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MP Polls: Congress' Hindutva Army Includes Angry Pujaris, Jilted Bajrang Sena

Congress has amped up its Hindutva outreach in Madhya Pradesh via temple priests and rightwing outfit Bajrang Sena.

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58-year-old Sitaram Beragi has been a BJP supporter for as long as he can remember; the support for the party has run across generations in his priest-family. The other thing that has been passed on inter-generationally is the family’s temple land. But now, with Beragi feeling that the latter stands in peril, he is certain about giving up his longstanding support for the BJP too. “BJP has failed. I had a lot of hopes from them. But they have failed,” he states with an expression of disdain on his face.

Congress has amped up its Hindutva outreach in Madhya Pradesh via temple priests and rightwing outfit Bajrang Sena.

Sitaram Beragi with his temple land documents. 

(Fatima Khan/ The Quint) 

Incidentally, Beragi is expressing this angst at an event organised by the Congress Pujari Prakoshth or priest cell in Madhya Pradesh’s Dewas, a district popular for its temples. With state elections just round the corner, the pujari cell, formed in August 2022, has amped up its outreach to the priest community across the state. “A political party that was formed 30-40 years ago is not the protector of Hindu faith. You are protector of Hindu faith,” Sudhir Bharti, the youth president of the Congress Pujari cell tells the audience of 150-odd pujaris who have traveled from different neighboring districts to attend this event.

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The messaging is simple: those who claimed to have monopoly over Hinduism have failed you. It is this message that the Congress is trying to spread through its many foot-soldiers. The Pujari cell’s events are one way, the other is by taking under its wings far-right bodies that have traditionally spoken in the same voice as BJP, such as the Bajrang Sena. This is in line with everything that the Kamal Nath led-Congress in Madhya Pradesh has been trying to drive home with the leader’s growing affinity for Hindutva.

Outreach To Priests Via Their Temple Land Ownership Concerns

‘Nahi hain math-mandir sarkari

Inke rakshak sant-pujari'

Temple and temple lands are not the government’s, it is the priests who are its caretakers. This is the popular slogan at the Congress pujari cell event, even spelt out in so many words on the many posters laid out at the venue.

Congress has amped up its Hindutva outreach in Madhya Pradesh via temple priests and rightwing outfit Bajrang Sena.

The most popular slogan at the Congress pujari cell event. 

(Fatima Khan/ The Quint) 

But the other, more relevant slogan which is at the heart of this Congress campaign also features every now and then: ‘Jo Sant Pujari Ki Baat Karega, Wohi Desh Me Raj Karega’. The one who speaks for the priests is the one who will rule the country (and in this case, Madhya Pradesh).

Congress has amped up its Hindutva outreach in Madhya Pradesh via temple priests and rightwing outfit Bajrang Sena.

Sudhir Bharti with the MP Congress Pujari Prakoshth flag. 

(Fatima Khan/ The Quint)

Bharti, in his speech, tells the 150-odd pujaris in the audience, some of whom are from Dewas and some who have come from neighboring districts, that there is only one political party that will free the temple land from government control. And thus, there is only that one political party that should be voted to power. “The government has placed district collectors in your temples, they are taking your temples away from you,” he says.

Congress has amped up its Hindutva outreach in Madhya Pradesh via temple priests and rightwing outfit Bajrang Sena.

Sudhir Bharti addressing the crowd of pujaris. 

(Fatima Khan/ The Quint)

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Many in the audience seem to echo what Bharti is saying. Beragi, for instance, has been carrying an old and worn-out document in his jhola, every time he steps out for the last couple of months. The document states that the temple, where he is a priest, was run several decades ago by his grandfather, then by his father, and subsequently passed on to him. Beragi says he has been running from pillar to post with that piece of document to try and get back the land adjoining the temple back, ever since it was ‘encroached’ earlier this year. The land is where he would sow vegetables to feed himself and his family, and would also sell the produce as a source of earning. But ever since that land has been sold off by the district administration to someone else, he can lay no claim there.

