Saturday, March 3, 2012

[ZESTCaste] Idol Worship Sparks Buddhist Fury

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 10, Dated 10 Mar 2012

Idol Worship Sparks Buddhist Fury

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

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.

'I couldn't have just sat back and seen Buddhist heritage being
destroyed,' says monk Banteji

"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.


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