At a time when religious identity has become a potential political weapon, a major controversy has broken out in Andhra Pradesh over an age-old convention regarding the entry of non-Hindus into the Tirumala temple, the country’s richest shrine.
As per an old custom, which is generally ignored in practice, non-Hindu visitors must sign a declaration form expressing their faith in the presiding deity, Lord Venkateshwara. This is part of the rules governing the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD), the autonomous board that manage the affairs of the hill shrine.
In 2014, the Union government had issued a memo stating that anyone identified as a non-Hindu, based on his/her name or surname, can be asked by TTD authorities to make such a declaration.
The recent visit of the state’s chief minister, YS Jagan Mohan Reddy, a Protestant Christian, to the temple without signing the mandatory declaration triggered protests by opposition Telugu Desam Party (TDP), BJP, Congress and some Hindu groups.
Wearing traditional attire of a Hindu devotee and sporting ‘Thiru Namam’ (the Vaishnavite style of tilak on the forehead), Jagan had visited the shrine on Wednesday, coinciding the annual ‘Brahmotsavam’ celebrations. He was accorded traditional welcome by the priests.
Amid chanting of Vedic hymns, Jagan carried silk clothes on his head to present them to the Lord on behalf of the state government, as per the custom.
He brushed aside the decades-old tradition of signing the declaration form meant for non-Hindus. In fact, he had visited the temple several times in the past without signing such a form. And only this time, the visit kicked up a political row.
TTD chairman under scanner
The issue became controversial after TTD chairman YV Subba Reddy, maternal uncle of the chief minister, said earlier this week there was no need for Jagan to sign any declaration to prove his faith in Lord Venkateshwara.
He pointed out that it was practically impossible to collect faith declarations from pilgrims since visitors from various religions across the world come to Tirumala to have darshan. About 80,000 to 1 lakh people visit the hill shrine every day. The number crosses the one-lakh mark on special occasions and festivals.
Subba Reddy’s appointment to the post last year had triggered a row following allegations that he is a practising Christian. However, he denied the reports and affirmed that he had been a devout Hindu, though some of his close family members were Christians.
His recent remarks on the declaration form for non-Hindus triggered massive protests from Hindu groups with Bajrang Dal activists trying to lay siege to the chief minister’s residence in Hyderabad.
A tense atmosphere prevailed in Tirupati, where the police took hundreds of TDP and BJP leaders and activists into preventive custody as they planned to take out protest rallies on the occasion of the chief minister’s visit.
State TDP president Kala Venkata Rao alleged Subba Reddy indulged in a false campaign that non-Hindu visitors never gave any declaration at Tirumala in the past. He said the TTD chairman’s remarks amounted to sending a message that anybody could visit Tirumala and carry out propaganda of his own religion.
Chandrababu joins the issue
TDP president and former chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu, who normally avoids wading into issues having communal overtones, accused the chief minister of hurting the sentiments of Hindus.
“He should respect temple traditions and sign the declaration meant for non-Hindus. He should also be accompanied by his wife while offering silk vastram to the Lord,” he said.
It is a tradition for Andhra Pradesh chief ministers to visit the Tirumala temple during the Brahmotsavam festival for a special darshan and offer vastram (silk cloth) to the presiding deity on behalf of the state and its people.
“The established traditions at the Tirumala temple should not be changed for the sake of a non-believer,” he said.
The rule pertaining to the entry of non-Hindus into the temple had seen mixed compliance from VIPs. Former president APJ Abdul Kalam had voluntarily signed the declaration form during his visit to the shrine when he was the President.
However, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, former prime minister Manmohan Singh and former chief minister of the combined Andhra Pradesh YS Rajasekhar Reddy, a Christian, did not sign the forms during their visits to the temple.
Popular seer of Sri Peetham Swamy Paripoornananda waded into the controversy and said that Jagan should respect the feelings of the Hindus by signing the declaration.
Minister adds fuel
The ruling YSR Congress leaders rejected the demand of the opposition parties and Hindu groups. Civil supplies minister Kodali Nani added fuel to the political furore by dragging Prime Minister Narendra Modi into the debate.
“When Modi can go alone to Ayodhya temple to lay foundation stone, why should Jagan bring his wife to the Tirumala temple? BJP leaders should first advice the prime minister,” he remarked.
He also demanded that the practice of seeking declaration from non-Hindus must be done away with. The chief minister has the right to visit any place of worship, irrespective of the faith he belongs to, Nani said.
“Only those who have faith in Lord Venkateshwara come to Tirumala temple. Why should anybody declare their faith again?” he asked.
The BJP leaders fumed at the minister and demanded that Jagan should immediately sack him from the cabinet. “We should not rest till Kodali Nani is sacked from the cabinet for insulting Modi,” BJP national spokesman and MP GVL Narasimha Rao said.