Shajapur: Pandit Sudhir Bharti traveled 150 kilometers from Indore to Shajapur in the scorching heat of April to submit a memorandum to the District Magistrate. He was going to lead a rally of temple priests and expected 100 to 150 priests to accompany him. But only 25 showed up there.
The incident highlights a daunting task assigned to him and his team by the Congress party. He had to prevent the priests from undermining the attractiveness of the BJP’s traditional voter base, mainly Brahmins. The Congress recognized and exploited the discontent among the priests regarding the lack of ownership of temple land. Sudhir has been holding rallies in various districts, handing over memorandums to the collectors there, outlining the priests’ demands for “rightful ownership” of the temple land.
In the fascination of this promise, the Congress has probably strengthened itself even more. From the government to the courts, as this case has dragged on for decades, resolving the contentious issue of temple land seems easier said than done.
However, it will not be easy to woo the priestly community and persuade them to participate in Congress programmes. Sudhir said with an apologetic smile, “It is the wedding season, so people did not come. But we are not asking for strength in numbers. We aim to evoke strong emotions. The priests understand that the BJP is only making false promises to them.”
The political environment of Madhya Pradesh today is dominated by self-styled saints and priests, which is clearly visible from the many saffron-coloured hoardings put up in Bhopal and other areas. A notable person exemplifying this phenomenon is Dhirendra Krishna Shastri of Bageshwar Dham, who has gained prominence in Madhya Pradesh in the last two years by receiving extensive coverage on primetime TV. Leaders from across the political spectrum have cohabited with him.
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Shastri is one of the many storytellers in the state. A so-called ‘miracle man’ who addresses large gatherings and recites parts of religious texts such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Puranas or the Ramayana. But secretly he advocates Hindu Rashtra, Nationalism and Bulldozer politics and all these match with BJP’s agenda. Yatindra Singh Sisodia, director of the Ujjain-based Institute of Social Science Research, said, “All parties and their top leaders are coming to him now.”
This type of political mobilization is unusual in religious congregations in Madhya Pradesh, but a more familiar sight in the deras of Punjab and Haryana or the maths of Karnataka. Sisodia said, “I don’t think it will have any significant impact on the elections here.”
Unable to attract the attention of these spiritual people, the Congress has adopted a micro-level approach by supporting the temple priests.
Unlike Karnataka, where the party focused on local issues and promised to ban the Bajrang Dal, the party’s strategy in Madhya Pradesh is different. Here the party aims to attract Hindu voters by relying on the influence of priests. Kamal Nath’s picture in several WhatsApp forward messages shows him appealing to Hindu voters with a large vermilion tika (a religious symbol) on his forehead.
Many ways to pacify the priests
The Congress set up the Pujari Cell (priest cell) in July-August 2022 to woo the priests ahead of the elections in November. Its purpose is to mobilize the priests and start a movement to assert their ownership rights over the land of the temple.
However, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems unfazed by the Congress’s outreach to the priests. Lokendra Parashar, the BJP’s media in-charge in Madhya Pradesh, dismissed the Congress’s efforts as a “soft Hindutva approach”. “Let them have their fun until we get to the game,” he said.
Sudhir Bharti, vice-president of the priest’s cell, said that there are several WhatsApp groups with 300 priests in each district, all of whom are affiliated with the Congress. “We have separate groups for each district and also separate groups for priests in different tehsils,” he told ThePrint. Cell workers act as group admins and maintain regular contact with the priests.”
However, the members of the cell did not reveal the exact number of priests associated with the Congress and how they are playing an essential role in spreading the Hindutva of the Congress. The party organized a Dharma Sansad (religious assembly) in Bhopal earlier this year, which was attended by 1,600 priests.
During the Dharma Sansad, the Congress promised to resolve the priests’ struggle for land ownership and end government control of temples if voted to power.
Congress states that it is not possible to get the support of kathavachaks (religious storytellers). Therefore, the party has started working to win over the priests, who have a huge influence in almost all the villages of Madhya Pradesh. Bharti insisted that each priest influence at least 60 votes in a village. If he speaks in favor of the party and exposes the evils of the BJP, his support can ensure a tremendous success for the Congress.
However, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan somewhat nullified the Congress’s efforts by announcing on Parshuram Jayanti in Bhopal in the presence of Dhirendra Shastri that priests with more than 10 acres of land would have the right to auction it, taking away the district’s authority. Media reports suggest that this decision definitely ends the government ownership of the temple land. But Bharti does not agree with this. He argued, “The chief minister never said that the temple land would be free from government control. The priests do not want to sell the temple land, but only want recognition of their names on the temples that their families have maintained for generations.”
Reportedly, the Madhya Pradesh government currently has jurisdiction over over 1,320 temples.
The party is also planning a Dharma Yatra (religious procession) in the state on the lines of Bharat Jodo Yatra. Sources say that after this yatra, Dharma Chaupal (religious meeting) will be organized in every village before the elections in November.
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All about the ownership of the temple
In 1994 and 2008, a circular issued under the Madhya Pradesh Land Revenue Code (1959) resulted in the removal of the priest’s name from the revenue records of the temples, reducing their role to that of caretakers. While the priests were allowed to cultivate the land, they were prohibited from selling it. The District Magistrates were specifically directed to maintain a separate list to record the priests of the temples. The circular states that the presiding deity of the temple is the owner of the land.
Under the existing laws governing various temples, all temple management committees in Madhya Pradesh are headed by district magistrates.
The priests of the state, under the Pujari Kalyan Samiti, dragged the government to court over the matter. In 2016, the Madhya Pradesh High Court ruled in favor of the priests and granted them ownership of the land. However, this decision was overturned by the Supreme Court in September 2021, upholding the validity of the previous circulars and saying that the temple land belonged to the deities.
The decision has dismayed the priests, as it not only restricts their ability to sell the land they hold, but also prevents them from accessing farm welfare schemes such as Kisan Credit Cards, fertilizer subsidies or loan waivers. Gopal Chand, the head priest of Shajapur’s Devnarayan temple, said, “We are unable to take advantage of any welfare schemes meant for farmers.”
The struggle of the priests to claim ownership of the land has been long and challenging. Some priests carry newspaper clippings of promises made by governments, usually buried within two-column stories, which are hidden in the inside pages. A senior priest said, “I trust the Congress, but only 90 per cent. I have 10% doubt.”
Meanwhile, Sisodia says that the priest vote is not a game-changer because priests as a group do not constitute a significant influential voting base.
Can Congress win?
A group of priests led by Sudhir Bharti talk about being betrayed by the BJP government. Premraj Bera, the priest of the Bhiwana temple, said, “BJP is only playing with our emotions. We have been fighting for our land for years but no one is listening to us.”
But the feeling of Hindutva is very strong among the priests. Om Prakash Sharma, a 70-year-old priest at the Dnyaneshwar temple, 20 km from the Shajapur district headquarters, said, “The land issue will be resolved. The real danger is created by Muslims.
But Sudhir remained adamant, “Haven’t you heard the Chief Minister? They are going to bring committees to your temple too!” He tells the priest, referring to CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s April 23 speech in the presence of Dhirendra Shastri, where he promised that the auction of temple land would be monitored by priests.
“It does not mean ownership of the land,” Sudhir told ThePrint. This CM is giving us knives and saying ‘go kill yourself’.
However, the old priest does not find Sudhir’s argument convincing. He said, “My vote is going to Chouhan.”
(Editing: Rishabh Raj)
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