In One Heartless Order, Odisha Government Wipes Out Five Hundred Years of History- 03012020

The climbing atop of five Nihang Sikhs on the demolished Mangu Mutt structure at Puri  yesterday caused ripples in the administration. The 2nd January is the birth anniversary of the   tenth Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh Ji, which is celebrated with fervor by Sikhs. The Nihangs climbed atop the demolished rooms of the Mutt and retrieved the emblem of Sikhism, the Khanda, from thedebris.  The Khanda, a double edged sword, is the military emblem of the Sikhs. It is also part of the design of the Nishan Sahib, and is installed on the top  as an ornament or finial. The finding of the Khanda in the ruins was proof enough that the Mangu Mutt was once a Sikh Gurudwara.  After much cajoling and coaxing , the Nihangs were made to come down  and were packed off to Bhubaneswar.

The Mutt, an abiding symbol of the connection between Sikhism and the 12th century Jagannath Temple, is built on the spot where Guru Nanak, during a visit in 1506, had composed the Sikh Aarti. The Aarti is essentially Guru Nanak’s tribute to the grandeur of the Creator, whose glory, he said in the spontaneous composition, could not be expressed through any human offerings or oblations.  The Mutt was located in front of the Singha Dwar, the main entrance and was within the 75-meter perimeter of the temple’s boundary wall which was slated for clearance.  

It was a sad day in the lives of conservationist-historian Anil Dhir and lawyer-activist Sukhvinder Kaur of the High Court of Orissa as they watched the demolition of the Mangu Mutt. The five-month-long determined battle for the preservation of the Mutt by Dhir and Kaur literally came to a grinding halt in the second week of December as the government’s demolition machinery swung into action. On their part, the duo left no stone unturned in averting the disaster. They knocked on every door possible: they appealed to the Prime Minister, the Chief Minister of Odisha, the State Governor, the Collector of Puri, the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC),  the chief minister of Punjab and the Odisha Sikh leadership. In September, after the intervention of the Punjab Chief Minister, the demolition order was temporarily withdrawn.

The  Mutt has tremendous historical and spiritual value, and nobody knows it better than Dhir. Having written a two-volume book based on a 18-day  Bullock Cart  journey from Kolkata  to  Puri, Dhir discovered precious pieces of heritage  in  every place touched by Nanak and the other icons of the Bhakti movement, including Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Kabir and Namdev. In the middle of October, Dhir had entranced a 150-strong audience at New Delhi’s India International Centre (IIC) with a slide-supported presentation on his book, ‘Jagannath Sadak’, which was sponsored by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), and was seven years in the writing.  

Ignoring the unbroken campaign for its conservation, in one heartless order, the Odisha government destroyed 12000 sq ft of the Mutt; now, only a 10×9 sq ft area of the original place remains, besides two half broken rooms. . In terms of size, an area worth a two bedroom flat, is not even a dot on the government property map but it is priceless in terms of heritage; any government worth its name is expected to safeguard it, if not on its own, at least, in response to the appeals of those who have no personal stakes in the issue. It is the disregard for such selfless appeals for conservation that makes the Odisha government’s action tragic.

Mangu Mutt was built more than a century after Nanak’s visit to Puri. Guru Teg Bahadur, the ninth Sikh guru, popularly known as “Hind ki Chadar”, also visited the  Mutt in 1670. Besides, the shrine served as a Dharamshala for pilgrims from all over and, from the middle of the 19th century, when India began its fight for independence from the British colonial rule, it sheltered many a freedom fighter.  Every inch of the Mutt, therefore, pulsated with history and spiritual energy, which, by itself, could have been turned into a pilgrimage goldmine by a visionary government. 

Ironically, the Mutt was demolished at a time when the Odisha  government was proposing to celebrate the 550th   Birth Anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev Ji at Puri. The celebrations were cancelled, and a small seminar was instead held at the Odisha State Archives in Bhubaneswar.  Appeals against the demolition were also made in the social media, and Sikh activists had come all the way from Canada to appeal to the authorities to stop the demolition. In September this year, Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh wrote to his Odisha counterpart against demolishing the shrine, but all of it fell on deaf ears. The contradictory statements made by the spokespersons of the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee and the Sikh Pratinidhi Board of Odisha did not help matters.

While the entire Sikh leadership of Punjab, cutting across party lines, opposed the demolition, the Odisha Sikh leaders toed the government’s line. They, like the state government, maintain that only the unauthorised structures around the Mutt have been erased. However, Dhir says, the shifting of the religious relics from the demolished parts proves that the original structure had been demolished, not just the commercial encroachments.

Post-demolition, a delegation of Sikh MLAs from Punjab met the Odisha chief minister and demanded that at least the demolished area be handed back to the community. They also held a protest march in Bhubaneswar in December end. However, no written assurance has been given  about the transfer of land to the Sikhs and, according to Dhir, it may be a case of too little, too late.

The activists are now pinning their hopes on an intervention petition in the Supreme Court where a case against the demolition of two other Mutts associated with Nanak’s Puri visit, Punjabi Mutt and Bauli Sahib is due for hearing on January 8th.  Dhir, however, is of the view that unless the Sikh political and religious leadership comes forward forcefully, the other two shrines could also face the Odisha government’s axe, and that conservationists may be fighting a losing battle even in court.

Jagpreet Luthra, Senior Journalist, New Delhi

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