Vijayawada: A spate of desecrations reported at temples in Andhra Pradesh has turned into a political slugfest, with opposition parties Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and BJP trying to corner the government of YSR Congress Party by accusing it of ‘betraying’ Hindus.
The police have not made any headway in finding connections in the spate of attacks, making the circumstances around the incidents more mysterious.
A statement released by the police on Tuesday after a meet at the temple town of Tirupati revealed that 78 instances of attacks/desecration of temples were reported in the state since the burning of a chariot at Sri Narasimha Swamy temple on September 5, 2020 at Antarvedi in the East Godavari district. In all, the release said, 127 cases were reported in 2020.
Even as observers worry that politicking the vandalism has taken precedence over solving the crimes, the three major political players have been engaged in a battle of assigning blame.
After losing power to the YSR Congress in 2019, the TDP’s N. Chandrababu Naidu is sparing no efforts to corner his rival and chief minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy. By doing so, he hopes to keep his flock protected from poaching by Jagan’s party and the BJP. The spree of vandalism has come in handy for Naidu in his pursuits, feel observers.
The BJP – which could not even get 1% of the vote share in the 2019 state and general elections – is also determined to find its own space in the state’s politics by utilising the attacks to pitch its communal agenda. A similar strategy paid dividends in Telangana, where the saffron party won a crucial by-poll and performed well in the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) elections. The party’s Telangana president Bandi Sanjay described the BJP as “Bhagavad Gita party” and said it will wage a war against the “Bible party” – a jibe aimed at Jagan’s Christian identity. Picking up his lead, the BJP’s Andhra Pradesh president Somu Veerraju claimed there is no security for Hindus and their religious beliefs under the rule of a “Christian” chief minister.
Pushed on the defensive, Jagan is apparently striving hard to keep his Hindu vote intact by painting Naidu as the “villain of the piece”. Reddy suspects Naidu’s hand behind the incidents, alleging that the TDP is waging ‘guerrilla warfare’ against his government. “Most of the temples subjected to attack are under the management of TDP leaders,” Jagan added, pointing fingers at Naidu’s party in his virtual meeting with the police officers.
The CM made this allegation in the context of a 400-year-old idol of Rama being desecrated at Ramateertham in Vizianagaram district, which was under the management of former TDP Union minister Ashok Gajapathi Raju, a descendant of the Pusapati royal family. Subsequently, the government removed Raju as the chairman of the trust boards of three temples – Sri Pydithalli Ammavari Devasthanam; Sri Rama Swamy Devasthanam, where the idol of Rama was defiled, in Vizianagaram district; and Sri Mandeswara Swamy temple at Mandapalli in East Godavari district – citing his failure to address issues relating to security.
While the police have claimed that 236 people were arrested in connection with acts of vandalism at the temples. He did not elaborate on their political connections – if any – even as Jagan has accused the involvement of the TDP. The Wire tried to reach the director general of police, but he was not available for comment.
Soft Hindutva politics
Naidu appears to be confident that he can use the tide of attacks on Hindu temples in his favour and retain his space as the principal opposition leader. He believes that the BJP is out of the reckoning in the state and cannot challenge his space in the near future. So, Naidu is playing ‘soft Hindutva’ politics by applying ’tilak’ on his forehead and aggressively campaigning to win over the Hindus and projecting Jagan as anti-Hindu.
“I believe in Lord Venkateswara, you have faith in Jesus Christ. I go to Tirumala and you visit Jerusalem and keep the Bible with you. I am not faulting that. But attacks should not be allowed on other religions,” he said, according to reports.
However, Naidu’s tenure also was not free of controversy. Several temples were pulled down to make way for construction in Amaravati. The BJP was then a partner of the TDP and therefore could not polarise the issue. In fact, the BJP’s Manikyala Rao even held the endowments portfolio during that time.
Analyst Raka Sudhakar Rao told The Wire that by leading the charge as a ‘true Hindu’, Naidu has compelled the BJP to join his chorus and try to isolate Jagan.
It is said that close to 130 Hindu temples were defiled and vandalised in the state since Jagan took over as the chief minister on May 31, 2019. One of those was the burning of a chariot at the Narasimha Swamy temple at Antarvedi in early September 2020.
Around the same time, three silver lion idols were found missing from the chariot of the deity Kanaka Durga in Vijayawada.
In fact, Tirupati – the world-famous place of worship for Hindus – became a centre of right-wing politics over the past year. The BJP has alleged that Christian missionaries are propagating their religion in certain Hindu religious places, including Tirupati, under Jagan’s watch.
Incidentally, Tirupati is set to witness a bye-election soon, following the demise of YSR Congress MP Balli Durgaprasad.
Idol from ancient pilgrimage site defiled
Ramateertham, a site of pilgrimage dating back to the third century BC located in the Uttarandhra region, was the site of vandalism just before the New Year. An idol of Rama in the Sri Rama Swamy Devasthanam was defiled.
It has been the epicentre of a political drama, with the BJP and actor-politicians Pawan Kalyan’s Jana Sena Party attempting to march to the temple. The police foiled their bid.
The BJP’s Andhra Pradesh co in-charge Sunil Deodhar said Jagan’s “inaction in temple attacks” shows his “tacit support”.
E.A.S. Sarma, a retired IAS officer hailing from Visakhapatnam, expressed ‘grave concern’ about the defilement of the Rama idol. He wondered how the Ramateertham site, which has great historical value, failed to get heritage status and did not have even minimum security against such attacks. He told The Wire that the police also needs to “dispel” notions held by the public that temples are being targeted and ensure communal peace.
E. Sivanagi Reddy, an archaeologist The Wire spoke to expressed serious concern that politics of religion is taking precedence over the significance of art, temple culture and heritage sites. He estimated that around 35,000 temples which are yet to be notified by the endowments department are under the management of private trustees in the two Telugu states, all of which need care and protection.
Meanwhile, CPI(M) leader Ch. Babu Rao alleged that Jagan’s soft stance with the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre has emboldened Hindu radicals to drive a wedge between religions and create communal tensions.