The chariot of the Sri Lakshmi Narasimha Swami Temple in Antarvedi on fire, September 6, 2020
A FIRE THAT ENGULFED a temple chariot in coastal Andhra Pradesh last month continues to send up smoke and heat into the political arena. It has become the burning centre of a controversy to label Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy’s government anti-Hindu—a narrative contrivance based on his faith, into which stray acts of theft and vandalism at temples across the state have seemingly been retrofitted. The blaze that gutted the 62-year-old chariot of the Sri Lakshmi Narasimha Swami temple in Antarvedi, a beautiful site where a tributary of the Godavari meets the Bay of Bengal, in the early hours of September 6th, was a dangerous one, licking at the very fabric of society and threatening its communal harmony. In the absence of any CCTV footage, it raised a host of questions about possible motives, the lack of security at houses of worship, and the political repercussions of the incident. The BJP, its alliance partner in the state Jana Sena, and the TDP, each condemned the “attack on Hindus”, berating the government for the deteriorating law and order situation and the targeting of temples in particular. The very next day, Andhra Pradesh Endowments Minister Velampalli Srinivasa Rao warned of “a malicious propaganda being run on social media platforms” and “political conspiracies against this government that something is happening to Hindus”. There were several stakeholders to the issue: it could give the BJP, which polled less than 1 per cent votes in the state in the 2019 Assembly elections, a plank from which to dive into the Hindu vote bank that stood split between the TDP and the YSRCP. It also presented the TDP with an opportunity to bash the government in pellucid terms while signalling to the NDA, which it had exited two years ago, that they were on the same side.
Exactly a month after the Antarvedi fire, on October 6th, in a virtual meeting with party leaders, TDP President and former Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu once again drew attention to the government’s egregious response to “attacks on Hindu temples in Andhra Pradesh.” He cited the vandalism of a Lakshminarasimha idol and an Anjaneya idol in Kurnool district, and a Saraswati idol in Narasaraopet, stopping short of implying that they had been reduced to lesser gods under the new regime in Andhra Pradesh. The TDP’s social media posts about a defaced Saraswati idol have, however, since been shown to have been fake, with the owner of the site in Narasaraopet clarifying in a video that the idol was among the structures that was accidentally damaged during a demolition drive two years ago.
To be sure, like the wooden chariot of Antarvedi, which lay uncovered amid dried palm fronds, out of sight of the main temple, the issue of vandalism at places of worship is a veritable tinderbox that has been left unattended. There have been 29 cases of theft, attempted theft and vandalism at temples in the state in the past month alone, taking the tally for the year 2020 to 275. According to the state police, this is not out of the ordinary: there were 305 cases in 2019, 267 in 2018, 318 in 2017 and 322 in 2016. While such cases rarely made headlines during TDP rule, the YSRCP government has been forced to defend itself by defending the temples against miscreants. The Antarvedi incident is perhaps the first case in the Telugu state of a temple matter being referred to the CBI for investigation. The state police have made arrests in 22 of the 29 other cases in temples in the past month, and rounded up a large number of people with a record of involvement in idol thefts in the past. “We see no pattern indicative of an organised attack. These are crimes in the nature of property offences,” Director General of Police Damodar Goutam Sawang told Open. “Andhra Pradesh has been relatively free of communal schism. We don’t have an active existing communal divide or tension, and I’m glad to say, even with the spotlight on the temple incidents, this hasn’t changed,” he adds.
The state police have made temple offences a priority, Sawang says. Over the past month, the police have mapped over 55,000 places of worship across the state—over 34,000 of these are temples—and found that only 4,698 of them had CCTV cameras. Over 4,000 cameras have since been added, village watch-and-guard teams formed, fire safety advisories issued, and security audits undertaken at major temples. “All major temples are already well protected and we are in the process of upgrading the security infrastructure in the 25,000 temples under the endowments ministry,” says M Girija Shankar, State Endowments Secretary. During one such audit at the Kanaka Durga temple in Vijayawada, it came to light that three silver lions had been missing from the chariot. “In the course of this crackdown on crimes in temples, we have detected 75 offences that went unnoticed in the past,” Sawang says. “We have rounded up 973 of the 1,093 modus-operandi offenders who we know have been involved in temple crimes before. We have also caught many inter-state gangs, such as the eight-member group from Karnataka responsible for vandalising the Nandi idol in the Abhaya Anjaneya Swamy temple at Agaramangalam village in Nellore.” Police solved the case within 72 hours. But the worst may not yet be over. “With the Covid-19 spread slowing, we expect a rise in petty crime in general,” Sawang says. Not all perpetrators in the recent temple crimes were criminal gangs. A theft at a small temple in Nandyal early this month involved two minor girls from a marginalised community who had made off with a sum of Rs 30,000 from the hundi.
