Raw deal for a peaceful minority

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Some Jain temples and institutions were peremptorily razed to the ground and Jain saints summarily evicted from the historic Bhadragiri Hills in Bagalkote district of central Karnataka on December 2, on grounds of alleged encroachment of government land, even though the area is renowned as a major pilgrimage centre of the Jain community since Muni Bhadrabahu introduced Jainism to south India in the third century BC.

Muni Bhadrabahu, renowned as a Shrutakevali, knower of all Jain canonical literature, was the seventh in the line of pattadharas or chief disciples of the Tirthankara, Sri Mahavir ji, and this religious lineage died with him when he passed away around 357 BCE, at the age of 76 years.

According to historical records, Bhadrabahu took 12,000 monks to the south during a severe famine in order to give the rest of the community a better chance at survival in that trying period. He was accompanied by Chandragupta Maurya, emperor and founder of the Mauryan empire, who became a Jain monk and fasted to death around 300 BC on Chandragiri Hill at Shravanabelagola, near Mysore. Bhadrabahu also left his mortal coils at Shravanabelagola after taking a vow of Sallekhana.

During his sojourn in the south, he would have travelled to propagate his teachings, and possibly stayed long enough at Bhadragiri Hills for them to be named after him. Bagalkote is an important tourist and pilgrimage town that has long been associated with the Jain community.

Shocked by the unexpected iconoclasm, Jains in Bagalkote, Dharwad and Koppala staged protests and condemned the government’s actions. The North Karnataka Jain Maha Sangha said that because of the prolonged historical association with the Bhadragiri Hills, where Jain saints have been settled since the 4th century, as attested by several historical records, the community was in negotiation with the government over possession of the land on which the temple stood. The overnight and one-sided decision to destroy the structures was unnecessary.

According to locals who declined to be named, the Jain presence on the hills goes back centuries and over the years, hundreds of relics dating back to over a millennia, have been discovered at the hill, which soon emerged as a major pilgrimage centre for Jains. This prompted the community to build temples when Jain murtis were found in pristine condition, fit to be worshipped. Possibly they had been hidden to avoid desecration in the historical past.

Normally, the Archaeological Survey of India takes possession of such findings, but the Jain community has always been loath to hand over its divinities to the ASI, and generally races to erect temples before the information percolates. This is how the Parsvanath Temple came up at Ranila, near Rohtak, Haryana. Something similar seems to have happened in the Bhadragiri Hills also.

As agitated Jain leaders called upon the Chief Minister and the Congress leadership in Delhi, the State Government took the stand that it had no knowledge of the episode and had given no such instructions. The Congress government was also largely successful in keeping the news of this incident out of the media.

But the matter is far from resolved. Two rounds of discussion with the district administration and representatives of the Jain groups failed on December 5, and the Jain monks, led by one of the chief monks, Muni Kularatna Bhushan Maharaj, continued their indefinite fast. The monks argued that they were only protecting the area and conducting only religious activities, not any commercial activities.

Under pressure, the district administration returned the murtis on December 5, but the Jain leaders agreed to accept the images only on the condition that they should be installed on the very place from where they had been removed (prior to the destruction of the temples). The administration refused on grounds that the entire area was government property. The State Government has now deputed district in-charge Minister S.R. Patil and other local elected representatives to negotiate peace with the nation’s most peaceful, non-violent, and law-abiding community.

First published The Pioneer, 14 December 2015