A ground report from Harobele on the tensions surrounding the proposed 114 foot tall Jesus statue
Harobele, a nondescript village in southern Karnataka, may have put itself on the world map overnight with its proposal to build the world’s tallest Jesus Christ statue in a 10 acre land atop a hillock called Kapalabetta.
But strong opposition to the project by Hindu hardliners has visibly shaken the Church, which feels discriminated against. It fears curtailment of its religious freedom, and disruption of peace and harmony in the region.
“We’ve been living here peacefully and harmoniously all these years. But after the recent protest (by Hindu outfits), the Christian community living here feels threatened. We are being made to feel like we are outsiders – as if we do not belong to the country. We feel that the communal harmony in this area will be disturbed. The entire issue has become very concerning,” says Fr D Chinnappa, priest, Holy Rosary Church, Harobele, Kanakapura.
It has been a week since Harobele, a predominantly Christian dominated area in Kanakapura taluk, Ramanagar, became the epicentre of protests by Hindu nationalist organisations, and a sense of unease and disquiet has descended over the village.
“We, as Indians, have been living harmoniously in Karnataka. In all these years, we never felt that our religious freedom was being curtailed. But I can’t understand why this sort of commotion is happening off late. I am surprised. I do not know if this issue is being politicised or if this is religious discrimination,” said Fr Chinnappan.
He went on to say that the protest had “perturbed” the community and the villagers of Harobele. “When an individual’s right is confiscated, it is natural to hit back. But the people here are simple and peace loving. We do not want to resort to any such actions. We want to maintain peace and harmony. We have been worshipping on the hillock for hundreds of years. But it is worrying to see this kind of an opposition now. I am worried that they (Hindu organisations) will continue,” he added.
Members of Hindu Jagarna Vedike, led by Hindutva ideologue and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) functionary Kalladka Prabhakar Bhat, took out the ‘Kanakapura Chalo’ march on January 13, demanding the giant 114 feet statue project, endorsed and sponsored by Congressman and Kanakapura MLA DK Shivakumar, be halted.
Charging it an act of treason on the part of Shivakumar and his Parliamentarian brother DK Suresh, Bhat said that the Hindu community would at no cost let them “sell” the country. He also threatened that the political career of the duo would end if they did not stop “aiding” Christian missionaries in “forced conversions”.
Bhat, who had trekked up Kapalabetta, had argued that the hillock was in fact ‘Muneshwarabetta’, a place of worship by the Hindus, and that it was now being “illegally” occupied by the Christian community.
Shivakumar came under the ire of the ruling BJP soon after he laid the foundation stone for the project during a prayer meet on 23 December 2019 and handed over the title deed of the land for the statue project.
BJP leaders had blasted him for indulging in appeasement politics and aiding “Christianisation”, in a bid to please Congress chief Sonia Gandhi to bag the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee president post.
The Congress strongman on his part has maintained that the decision to build the statue was taken by the villagers and that he was only facilitating the project.
He has also maintained that there was no illegality in the land acquisition, as the previous cabinet had approved the sanction of 10 acres of land in Kapalabetta to the Harobele Kapalabetta Abhivruddi Trust, which is overseeing the statue construction.
The Yediyurappa government has, however, decided to take a relook at the land sanctioned during the coalition government led by former chief minister HD Kumaraswamy. Stating that the allotted land was grazing land and not a barren one, as claimed by Shivakumar, Revenue Minister R Ashoka sought the Ramanagara deputy commissioner to probe the matter and submit a report.
The government also transferred Kanakapura tahsildar Anandaiah. He said that the local authorities had illegally provided electricity connection and had laid roads to the project site.
Following the protest, security has been heightened near the hillock. But the priest said that this was no solution to the problem. “People of all faiths have been coming to this church to pray. But now they are worried whether they can come here freely and pray. We request the authorities concerned that support be given to the people of this area. Of course, protection has been given in the form of police security. But with that protection, we cannot go to God. We want to go freely - without any disturbance or distraction,” he added.
Fr Chinnappan said that when the Church proposed the statue project, it did not anticipate any trouble. “We did not think there would be any trouble when we planned the statue. There are 14 Stations of Cross in Christianity. But on Kapalabetta, the 13th and 14th stations are missing. So we wanted to build it. Thousands of people from all over come here to pray. Also, if the statue is built, it will become a major tourist destination. Worldwide, people can look at us. Even the government was in line with us. Why not have something monumental? People of all faiths can come here sit here peacefully and pray.”
He also took exception to accusations that there were religious conversions in the region. “Let’s suppose this was about conversion. By now, the whole of India would have been converted. It is not about conversion to the religion. It is the conversion of heart. We are not constructing statues everywhere. We chose this place because everything here is conducive. While the hillock itself is beautiful and serene, granite stones for the statue are readily available,” he said.