The blaze that gutted the 62-year-old chariot of the Sri Lakshmi Narasimha Swami temple in Antarvedi in the early hours of September 6th was a dangerous one, licking at the very fabric of society and threatening its communal harmony
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“We are not saying the YSRCP is behind the attacks, but if the Chief Minister truly belongs to both Hindus and Christians, why hasn’t he issued a statement condemning the incidents?” asks Yanamala Ramakrishnudu, a TDP Politburo member from East Godavari district, over a phone call. “Why does the government have to cite similar incidents in the past as justification for its silence now?” Police action is not enough to assuage the sentiments of the people, he adds, alluding to Minister for Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs Kodali Venkateswara Rao’s insensitive remarks referring to idols and chariots as expendables. Is the TDP, then, identifying with the Hindu cause for political expediency? Ramakrishnudu denies that the party is adopting a Hindutva line. “We have been a secular party right from our inception. That won’t change because we are speaking up about temples that are at threat. Other parties may believe in one nation-one religion; we don’t. We continue to oppose the BJP on several issues, such as the farm Bills.”
MEANWHILE, THE PONTOON bridge between the YSRCP and the BJP leadership at the Centre is sagging under the weight of layers of compromises and expectations. Jagan Mohan Reddy’s recent visit to Delhi and his party’s support to the farm reform Bills, have triggered speculation about his party’s induction into the NDA, which has witnessed an exodus of allies, but this would affect his popularity among the SCs, STs and Christians in Andhra Pradesh. Senior YSRCP leader and Urban Development Minister Botsa Satyanarayana laughs it off. “We only lend issue-based support to the BJP. The CM met Mr Modi mainly to discuss the funds the Centre owes the state towards the completion of projects like Polavaram,” he says. Blowing up the temple issue, he says, is the TDP’s way of staying relevant. “Many of the temples where the incidents occurred were small, private shrines [a third of the temples targeted in September, according to the endowments ministry] that didn’t come under the endowments ministry—they were soft targets. This will backfire on the TDP. Chandrababu Naidu has wrongly accused YS Rajasekhara Reddy in the past of promoting evangelism in the Tirumala hills and reducing the TTD’s [Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams] jurisdiction, when in fact, YSR was the one who passed an ordinance prohibiting any evangelical activities in the sacred hills.”
“The TDP should know that it cannot gain politically by co-opting someone else’s cause,” political analyst K Nageshwar says. “Just like neither the TDP nor the Congress gained from supporting Telangana’s cause, the credit for trying to engineer a communal divide would only go to the BJP.” Political observers say that the BJP and the YSRCP, while appearing to keep each other in check, have vitiated the atmosphere and created a perception that the government will not act against communal elements in society. “If you look at who stands to gain from a communal split, it becomes clear that the temple issue is a YSRCP-BJP conspiracy to diminish the TDP,” says a Jana Sena leader on condition of anonymity. “The TDP is being forced to react.”
TDP president N Chandrababu Naidu cited the vandalism of a Lakshminarasimha idol and an Anjaneya idol in Kurnool district, and a Saraswati idol in Narasaraopet, stopping short of implying that they had been reduced to lesser gods under the new regime in Andhra Pradesh
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The TDP, which oversaw the destruction of many shrines to build roads, does not have the credibility to take up this issue, says Minister for Tourism and Culture Muttamsetti Srinivasa Rao (aka Avanti Srinivas). “We run a welfare state. That means welfare for all. Thanks to our government’s schemes for BPL families, farmers and the unemployed, people won’t be easily swayed by Opposition propaganda.”
Sanchaita Gajapati Raju, the chairperson of the Simhachalam temple and MANSAS Trusts, says the TDP is using the issue as a smokescreen to cover up the mismanagement of temples during its term. “The previous government had not applied for funds under the Centre’s Pilgrimage Rejuvenation and Spiritual Augmentation Drive (PRASAD) scheme to rejuvenate temples. I have now got it for Simhachalam after requesting the Union Tourism Minister. There are several acts of omission and commission by the previous regime and its appointees that have left the temples in a mess. Land records have not been registered, asset registers not updated for years, and contracts awarded to those who are not even registered with the Registrar of Companies,” says Raju, who took over the reins from her estranged uncle Ashok Gajapathi Raju, a TDP leader and former Union Minister, early this year. “Temples, including Simhachalam and Tirupati, have now commissioned independent audits. The jury will soon be out on the TDP’s pro-Hindu rhetoric,” she says. The Simhachalam temple, she says, is in the process of bringing out a white paper that will shed light on shocking irregularities in administration.
Temples must look out for themselves, says K Shiva Kumar, who is on the TTD Board, echoing BJP Rajya Sabha MP Subramanian Swamy’s petition before the Andhra Pradesh High Court to liberate houses of worship from government control. “Plans are afoot to form a federation of temples across India that can speak up for the interests of temples and devotees,” says Kumar, a cow protection activist based in Hyderabad. “How can you accuse a chief minister who has taken the decision to allow the CAG to audit the TTD’s accounts—for the first time in history? We have nothing to hide, not from the people, not from the Lord.”
As per the general rules of the TTD, only Hindus may worship at Tirumala, and non-Hindus may do so upon signing a declaration of one’s religion. Jagan Mohan Reddy has yet to sign it since he came to power, providing more grist for the Opposition mill. “It is not for lack of reverence to the deity. It is because he feels a connection to the temple. He does not think of himself as an outsider,” says Botsa Satyanarayana.
Stripped down to platitudes, the Opposition, according to YSRCP leaders, is counting on the imminence of a crack along religious lines. The truth, meanwhile, remains as elusive as the culprits in the as-yet-unsolved cases of vandalism in the state.