Uttarakhand Government Bows to Priests' Protest, to Scrap Char Dham Devasthanam Board

The state government had been on the back foot over the issue in the poll bound state.

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Dehradun: Close on the heels of parliament repealing the three farm laws, the Uttarakhand government on Tuesday said it would scrap the Devasthanam Board which has drawn flak from the priests of Char Dham shrines.

Chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami said that after studying all the aspects pointed out by the high-power committee headed by senior BJP leader Manohar Kant Dhyani, his government has decided to withdraw the Chardham Devasthanam Board Act (CDBA). “In my last meeting with the priest community in Kedarnath, I had promised that by November 30 the issue would be sorted, and it has been settled today,” he said.

The CM’s announcement is significant since it comes ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s scheduled visit to Dehradun on December 4. The development should also be seen in the context of the hill state going to polls early next year.

The state government had been on the back foot over the issue because the protest by the agitating priests kept escalating. Ahead of Modi’s visit to Kedarnath earlier this month, the local priests had even stopped former CM Trivendra Singh Rawat from entering the temple. Senior BJP leaders Madan Kaushik and cabinet minister Dhan Singh Rawat were heckled.

Interestingly, the CDBA was conceptualised by Rawat in 2019 to overhaul the management of 51 temples, including Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri, Yamunotri which were under the control of the local priest community. The move had irked the priest community which termed it as an “anti-Hindu” decision of the state government. The priests also claimed that the board existed to make industrialists money at their expense.

But unfazed by the clamouring of the priest community, Rawat oversaw the enactment of the CDBA to take over the management of all temples.

In July 2020, BJP Rajya Sabha MP Subramanian Swamy moved public interest litigation (PIL) against the Devasthanam Board in the Nainital high court. The court dismissed the petition.

Priests welcome reversal

The priest community has welcomed the state government’s reversal, hailing the decision to restore “Hindu tradition and rituals”.

A Gangotri-based priest Rajnikant Semwal said, “From day one, we have been asking why if the state government has no control over the management of churches or mosques, it is pushing hard to take over temples. The state government must focus on paying the salaries of transport corporation employees, Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam and other departments instead of taking over the Char Dham.”

Another priest, Suresh Semwal, said that the conditions of the Devasthanam Board were against the traditional Hindu traditions and rituals that had been followed since the age of Shankaracharya in Char Dham. “The state government had wanted IAS officers to run the temples, which were against the basic ethos of our religion. Everyone is indebted to CM Pushkar Singh Dhami,” he said.

Dhami’s decision does not come as a big surprise in poll-bound Uttarakhand, where the BJP is battling anti-incumbency both in the hills and plains. It is worth noting that the Char Dham priest community is not numerically strong but plays an influential role in state politics.

Dehradun-based senior journalist Pawan Lal Chand said, “The political clout of the priest community is such that the BJP cannot afford to keep them angry for long before the 2022 election battle. The CM’s announcement of scrapping the Devasthanam Board is a clear message to the [Brahmin] community just before the elections.”

Political observers say that in Uttarakhand, the priest community impacts voting in three districts: Rudraprayag, Chamoli and Uttarkashi. These districts cover eight assembly constituencies.

“If the CBDA was not repealed, then the BJP would have to politically suffer in these eight seats and also other seats in the Garhwal region in the next election, Also the CM’s decision will have a positive impact in the Gangotri seat,” said Udit Ghildyal, a social activist based in Pauri Garhwal.

Uttarakhand chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami. Photo: Facebook/Pushkar Singh Dhami.

Political parties react

The saffron camp is upbeat. Talking to The Wire, cabinet minister Subodh Uniyal said, “The state government was appraised of the matter and the chief minister has taken the right decision. We don’t do caste politics so the question of how it would impact the election doesn’t arise. In governance, there is always a scope of course correction and we have done exactly that.”

The Congress, meanwhile, termed the CM’s announcement as the people’s victory. Speaking with The Wire, former Congress chief minister Harish Rawat said, “Behind the decision, I see a government trembling in fear of defeat in the next elections. Congress had vehemently opposed the Bill in the state assembly and supported the agitation of the priest community right from the beginning.”

Meanwhile, the Aam Aadmi Party’s chief ministerial candidate Col (Retd) Ajay Kothiyal said, “It is the victory of the priest community which had fought tooth and nail against the Devasthanam Board Act. The state government today admitted its blunder and has been forced to take back the Act.”