Hubbali: Idgah Maidan
This is a collection of articles archived for the excellence of their content.
As in 202O
Nalin Mehta, September 1, 2022: The Times of India
With the Karnataka High Court allowing Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations at the Idgah ground in Hubli, a Hindu organisation, which has been awarded the contract by the Huballi Dharwad Municipal Corporation, has gone ahead and erected a pandal on the ground with a Ganesh idol for prayers. The Rani Chennamma Gajanan Utsav Mahamandal, headed by Vishwa Hindu Parishad district president Sanjeev Badaskar installed the Ganesh idol even as the Anjuman-e-Islam has moved the Supreme Court challenging the Karnataka High Court order. With the Supreme Court separately not allowing Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations at another Idgah Maidan at Chamarajpet in Bengaluru, the politics of religious symbolism and identity is once again centrestage in Karnataka.
Historically, the dispute over the Idgah Maidan at Hubli played a crucial role in the rise of the BJP in the state. The latest mobilisation as new shades of that older movement which was about unfurling the tricolour at the Idgah Maidan. If the Ayodhya movement was the turning point for the BJP in north India, in Karnataka it would be the five-year-long dispute over Hubli’s Idgah Maidan or the Kittur Rani Chennamma Maidan, which flared up between 1992 and 1995.
BJP’s origins in Karnataka
BJP’s predecessor, Jan Sangh, never had strong roots in Karnataka. It won only four of 216 seats in the 1967 state assembly polls. When Ram Sewak, a Jan Sangh candidate, managed to save his deposit in the polls in 1967, such was his joy that he remembers having taken out a victory procession despite having lost the election. As he told the journalist Veeraraghav, ‘Those were the pitiable days. Nobody was willing to touch us. We were almost untouchables.’ The BJP won eighteen of 224 seats in the state assembly in 1983 before being virtually wiped out in the late 1980s.
It was at this point that, in tandem with the Ayodhya movement in the north, a local religious dispute over a playing ground in the eastern town of Hubli proved to be a game changer. From just four seats in the state assembly in 1989, the BJP jumped four-fold to forty seats in 1994. All its leaders agree that the Idgah Maidan was pivotal here. In the north, the Ayodhya dispute had festered for over a hundred years as a localised property dispute before becoming the political flashpoint that transformed the BJP’s political fortunes in the 1990s.
Roots of the Hubli Idgah dispute
The roots of the Hubli dispute lay in a 999-year lease agreement that the Anjuman-e-Islam (AeI), a local Muslim body, had signed with the local municipality in 1921. The lease conferred on it the right to use the 1.5-acre maidan, also called the Kittur Rani Chennamma Maidan, twice a year for prayers. The rest of the year, it was a playground for cricket and other sports, for holding fairs during jatras and public meetings by political parties. The problem began when the AeI decided to ‘construct a building there’ in 1990. ‘It was opposed by everybody,’ recalls Lehar Singh, BJP MLC. ‘Otherwise that ground was for playing. It was used for namaaz only on Ramadan and Id, rest of the time for cricket.’ The dispute assumed political overtones when the Congress state government gave the AeI permission to construct this building. Many local residents argued that they would no longer be able to play cricket there and a group opposed to the construction (B.S. Shettar and 105 others) went to court.
The government’s order was overturned by a local munsif court, which held it ‘illegal and ineffectual’ and upheld the ‘right of people to use the Idgah maidan for jatras and other activities’. The court also ordered the removal of the structure built by the AeI. Both the additional sessions judge and the Karnataka High Court in July 1992 agreed with the munsif order and directed the HDMC to demolish the building. The AeI then appealed to the Supreme Court, which stayed the demolition of the building at the time, while keeping the main appeal pending. The BJP’s local leadership organised around this complex local dispute and that ‘small piece of land became synonymous with Hindu mobilisation in the state’.
In the north, then BJP president Murali Manohar Joshi had gone on an Ekta Yatra, with Narendra Modi (then a young BJP leader) to Kashmir to hoist the national flag in Srinagar. Coinciding with this, in the south, the local BJP leadership decided to launch a movement to hoist the national flag at Hubli’s Idgah Maidan.
On Republic Day 1992, a group of BJP, R S S and VHP leaders planned to hoist the tricolour at the Idgah Maidan in sync with Joshi’s flag-hoisting at Srinagar’s Lal Chowk. When the AeI refused to allow the flag-hoisting, arguing that this was private property, Hubli erupted. The Congress state government under S. Bangarappa backed the AeI. It denied the protesters permission for flag-hoisting, but despite prohibitory orders, a group of young men managed to enter the ground and hoist the tricolour. As the Times of India reported later, ‘the matter would have ended there, but for the panicky reaction of the police, who removed the flag. This made the issue contentious.’
