Mainstream

Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2010 > Pashupatinath Temple Row: Indian Priest versus Nepali Priest

Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 31, July 24, 2010

Pashupatinath Temple Row: Indian Priest versus Nepali Priest

Sunday 25 July 2010, by Kriti Singh

The year 2009 witnessed a series of high level political drama in the nascent republic of Nepal. However, one such event, which created a lot of commotion not only in Kathmandu but also in New Delhi, was the Pashupatinath Temple priest row. With its astonishing architectural beauty, the Pashupatinath Temple stands as a symbol of faith, religion, culture and tradition. Regarded as the most sacred temple of the Hindu Lord, Shiva, in the world, the Pashupatinath Temple’s existence dates back to 400 AD.1 Not only is it the holiest Hindu pilgrimage in Nepal but also one of the holiest destinations in the entire world.

The year 2009 began with the ongoing strife over the appointment of the Pashupatinath priests. The chief priest, Mahabaleshwar Bhatt, and two others resigned under Maoist pressure and the then government of Maoist Premier Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ appointed Nepali priests for the first time in the history of the temple. Angry protests were held against the Maoist Government’s decision. Aggression and public antagonism continued to escalate over the ruling Maoist party’s interference in Nepal’s revered Pashupatinath Temple. The 17th century temple and its surroundings were declared prohibited areas where rallies, demonstrations and press conferences were banned. Nepal’s major parties joined the chorus of denunciation putting greater pressure on PM Prachanda to strike an assuaging tone. On January 6, 2009, the battle for control of Nepal’s revered Pashupatinath Temple reached the republic’s Apex Court with the pro-Nepali lobby crossing legal swords with the pro-Indian group.2 In the backdrop of the violence, Nepal’s deposed King Gyanendra urged an end to this row and appealed to the government not to introduce partisan politics into Pashupatinath.

Amidst growing pressure both at home and from Indian leaders to respect the Court order and defuse the row, PM Prachanda tried to play down the controversy and restore the status quo. He later on reinstated the Indian priests on a temporary basis. Meanwhile, the Maoist Government announced its intention to undertake a nationwide yatra to maintain religious harmony and defuse the Pashupatinath row. But after a brief lull, the Maoists geared up to wage a new battle and defy a ruling by the Supreme Court (SC), which ordered the Maoist Government not to tamper with the organisation till it delivers its verdict. In May 2009, the SC stayed the government regulation aimed at ending the 300-year-old monopoly of Indian priests at the Pashupatinath Temple.3

With the fall of the Maoist Government, the new ruling coalition formed a three-member team to select new priests from India. In August, Pashupatinath braced for a new storm when a fresh revolt surfaced. The temple faced a new unrest when Bishnu Dahal, the first Nepali chief priest of Pashupatinath, crossed swords with the new government. The decision to revert to Indian priests angered the ousted Dahal, whose Jayatu Sanskritam Mahasabha organisation, supported by another body, the Sanskiritik Nawajagaran Andolan, declared a new protest movement. The movement was supported by the Maoists.

In September 2009, the tension escalated, with violence erupting in the capital over the new government’s decision to appoint Indian priests. The Pashupatinath Temple row took an ugly turn when two newly appointed Indian priests, Raghavendra Bhatta and Girish Bhatta, were assaulted and paraded naked by a mob at Pashupatinath. Reacting strongly to the assault, Indian Ambassador Rakesh Sood took up the matter in Kathmandu with Nepal’s Home Minister Bhim Bahadur Rawal and Culture Minister Sarat Singh Bhandari, who assured him that steps will be taken to ensure the safety of the priests. Nepal “regretted” the attack on the Indian priest by the Maoists. However, the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) denied its involvement in the attack. Later on unfazed by the attack on them, the priests performed the daily rituals at the temple, where the Indian Ambassador and Nepal’s Cultural Minister were also present. Meanwhile, police arrested 30 protesters from the Pashupatinath area after PM Madhav Kumar Nepal himself pledged tough action against the attackers. Later on the temple was opened to the general public and Maoists continued to protest over the appointment of Indian priests.

Major Trends

THE ugly incident highlighted the blurring of boundaries between religion and nationalism. The centuries-old religious practice based on sharing was brought under fire and sought to be labelled as Indian expansionism. In India, Nepali priests are appointed at the shrines of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Kashi and several temples in Karnataka. Whereas in Nepal, Indian priests perform this duty at the Pashupatinath Temple. Religion was again used as tool to instigate people and provoke violence. The uncivilised and barbaric attack was an attempt to mar the age-old harmonious relations between India and Nepal. It was a deliberate anti-Indian move by the then ruling Maoist Government, in the garb of religion. It was an open interference of politics in a religious matter, putting a question-mark on the secularity of the government and freedom of religious exercise in Nepal. The ruling Maoist Government used this incident as an assertion of Nepali nationalism against India’s cultural domination. The incident also brought into light an attempt by the Maoists to build support for indigenising Nepal’s Hindu traditions. Moreover in future, given a favourable moment, the Maoists will try to reignite this issue. It was an attempt from the Maoist side to trudge out traditional historic practices which, according to the radical Red, amounted to Nepal’s cultural subservience to India. Another trend that was noticed was the participation of the Young Communist League (YCL). The YCL has again emerged as a crucial front organisation for the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-Maoist).

