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Though a recent opinion poll by a television channel showed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) heading for a complete majority in the Uttarakhand assembly elections due in early 2022, the ongoing agitation by priests who have sought dissolution of the Char Dham Devasthanam Management Board could well turn the tide against the ruling party.
The priests have been demanding dissolution of the Board since its constitution in 2019, as they say it seeks to enrich industrialists at their expense and has also been interfering in the traditions of the shrines.
While the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) have said they are committed to resolving the demands of the priests for dissolution of the Board, the Pushkar Singh Dhami-led government is now under immense pressure to toe a similar line.
Therefore, the meeting of the chief minister with the priests on September 11 is being awaited with bated breath. While on one hand, the protesting priests are hoping that the government would relent and address their concerns, they have also called a meeting on September 13 to decide on the future course of action.
But one thing is already clear. By constituting the Board through an enabling Act in 2019 and by not listening to the demands of the priests regarding their concerns about the functioning of the Board, the BJP government in the state has turned a large number of these religious heads against itself. Since these temple and shrine priests also command a huge following among the populace, this could well end up costing BJP dear.
Naveen Nagar Chaturvedi, vice-president of All India Teerath Purohit Mahasabha told The Wire that through the Board, the rights of the priests have been attacked. (It is the umbrella body of shrine priests and has its main office in Hardwar.)
“Though five of our members were taken in the Devasthanam Board, that does not serve any purpose. They have been removing our priests and taking away their rights or barring them from various activities they were engaged in.”
He said attempts have been made through the Board to acquire the lands owned by the purohits or religious leaders in the state. “The ancestors of the families of the purohits were instrumental in bringing up and preserving the various shrines and religious sites. They also hosted visitors and assisted them financially. What happened was that the government began acquiring the temples and shrines one by one. They brought over 50 shrines under their control. They are only eyeing the donations which are made at these Hindu shrines. They never acquired any mosque, church or gurdwara then how can they justify these acquisitions.”
Claiming that his organisation was a religious one and not a political one, Chaturvedi said, “We have been protesting peacefully. Our members support various parties, but there is no politics in our organisation.”
But now, due to the conduct of the Board and the BJP government, he said, “The rights of Brahmins are being attacked. Our livelihoods are being impacted. And if this goes on, we will have to take political decisions in our welfare.”
Stating that the protesting priests had also “gheraoed” (surrounded) the Uttarakhand assembly in support of their demands, he said, they had however withdrawn from the protest following assurances by the government. “But the assurances have not been followed up with necessary action.”
Chaturvedi said various political parties have been sending feelers to them. “The Congress and other parties of the state are willing to come forward and support our demands. We have been making requests to the state government, and even the Central leaders, including the Prime Minister. But so far they have only passed our letters from one office to another.”
In such a scenario, he cautioned that there would be a political impact. “If we are forced to agitate, then the support we command runs into crores because a lot of people follow the temple and shrine priests. We also have close or familial ties with a lot of pilgrims.”
Opposition comes into picture to resolve matter
The Aam Aadmi Party, which is making its maiden foray into electoral politics in the state, and the Congress have already announced that they would scrap the Char Dham Board if voted to power.
In August, newly appointed Congress state president Ganesh Godiyal had said that instead of focussing on development, the state government has been framing unwarranted laws and his party would scrap all unnecessary laws imposed in the last four and a half years.
Godiyal questioned the need for making the Char Dham Board when the Badri-Kedar Temple Committee already existed to look after the management of the two shrines and similarly committees existed for the Gangotri and Yamunotri temples. He further alleged that the government was only eyeing money from the shrines.
Later, AAP’s chief ministerial candidate Colonel Ajay Kothiyal (Retd.) said that if the party comes to power, it would scrap the Board in keeping with the aspirations of the agitating priests.
He said, “The government cannot just bring a board that uses the same barometer for all Char Dham shrines. You have to respect their unique traditions and the way they have been managing these shrines for centuries.”