘liberate’ the place from Muslim hold and re-establish the ‘original’ deity and carry out Hindu rituals. They have been carrying out programmes to propagate this idea for quite some time now by instigating the Hindu youth, including Dalits.

Over the last couple of years, the parivar has stepped up its campaign by introducing a non-existent tradition called ‘Datta Male’ and ‘Datta Abhiyana’ wherein the devotees were asked to wear saffron robes, strings of beads and walk their way to the hills to worship Dattareya. In doing so, they have shamelessly copied the Shabarimalai ritual and tried to replace the black robes with their brand colour, saffron. Their pamphlets have progressively pushed the genealogy of this invented ritual to ancient times.

It is obvious that the sangh parivar’s interest here, as elsewhere, is not religious but political. Its cultural politics lies in erasing a non-Brahmanical, subaltern tradition from the public memory and insert in its place a Vedic ritual. This is nothing but a gross violation of the traditional rights of the people of this country. It is a violation of the right of minorities to worship the way they want to by rendering it illegitimate, and by valorising a highly Brahmanical and scriptural practice.

It should be highlighted that the place is under dispute in the hon’ble high court of Karnataka. The interim order states, very clearly, that status quo should be maintained in the hill shrine, meaning that the worship as it was traditionally practised prior to 1975 should be maintained. Still, the state government has not only remained a mute witness to the gross violation of the court’s observation, but has also tacitly promoted the Datta Jayanti by officially participating in the festival.

Ironically, the minister in charge of the district, who also happens to be the law minister, actually sat with the sangh parivar and performed the Yagna in 2000. He even justified his action saying that by doing so he was only trying to beat the sangh parivar at its own game. But the fact is that his ill-conceived zeal only endorsed the politics of the sangh parivar!


The decision to hold a rally on the same day as the sangh parivar’s Shobha Yatra was taken at the Harmony Convention organised by the Vedike last year, in December 2002, as a strategy as well as a form of political struggle against communalism. It was to be a political fight sans any political parties. This decision was arrived at following a massive mandate of the 2002 Convention that secular forces should become more pro-active in their attempts to combat communalism than remain reactive, always waiting for the others to set its agenda.

This year a larger number of people and organisations joined the Vedike and made it a true voice of secular Karnataka, without any party affiliations. Like the WSF, the Baba Boudhangiri Souharda Vedike is also a multifaceted platform and a broad-based coalition of various groups. With their differing ideologies, even their understanding of communalism and their strategies to fight communalism was different. Yet they converged for a show of solidarity. While this plurality of voices/ideas needs to be celebrated, it is necessary to acknowledge that it is not without its problems. The lack of a unifying centre to give direction to address problems in the right perspective and forge a more pointed solidarity should guide our future endeavour to defeat communal forces.

It is no longer just a matter of conjecture that at a deep level, communalism works as a conspiracy of silence to divert attention from several burning issues that plague our society. For instance, Karnataka witnessed an unprecedented number of farmers’ suicides, and given the scale of this tragedy it should have become a major issue of concern for the state and its people. The death of a farmer is symptomatic of the fact that something is rotten in the state and the challenges it throws up should have made everyone sit up and take notice. But it was dismissed as a morbid syndrome and some of the ministers even went to the extent of describing it as induced by the compensation package announced by the government.

What is highly disturbing and difficult to explain is that people respond more readily to a threat like communalism than an existing problem like agrarian distress. This cannot simply be explained in either emotional or rational terms. Perhaps the former functions as a substitute for the latter. This should also explain why communalism is deeply compatible with globalisation. Further, to assume that communalism expresses the religious or spiritual aspirations of the people is utterly wrong.

In fact, the irony in the Baba Boudhangiri episode is that while the progressive and secular people stood in favour of the traditional practices at the Baba Boudhan shrine, the sangh parivar, which claims to be the sole inheritors of the sanathana dharma, is all for the comparatively modern practice of bringing in the Brahmanical mode of worship (homa and yagna), insisting upon installing the Dattatreya idol and appointing a Hindu (read Brahmin) priest. This makes it clear that Hindu communalism is in fact an entirely modern project that cares little for the traditional religious and cultural practices of this nation. The Baba Boudhangiri episode is a clear vindication of the Brahmanical hegemony over Shudras and Dalits. Communalism draws its power and sustenance from Brahmanism but subtly camouflages it as Hindu culture to woo the non-Bramanical mass base.

Some of the other salient features that are typical of the fascist nature of communalism in India were at work even at Chikmagalur. They are discussed very briefly below.

