As right-wing groups fan Bengaluru Eidgah row, is it 1994 once more for BJP?

In the early 1990s, in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, one of the communal issues scouted out in Karnataka by the BJP and its affiliates to generate political traction was a dispute over a 1.12-acre ground, with a Muslim prayer wall, in Hubbali City in north Karnataka. The land had been given to the Anjuman-i-Islam on lease by the Hubbali-Dharwad Municipal Corporation in the 1920s.

The BJP and its affiliates carried out a sustained campaign to have the disputed property declared a public ground and to hoist the national flag there, in the process getting a platform in the state.

Even as tensions simmered and legal battles were being fought, the Sangh Parivar attempted to hoist the flag at the ground on Independence Day in 1994, leading to communal violence. In the police firing that followed, five people were killed.

The dispute however lost steam gradually after the Anjuman-i-Islam itself hoisted the national flag on Republic Day in 1995 in a sign of reconciliation.

Nearly three decades after that row, right-wing groups have zeroed in on another Eidgah Maidan dispute, this time in South Bengaluru, ahead of the 2023 state Assembly polls. Karnataka remains the only southern state where the BJP has come to power, and the party needs an extra push to take it past the majority mark in the Assembly that has still eluded it.

The Eidgah Maidan issue, in the Chamarajpet region of Bengaluru, could also help the party in elections to the city council, expected to be held around September 2022. The local MLA is the Congress’s B Z Zameer Ahmed.

The Eidgah Maidan, spread over 2.5 acres, is used by Muslims on festival days like Ramzan and Bakrid to offer prayers, on other times as a playground by local youngsters, as well as for Ganesha and state formation day festivals. The ownership of the land is unclear and rights are reportedly vested with both civic body BBMP (Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike) and the Wakf board.

The tension first erupted in 1983, a year that the Ganesha and Bakrid festival fell on the same day. Since then, the area had been largely peaceful. But, a few weeks ago, right-wing groups came up with the demand that the Chamrajpet Eidgah Maidan be declared a public ground.

The authorities had been on the edge over the July 10 Bakrid celebrations. While these passed off peacefully, there is apprehension regarding Independence Day on August 15, with right-wing groups announcing that they will hoist the national flag on the ground.

The local Muslims led by MLA Ahmed have already offered to hoist the national flag at the maidan that day, but right-wing groups are insisting that the BBMP organise the flag-hoisting.

Incidentally, BBMP Chief Commissioner Tushar Girinath said last month that the civic body does not have ownership of the ground. However, this was objected to by right-wing activists, who accused Girinath of not being “informed”. Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai then offered to discuss the matter with BBMP officials.

A bandh called on Tuesday by right-wing groups in Chamarajpet to reiterate claims over the maidan passed off peacefully. Protesters who forcibly entered the ground were detained.

Sources in the BJP admit the party sees the resonance of the Eidgah Maidan issue not being restricted only to the Chamrajpet constituency — a traditional stronghold of the Congress and considered an electoral safe haven by stalwarts like S M Krishna (who won the seat in 2004) and current leader Siddaramaiah (who has been offered the seat by Zameer Ahmed for the 2023 polls) — but across the state. The same as in 1994, in the case of the Hubballi Eidgah ground.

Several political leaders of the BJP earned their stripes during the row of 1994, including former Union minister Ananth Kumar Hegde. Meanwhile, the BJP made gradual inroads in Karnataka in the 1999 and 2004 polls, before finally winning 110 seats in 2008.

The Chamrajpet Eidgah Maidan issue has reportedly figured in discussions that RSS leaders have held with CM Bommai in recent days.

Officially, the BJP has maintained its distance. Home Minister Araga Jnanendra said the government did not support Tuesday’s bandh in any way. “Why should we support it? We have provided police security in the area to ensure there will be no violence,” he said.

To stop the BJP from exploiting the issue, Muslim leaders have not held out on flag-hoisting at the Chamarajpet Eidgah Maidan – unlike in 1994.

“No one is saying that they will not allow children to play on the Eidgah ground. Until my last breath, Eidgah Maidan is going to remain a playground. From this year the Tricolour will be hoisted at the Chamarajpet Eidgah Maidan grounds,” Ahmed said recently.

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