Bhubaneswar: The Supreme Court-appointed amicus curiae, accompanied by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, on Saturday visited Puri and backed the ongoing demolition of numerous structures around Lord Jagannath temple, including ancient monasteries seen by many as valuable heritage buildings.
The demolition drive that started last month as part of the state government’s plans to convert the seaside town of Puri into a World Heritage City and enhance the security of Lord Jagannath’s temple has so far razed two centuries-old Vaishnavite monasteries which have integral ties with the world-famous temple.
Even as heritage conservationists and archaeologists have protested the move, the government is set to raze Bada Akhada Matha, a 521-year-old Vaishnavite monastery, near the temple next week.
Ranjit Kumar, the amicus curiae, and Tushar Mehta held discussions with Chief Administrator of Sri Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA), senior administration and police officials, the titular king of Puri, Gajapati Dibyasingha Deb, and the Shankaracharya of Govardhan Peeth at Puri, Swami Shri Nischalananda Saraswati.
Kumar said if the residents of Puri want development and a situation where more people can visit the pilgrim town, the government’s plan is appropriate. He said as per the plan, the town will becomes clean, the deities’ darshan can be done well and the cultural heritage will be promoted properly, he said.
Talking about the protests from saints, the temple’s sevayats and the intelligentsia, he said “I do not think the work should be halted in any manner because it is being done for the good of everyone – residents of the town and priests of the temple. Most importantly, this would further heighten Lord Jagannath’s name. More people can visit Puri, and everyone will be benefited”.
“Since the deities’ Nagarjuna Besha rituals are scheduled next year, which takes place once every 25 years and will draw more than 15 lakh devotees this time, it is necessary to prepare for it,” said Ranjit Kumar to journalists, declining to take any questions.
Asserting that he and the Solicitor General have found that the demolitions and rehabilitation plans will be ‘good for everyone,’ Ranjit Kumar said “Nobody is being coerced. The work is being carried out after having discussions and negotiations with everyone”.
However, a number of seers dispatched a letter to the Chief Justice of India on September 4 disputing the statement of the advocate general of Odisha before the Supreme Court bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra that the mahants of the mutts (seminaries) had given their assent for this ‘dastardly act of destroying centuries-old mutts.'
“We have certainly not given consent for the destruction or demolition of our mutts. We are being forced by the district administration to consent to demolition now,” the seers said in their letter, claiming that a petition seeking stay on the demolition order was dismissed by the top court without a due hearing.
The seers also said that while the Supreme Court asked the amicus curiae and the Solicitor General to visit Puri and file a report on the status of the demolition drive on August 27, the state government did not wait for their visit and report and continued the demolition drive.
Two famous Vaishnavite seminaries associated with Lord Jagannath’s temple – the 700-year-old Emar Matha and the 300-year-old Languli Matha, also called Nanguli Matha – were pulled down despite protests by heritage conservationists, historians, saints and Opposition politicians.
“I am pained to see the situation. If Lord Jagannath is denied justice and is used as a vote bank or a source of income, what difference will remain there between a factory and Lord Jagannath’s temple?” asked the Shankaracharya while speaking to journalists about his interactions with the SC-appointed two-member panel.
The Shankaracharya, who submitted a 40-page memorandum on the situation to the panel, added “A factory’s people go on strike against the factory’s owner. When Lord Jagannath’s daily meals and worship (bhog-rag) are stopped in strikes against Him, then Lord Jagannath is reduced to the level of a factory owner. Should such bad situations arise?”
Apparently hurt by the Odisha government’s plans and the central government’s silence on the issue, the Shankaracharya told reporters “If you (journalists) stop being blind supporters of the governments (aap ka sarkarikaran na ho), then everything will be fine. If the organisations you work for restrict you and force you to modify your work, you will be reduced to mere salaried people (betanbhogi) there”.
“If you keep acting as mere salaried people under the governments, how will things work? You are first and foremost enlightened citizens and residents of Puri, and journalists and channel employees later. You all being the devotees of Lord Jagannath, my wishes will be fulfilled if you carry out your responsibilities properly,” said the Shankaracharya to journalists.
Puri Suraksha Mancha convener Damodar Pradhani said the people of Puri and the intelligentsia were disappointed for not getting an opportunity to be heard by the court-appointed panel.
“We also support the government’s development plans for Puri, but we want the demands of thousands of people getting affected to be addressed. The people do not take the government’s assurances seriously because those displaced in Puri in 2015 are yet to be settled. The package announced by the government for people who will be affected hardly inspired trust,” Pradhani added.
Naveen Patnaik-led BJD government in Odisha has announced an attractive rehabilitation package for people and establishments that would be affected due to the town’s makeover project. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the matter on the demolition drive again on September 17.
(With inputs from Akshay Mishra)