This brings us to the another dimension of this event to find out what exactly sustained this conflict. To get the answer one has to go further deep into the past to explore the relationship between religion and politics. After close observation, one may discover that religion and politics are inextricably blended and history has stored within itself many examples of how people have exploited religion to reap political harvest or to instil venom to segregate the masses. The Pashupatinath Temple affray is one such example where religion was politicised to fulfil political aspirations. The entire event was backed by different groups with different ideologies and motivations which helped this broil to persist for most of the year. The groups can be divided into two, one the pro-Nepali priest group and the other the pro-Indian priest group.

Starting with the pro-Nepali priest group, it was aided by then ruling Maoist Government and later the Maoists out of power to fuel antagonism between the people in the name of religion. Maoists used this event as a platform to fan anti-Indian sentiments in the Nepali people alongside affirmation of Nepali patriotism against the so-called Indian cultural domination. The second faction which supported it was the Pashupati Temple Sangharsha Samiti (PTSS), which invoked arguments of national pride and cultural sovereignty to demand that Nepali priests succeed the Indians.4 The third faction in this group was the Struggle Committee which wanted the Nepali priests to be appointed in the temple. Rishi Prasad Sharma, the coordinator of the Struggle Committee, was very vocal about his views that any appointment of Indian priest will lead to revolt. They also handed over a memorandum to Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal warning against recruiting Indian priests. The Struggle Committee consists of the former member-secretary of the PADT appointed by the Maoist-led government and other Maoist supporters.5

The fourth faction was led by Bishnu Dahal, who made history when Nepal’s first Maoist Government had appointed him as the chief priest at the Pashupatinath temple after the reigning Indian priest, Mahabaleshwor Bhatt, was forced to resign due to political pressure. The decision to revert to Indian priests angered the ousted Dahal, whose Jayatu Sanskritam Mahasabha organisation, supported by another body, the Sanskiritik Nawajagaran Andolan, initiated a new protest movement.6 The fifth pro-Nepal priest group comprised the cadres of the Young Communist League (YCL), which is the youth wing of Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). These cadres, along with the Maoists, stormed into the temple and broke the lock of the southern gate of the temple and also vandalised and thrashed the Bhandaris.

Now let us come to the pro-Indian priest group. The first pro-India group was the main Opposition party when the Maoists were ruling. The Opposition party accused the Maoists of hurting “the religious sentiments” of the Hindus in the country. The Nepali Congress, the second largest party in the country, raised serious objections to the Maoist-led government’s move to remove the Indian priests. In addition to this, Parliament members of the ruling alliance Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) (CPN-UML) expressed their solidarity with the agitation. The second group in this section was the Pashupati Area Development Trust (PADT), which is responsible for the appointment of priests. As per the rule, the main priest or the mul bhatta recommends the priests’ names to the PADT, which forwards it to the Prime Minister. The PADT, appointed Raghavendra Bhatta and Girish Bhatta to the two vacant priestly posts, and they were later targeted by the Maoists.

The third group is the locals and Bhandaris, the aides of the priests, who were demanding reinstatement of the South Indian ‘Bhatta’ brahmins who had overseen traditional rituals at the temple for the past 300 years. In a bid to get their voices heard they even launched an agitation, after which Pashupati was declared a “riot area”. During the entire event, this group bore the brunt of Maoist attacks. The fourth group in this section comprised the civil society members and local residents who staged rallies despite the ban asking the Maoist Government not to interfere in religion.

To summarise, the Pashupatinath Temple conflict was a depressing exposition of how religion and politics can get entrangled to create a tug-of-war situation between Indian and Nepali religious entities who have been living in tranquillity for centuries. Not only was the conflict an attempt to generate anti-Indian feelings but, as media reports indicated, it was the Maoists’ plan to supplant India with China to further their own political interest.7 The Maoists are also stoking anti-India sentiments in Nepal so that China can step in and take advantage of the situation.8 The sad event again reflected on how the political parties can exploit religious sentiments of the people for their own selfish ends.

REFERENCES

1. Pashupatinath Temple, The Holiest Hindu Temple, http://nepal.saarctourism.org/pashupatinath-temple.html

2. ‘Battle over Pashupatinath begins in Nepal’s court’, Thaindia, http://www.thaindian.com/newsportal/uncate-gorized/battle-over-pashupatinath-begins-in-nepals-court_100138968.html

4. ‘Red Is Their Colour Too’, Outlookindia.com, September 21, 2009, Manoj Dahal, http://www.outlookindia. com/article.aspx?261784

5. ‘Nepal Government warned on recruiting Indian priests’, Prerana Marasini, The Hindu.http://www.thehindu.com/2009/09/04/stories/2009090456001300.htm

6. ‘Pashupatinath braces for new storm’, Thaindian.com, http://www.thaindian.com/newsportal/politics/pashupatinath-braces-for-new-storm_100233182.html

7. ‘Pro-China Maoists attacked Indian priests?’, Times of India, September 6, 2009, http://timesofindia.indiatimes. com/india/Pro-China-Maoists-attacked-Indian-priests/articleshow/4978253.cms

8. Ibid., ‘Pro-China Maoists attacked Indian priests?’

The author is a Research Officer, Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.

Notice: The print edition of Mainstream Weekly is now discontinued & only an online edition is appearing. No subscriptions are being accepted