The rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Karnataka is a fascinating story involving leaders like B S Yediyurappa, Ananth Kumar and a 999-year lease signed in 1921 by the Anjuman-e-Islam (AeI) with the Hubli-Dharwad Municipal Corporation.
In the early 1990s, a controversy arose after a ground in Hubli that was historically used to host fairs, sports events and political rallies now saw the presence of an Islamic structure erected by the AeI.
This was done with the backing of the Congress government in the state. Consequently, the three years between 1992 and 1995 proved crucial for the BJP to upset the ruling Congress and emerge as a strong opposition party in the state.
Central Karnataka's Hubli (now Hubballi) houses the famous Chandramouleshwara temple — an 11th-century Chalukyan architectural marvel that still stands strong today. Hubballi earned its reputation as a commercial centre for cotton and iron during the rule of the Vijayanagara Empire.
Several powers ruled the region over the next few centuries — Adilshahis, Mughals, Marathas, Hyder Ali and the British. When the British established a railway workshop in the 1880s, Hubli started growing into a full-fledged industrial centre and earned the title 'Bombay of North Karnataka'. Even today, it is known for its cotton and iron trade, and as a major zone for the South Western Railway.
By the turn of the 20th century, multiple cultures had overlapped in Hubli and the regions surrounding the district.
In 1921, Anjuman-e-Islam (AeI) signed a 999-year lease agreement with the local municipality acquiring the right to pray twice a year on a 1.5 acre ground in Hubli. This ground, locally known as the Idgah Maidan, is also called Kittur Rani Chennamma Maidan — named after the legendary Queen of Kittur.
Barring the two days when the Muslim community would pray on the ground, for the rest of the year, the ground was to be used for sports, political rallies, fairs during jatras and so on.
Cut to the early 1990s, and the AeI decided to build an Islamic structure on the ground. It sought the then Congress government's permission for the same and got it soon enough. This plan was opposed, however, by a large number of locals who soon approached the munsif court seeking justice.
The court overturned the state government's order, and deemed the construction 'illegal and ineffectual'.
In July 1992, both the additional sessions judges at the High Court of Karnataka upheld the order of the munsif court and directed the municipality to demolish the structure.
The AeI was quick to approach the Supreme Court about this. The apex court issued a stay order on the structure's demolition.
This agitated the locals further.
Enter The BJP
Nalin Mehta, in his book 'The New BJP: Modi and the Making of the World's Largest Political Party' writes about this moment when the Idgah Maidan dispute gave birth to the biggest names in the Karnataka BJP such as Yediyurappa and Ananth Kumar.
In 1992, on the occasion of India's Republic Day, the Anjuman-e-Islam declined permission to the BJP to hoist the tricolour by stating that the ground was their 'private property'. Despite prohibitory orders by the police, a group of young men proceeded to hoist the flag, only to be pulled down by the police later.
Since then, there have been multiple attempts by the BJP to hoist the national flag at the Idgah Maidan as a symbol of the ground still belonging to the public.
In 1994, senior BJP leader Uma Bharti also tried to hoist the tricolour on the ground but was banned from entering the state. Yet, she somehow managed to get to Hubli.
Before she could get to Idgah Maidan and hoist the flag, she was arrested by the police. Subsequently, a crowd gathered in protest against her arrest. The police resorted to firing, which left four dead and hundreds injured. Soon enough, the sentiments swung against the Congress government in the state.
After Yediyurappa threatened the government with a 'Hubli Chalo' march, the then Chief Minister H D Deve Gowda persuaded the AeI itself to hoist the tricolour at the Idgah Maidan. In 1995, when the AeI hoisted the national flag, it was seen as a victory for the BJP.
This Idgah Maidan issue did not just make space for the BJP to grow, it also added to the list of events where Congress chose appeasement of the minority community over other viable, and better, alternatives. Notably, H D Deve Gowda was heading a Janata Dal government and not a Congress one.
Many leaders of the BJP in the state like Jagadish Shettar (now in Congress), Ananth Kumar and Yediyurappa rose to prominence as a result of the Hubli Idgah Maidan episode.
In the decades preceding the 1990s, the BJP was a hardworking, but struggling political entity in the state.
Thanks to the sentiments around the Hubli issue, the Karnataka BJP, under the leadership of B S Yediyurappa and Ananth Kumar, won forty seats in the 1994 state assembly elections — a fourfold increase in their seats as compared to their previous performance.
Jagdish Shettar, who hails from Hubli, won his first election from Hubli Rural in 1994. Since then, he went on to become the MLA several times and was even the Chief Minister briefly in 2012-13. His winning streak broke in 2023 when he contested as a candidate of the Congress party.
The Idgah Maidan issue provided a template for political organisation to the Karnataka BJP, whose leaders referred to it in other issues like Bengaluru's Idgah Maidan, the Bababudangiri Dargah issue in Chikmagalur in subsequent years.
Sharan Setty (Sharan K A) is an Associate Editor at Swarajya. He tweets at @sharansetty2.
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