Kanakapura is known for its granite quarries. There have been allegations that Shivakumar and his family members have been carrying out illegal quarrying in the taluk. Incidentally, the BJP, which was in power previously in the State (between 2008 and 2014) had constituted a committee to probe the charges against Shivakumar.
The committee had however not found any wrongdoing on Shivakumar’s part. Known as the ‘trouble shooter’ of his party, Shivakumar, has alleged political vendetta against him by the BJP.
The Vokkaliga leader, who has been under the radar of several central investigating agencies, has also served jail time recently.
Shivakumar however remains unfazed by the BJP’s various devices to bring him political harm. His supporters allege that the BJP wants to finish his political career “by hook or crook”, and hence had resorted to politicising the statue issue.
Voters in his constituency - be it Hindus, Muslims or Christians, however vouch by him. “His arch rivals, who are now with the BJP, think that they can use this statue issue to make inroads into Kanakapura. This will never happen. People who have no association with Kanakpura have come here and made speeches. In fact, the BJP had hired people from Channapatna and Anekal to participate in the protest. There was not a single local who is opposed to the project – including the Hindus. The BJP is unnecessarily blowing up this issue. It has no idea that the entire Hindu community in Kanakapura is backing Shivakumar and this project. They (protestors) came in hundreds. But we are capable of organising a large scale protest against them where lakhs will participate,” said, Basavarajaiah, resident of Nallahalli village.
Another villager, Chinnaswamy, challenged the BJP to build a statue of a Hindu God in Harobele, if it was keen on protecting the Hindu identity. “If the BJP is so keen on preserving the Hindu heritage in this area, let the government sanction 15 acres - 5 acres more than what the Trust has been sanctioned. It is also free to grant a financial aid of Rs 50 crore. We can also build a Hindu God statue which can be more than 200 feet tall,” he mocked.
Chikkatthimmayya, Nallahalli gram panchayat member said that Hindus and Christians in the district were living harmoniously. He said that villagers of the entire taluk owed it to the Church for imparting good education. “The Roman Catholic Educational Institute inside the Church premises in Harobele is one of the best schools here. Not only me, my father and grandfather too have studied in this school. There has never been any discord between the Hindus and Christians in this village. The BJP is unnecessarily creating trouble,” he said.
He also said that there was no place of worship in Kapalabetta, as claimed by the BJP. “There is no temple in Kapalabetta. There has never been one. There was always a Cross there. Earlier it was a small one. But now with they have installed a bigger one as there are more number of devotees,” he said.
While the district administration is taking a relook into the allotment of land, the Trust claims that the government has not given any directions to stop the statue works. “There are no instructions to stop the statue work. But the works have been stalled as the labourers have gone to their hometowns as it is Pongal festival. They will be back in a few days,” says S Chinnaraj, member of the Trust.
Presently, a pedestal has been installed, on top of which sits the 5 feet tall replica of the statue that has been proposed. The Trust has decided to use granite from the area to build the statue. “We have a lot of granite waste in this region, as there are many quarries here. We are collecting the waste from each quarry and building this statue,” he said, adding that the Trust had engaged a Bengaluru based sculptor by the name Vijikar for the project.
The Trust has also asked Christian families in Harobele and surrounding areas to make donations for the project. According to a report submitted by the Trust to the district administration, the estimated cost of the project is around Rs 5 crore. While Shivakumar, has donated Rs 10 lakh for the project, each household has been asked to donate a sum of Rs 1 lakh or more to the project.
But not all villagers have the financial wherewithal to make such a big donation. Helen Mary, 40, who runs a petty shop in Kadaledoddi village said that she was keen on making the donation. “They have asked each family to donate Rs 1 lakh. But we can’t afford to pay so much. My husband and I will however make some arrangement for the donation. We will donate how much ever we can. Kapalabetta is very sacred to us and we want the statue to come up there. The place is very powerful and I have myself witnessed a miracle. I had a big lump in my throat when I was a teenager and we were asked to pay Rs 50,000 for the surgery. But I remember going to the Cross on the hillock and praying and the lump disappearing in less than a month,” she said.
The Ramanagara deputy commissioner is yet to submit the report sought by the Home Minister. A delegation of Christians, led by Archbishop of Bengaluru, Peter Machado, has met Chief Minister Yediyurappa to find an amicable solution to the issue.
The Christian community fears that the BJP will not let up on the matter that easily. But the Hindu locals in the area stand firm.
“We will not let the government cancel the project at any cost. Only those who scale up the hillock and offer prayers know how powerful the Cross is. As a Hindu, I keep frequenting the hillock. The BJP should stop interfering, especially when the locals have no objection to the statue coming up. Hindus living in all the surrounding villages have accepted it as Yesu Betta. The BJP will never succeed in its divisive politics here,” said Doddarangegowda, a resident of Kadaledoddi.
And it is just as well that the people in this small community are staying aware of and not allowing communal tensions to rip apart the social fabric in the little village of Harobele.