Erasure of History: The sangh parivar and BJP are known for their acts of vandalism against history. The attempt to rewrite Indian history to suit their communal interests has been re-enacted at Chikmagalur both literally and metaphorically. Not only have they literally smeared with black paint the signboards and milestones carrying the age-old name ‘Baba Boudhangiri’ and replaced it with their own coinage ‘Datta Peetha’, at a metaphorical level, they are trying to erase people’s memory by claiming that the Sufi shrine was originally an abode of Dattatreya that was later ‘occupied’ by Muslims.

Though rituals like the Shobha Yatra and Datta Male are recent inventions of the sangh parivar, even the district administration has begun to claim them as traditional practices. Official patronage by the state administration has given legitimacy to these illegal and invented practices. While the Dattatreya of the sangh parivar is a Puranic God, the Datta of the Sufi shrine is a Guru of the Natha Panthis. The Guru can be either a Hindu or a Muslim and there are several such belief centres in Karnataka as well as in India. This distinction is deliberately sidelined or blurred to superimpose a Brahmanic deity on a subaltern one.

Creation of a dispute: One of the familiar techniques of the sangh parivar is to create a ‘dispute’ where none exists and then demand a ‘solution’. The Babri Masjid is a classic case in point. The Souharda movement tried to expose this manoeuvring by refusing to address the Baba Boudhangiri issue as a problem in the first place, because accepting it as a problem is a trap and nothing short of conceding to their scheme. Moreover, it is obvious that they are not genuinely interested in solving such problems. Solutions to such issues (like Babri Masjid or Kashmir or Baba Boudhangiri) takes the edge out of their communal agenda. Therefore, the emphasis this time was clearly not to engage in a dialogue with the sangh parivar or their Hindu supporters but to take the issue to the people.

Local and National: It is sadly ironic that many, including some from the left parties see the Baba Boudhangiri issue as purely a local problem, to be solved ‘locally’. But issues like Baba Boudhangiri are not local problems: their ramifications are national. Even more tragic is the attitude of the press, which looked at the entire episode as a local issue. Almost all the major papers carried the event of December 28, which was historic in many ways and no less national, in their district editions. Thus people in major city centres in the state hardly got to see the real significance of the event. In Bangalore many were even unaware of the event.

This raises a number of serious issues about the way the media understands the real import of communalism and the way they sift the local from the national. The conspiracy of silence works even through the media, thus abetting the spread of communal feeling among middle class readers. While Praveen Togadia’s speech made during last year’s Datta Jayanthi was given wide publicity, the massive secular response to it was reported as a footnote.

In spite of repeated clarifications to the press, it continued to report that secular groups were opposing the Datta Jayanthi, without making the important distinction between the Datta cult of the people and the Datta Jayanthi of the sangh parivar, thus making even a non-communal but religious Hindu feel that secularists are anti-God and anti-Hindu. Even at the national level, it is a sad fact that the press has largely failed to drive home the distinction between Hindutva as a political ideology and Hinduism as an article of faith. This critique needs to be made even as we acknowledge that the press in India is largely progressive and not overtly communal.

Plurality v/s tolerance: Though the central slogan of the conference was ‘Souharda Karnataka Kattona’ (Let us build a harmonious Karnataka), it was not limited to uphold the value of tolerance, but to valorise plurality. Tolerance, after all, is a negative virtue, as stated by the noted historian Arnold Toynbee. The minorities (as well as a majority of non-communal Hindus) have largely remained tolerant in spite of the overarching presence of Hindu symbols, rituals and practices in public spaces. And by no stretch of imagination can we accuse the minorities of being communal in this country. Therefore, to preach tolerance to those who are tolerating the other communities is stating the obvious. But what is at stake in every religion is the slow waning of respect for and a sympathetic understanding of pluralistic traditions.

Tolerance may emerge out of a pragmatic reason to remain silent or even indifferent to the other religion while retaining a firm belief in the superiority of one’s own religion. But plurality, on the other hand, believes in multiple systems of faith as an equally valid way of life. The Datta-Baba tradition is one of the prime examples not of mere tolerance, but of the celebration of plurality.

Karnataka’s unique cultural history: Fortunately, Karnataka has a unique history of syncretic traditions as well as of progressive saints and religious movements. The 12th century Vachana Movement stood against the caste system and emerged as a major point of resistance to the Brahmanical hierarchy. It upheld the importance of labour and inward purity of soul and laid stress on the human experience (anubhava) as the essential basis for attaining spiritual understanding of the world (anubhaava).

