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Explained: Uttarakhand’s Char Dham Board and why it is facing opposition

What was the previous arrangement? Who are protesting and why? What does the government say?

Written by Lalmani Verma | Dehradun |
April 11, 2021 10:17:44 am
A source at a leading oil PSU said that the goal behind this move was to make Badrinath Dham “economically self-sustaining”. (File Photo)

The Uttarakhand government in December 2019 had tabled the Uttarakhand Char Dham Shrine Management Bill, 2019, in the state Assembly amid protests – within and outside the Vidhan Sabha.

The bill was aimed at bringing the Char Dham of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri and 49 other temples under the purview of a proposed shrine board. The bill was passed in the Assembly and became the Uttarakhand Char Dham Devasthanam Management Act, 2019. Under the same Act, the BJP government led by then CM Trivendra Singh Rawat constituted the Uttarakhand Char Dham Devasthanam Board on January 15, 2020. The Chief Minister is the chairman whereas the minister for religious affairs is the vice-chairman of the board. Two MLAs of Gangotri and Yamunotri are members on the board along with the Chief Secretary. A senior IAS officer is the Chief Executive Officer.

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Under this board, at present there are 53 temples, including four shrines – Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri – and other temples located around these shrines. The shrine board is the highest governing body for the management of the temples with powers to frame policies, make decisions to give effect to the provisions of this Act, of budget formulation and to sanction expenditure, among others. The board may also give directions for the safe custody, prevention and management of funds, valuable securities, jewellery and properties vested in the temples.

So far, the board has met only three times under former CM Trivendra Singh Rawat and discussions were held regarding development around char dharma shrines and char dham yatra.

What was the previous arrangement?

Earlier, the Shri Badrinath-Shri Kedarnath Act, 1939 was in place for the management of two shrines – Badrinath and Kedarnath – and 45 temples by Shri Badrinath- Shri Kedarnath Mandir Samiti. The Samiti was chaired by a government appointed person whereas an official of all India service used to be the CEO. “All the decisions related to utilization of the donations, funds and development works in and around those 45 temples including Badrinath and Kedarnath were taken by that committee and the government did not intervene into it. But through the Devasthanam board, the government has taken control over the financial and policy decisions,” said Ganesh Godiyal, who was chairman of the committee from 2013 to 2018.

“Most of these provisions of this Act (Shri Badrinath-Shri Kedarnath Act, 1939) are no longer relevant in the present context. In view of this, the Uttarakhand Char Dham Shrine Management Bill, is proposed. This Bill thus will provide to be a milestone for the rejuvenation of Shri Badrinath, Shri Kedarnath, Gangotri, Yamunotri and other famous temples…,” reads the statement of objects and reasons in the Uttarakhand Char Dham Shrine Management Bill.

In Gangotri and Yamunotri, management of the shrines was earlier in the control of local trusts and the government was not getting any share from the donations made by devotees.

“When the government looks after the security and other arrangements for convenience of pilgrims, the government should have control over utilization of funds and planned development of the area. Devasthanam board gives such power to the government. The government has disturbed the rights of different stakeholders,” said a board member.

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Who are protesting and why?

The Opposition Congress had extended support to those priests and pandas who were protesting the formation of the Devasthanam board. The Congress had called the BJP government ‘dharma virodhi’. People holding different responsibilities in the Char Dham temples came under the banner of the Char Dham Mahapanchayat Hakukdhari to raise voice against the Bill. Pandas, Dimris and others who run dharmshalas and shops at the Badrinath and Kedarnath shrines staged protests in Dehradun. They alleged that with the shrine board, the government will get control of the entire area and donations. In the meeting of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) kendriya margdarshak mandal, the saints raised the issue and repeatedly demanded CM Tirath Singh Rawat, who was present at the meeting, to immediately announce abolition of board. Rawat announced to ‘review’ the board. He also said that 51 temples will be kept out of ambit of the board. However, a release from the CM office later read that the CM has assured a review on these 51 temples.

Saints and VHP leaders in the meeting said that Hindu temples should be governed by the Hindu society and the governments should not have any control over management of temples, its properties and religious systems.

The Uttarakhand High Court in July last year had dismissed a PIL filed by BJP leader and Rajya Sabha member Subramanian Swamy, challenging the constitutional validity of the Uttarakhand Char Dham Devasthanam Management Act, 2019. The petition had sought a direction to strike down the Act.

“We are satisfied, therefore, that all the Char Dham and associated temples are public temples whose secular functions can be regulated by a law made by the competent legislature,” the court said in the order.

What does the government say?

Religious affairs minister Satpal Maharaj told The Indian Express, “The public is in support of the devasthanam board because they want good services there and the government only provides these services to them. Till the date I have not received a single written objection against the Devasthanam board. During the formation of the Act, some people had spoken about their rights and traditions and the government introduced the clause protecting their rights. We are protecting the rights of teerth-purohits.” Maharaj said that rights and stakes of rawals and pandas have been safeguarded in the Act.

On the CM’s announcement about the review of the board, Maharaj said that he will meet the CM and apprise him of all the facts about the board. Maharaj said that he will also call a meeting of various stakeholders associated with the Char Dham.

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