Shajapur: Pandit Sudheer Bharti traveled 150 km from Indore to Shajapur in the scorching April heat to deliver a memorandum to the District Magistrate. He was going to lead a rally of temple priests and had expected 100-150 priests to join him. Only 25 showed up.
This incident highlights the challenging task assigned to him and his team by the Congress Party – attracting the BJP’s traditional voter base of priests, mainly Brahmins. The Congress has recognised and tapped into the discontent among priests regarding their lack of ownership of temple land. Sudheer is organising rallies in various districts, where memorandums are handed over to collectors, outlining the priests’ demands for “rightful ownership” of temple land.
With the allure of this promise, the Congress may just have tied itself in a tighter knot. Resolving the vexatious temple land issue is easier said than done, as it has dragged on for decades—from the government to the courts.
However, courting the priest community and coaxing them to participate in Congress events won’t be easy. “It’s wedding season, so people haven’t shown up,” Sudheer smiled apologetically. “But we’re not seeking strength in numbers; we aim to evoke strong emotions. Priests understand that the BJP is merely making false promises to them.”
The political atmosphere in Madhya Pradesh today is dominated by self-proclaimed godmen, saints, and priests, evident from the numerous saffron-coloured billboards in Bhopal and other areas. One notable figure who exemplifies this phenomenon is Bageshwar Dham’s Dhirendra Krishna Shastri, who has gained prominence in Madhya Pradesh over the past two years, receiving extensive coverage on primetime TV. Leaders from across the political spectrum have cozied up to him.
Shastri is one of the many kathavachaks in the state — ‘miracle men’ who address large gatherings and narrate parts of religious texts such as Bhagavad Gita, Puranas, or Ramayana. Secretly, they advocate for Hindu Rashtra, nationalism, and bulldozer politics—all of which align with the BJP’s agenda. “All parties and their top leaders are flocking to them right now,” said Yatindra Singh Sisodia, director of the Ujjain-based Institute of Social Science Research.
Such political mobilisation at religious gatherings in Madhya Pradesh is unusual, but a more familiar scene in Punjab and Haryana’s deras or Karnataka’s maths. “I don’t think it will significantly impact the elections here,” Sisodia added.
Unable to capture the attention of these spiritual figures, the Congress has adopted a micro-level approach by seeking the support of temple priests.
Unlike in Karnataka, where the party focused on local issues and promised to ban the Bajrang Dal, its strategy in Madhya Pradesh differs. It aims to attract Hindu voters by relying on the influence of priests. Kamal Nath, prominently featured in WhatsApp forwards, is seen with a large vermillion teeka (a religious mark) on his forehead, appealing to the Hindu electorate.
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Many ways of wooing priests
To win over the priests before the election in November, the Congress established a Pujari Prakoshth (priest cell) in July-August 2022. Its objective is to mobilise priests and start a movement to assert their ownership rights over temple land.
However, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems unfazed by the Congress’ outreach to priests. Lokendra Parashar, BJP’s media in-charge in Madhya Pradesh, dismissed the Congress’ efforts as “a soft Hindutva approach”. “Let them have their fun now until we get into the game,” he said.
Sudheer Bharti, the vice-president of the priest cell, shared that there are multiple WhatsApp groups with up to 300 priests in each district, all connected with the Congress. “We have separate groups for each district and groups for priests in various tehsils. The cell’s workers serve as group administrators and maintain regular contact with the priests,” he told ThePrint.
While members of the cell didn’t disclose the exact number of priests connected with the Congress, they are playing an essential role in the Congress’ Hindutva outreach. The party conducted a dharam sansad (religious assembly) in Bhopal earlier this year, which was attended by 1,600 priests.
During the sansad, the Congress promised to resolve the priests’ struggle for land ownership and eliminate government control over temples if elected to power.
The Congress acknowledges that winning the support of kathavachaks (religious narrators) is unlikely. Therefore, the party has taken on the role of becoming the voice of the priests, who hold significant influence in almost all villages in Madhya Pradesh. Bharti emphasised that each priest influences at least 60 votes in a village. “Their support can ensure tremendous success for the Congress if they speak favourably about the party and highlight the evils of the BJP.”
However, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan somewhat countered the Congress’ efforts by announcing on Parshuram Jayanti, in the presence of Dhirendra Shastri in Bhopal, that priests with more than 10 acres of land would have the right to auction it, removing the authority of district magistrates. Media reports suggest that this decision effectively puts an end to government ownership of temple land. But Bharti disagrees. “The Chief Minister never said temple land will be free of government control,” he argued. “The priests don’t want to sell temple lands, but merely seek recognition of their names on temples that have been maintained by their families for generations,” he said.
Reportedly, the Madhya Pradesh government currently has jurisdiction over 1,320 temples.
The party is also planning a dharam yatra (religious procession) in the state along the lines of Bharat Jodo Yatra. This yatra, sources say, will be followed up by dharam chaupals (religious gatherings) in every village before the election in November.
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All about temple ownership
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 revenue records of temples, limiting their role to caretakers. While priests were allowed to cultivate the lands, they were prohibited from selling them. District Magistrates were instructed to maintain a separate list specifically for recording the priests of temples. The circular stated 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 the District Magistrate.
The priests of the state, under the Pujari Welfare Committee, took the government to court over this matter. In 2016, the Madhya Pradesh High Court ruled in favour of the priests, granting them ownership of the land. However, this ruling was overturned by the Supreme Court in September 2021, upholding the legality of the previous circulars and stating that the temple land belongs to the deities.
This decision has frustrated the priests, as it not only restricts their ability to sell the land they possess but also prevents them from accessing agricultural welfare schemes such as Kisan Credit Cards, fertiliser subsidies, or loan waivers. “We’re unable to avail benefits of any welfare schemes meant for farmers,” said Gopal Chand, the head priest of Devnarayan temple in Shajapur.
The priests’ struggle to claim ownership of land has been long and challenging. Some priests carry newspaper clippings of promises made by governments, usually buried within two-column stories tucked away in the inside pages. “I trust the Congress, but 90 per cent. I have 10% doubt,” a senior priest said.
Meanwhile, Sisodia maintains that the priest vote is not a game-changer since priests, as a group, do not constitute a significant influential voting base.
Can Congress win?
The group of priests led by Sudheer Bharti feels betrayed by the BJP government. “The BJP has only been playing with our emotions. We’ve been fighting for our land for years but nobody is listening to us,” said Premraj Bera, a priest from Bhiwana temple.
But the Hindutva sentiment rides high among the priests. “The land issue will be resolved,” said Om Prakash Sharma, 70-year-old priest of Gyaneshwar temple, 20 km from Shajapur district headquarters. “Muslims pose the real danger,” he said.
But Sudheer is persistent, “Did you not hear the Chief Minister? They’re going to bring committees to your temple too!” he tells the priest, referring to CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s 23 April speech in the presence of Dhirendra Shastri, where he promised that the auction of temple land would be overseen by the priests.
“This doesn’t mean ownership of land. This is the CM giving us a knife and saying ‘go harm yourself’,” Sudheer told ThePrint.
The old priest, however, does not find Sudheer’s argument convincing. “My vote is going to Chouhan,” he said.
(Edited by Prashant)