Congress has amped up its Hindutva outreach in Madhya Pradesh via temple priests and rightwing outfit Bajrang Sena.

Priests come together at the Congress pujari prakoshth event. 

(Fatima Khan/ The Quint) 

Many other priests claim that they cannot avail schemes like the PM Awas Yojana on the lands, because they aren’t technically owners of it. One of the pandits says that his temple is next to a bus stop, so a traveler’s waiting room was made on his land, and a small room he had previously built for himself was demolished.

Under the Madhya Pradesh Land Revenue Code and other land-governing laws of the state, the priest is only the caretaker of the temple land, while the deity is the owner. However, the district magistrate is heading the management of several temples in the state. This is what the priests are objecting to. “We want the deity to continue being the owner, but we want the district magistrate’s name to be removed from the management. A temple is not a government property, so they should have no business deciding what to do with it,” Bharti says.

'BJP Wants Temples To Be Only Their Adda': Priests

But the more insidious suggestion here isn’t merely that the government enjoys control over temples, but more so that the BJP, as a political party, is trying to assert influence through the temples.

“By calling itself a party for Hindus, the BJP is actually trying to make the temples an ‘adda’ of their politics. They want temples to become a stronghold of RSS, VHP, and other such bodies,” says Pandit Atmaram Vaishnav.

In April this year, CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan announced that temples will now be free from government control, and the priests can sell their lands as they wish. But the priests say that samitis or temple committees have continue to be made even after this announcement, which is effectively rendering them powerless. "If we don't obey them, we might just be removed from the temple completely," Pandit Atmaram says.

Congress has amped up its Hindutva outreach in Madhya Pradesh via temple priests and rightwing outfit Bajrang Sena.

The Congress Pujari Prakosth intends to extend the party's outreach to aggrieved temple priests. 

(Fatima Khan/ The Quint)

Moreover, priests are also questioning what BJP has done so far for Hindus and Hinduism. “They say they are the ones making the Ram Mandir. But the Ram Mandir is being made on our money, the pujari’s money, and on the supreme court’s order. They have nothing to do with it,” says Pandit Jagdish Beragi.

While the Pujari cell’s attempt is to reach as many priests of the state as possible, those convinced of the party’s promises are in turn telling the devotees to vote for congress. “I tell the devotees at my temple to ensure that one vote from their family goes to Congress as a bhiksha (charity) to me. The other votes in the family can go to whoever they want, but one for Congress positively,” Jagdish says.

Priests Have Been A Loyal BJP Vote Bank

Despite these attempts, shaking the priests’ resolve, who have been a traditional BJP vote-bank in Madhya Pradesh, won’t be an easy task.

At this Congress event too, while the discussions were ongoing, one of the priests turned out to be a dedicated BJP supporter, unconvinced by the promises being made here.

“I have come here for my pujari family. But I can see that what Congress is promising is just a vote-garnering exercise. The BJP is the one party that has been able to unite all the Hindus, and now Congress is trying to break that unity by making false promises. My land has not been sold off, my temple land is with me, so there is nothing to be worried about,” he says.

Congress has amped up its Hindutva outreach in Madhya Pradesh via temple priests and rightwing outfit Bajrang Sena.

The priest (in yellow) doesn't think that the temple lands are under any threat. 

(Fatima Khan/ The Quint)

The contrarian priest’s words aren’t received well by the rest of the Congress-supporting crowd. But Bharti also admits that priests have conventionally been BJP supporters. “They have been loyal BJP supporters. But many of them are now realising the truth,” he says.

Kamal Nath's Pro-Hindu Credentials

The Congress leadership in Madhya Pradesh has left no stone unturned at trying to convey its pro-Hindu credentials. Former CM Kamal Nath organised a three-day long 'Hanuman Katha Vachana' 
by controversial self-declared godman Dhirendra Shastri, who had often demanded a Hindu rashtra. “Agar desh ki 82% aabaadi Hindu hai, to yeh kaun sa rastra hua?" (If 82 % of India's population is Hindu then what this country is called?), Kamal Nath said in response to a question about whether he supported Shastri’s demand. However, he added that India is a secular nation which follows the constitution.  

