Hyderabad: Andhra Pradesh’s key opposition parties, Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam and the Bharatiya Janata Party, have been fighting separately for the same cause over the past few weeks — to “save Hindu temples from attacks” occurring under Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy’s watch.
There have been at least five incidents of ransacking and vandalisation of idols in Andhra’s temples, starting with the mysterious burning of a 62-year-old chariot near the famous Sri Lakshmi Narasimha Swamy temple at Antarvedi in East Godavari district early this month.
Days later, an idol was vandalised at the Sai Baba temple in Nidamanuru village, Krishna district, followed by a theft in Vijayawada’s Kanaka Durga temple, where “three silver lions of sacred Radha” were reported to be missing. Cases have been registered and investigations are on.
The latest incident took place last Wednesday when Jagan visited the Tirumala temple in Tirupati, for the nine-day annual Brahmotsavam festival, following the tradition that Andhra CMs be part of it. The opposition parties insisted that Jagan, a Christian, should sign a faith declaration form, and also that he should have gone with his family and presented silk garments at the Brahmotsavams.
This drew a response from cabinet minister Kodali Venkateshwara Rao, who asked if families had accompanied PM Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath for the Ram Janmabhoomi temple bhoomi pujan in Ayodhya last month.
This has further escalated the situation, with the BJP demanding the minister’s removal, in addition to putting pressure on Jagan on temple ransacking and vandalism.
Attacks on temples
The chariot-burning incident at Antarvedi on 6 September caused a massive row, with several religious leaders, activists and seers alleging that there could be a conspiracy behind this attack.
The next day, hundreds of activists from the Bajrang Dal, Vishva Hindu Parishad, Haindava Sakthi, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh etc gathered on the temple premises and also tried to gherao Endowments Minister Vellampalli Srinivas, who was inspecting the spot.
Both the state BJP and actor-turned-politician Pawan Kalyan’s Jana Sena Party called an 11-hour hunger strike demanding a probe into the incident. Naidu’s TDP too called a week-long protest a few days later, pointing out that Jagan’s YSR Congress government is not treating all religions “equally”.
After much clamour, the Andhra Pradesh government asked for a CBI inquiry into the incident.
But incidents continued to occur at other temples, keeping the heat on the YSRCP government.
Incidents at temples are not unheard of in Andhra Pradesh — state police records accessed by ThePrint show there have been 237 this year, related to ornament thefts (about 90 per cent of cases), idol thefts and others. There were 218 such incidents between June and December last year, 324 in all of 2017, and 367 in 2016.
But Andhra Pradesh BJP president Somu Veerraju alleged: “Ever since Y.S. Jagan came to power (in 2019), there have been attacks on various temples, leading to anguish among Hindus.”
Veerraju told ThePrint: “Our core agenda is Hindutva and if someone is trying to hurt the Hindu sentiments, we will raise a voice, as we have done in the past. How is this communal politics? In fact, YSRCP and TDP try to appease certain communities for their vote bank politics and give them reservations and financial help.”
Jagan’s Tirupati visit
CM Jagan’s visit to the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD) for the Brahmotsavams intensified the opposition’s attack on him on the issue of religion — though this time, the TDP took the lead. It insisted Jagan should sign a faith declaration form, according to rule 136 and 137 of the TTD, wherein ‘non-Hindus’ must declare their faith in Lord Venkateswara, and only Hindus would be allowed to worship and enter the temple. The rules have been in effect for decades.
However, this was not Jagan’s first visit to the temple. Just last year, he visited twice — once with PM Narendra Modi in June and once for the Brahmotsavams. And according to former TTD executive officer L.V. Subramanyam, Jagan had signed a declaration form in 2009.
There were also comments that Jagan should have been accompanied by his family or wife Y.S. Bharati, and offered silk garments at the festival, according to tradition. But Andhra cabinet minister Kodali Venkateshwara Rao ended up dragging in PM Modi and UP CM Yogi’s visit to Ayodhya to rebut these comments, leading to even louder protests from the BJP and demands to dismiss him.
Attempt to make religious politics a centre-point
This is not the first time Jagan has been at the centre of religion-based politics. Since he came to power, opposition parties have alleged that conversions to Christianity have been on the rise.
However, analysts say the temple attacks are now being exaggerated to suit the political scenario.
“Jagan brings in Christianity and cases (disproportionate assets cases against him). There have been such incidents in the past also and under the previous chief ministers’ regimes, but now, there is an exaggeration by the opposition parties,” political analyst Telakapalli Ravi told ThePrint. “Both the BJP and the TDP are playing a futile game trying to make communal politics a central point in Andhra Pradesh.”
Ravi said a disturbing atmosphere was being created. “Andhra Pradesh always had caste politics, but not religious/communal politics. It’s a secular place. These recent issues will not make much of an impact on the political scenario or the people of the state, but they definitely do create quite a disturbing atmosphere,” he said.
However, the senior analyst added it is important for the state government and the ruling YSRCP to deal with the temple issue very carefully. He pointed out that policy-wise, all three parties have similar positions, which is why there is not much of an outcry over administrative decisions.
Senior journalist and analyst Vasireddy Srinivas said it was unusual to see so many attacks on temples in so short a time, but concurred that “if there’s a conspiracy behind this as the opposition is alleging, the government should deal with it very responsibly and order a proper inquiry”.
He also said this was the BJP’s attempt at increasing its visibility. “The BJP’s visibility in Andhra had become almost zero in the last few months, so all these incidents are a way of being in the frame. After taking a U-turn on the Amaravati issue and being silent on special status for the state, the party went big on this temple issue. The issue also becomes bigger and more sensitive because Jagan is a devout Christian,” Srinivas said.
Although the BJP and the TDP, former allies, have never openly been in this fight together, their focus on issues of debate against the YSRCP government remains the same.
According to the analysts, Naidu’s TDP could just be taking advantage of the situation and tagging along with the BJP for political mileage.
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