Bengaluru: Senior Karnataka Congress leader D.K. Shivakumar finds himself in fresh controversy over efforts to build a giant Jesus Christ statue in a Christian-dominated area of his constituency Kanakapura.
The proposed granite statue will stand 114 feet tall, just short of Brazil’s iconic Christ the Redeemer, which, at 124 feet, has defined the Rio skyline since 1931. It is expected to come up atop a hillock named Kapalabetta in Harobele, a village of 3,500 where Christians form a majority.
Hindu Right-wingers staged protests against the statue Monday citing a range of issues.
While some allege it is Shivakumar’s bid to “impress” working Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who was born a Roman Catholic, to lobby for the state party chief post, others see it as a conversion conspiracy.
Shivakumar, however, claims that it was just a bid to honour a demand made by his constituents, many of whom, cutting across religious lines, told ThePrint that the protests were misplaced.
‘Protests not against Jesus’
Shivakumar is said to have procured a 10-acre plot for the statue on Kapalabetta during the short stint of the Congress-JD(S) government between May 2018 and July 2019.
The hillock has been held sacred by villagers since 1906, according to records available with local churches.
On Christmas Day last year, Shivakumar handed over the land to the Kapalabetta Development Trust (KDT), a private body set up to oversee the construction of the statue.
However, on 28 December, the BJP-led state government halted construction, with Karnataka Revenue Minister R. Ashok claiming that the plot was ‘gomala’ or pasture land owned by the state government and could not have been purchased by the leader.
“Having a statue is a matter of personal faith, but making use of gomala land obtained by paying only 10 per cent of the value is not right,” he told journalists at the time.
The purchase was approved by the H.D. Kumaraswamy government, but Ashok said the decision “was not right”.
“Even courts do not approve of making use of gomala land like this,” he added.
On Monday, hundreds of workers associated with the Hindu Jagran Vedike, a fringe outfit, and the Sangh Parivar hitting the streets in Kanakapura, asking the statue project to be scrapped immediately.
Speaking to ThePrint, senior Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leader Kalladka Prabhakar Bhat said the fight was against forceful conversions in the name of Jesus Christ and not against Jesus himself.
“We will not allow a statue of Jesus to be erected at Kapalabetta. They are trying to make it a Christian land just like Pakistan is a Muslim state,” he added.
“India is the land of Krishna and not of Christ. Shivakumar is doing this to appease a particular community for votes, but we will not allow it.”
In a tweet about the matter on 26 December, former Union minister Ananthkumar Hegde suggested it was Shivakumar’s bid to please Sonia, also referring to his jail stint last year in connection with an Enforcement Directorate (ED) investigation.
“A #Tiharreturned gentleman is trying to please his Italian mother for a post by demonstrating his gallantry through a statue of Jesus Christ. It will not be surprising if more Ghulams (slaves) from the Congress jump into the arena of appeasement politics,” he wrote in Kannada.
Karnataka BJP spokesperson Vaman Acharya echoed the claim.
“Shivakumar is doing this only to please Sonia Gandhi and ensure that he is made the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee president,” he said. “He is trying to showcase himself as a messiah of secularism.”
But Shivakumar maintains that the decision to build the statue is that of local residents. He only facilitated it, he told journalists Monday, to reciprocate the affection of voters.
“In my constituency, I have built hundreds of temples. More than 30 acres of property in three locations have been given to government education institutions,” he said. “I have also bought properties and donated them to various organisations.”
‘No conversion conspiracy’
Harobele is situated 65 kilometres from Bengaluru. The proposed statue will be 114 feet tall, the height including a 13-foot pedestal.
Records available with local churches show that villagers have climbed Kapalabetta since 1906 to offer special prayers.
A resident said the prayers are conducted on the first Friday of every month. There is a cross on the hillock, the resident added, that is believed to be at least a century old.
“Every Good Friday, a special play is performed atop the hillock, a tradition that has continued since 1906,” said Kapalabetta Development Trust member S. Chinnaraju.
“The word Kapala is a derivative of Calvary [near] Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified. We believe that the cross on top of the hill represents that day.”
Unfazed by the protests, Shivakumar said the statue had been a longstanding demand of Kapalabetta residents.
“It [the protests] is the BJP’s way to tarnish my image… By doing so, if they think they can do some good for their party, let them do so,” he told the media Monday.
Local residents are equally dismissive of the protests against the statue.
“The first thing that you need to understand is that Shivakumar is not the one who wanted the statue built, it was our demand,” said Chinnaraju. “He just symbolically laid the foundation stone as he is our elected representative.
“A few years ago, D.K. Shivakumar visited our village and we were all at a prayer meeting. While enquiring about the area, we told him of our wish to have a statue of Jesus built. We also explained it was government land, but the devotees would go and pray there,” he added. “He only guided us as to how we could fulfil our dreams.”
M. Prakash, a Bengaluru-based entrepreneur who hails from a village near Harobele, said the allegations of a conversion conspiracy are bogus.
“I belong to a village right next to Harobele and I am a Hindu. But we can say with authority that this is not an act to convert people to Christianity,” he added.
“People have, for generations, followed Christianity there and they just want a statue to pray. It is the political parties who are politicising this issue to hit the headlines.”