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Vindicated, say Uttarakhand priests as state govt decides to repeal Char Dham Board Act

Officials say the Centre’s repeal of the farm laws helped the state muster the strength to withdraw the board law.

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Dehradun: A day after Parliament passed the Bill repealing the three contentious farm laws, the Uttarakhand government announced that the Char Dham Devasthanam Board would be dissolved. This umbrella body was constituted under Char Dham Devasthanam Management Act, 2019 — which will now be repealed —  to manage the activities of the Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunotri and Gangotri shrines and temples affiliated to them. The board has been dogged by controversy from the beginning due to the priests (tirth purohits) of these shrines agitating against it.

Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami made the announcement after receiving a high-level committee’s report Monday evening. The priests welcomed the move and said they had called off the agitation, which had become an electoral issue for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the state. The priests, who believed they would lose their rights to temple properties under the board, had threatened to throw their weight behind alternative candidates. 

Dhami tweeted, “The government has decided to take back the Devasthanam Board Act keeping in view peoples’ sentiments, rights of the tirth purohits and those related to Char Dham, based on the Manohar Kant Dhyani Committee Report.” 

Senior state officials said the Centre’s decision to withdraw the farm laws had helped Uttarakhand muster the strength to repeal the board law.

The state government had formed the committee, led by former Rajya Sabha MP and senior BJP leader Manohar Kant Dhyani, in August. It presented its report to a subcommittee of the state cabinet led by Uttarakhand tourism and culture minister Satpal Maharaj two days ago. Maharaj submitted the report to the chief minister Monday evening.

Speaking to ThePrint, Maharaj said the decision was taken after a “thorough study” of the 89-page report. “Although much cannot be revealed about the report, it was done in the interest of the agitating tirth purohits,” he said. A repeal Bill will soon be introduced in the assembly, and this “will lead to the dissolution of the Devasthanam Board,” he added. 

Also read: What is Uttarakhand’s Char Dham board, and why angry priests want it abolished

Long-running agitation

The BJP government, led by then chief minister Trivendra Singh Rawat, enacted the law in December 2019 and notified it on 15 January 2020. The priests of the Char Dham pilgrimage sites — Gangotri, Yamunotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath — which were to come under the board, soon launched an agitation.

The protesting priests alleged that under the board’s jurisdiction, they would lose their rights to hold the shrines’ properties, and authorities would evict them from land and guesthouses. They also said the board would infringe on their rights to hold religious functions within the Char Dham shrines and temple areas.

The priests threatened to make it an issue in the 2022 state Assembly elections, saying they would support non-BJP candidates or field their own nominees. Worried over the persistent agitation and threats. Trivendra Singh Rawat’s successor, Tirath Singh Rawat — whose government would last just two months —  had announced that the law would be reviewed.

Under the next chief minister, Dhami, the government constituted the Dhyani committee in August to sort out vexing issues in the law. However, according to government officials, the committee has instead categorically recommended that the law be repealed.

The BJP was also under pressure from another flank, as former chief minister and Congress leader Harish Rawat had announced that his party would dissolve the board if voted to power in 2022.

Also read: Why Uttarakhand Congress is fuming at BJP govt award to former CM N.D. Tiwari

Priests call off agitation

The agitating priests have expressed their happiness at the chief minister’s announcement, but said they would be relieved only after the decision was formalised in the assembly. 

K.K. Kotiyal, chairman of the Char Dham Tirth Purohit Hak Hakook Dhari Mahapanchayat, an organisation that led the agitation, said he welcomed the decision and thanked the chief minister, and that their protest “stands vindicated.”

He added, “It was a struggle for truth, and the government has now joined us in this. The government has realised the gravity of the cause of the agitating tirth purohits. This would have been detrimental for the entire community of priests of the Char Dham shrines.”

Vinod Shukla, president of the Kedarnath Tirth Purohit Mahasabha, a body of the shrine’s priests, and a Dhyani Committee member, said, “Although there has been no official communication from the government, we have been called by the chief minister’s office on this matter. We have called off the protests for now, but will wait till the decision to repeal the board is enacted in the House. We will have an official celebration only after the law is made.”

The Devasthanam Board

The 29-member Devasthanam Board came into being on 15 January 2020. According to the Act, “Char Dham Devasthanam Board is the highest for the purpose of Devasthanam or temples’ management with the power to frame policies, make decisions to give effect to the provisions of the Act, budget formulation, sanction of expenditure, planning and management of the temple areas.” The Act authorised the board to fix and disburse honoraria, pay and allowances for the priests it employed.   

This high-profile umbrella religious body has the chief minister as its chairman and state culture and religious affairs minister as vice-chairman. The other members comprise seven bureaucrats, including the state’s chief secretary and heads of the concerned departments, as well as nominees from different sections of the Hindu community. At present, the board has 53 temples besides the four Char Dham shrines under its purview, and disburses monthly payments and other honoraria to the priests of these temples.

(Edited by Rohan Manoj)

Also read: Uttarakhand priests say won’t let PM land in Kedarnath if Char Dham Board not abolished


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