Updated: April 24, 2022 3:59:44 pm
On April 10, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel inaugurated the revamped Shivarinarayan temple complex as part of the Congress-led state government’s ambitious Ram Van Gaman Paryatan Paripath, a tourism circuit envisaged to map the route believed to have been traversed by Lord Ram in the present-day Chhattisgarh during his 14-year exile from Ayodhya.
The Shivarinarayan temple is the second among nine temples across the state under the first phase of this project, which are to be constructed or renovated with a cost of Rs 134 crore.
Inaugurating the renovated temple at a site associated with Shabri from the Ramayana epic, CM Baghel said, “The memories of Maryada Purushottam Lord Ram are scattered in every particle of Chhattisgarh’s soil as he had spent maximum period of his exile in Chhattisgarh…Ram is special for every person in Chhattisgarh. This project belongs to everyone, we do not have any personal interest in it, this is a people’s programme, people’s plan.”
After unveiling the revamped temple, Baghel also opened a Ramayana Interpretation Cafe, where people could study and discuss several aspects or versions of the epic.
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The culture department has also launched a Ramcharitmanas Mandali recital competition scheme under which such competitions were held for the first time in March this year from the gram panchayat to the district levels and cash prizes worth lakhs were given to the participating groups.
One of the first decisions that Baghel took after taking over as the CM in December 2018 was to launch the Ram Van Gaman tourism circuit scheme under which the renovation or construction of 75 temples at sites associated with Ram’s exile route across the state have been proposed.
To celebrate his government’s second anniversary, Baghel inaugurated a renovated temple in Chandkhuri near capital Raipur on December 17, 2020, which has the country’s only temple dedicated to Kaushalya, Ram’s mother. It was the first temple that got revamped under the Ram Van Gaman scheme. A special yatra was organised on the occasion, with two vehicles starting from the state’s north and south collecting soil from nine temple sites in various districts en route to Chandkhuri. The entire Baghel Cabinet had then gone to Chandkhuri to plant 9 rudraksh trees on soil brought from across the state.
Inaugurating the revamped Chandkhuri temple, Baghel had said, “Ram might be a political issue for many to garner votes. But Ram is embedded in our culture. In this state, Ram is bhancha (nephew), he is vanvasi; we know Gandhi’s Ram, Kabir’s Ram, Tulasi’s Ram and Shabri’s Ram. We are followers of Mahatma Gandhi, who could utter only Ram’s name as he died.”
Marking a contrast with the BJP’s ideology and approach towards Ram, the Baghel dispensation kept the colour scheme of this entire event as yellow as compared to the BJP’s saffron, even as it used a “calmer and more composed image” of Ram.
A devout follower of Lord Ram, Baghel has consistently described Ram as “bhancha” or “bhanja” in a reference to a belief that his mother Kaushalya was a princess from Kosala that encompasses the Chhattisgarh region. In the Baghel dispensation’s another Ram-centric move, State Gau Seva Commission chief Mahant Ram Sundar Das has announced a reward of Rs 11 lakh if anyone can decipher the exact birth date of Kaushalya.
Going after the principal Opposition BJP, Baghel has maintained that Ram could not be “appropriated” by anyone, seeking to wrest the Ram issue from the saffron party to gain political advantage for the Congress, with the state’s tourism and culture departments rolling out various populist schemes to back his bid. It is another matter that in the process he has drawn flak from some quarters for indulging in “soft Hindutva” politics. Some of these schemes have also seen a backlash from the tribal community, which makes up 31 per cent of the state’s population.
A section of tribals has sought to resist the state government’s moves, charging that the government was trying to “co-opt the tribal culture into Hinduism”. The first sign of such protests surfaced during the special yatra taken out ahead of the Chandkhuri temple’s inauguration. When the vehicles tried to take soil from the villages in Sukma district, the tribals there protested it. Soil, considered to be a deity in tribal customs, could not be allowed to be taken from their village limits, they said. When the officials forcibly took soil, they chased their vehicles. In Kanker, tribals sat on the road and offloaded soil taken from various tribal villages in Bastar division before letting the officials’ vehicles leave the spot.
The Adiwasi Samaj from Sukma also wrote to the Governor in March this year, complaining against the Ramayana recital competition, citing their autonomy on the issue of culture in their areas under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution. Their protest forced the event to be called off in their block.
Even Baghel’s father Nand Kumar Baghel, 86, is against the Congress government’s “pandering to politics over Ram”. The Raipur police had arrested him from Uttar Pradesh last year in a case related to his allegedly derogatory comments against the Brahmins. Senior Baghel has for years run campaigns across the state to stop the burning of Ravan’s effigy. Several villages in the tribal belt also have special rituals involving Ravan. Even the famous Bastar Dussehra in Jagdalpur is essentially about the local tribal goddess.
It is a different matter that this time in a first in Jagdalpur, Bastar district headquarter, on April 10, the Ram Navami procession saw celebrations continuing till late into the night under the banners of various orange shades, with youths dancing on the streets to the DJ-set music, loudspeakers and firecrackers.
After losing to the Congress badly in the recent Khairagarh bypoll, the BJP currently appears to be crestfallen. While the saffron party has been keeping mum on the Baghel government’s moves centred on Ram, senior BJP leaders are said to be of the view that it would play into their party’s hands and strengthen its ideological agenda. Baghel, however, clearly seems to be pursuing politics over Ram to turn the tables on the BJP and gain an edge in the Assembly elections slated for December 2023.
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