Ahead of the state assembly election in 2022, the BJP government of Uttarakhand has announced the withdrawal of the contentious Char Dham Devasthanam Management Act, which brought four Hindu shrines of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, Yamunotri and 49 other temples under state control amid an increasing demand from the Hindu community to let them manage their own places of worship like they used to before the British colonial period.
Several priests and religious organisations had been protesting, with renewed intensity, for a year against this move, which the BJP government said was its way to ensure smoother execution of the Char Dham project and the party’s supporters defended at the cost of their friendship with fellow Hindutva champions.
Over a period of especially a year now, the BJP is believed to have alienated a large chunk of Hindus not only by prioritising infrastructure over Hindu traditions but also by unleashing its supporters on the fellow travellers of Hindutva at the cost of both ideology and friendship between ordinary citizens.
In March, the BJP government of Himachal Pradesh had put two Muslims, Jashan Deen and a Shakeen Mohammad, in charge of Sri Jwalamukhi Temple, Jwalamukhi.
In India, the places of worship of all religions except those of Hindus are under government control. The Jaganmohan Reddy government of Andhra Pradesh and the MK Stalin government of Tamil Nadu are particularly notorious for misusing this exceptional provision by either appointing non-Hindus in the management of temples and/or diverting the funds collected by the temples in the states for activities not related to the Hindu community.
The BJP government of Uttar Pradesh, despite being headed by a Hindu monk Yogi Adityanath, has been accused of callously renovating the path to the Kashi Vishwanath temple, damaging several mediaeval temples and even uprooting the Akshayvat.
Introduced by the previous Trivendra Singh Rawat-led government in 2019, the law allowed the board to act as the highest governing body, to look after the shrines while framing policies and sanctioning expenditure.
Priests of the Char Dham — Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri — opposed the board, saying it was an infringement upon their traditional rights over the Himalayan temples.
“Our government has taken a decision to take back the Char Dham Devasthanam Management Board Act,” chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami said.
“The decision to abolish the Devasthanam Board is taken on the basis of the feedback received by Teerth Purohit, Haq Hookdhari (stakeholders), people’s representative and report of a high-level committee,” he said.
In 2019, the BJP government, under the leadership of Rawat, passed the Uttarakhand Char Dham Shrine Management Bill, 2019. In July, chief minister Dhami formed a five-member committee to look into the matter amid continuous protests by the priests. Based on the recommendations of the panel which submitted its report last week, the state government decided to repeal the Act.
“The government will speak to all parties concerned now and take appropriate action on improving the facilities for the pilgrims. The repeal of the law would soon be approved by the cabinet before bringing a bill on the same in the assembly,” Dhami said.
Welcoming the move, Char Dham Haq Haqooq Dhari Tirth Purohit Mahapanchayat president KK Kothiyal said: “We are happy that the government has decided to repeal the Act. We are thankful that they have supported the truth and (taken cognisance) of our struggle of two years. We have no grudges against anyone now.”
State BJP chief Madan Kaushik also thanked the government for its decision.
“In a democracy, no decision taken by any government is final. There is always a margin to change it according to the sentiments of the people like in the case of Char Dham Devasthanam Management Act. The government has rolled back the decision while respecting the sentiments of the priests’ community,” he said.
Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev welcomed the state’s withdrawal from temple management in Uttarakhand, saying, “Welcome step towards Religious freedom and equal rights for all. Congratulations and Blessings,” on Koo.
The INC, however, claimed that fears of losing the coming assembly election prompted the government to resort to such a move.
“The government faced a loss of votes. This decision is purely out of that fear. But this will not benefit them in the upcoming polls,” INC leader and former chief minister Harish Rawat said.
Political commentator Jai Singh Rawat said: “The BJP was fearing vote loss due to the law (Char Dham Devasthanam Management Act) in the assembly elections. Now, much will depend on how both the BJP and INC use the issue in the polls.”