Congress has amped up its Hindutva outreach in Madhya Pradesh via temple priests and rightwing outfit Bajrang Sena.

Kamal Nath with the Hanuman statue. 


Kamal Nath also built a 101-feet tall statue of lord Hanuman in Semariya village in Chhindwara district, his home turf, several years ago. Then, when the foundation stone for the Ram Temple in Ayodha was being laid in 2020, Kamal Nath was among the foremost Congress leaders to endorse and welcome it.  
 
In the 15 months that the Congress was in power after the 2018 elections, Nath laid the foundation stone of the 300-crore Mahakaleshwar Corridor in Ujjain, that was eventually inaugurated by PM Modi in 2022. The Congress has accused BJP of trying to steal credit for it.  
 
Moreover, the Congress party hiked the priest's salary and gave cabinet positions to Hindu seers like Computer Baba and Mirchi Baba in 2018. The Congress manifesto in 2018 had also promised the development of the Narmada Parikrama (circumambulation) route and the Ram Van Gaman Path (the route undertaken by Lord Rama on his way to exile). 

Why Right-Wing Bajrang Sena Joined Hands With Congress

In June 2023, the right-wing outfit Bajrang Sena joined hands with the Congress. Amid loud singing of the Hanuman Chalisa, members of the Bajrang Sena welcomed Kamal Nath and handed him a mace.

Deepak Joshi, former BJP leader who is now in Congress, played a pivotal role in bringing the Bajrang Sena together with the Congress. Joshi is the son of BJP veteran leader and former CM Kailash Chandra Joshi.

Congress has amped up its Hindutva outreach in Madhya Pradesh via temple priests and rightwing outfit Bajrang Sena.

Kamal Nath at the ceremony welcoming Bajrang Sena.

The Bajrang Sena was formed in 2013, and its national convenor Raghunandan Sharma, has also been a senior BJP leader in the state. Speaking to The Quint, Sharma says that the Bajrang Sena has always campaigned for the BJP, till as recently as the 2022 Uttar Pradesh elections too. “But the BJP rewarded us by getting cases registered against our president, and by getting our cow protection activists booked,” he says.

Sharma believes the BJP did this because they couldn’t stand Bajrang Sena build a base of its own. “They carry the arrogance of being in power with them. The statement ‘Modi hai toh mumkin hai’ shows that arrogance. They have started of thinking of themselves as God,” Sharma says.

In the run up to the polls, the Bajrang Sena members spend most of their time in the Madhya Pradesh Congress Committee head office in Bhopal, strategising about how to use their organisation base to campaign for the party.

Congress has amped up its Hindutva outreach in Madhya Pradesh via temple priests and rightwing outfit Bajrang Sena.

Members of the Bajrang Sena at the Congress office in Bhopal. 

(Fatima Khan/ The Quint)

Amrish Rai, the Madhya Pradesh president of the Bajrang Sena says that the group will work for the Congress “just like RSS works for the BJP.”

"We have seven lakh Bajrang Sena workers in Madhya Pradesh. They will go to each constituency and campaign for the Congress,” Rai says.

On its affiliation with the Congress, the Bajrang Sena sites the party’s Hindu credentials, such as the Hanuman statue, as well as the promises its made for the protection of cows. In 2018, Kamal Nath allocated over Rs 450 crore for construction of 1,000 cowsheds across the state and hiked daily fodder given to a cow to Rs 20 from Rs 5 a day. “Whereas under the BJP, beef export from India has risen. They say they protect cows, but every kilometer you travel you will find a dead cow lying on the side of the road. This is the difference between their words and their actions,” says Ramashanker Mishra, a Bajrang Sena member.

‘Bajrang Sena Ka Hath, Kamal Nath Ke Sath’. Bajrang Sena’s blessings and support are with Kamal Nath, goes the slogan.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Congress    Hindutva   Kamal Nath 

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