Mahisha Dasara turns rallying cry for Dalits in Mysuru and beyond
With Congress in power, the event was expected to return, but none had expected it to push Dalit votes further away from BJP
The BJP’s bid to nip Mahisha Dasara in the bud, first by banning it and then by going after its organisers virulently, seems to have backfired. The event was celebrated with aplomb on October 13 in Mysuru, bigger and better than ever before, at the iconic Town Hall building, right next to the main palace, the traditional seat of power.
Mahisha Dasara, usually limited to a handful of activists, drew an estimated 5,000 people this year, mostly Dalits, who splashed the heart of the heritage city with the colour blue. A large pavilion quickly filled up and people had to scramble for space in the adjoining parks to listen to the speeches. Addressing a vociferous crowd, popular Dalit religious leader, Jnanaprakash Swami, said, “They would force us to hold the celebrations in some corner of the city. This year we are doing it in front of the palace…Whose government is in power now?”
An escalating confrontation
A small group of intellectuals started Mahisha Dasara in 2015 to pay homage to Mahisha, who is seen as a benevolent indigenous ruler by Dalits and backward groups. Their bid to take out a small procession and offer flowers to the giant Mahisha statue on Chamundi Hill was opposed by Hindutva groups. While the famed Mysuru Dasara celebrates Goddess Chamundi over 10 days, the homage to Mahisha, the ‘demon’ slain by her in the popular puranas, was seen as a counter-narrative and was unpalatable to them.
Though the annual Mahisha Dasara celebrations remained small, the BJP government banned it for four years between 2019 and 2022, forcing the organisers to gather at a park in Ashokapuram, a Dalit enclave of the city, and offer flowers to a Mahisha statue installed there.
With a Congress government riding to power this year on the wave of Muslim, Dalit and backward caste votes, everyone knew that the ban had expired and that the event would make a comeback. But none had expected it to dominate headlines for months, become a rallying cry for Dalits and then scale up explosively, spreading to several districts, beyond Mysuru. The event triggered a small political earthquake that pushed the already estranged Dalit votes further away from the BJP.
At the Town Hall on October 13, speaker after speaker 'thanked' the BJP, particularly Mysuru MP Prathapa Simha, though without naming him, for their strident opposition that provoked Dalit pride and prompted them to mobilise support across parties.
BJP’s steadfast opposition
Simha, a staunch pro-Hindutva journalist-turned-politician, has been the aggressive face of Sangh Parivar’s opposition to Mahisha Dasara. In 2017, he barged in and got a stage, which had been erected to make speeches, dismantled.
Three months ago, when preparations were afoot to hold this year’s event, Simha again stepped out with a strong objection. The MP has been accused earlier of targeting Muslims with intemperate language. The language he chose to oppose Mahisha Dasara became hugely controversial. Phrases such as ‘crush’, ‘stamp out’, ‘thrash’, ‘abomination’ and ‘disgusting’ were used liberally over the weeks to slam the event and mobilise BJP cadres against it.
The organisers, many of whom are retired academics with ample time on their hands, and strident Hindutva critics themselves, returned the comments with equal vigour. In a TV debate Mahesh Chandra Guru, a retired professor of journalism, repeatedly asked if Mysuru was “Simha’s father’s property” for him to permit or block any event.
As the media fed on the controversy, the issue blew up to become a flashpoint between the BJP and the Dalit community. “The constant and provocative comments provoked us and made the event a question of Dalit pride. Two weeks before the event people in different districts started mobilising on their own,” said Jnanaprakash Swami.
Dissent within BJP
Simha’s provocative stance made many uncomfortable within the BJP as well. A senior BJP leader, Giridhar, came out in the open and said Simha was acting on his own without the sanction of the party. Members of the BJP’s District Scheduled Caste Morcha held a press meet to declare their support for Mahisha Dasara. They slammed Simha as an anti-Dalit politician and urged the party leadership to act against him. The head of the Morcha Eshwar C said “Simha is an outsider, who does not understand that Dalits in Mysuru have revered Mahisha for ages. He has alienated Dalit votes and damaged the party.”
