Vokkaliga farmers Chikkaswami (right) and Devaraj support the statue. (Photo: Amrita Dutta)
“Some outsiders come and say they don’t want a Jesus statue to come up. But we are Hindus and we say we want it,” says Chikkaswami, as he sits on the steps of the Holy Rosary Church in Harobele village in Ramanagara district. “Their leader comes from Mangalore. He is Tulu. He doesn’t even know how to speak proper Kannada and gives a speech no one here even understands. Why should we listen to him? Next time, if they create problems, we Hindus will go and rally against them. If they get 5,000 people, we will get 55,000,” scoffs the 60-year-old silk farmer, as other farmers join in agreement.
Three days after RSS leader Kalladka Prabhakar Bhat led a rally in the nearby Kanakapura town against a proposal to construct a 114-ft statue of Jesus Christ at Kapala Betta, the hill that overlooks this picturesque village, there is both bewilderment and anger at the disruption of a way of life, which, by some accounts, is centuries old.
“We have a history of around 400 years of Christianity. ‘The first church came up in Arrobele (as Harobele was called then) in 1662’,” says Chinnaraj, an advocate from the village, quoting from Kanakapura Suttamuttaninalli Khraista Dharmada Ugama (The Birth of Christianity in Kanakapura and Surrounding Areas), a book written by I Antappa, a priest who has researched Christianity in Karnataka.
Harobele is a tiny Christian-majority village, with about 3,500 members, surrounded by a cluster of villages, where mostly Hindus live. “A Jesuit priest, Father Leonard Cinnami, came here in the 17th century and set up the church. He was working under the aegis of the Mysore Mission. He and his fellow priests drew people to the religion... People have been living in this faith for generations now — very amicably with people from other religions,” says Father Chinappa, the parish priest. “Every Friday, you will find people of all religions on top of the hill. If they have had a good silkworm yield, they go and put a garland there. If their illness or ill-fortunes have been reduced by praying there, they make offerings.”
The dispute arose a day after Christmas, when D K Shivakumar, seven-time Congress MLA of Kanakapura, handed over a cheque of Rs 10.8 lakh to the Harobele Kapala Betta Avibruddhi Trust as his contribution for the statue. “It is wrong to say that he is funding the statue. For that, we are mobilising funds from the village. We just went to him for a contribution,” says Chinnaraj.
Organisations affiliated to the Sangh Parivar have since accused the Congress leader of “appeasement” and alleged that by sponsoring the statue, he was supporting “large-scale conversions” by Christian missionaries. They also allege the statue is being planned at the site of a Munishwara (Shiva) temple on top of the hill. “There is great fear among the Hindus there... How can a small minority, some 800 Christian families, be allowed to build such a massive statue on our hill?” says Jagannath, the BJP general secretary of Kanakapura.
“If we were trying to convert people, would the people of the area have kept quiet?” counters Father Chinappa. It is a view echoed through the village. “Show me one Hindu from this area who has complained to them. These are all lies. This is just political targeting of DKS,” says Chikkathimaiah, a gram panchayat member who is also a Vokkaliga Hindu.
Kanakapura is considered an electoral bastion of D K Shivakumar and his brother D K Suresh, who is the MP of Bangalore Rural. The RSS has had a negligible presence here.
Chikkaswami, who lives in the adjacent Krishnaidoddu village, is among the Hindus who dispute that the Kapala Betta is the site of a temple. “The Munishwara betta is different. It is 8 km away. For generations, from the time of my father and grandfather, we have known this as Jesu Betta (the hill of Jesus). I was a child, grazing our animals on the hill, and the silve (cross) was there even then.”
Before this wrangle pitched it to headlines, Harobele’s fame came from its annual Easter festival, held in great reverence by Catholics of the state, as well as people from other faiths. The Kapala Betta is at the centre of that pageant. “On Good Friday, thousands of people go up the hill, following the Way of the Cross,” says Father Chinappa. Along the way, they cross 14 stations, representing the steps on the way to Christ’s resurrection — “how he was punished, judged, and crucified”. This is followed by a ‘Passion Play’ held on the church premises, directed by local residents. “Of course Hindu children also take part. All children love to dance, ma!” says Maria, a former English teacher at RC Vidya Sansthe, a Kannada-medium school run on the church premises.
“Records show that this Easter celebration has been going on from at least 1906,” says Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Bangalore Peter Machado, who recently met Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa. “My request is that the government does not take a narrow political view of the matter. The Constitution is inspired by the tenets of all religions,” he says.
According to members of the trust in charge of building the statue, the first request for land was made to the state government in 2001. While there was no response then, the plan to build a large statue was revived in 2016, given the increasing popularity of the shrine. “On February 26, 2018, the state government granted 10 acres of grazing land on the hill for the statue. It is within the government’s power to convert such land,” says Chinnaraj. He denies that the government has sent any notice to stop the construction of the statue.
For now, though, the hill is watched over by CCTV cameras, as villagers rally around the shrine. “Are these outsiders that they can’t get land for their statue? Are they not from Karnataka? Was the Mysore Maharaja wrong in letting the famous Philomena church come up?” asks K C Devaraj, 60, a Vokkaliga farmer.
While Archbishop Machado asserts that he has faith in the Chief Minister to do the right thing, there is a worry that this might be the RSS’s opening gambit in the area. “This is how they started in Baba Budangiri,” says a resident, referring to the shrine in Chikmagalur. Worshipped by Hindus and Muslims alike, the Bajrang Dal led an agitation to turn it into an exclusively Hindu shrine in the late 1990s.
“If there had been a temple here, we would have given up. But truth should prevail. The government should be prudent. Just because it is not a Hindu issue, they should not act in haste. Just because we are Christians, people cannot tell us, ‘Go to Vatican’,” says Chinnaraj, echoing many others in Harobele.