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OPINION | How Jagannath Temple Administration Unwittingly Prepared Ground for 'Queue System Violence'

All hell broke loose in the pilgrim town as hundreds of activists of Jagannath Sena, a local outfit, went on a rampage dismantling the barricades, ransacking the office of the Shree Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA).

Sandeep Sahu |

Updated:October 5, 2018, 9:56 AM IST
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OPINION | How Jagannath Temple Administration Unwittingly Prepared Ground for 'Queue System Violence'
Representative image (Reuters)
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It was a decision on which the consent of ‘all stakeholders’ had supposedly been obtained. But barely three days into the introduction of the queue system for 'darshan' of the deities at the Jagannath Temple in Puri on an ‘experimental basis’, the ‘consensus’ came apart.

All hell broke loose in the pilgrim town as hundreds of activists of Jagannath Sena, a local outfit, went on a rampage dismantling the barricades, ransacking the office of the Shree Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA), attacking the house of Revenue minister and local MLA Maheswar Mohanty and setting fire to a traffic outpost on Wednesday. The mayhem lasted a good three hours before normalcy was restored.

It all started when the district administration, in a move that smacks of lack of foresight, arrested Priyadarshan Patnaik, convenor of the Sena, on Wednesday morning as a ‘preventive measure’. But from deterring his supporters, as the administration had calculated, it had the exact opposite effect.

Residents of the town and some servitors also joined the mob to vent out their anger against the decision of the SJTA. Their anger was not entirely misplaced though. Hundreds of people in Puri town have 'darshan' of the Lord before they touch food or water every day. To ask them to stand in queue for hours to enter the temple was plain ludicrous.

Faced with the wrath of the people of Puri, the administration beat a hasty retreat and exempted residents of the town from queue. “Since a large number of local devotees visit the temple early in the morning and in the evening every day, we have decided to make special arrangements for them. They can enter the temple through the three exit gates after showing their identity cards as proof of residence,” Puri Collector Jyoti Prakash Das said after emerging from a peace committee meeting hours after the violence.

While the retreat by the administration pleased the locals, it enraged devotees from other places who felt they were being discriminated against. “Why should the people of Puri enjoy special privileges? After all, Lord Jagannath doesn’t belong to Puri alone. He is the Lord of the Universe,” one of them told a local TV channel. He was only echoing the feelings of crores of Jagannath lovers, who feel cheated by the decision. In trying to solve one problem, the district and temple administrations may have created a bigger one.

The knee-jerk reaction of the administration was a continuation of the flip-flop policy that has marked its response to every crisis since the fiasco during the Brahma Parivartan (transfer of soul) of the deities during Nabakalebara (New Body) in 2015.

As public anger against the desecration of this most important ritual of the Nabakalebara rose, the SJTA suspended two servitors for their role in the disruption of the Brahma Parivartan, which took place the next afternoon instead of the dead of the night as mandated by the scriptures and temple tradition. But fearing trouble, their suspension was revoked on the eve of the Rath Yatra next year, even before the inquiry by the SJTA chief administrator was complete!

Introduction of queue system for darshan, in line with the system in place at most other famous Hindu shrines of India, was one of the 12 proposals for reforms in the 12th century shrine submitted by the Puri district judge to the Supreme Court in July this year.

The Supreme Court appointed amicus curie Gopal Subramaniam visited Puri last month and held extensive talks on the proposed reforms with all stakeholders, including the Shankaracharya of Govardhan Peeth and the Gajapati King of Puri, the Lord’s first servitor. On Thursday, he asked for a report from the temple administration about the violence on Wednesday.

If Wednesday’s incidents proved anything, it was that reforms cannot be thrust down the gullet of the devotees or the servitors. It can be ushered in only through a process of long-drawn consultations with all stakeholders. In trying to hasten things by circumventing the process of consultation, the temple administration may have unwittingly prepared the ground for the violence that spilled over into the streets on Wednesday.

Even the Supreme Court has moved with extreme caution because of the sensitivities involved. That is why instead of issuing any ‘directive’, it has asked the temple administration to explore the possibility of implementing the proposals through consultations with the stakeholders. It appointed Subramaniam as amicus curie to facilitate the process. But the SJTA sought to ram the proposals through by creating an impression that it was doing so on the ‘direction’ of the apex court.

With its bluff called in the wake of Wednesday’s violence, the temple administration now stares at some tough times ahead as the decision to exempt Purites from queue is bound to lead to recriminations in the future.

(The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)
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