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UP: Govt Funds for Hindu Festivals Is the Latest Attempt by the BJP to Politicise Religion

The UP government decision marks yet another chapter of ensuring that religion gets enmeshed with the administration.

Lucknow: In what appears to be an undisguised attempt to use the state apparatus to promote Hindutva and mesh it with the state bureaucracy officially, the Uttar Pradesh government has ordered district magistrates (DMs) to organise temple events, including recitation of Durga Saptashati and Ramcharitmanas during Chaitra Navratri and Ram Navami festivals.

All DMs will be given Rs 1 lakh each for payment to artistes performing at the events, said the order passed by Mukesh Meshram, principal secretary in the state’s culture department, on March 10. The order has also been sent to all divisional commissioners. Meshram denied that these programmes were being held for the first time in India’s largest state.

Former chief minister Akhilesh Yadav took a swipe at the state government and said that at least Rs 10 crore should be given for celebrating festivals of all religions as Rs 1 lakh for artistes’ honorarium was too small an amount.

The Hindu religious festivals will coincide with the Muslim holy month of Ramzan, which is expected to begin on March 22, depending on the sighting of the moon. Ram Navami will be celebrated on March 30.

The events which will be held at government (public) expense will mark a new chapter of religion intermeshing seamlessly in administration at the district level. The showering of flower petals from choppers on kanwariyas (Shiva worshippers) during the month of Saawan had made news earlier.

For the BJP, hosting roza iftar parties by the previous Samajwadi Party governments of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Akhilesh Yadav was ‘appeasement’ of minorities but it sees nothing wrong with the public funding of Hindu religious events. In fact, it is pushed as desirable. The chief minister had announced last month and also tweeted that “Sanatan Dharm was India’s national religion.”

At BJP’s Samajik Pratinidhi Sammelan for the Lodh community in Lucknow in October 2021, chief minister Yogi Adityanath alleged that opposition parties used to compete for hosting iftar parties but imposed curfews during Hindu festivals. The shoe is now on the other foot, though the government won’t call it appeasement.

Also read: What We Need in India Is Freedom From Religion

Government bias

The government’s bias is apparent from the statement of UP minority commission chief Ashfaq Saifi who alleged that there were “lots of complaints” about loudspeakers being forcibly removed from mosques by the local administration. These loudspeakers were installed in accordance with the Allahabad high court’s guidelines on decibel levels.

In a letter to UP chief secretary D.S. Misra, Saifi requested that Muslims should be given a “feeling of security and harmony”. Whether district administrations will ensure compliance with decibel guidelines to avoid noise pollution at the upcoming events remains to be seen.

Goswami Tulsidas’ epic ‘Ramcharitmanas’ has recently been in the eye of a storm for the alleged denigration of women and Dalits. Samajwadi Party leader Swami Prasad Maurya, who earlier demanded the deletion of the alleged controversial passages, called the government the “enemy” of women, Dalits and tribals for allowing 24-hour recitation of ‘Ramcharitmanas’. His comments on ‘Ramcharitmanas’ had also led to his entry being barred in a Lucknow-based temple of Lord Hanuman.

Mukesh Meshram’s order mandates all local administrations to arrange for the recitation of Durga Saptashati, Devi gaan (songs in praise of the goddess) and Devi Jagran which is a night long affair. It is the first time that the government is organising Chaitra Navratri celebrations at this scale in the state.

Normally recitation of the ‘Ramcharitmanas’ during Ram Navami is held in temples and in the homes of devout Hindus. The involvement of state machinery in the festival which celebrates the birth of Lord Ram is a strong political message to Swami Prasad Maurya that the government will stand by the epic poem.

With parliamentary elections due in 2024, the move is also aimed at ensuring that the BJP does not lose a section of its OBC base.

The row over ‘Ramcharitmanas’ in UP was started by Maurya in January this year with the purpose of weaning votes of Dalits and OBCs away from the BJP, which has made a significant dent into the vote share of the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party.

Atul Chandra is a former resident editor of The Times of India, Lucknow, and an author.