Charred chariot and more: How communal narrative is brewing in AP

Opposition parties allege the YSRC government’s 'disdain' for Hindu temples was responsible for a string of incidents like the chariot fire, across Andhra Pradesh

Last week, the chariot had gone up in flames under mysterious circumstances | Photo: Twitter

What began as a minor incident of burning of a wooden temple chariot in the coastal Andhra town of Antarvedi is now threatening to snowball into a full-blown political war, with BJP, Pawan Kalyan-led Jana Sena, VHP and other Hindu outfits intensifying protests, sensing a larger conspiracy.

These organisations allege that the YSR Congress government’s ‘disdain’ for Hindu temples was responsible for a string of such incidents across Andhra Pradesh.

Due to mounting pressure, Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy wrote to the Union Home Ministry, seeking CBI probe into the incident that occurred last week at the popular Lakshmi Narasimha Swamy temple at Antarvedi in East Godavari district.

The police initially dismissed it as an innocuous incident, saying a mentally unsound person would have set the 40-foot chariot, parked at an unmanned shed near the temple premises, on fire.

However, with TDP, BJP and Jana Sena staging protests, Director General of Police Gautam Sawang and Endowments Minister Vellamapalli Srinivas Rao said a thorough probe would be carried out to ferret out the truth.

The chariot, made of teakwood over six decades ago, is the main attraction during the annual procession of the presiding deity in February. Last week, it had gone up in flames under mysterious circumstances.

Communal overtones

The incident did not attract local media attention until the political parties, particularly the BJP and its new ally Jana Sena, made it an emotive issue and attacked the YSR Congress government for hurting Hindu sentiments.

Over the last few days, a distinctly communal narrative is being weaved around the incident with protests and hunger strikes being held across East Godavari district. Interestingly, the key opposition players — Telugu Desam Party (TDP), BJP and Jana Sena — are on the same page when it comes to attacking the government for allegedly hurting religious sentiments of the Hindus.

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TDP supremo and former chief minister Chandrababu Naidu, who normally steers clear of religious matters, has, of late, been implicitly accusing his bete noire Jagan of hurting Hindu sentiments. The tone and tenor of his tweets on the chariot burning issue sounds similar to the BJP’s campaign.

“From charring of sacred chariots at Antarvedi & Bitragunta to idols being demolished at Pithapuram, from attacks on priests like Devarampadu incident to propagation of other religions under TTD management & illegal takeover of Simhachalam temple board – there seems to be a pattern,” he tweeted.

“These incidents have repeatedly hurt the sentiments of the devotees while an egoistic YSRCP government, driven by its lack of regard for the sanctity of temples, looked the other way. We condemn, in the strongest possible terms, and demand a CBI inquiry into all these incidents,” the former CM said in another tweet.

Political agitation

BJP state president Somu Veerraju and Jana Sena chief Pawan Kalyan stepped up personal attack on Jagan Mohan Reddy, a devout Christian, and demanded judicial inquiry into the Antarvedi incident. Following a directive from the chief minister, the DGP wrote to the Union home ministry seeking urgent permission for the CBI probe.

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“There has been malicious propaganda against the government by certain political forces in the social and mainstream media questioning the sincerity of the state police forces, though they have been going all out to unearth the conspiracy behind the chariot burning,” said a CMO release.

“Since some political parties have demanded a CBI inquiry into the incident, the CM has decided to entrust the case to the central investigating agency for a transparent inquiry,” the release added.

Temple official suspended

Antarvedi is one of the most revered Vaishnavite religious centres in Andhra Pradesh at the confluence of Godavari river and the Bay of Bengal.

The chariot burning incident triggered widespread protests from Hindu religious groups, seers of various mutts and opposition parties across the state, demanding an inquiry into the incident.

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The government has already suspended Antarvedi temple’s executive officer NS Chakradhar Rao and a couple of other temple employees for their alleged negligence. It has also transferred special chief secretary (endowments) JSV Prasad following the furore over the incident.

Popular actor Pawan Kalyan, whose Jana Sena had bombed at the ballot box office in the last year’s elections, alleged that there had been increased attacks on Hindu temples in the last one year.

Evolving narrative

When Jagan took over the reins of the state after securing a massive mandate in the April 2019 elections, there were whispers in political circles that his faith could someday become a rallying point for the opposition parties to target him and his government.

What was feared in some quarters now appears to be coming true. The opposition parties have been sharpening their attack on issues that bordered on communal overtones, be it the government’s decision to enhance financial assistance to Christian pilgrims visiting Jerusalem in Israel and other Biblical places or the chief minister’s refusal to sign a ‘declaration of faith’ when he visited Tirumala temple. The non-Hindus visiting the popular hill shrine are required to do as per the temple customs.

BJP and TDP supporters on social media further alleged that the present government was encouraging large scale religious conversions and that there had been a sharp rise in the number of church buildings in the state.

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