Controversy Over Dalit Priest In Temple


by Dhirendra K Jha - Courtesy


For more than a month, the Rashtriya Swayamsevek Sangh in Moradabad district in western Uttar Pradesh has been embroiled in a controversy over a temple dedicated to Sant Ravidas, a social reformer whom Dalits venerate.

During this time, a sadhu from a major militant Hindu ascetic order dedicated to the god Shiva, the Haridwar-based Juna Akhada, has become the temple's head priest, or mahant.

The temple is located in Nayagaon Akbarpur Chedri village in the district's Kanth subdivision, which has a substantial population of Muslims. On June 26, local authorities removed a loudspeaker that had been mounted on the temple, saying that there was no tradition of doing this except on Mahashivratri, which falls in February or March every year.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, which commands considerable support among Dalits in the village, refuted this, saying that the temple has had a loudspeaker for the past 40 years, and accused the administration of high-handedness.

To protest against the removal of the loudspeaker, the BJP announced that it would hold a Hindu mahapanchayat, or large gathering, at Kanth town nearby on July 4. But anticipating trouble, the police acted swiftly, taking a large number of BJP leaders and workers into custody and preventing the rest from congregating on that day.

But subsequently, a string of incidents has kept the communal pot in the region boiling.

“After the removal of the loudspeaker on June 26 a mahant started living in this temple,” said Jabbar Singh, a local Dalit activist and a former Bahujan Samaj Party leader in the area. “The loudspeaker controversy has now become a war of egos between Dalits and Muslims. Dalits of the village look up to the BJP as the sole party fighting for their cause and high-profile Sangh leaders have been participating in this agitation, so they think the mahant is here to help them in their struggle.”

Even though only a few Dalits in the village know the mahant's name, almost all of them claim that he has been there for the past 45 years.

The mahant, who calls himself Baba Hoshiyar Nath, for his part, appeared wary of talking to a journalist, offering measured replies. “The temple was built 45 years ago by my guru, Baba Chanchal Nath Ji, who died in 1994," he said. "Earlier, I used to stay mostly in Haridwar and come here occasionally to manage the temple's activities,” he said. “Now I have decided to stay here.”

Some dissonance

Nath, however, was not familiar with elementary facts connected to a Shaivite akhara. For instance, he did not know to which marhi he belonged. That is strange because a marhi is a Shaivite akhara's basic administrative unit and determines the sadhu's ascetic lineage.

Marhi? What marhi? Marhi is the place where you stay, isn’t it? Well, this Shiva temple is my marhi. Go and ask anyone at Juna akhara about me.”

In addition, the title “Nath” is not associated with any of the country's seven Shaivite akharas. Rather, sadhus of these akharas use one of Shiva's ten names: Giri, Parvata, Puri, Saraswati, Aranya, Ashram, Bharati, Sagara, Tirtha or Vana.

When asked about the discrepancy in his title, his replied irritably: “Keep quiet if you don’t know about the Juna akhara. My title is Nath because I belong to Nath wing of the Juna akhara.”

While the complex has a Shiva temple in a corner, it has largely been known as a Sant Ravidas temple. Until this year, the Jatavs of the village performed a puja on the occasion of Sant Ravidas Jayanti. “As in previous years, we performed a puja in this temple on the day of Sant Ravidas Jayanti,” said Jitendra Singh, one of the villagers from the Jatav community.

The temple has a tradition of taking out a colourful procession on Holi. The invitation letter for the Holi procession this year refers to this temple as a Ravidas temple.“The tradition began in 1998. We all cooperate for the procession,” said Anis-ur Rahman, a Kanth MLA of the Peace Party of India, displaying the invitation letter he received.

Temple makeover

The temple seems to be undergoing a makeover. A recent coat of paint is clearly visible on all the inside walls of its complex, erasing almost all traces of the past. The small Shiva temple in the corner of the complex has now become prominent, and the main structure, that used to be the place for the puja on the occasion of Sant Ravidas Jayanti, has been converted into a dwelling place for the mahant.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a temple acquiring a mahant. This routinely happens in different parts of the country, especially if those administering the temple have no objection.

Here, however, there are some questions about the antecedents of the mahant and the coincidence of him moving in and making the Shiva temple prominent at a time when the Dalit devotees of Sant Ravidas are distracted by the controversy about the loudspeaker is hard to ignore.

The mahant's entry stands out because the Rashtriya Swayamsevek Sangh and its associate, the Vishwa Hidu Parishad, have little influence in the Sant Ravidas temples in the Hindi belt.



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