Sure enough, a case was filed in a local court against the police for insulting the national flag. The BJP, the R S S and the VHP set up a Rashtra Dhwaj Gaurav Sanrakshan Committee (Committee for Protecting the Honour of the National Flag). What had begun as a local property dispute now became a larger controversy that involved the national flag. The Sanrakshan Committee declared that it did not care who hoisted the flag as long as it was hoisted—implying that refusal to allow flying the tricolour on the disputed spot by anyone was problematic—and the matter turned into a political flashpoint.
The state government took a limited, legalistic view, thus playing into the BJP’s hands. As an official told reporters at the time, ‘The collection of a crowd was what aggravated the Ayodhya problem. We are not apprehending an Ayodhya-type situation but we are convinced that once people are allowed to collect at a place, it could lead to trouble.’ The legal view was that, since the Idgah Maidan was disputed property, nobody could hoist a flag in it. ‘Even the Anjuman-e-Islam has no right to hoist a flag there,’ local officials argued. ‘If anyone wants to hoist a flag, they can do so in places specified by the flag code, but not on a disputed land.’ Between 1992 and 1995, the BJP made five abortive bids to hoist a flag at the Idgah Maidan. It became a rallying point for party leaders across the state and a powerful magnet for the leading lights of the Ayodhya movement. Uma Bharti, for example, was barred from entering the state in 1994. She somehow managed to reach Hubli before she was arrested by the local police. ‘I was arrested before I entered the Idgah maidan,’ she later recalled. ‘I didn’t hoist the national flag and had not made any provocative speech … In the entire country this was the only place where hoisting the national flag was banned.’
Soon after her arrest, four people were killed and over a hundred injured when the police opened fire to disperse a 5,000-strong crowd that had gathered at the Sawai Gandharva Hall in Hubli’s Deshpande Nagar after being turned away from flag-hoisting. The BJP called for a ‘black day’ across Karnataka, while Chief Minister Veerappa Moily accused the BJP of being responsible for the deaths.
Why did the flag-hoisting become such a contentious issue? For the Congress government, as officials briefed reporters at the time, the BJP’s call for a huge crowd to gather ‘clearly indicates that the intention is to provoke people and create a violent atmosphere not just in Hubli but in the entire state’. To the AeI, the flag-hoisting seemed like a threatened land grab and they feared that a crowd could bring down the disputed structure. Former Hubli mayor Firdous Kunoon told the journalist Veeraraghav, ‘Muslims were scared that if you want to put a pole and hoist a flag, you will prove it’s your property or public property.’ The BJP projected it as the litmus test of patriotism. As Firdous put it, ‘In my schooldays, in the same ground, there were firecracker shows at night on the last day of Ganesh pooja, but that has now stopped.’ As the dispute festered and communal tensions mounted, the BJP’s critics accused it of playing ‘divisive politics’. A newspaper editorial at the time argued, ‘The BJP’s objective in flaunting its patriotic credentials and taking upon itself the onerous task of checking the nationalist credentials of all citizens, especially the Muslims, is in keeping with its divisive politics, intended to strengthen its electoral base. It has not been averse in this context to adopt provocative postures and play politics with the national flag … Admittedly, if the BJP’s motivated campaign to depict the Muslims as unpatriotic has influenced the gullible, it is because of the reluctance of Muslims to hoist the flag themselves at the maidan. One reason for this was that until the BJP chose the site in 1992, it had occurred to no one, including the BJP, that a flag needed to be hoisted there to prove one’s devotion to the motherland.’
BJP’s Lehar Singh points out: ‘We got a big boost with the Ayodhya movement plus what happened in the Idgah Maidan in Hubli. The Yediyurappa and Ananth Kumar combination did really well for us … Ananth Kumar and Yediyurappa successfully exploited the issue and in the process brought our MLAS from four to forty in 1994. Because of this combination and jodi [couple], we could win thirteen seats in 1999 Lok Sabha poll.’ BJP’s Jagdish Shettar, who won an MLA election from Hubli Rural in 1994 and has been the BJP’s candidate from that seat ever since, summed up this political bump for Network18: ‘10,000 votes was our vote bank in Hubli before 1994 in 1989 and 1985. I got 46,000 votes in 1994.’
The Idgah controversy was finally put to rest politically by H.D. Deve Gowda when he was chief minister in 1995. After an all-party meeting, he persuaded the AeI itself to hoist the national flag at the maidan. Yediyurappa had threatened a dharna with all forty BJP MLAs and a state-wide Hubli-chalo agitation if the issue was not resolved, so Gowda’s was a prudent solution. The Ram Temple issue did not cut it for the BJP in Karnataka, but the Idgah movement’s appeal, melding a dispute over a religious space with the national tricolour and patriotic sentiments, successfully turned it into the ‘Ayodhya of the south’, albeit at a much lower temperature. Legally, the case reached its denouement in 2010, when a two-member bench of the Supreme Court upheld the orders of the lower courts and ordered the demolition of the AeI structure. The apex court also ruled that the ground was the exclusive property of the Hubli-Dharwad Municipal Corporation, with the AeI having the right to conduct prayers twice a year.