The presence of three Swamijis who are carrying forward this spirit of oneness of experience in the Harmony Rally and the Conference held later in the day has a deep significance, for it proved that this living tradition of the Vachana Movement could be a native answer to the ultra modernist ideology of the sangh parivar. The saffron-clad Swamijis, cordoned by Muslims, sent a strong visual signal that Karnataka may not be an easy entry point for communal forces in the South.

One of the Swamijis, Sri Murugharajendra Sharana of Chitradurga had, just a couple of weeks before the event, given the Basavashri award to Gaddar, the revolutionary poet-singer of Andhra Pradesh. The seer had extolled the poet as a modern day Basavanna, the great 12th century writer and reformer. A religious institution honouring a revolutionary against many odds and threats – the seer was warned by some fundamentalists not to invite Gaddar and in some places the sangh parivar had even burnt the effigy of the Swamiji to protest against his choosing Gaddar for the Basavashri award – may look like a contradiction, but it is well within the illustrious and liberal cultural history of Karnataka.

December 29, 2004 also happened to be the birth centenary of another great Kannada poet and thinker, Kuvempu. Way back in the early ’40s, he had given a clarion call for Kannadigas to ‘come out of temples, churches and mosques’ and develop the qualities of universal humanity. Pitching the idea of communal harmony in the background of this progressive cultural and religious ethos, the Baba Boudhangiri Souharda Movement thus witnessed the emergence of a large and powerful cultural contingent to resist communal forces.

The secular and the religious: An unholy


The Baba Boudhangiri movement has also left behind traces of several questions that are equally crucial to understand communalism and the ways and means to combat it. For instance, how are we – who call ourselves progressives and secularists – justified in endorsing an atavistic and superstitious practice that is carried on in the Cave Shrine in the name of upholding peoples’ culture and syncretic values? If confronting communalism ultimately also means fighting against inequality, superstition, patriarchy and class/caste oppression, how far can religious or cultural categories provide the necessary basis for such a struggle? What about the deep nexus between communalism and globalisation? How do we confront both? Can secularism and religious practice go together?

The struggle against both can emerge only by a strong commitment to the values of democracy and socialism. Secularism is one of the preconditions for establishing the democratic order in both State and civil society. Secularism, like any other ideology, is not a homogeneous category that can be applied normatively from above. Rather, it is a process that can be sustained by pressuring the State to make a democratic and pro-people intervention in the public sphere, particularly where religions are concerned. This means upholding human rights and the tenets of the Constitution and preventing neo-traditional practices from usurping the culture and belief systems of common people.

Above all, secularisation of the State and society can emerge only through creative dialogue between and among different communities. In other words, like any political ideology, secularism should also stem from below. The Datta-Baba and many such Sufi and syncretic places of worship are themselves a result of such long and sustained dialogue between different religious communities in the past. This tradition is now disappearing and it is one of the reasons for the rise of communalism and growing religious intolerance. At the same time, it is equally important that the spirit of such a dialogue should be harnessed to modern democratic needs and ideals. It is not an easy task and constitutes one of the biggest challenges of our times. But unless this challenge is articulated and addressed, the fascist nature of communalism cannot be fought.

In the absence of such an initiative from below, the State – no matter which party holds power – is bound to become authoritarian. Right now the Congress in Karnataka has shown that it is ill equipped and least inclined to handle the issue of secularism. But even as preparations for the communal harmony meet in Chikmagalur were on, two young women, one Hindu and another Muslim, were killed in a police encounter not very far from Chikmagalur. They were fighting for the rights of the tribals to live in their traditional habitat, for protecting natural resources, and for preventing the forces of globalisation from converting sustainable forest resources into a consumable commodity.

The entire state, in spite of their different understanding of revolutionary armed struggles, rose in anger against the state’s brutality and expressed their sympathy for the sacrifice these two women had made. Parvathi and Hajima died for a cause that was beyond religion and their secularism was miles ahead of being merely tolerant or pluralist about the religion of their birth. They gave up their lives for the cause of the people and to realise their dream for a better society. Perhaps here lies the true path to combat communalism: to fight against globalisation, which is a threat to the traditional and sovereign right of people over life, land and water.

(VS Sreedhara teaches English at Vijaya College, Bangalore University and is a member of the co-ordinating committee, Baba Boudhangiri Souharda Vedike. Gauri Lankesh is editor, Lankesh Patrike, a leading Kannada Weekly and a member of the presidential committee, Baba Boudhangiri Souharda Vedike).

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