A BJP spokesperson said Giridhar had a personal rivalry with Simha and that the SC morcha members had chosen caste loyalty over the party. He said the party was behind Simha on the issue, but no action would be taken against the dissenters as the issue had cooled down.
Organisers allege that the BJP was staging dissent to limit Dalit anger to Simha and minimise the fallout in the party. “They did not expect Dalits to mobilise on such a large scale and are afraid of losing votes,” said a lecturer, who teaches at a government college. They also say Simha may not get nominated again as BJP may have to give up the Mysuru Constituency to JD(S), its new alliance partner. “So, his aggression is a desperate bid to impress the high command and stay politically relevant,” said the lecturer.
Dalit activists feel that the BJP is trying to isolate them to mobilise other sections. Prathap Dore, a businessman, says, “They mobilise Hindus targeting Muslims, now they are trying to mobilise other castes targeting Dalits.” But many see the conflict going beyond politics and mounting a serious ideological challenge to BJP, which is committed to building a Hindu Rashtra based on an officially sanctioned narrative.
Legend vs history
Over the last few hundred years Dasara has been celebrated in Mysuru to worship Chamundi as ‘Mahishasura mardhini’ or the slayer of Mahisha, the demon. The festival soaked in Hindu tradition and rituals has been the signature event of the state.
Dalit activists say they have always revered Mahisha as a benevolent Buddhist ruler. “Our parents would light incense sticks at the Mahisha statue on the hill. They would also make us crawl between his legs to get his blessings,” says Dore. According to a Dalit reading of history, Mahadeva, a Buddhist monk, sent by emperor Ashoka, established the kingdom of Mahisha Mandala and became its ruler, Mahisha. It is believed that Mysuru draws its name from Mahishuru or "the abode of Mahisha". Dalit leaders argue that historically the region has been known by different variants of the noun Mahisha or bison such as Mahisha Mandala, Mahishurapura and Eramai Nadu.
Jnanaprakash Swami says, “To suppress Buddhism, they turned Mahisha into a demon and had him slayed by Chamundi. Their opposition to Mahisha Utsava is a replay of the age-old Hindu opposition to Buddhism. They don’t want us to recover the real history.” BJP supporters say historic evidence to support Dalit claims is scanty. The Dalit counter points out that while their historical research is in progress the worship of Chamundi is based on pure myth.
Simha alleges that Mahisha Dasara organisers made offensive comments on Chamundi, prompting him to go on the rampage. The organisers deny the charge saying while they may or may not worship her, the goddess has their respect.
New power equation
Dalit leaders point out that while Simha threatened them with physical confrontation they have been restrained in their response. “We believe in intellectual confrontation. We would rather use a pen than a gun to win this challenge,” says Jnanaprakash Swami.
Though Mahisha Dasara was held against the backdrop of an escalation fight with the BJP, many speakers chose to skip politics on October 13, and focus more on tracing back the history of the region to Mahisha. They vowed to stick to the Buddhist values of peace and harmony while asserting their constitutional guaranteed right to religion. The presidential speech by K S Bhagawan, a founding organiser, saw some fireworks.
The event also brought to light the new power equation in the state where Dalits call the shots and the Hindutva groups have their back to the wall. The police had initially banned both Mahisha Dasara and a BJP rally to Chamundi hills to stop Dalits from garlanding the Mahisha statue. Just before the event they changed their stance to allow Mahisha Dasara subject to a list of conditions and clamped prohibitory orders under Section 144 CrPC on the city.
A Dalit activist said the police did not want to permit the organisers to hold the event at the Town Hall. “They yielded only after we spoke to their political bosses late in the night. We agreed to skip the rally to Chamundi hills and call the event Mahisha Utsava and not Dasara. We ignored all other conditions put by the police but did not do anything to disturb the peace,” he said.
Jnanaprakash Swami said as parliamentary elections are approaching the organisers avoided creating any controversy. “From next year we expect the government to make Mahisha Utsava part of the official programme,” he said.