In Nitish Kumar’s blatant minority appeasement, local Muslims permitted to offer prayers at Buddhist shrine

In Nitish Kumar’s blatant minority appeasement, local Muslims permitted to offer prayers at Buddhist shrine

In Nitish Kumar’s blatant minority appeasement, local Muslims permitted to offer prayers at Buddhist shrine

New Delhi: A cavern in Kaimur Hills, nearly 3 km south of Sasaram in Bihar’s Rohtas district, where Lord Buddha is believed to have spent a night after attaining enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, has turned into a symbol of the Nitish Kumar-led government’s blatant appeasement of minorities.

Barely a few days earlier, on 29 November, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), tweeted that it had wrested control of a 2300-year-old Buddhist shrine in Sasaram from Muslim encroachers, who used it to offer prayers.

But in reality, Muslims have been allowed to worship at the shrine that they had initially captured in 2005.

Legend has it that Emperor Ashoka inscribed an edict in Brahmi script in one of the walls of this very cavern. Since then, it is known as one of Ashoka’s 13 minor rock edicts. The cavern was discovered during the British rule and was acquired and declared a ‘protected monument’ by the ASI on 1 December, 1917.

But the central archaeological agency did not maintain the cavern nor did it take any measures to protect it. In its neglected state, in 2005, local Muslims of the area ‘captured’ the cavern and installed a gate at its entrance. They then declared that the cavern was the mausoleum of an obscure Sufi saint and began offering prayers there. They also managed to damage some of the rock edicts of Emperor Ashoka and later covered them with a green cloth inscribed with Islamic prayers.

With the passage of time, a large dargah was built next to the cavern and a part of the dargah even encroached on the roof of the cavern. Nearly three years later, in 2008, on being informed about the encroachment, the ASI swung into action and sent a letter to the Rohtas district authorities asking it to remove the encroachments.

The ASI also put up a signboard declaring it to be a protected monument. The signboard detailed the historicity of the cavern and stated that it contained Ashokan rock edicts and was a Buddhist shrine.

Ignoring the cavern’s Buddhist history, the local Muslims promptly removed the signboard and allegedly put out a false story that a Sufi saint had spent months in the cavern and was buried there.

In a fix, the district administration asked the Bihar government for directives. According to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, CM Nitish Kumar who also had the home portfolio asked the Rohtas district authorities to ignore the ASI’s request to look into the matter.

During the decade spanning 2008 to 2018, the ASI wrote as many as 20 letters to the Rohtas district administration asking the latter to remove the encroachments from around the cavern. But the district authorities, acting on the directives of the Bihar CM feigned ignorance of the matter.

In September this year, the Bihar unit of the BJP launched an agitation in protest against the encroachment. Apprehending that the issue may blow out of proportion, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar reportedly told the Rohtas district authorities to ask the Muslims to surrender their claim over the cavern. The Sasaram Sub Divisional Magistrate (SDM) then asked the ‘Markazi Muharram Committee’ (custodians of the dargah) to hand over the keys of the gate to the cavern to the ASI.

The Committee refused and reiterated that the cavern was not a Buddhist shrine but a mazar of a Sufi saint.

Bihar BJP leader and leader of opposition Samrat Chaudhury, threatened to intensify the agitation against the encroachment of the Buddhist shrine. Other activists threatened to take the matter to court.

Kumar then stepped in and directed the district administration to hold negotiations with the Muslims and find a way out of the dispute. With help from the local Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leaders, the Muslims ultimately agreed to hand over one key of the gate to the cavern to the ASI.

The ASI promptly posted photos of the Muslims handing over the key to its representative. But the issue continues to remain unsolved because the Muslims retained a duplicate key of the gate and continue to offer prayers at the cavern.

The Bihar government’s attitude regarding the controversial cavern can be attributed to the fact Muslims comprise over 25.5 per cent of the population of Sasaram, and wield disproportionate influence because they are a powerful vote bank there.

Also, the RJD, which is now very much a part of the ruling coalition, will never allow Muslim encroachers to be evicted from the cavern since they contribute to the vote share during elections.

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