On July 25 Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chowhan tweeted that he was tested positive. Later he was shifted to a COVID hospital for treatment. Normally, a chief minister falling ill never becomes a hot topic in a neighboring state. But, Chowhan’s tweet has become a hot topic in temple town Tirupati, AP, a town located at about 1500 km away from Bhopal. The tweet raised curious questions, interesting debates, and political statements. Political and independent commentators were quick to grab the tweet to demand immediate calling off of Lord Balaji darshan, which was opened to the public on June 11 after a gap of 80 days due to lockdown.
Why this unusual interest in Chowhan’s health?
Exactly a month ago, on June 27, Chowhan was at Tirumala to have Srivari darshan. Though the local BJP leaders deny, many in Tirupati believe that the MP Chief Minister might have contacted the virus during his Tirumala visit.
TTD’s honorary advisor and former chief priest of Lord Venkateswara, Ramana Deekshitulu also did not rule out the possibility.
Between June 11 and July 27, Tirupati has become a hotbed of coronavirus. As many as 17 priests who tested positive have been shifted to Chennai Apollo Hospital for better treatment despite the fact the Tirupati is a regional health hub with super-specialty hospitals and a Medical College. Senior Pontiff of the Shrine Pedda Jeeyar Swamiji, who never mingles with the public, was tested corona positive, and he had to be shifted to Chennai. The most worrying point is about 187 employees of TTD, the governing body of Tirumala and affiliated temples were tested positive.
And the cases have been on the rise ever since the temple was reopened for public on June 11. Until July 25, Tirupati town reported 3319 with a death toll 34 and the active cases stood at 1753. On July 27, Tirupati town alone reported 183 cases in the district. So, many think the MP Chief Minister, who had visited Tirumala amid growing corona cases, might have contracted the virus during his stay at Tirumala.
Finally, the rapid rise of COVID-19 cases in Tirupati forced the people to voluntarily opt for lockdown. Now the town is observing lockdown; shops are open only between and 7 am and 11 am. Undeterred, the TTD is still allowing the darshan much to the panic of residents.
TTD is the most politicized institution in Andhra Pradesh. It is not the religion but the politics that govern the temple administration. From granting the VIP status to rich and influential to appointing members to the trust board to offering laddus and seshavastras, every aspect is exploited by the ruling party to curry favor. Chief Ministers love to offer laddu, seshavastra and portrait of lord Venkateswara whenever they meet influential persons in the national capital.
Charges of theft of jewelry, diversion of TTD funds for politically beneficial activities charges corruption plagued the temple administration in the recent past.
Equally, no shrine in India is as popular as Tirumala. Before corona, about 70,000 to 1,00,000 devotees from four corners of the globe used to visit to have darshan of Lord that last just a few seconds. Devotees attach so much divinity to the deity of Seven Hills that the waiting to have darshan sometimes stretches beyond 24 hours. They return after the brief darshan thinking that they are fortunate.
So, darshan and other pujas have acquired a new commercial dimension. Corruption crept in; tickets were sold at premium rates in black. TTD members allegedly abused their status and officials obliged their masters to accommodate their wishes. The racket led to a high-level inquiry a decade ago. Some heads rolled. The outcome inquires, of course, never seem to have improved the administration of the shrine.
Industrialist-politicians, liquor barons, and Contractors, who are trusted men of the chief minister of the day, are alone appointed as chairman of the TTD. Politicians are rehabilitated as members of the board. Businessmen have been gifted the TTD membership, which is considered most coveted of all appointments made by the government.
Though TTD is constituted as an autonomous body, it has seldom demonstrated its autonomy. TTD is seen as the extension of the CMO. This led to the demand that the governance of TTD is transferred to a religious body. Many complain that the present dispensation is no way different from the previous one.
Closing of the temple to the public on the pretext of coronavirus would defeat the very political objectives of the bosses. This is the reason, the pleas of Tirupati public to call off the darshan is thrown to the winds, said many critics whom The Lede contacted.
“How could you allow the darshan even after a senior priest was tested positive and shifted to Chennai Apollo? I am told he is in critical condition and he is not stabilizing. They might have contracted the virus when they were in the temple. Even Pedda Jeeyar is also shifted to Chennai. It is unpardonable to make the priest sacrifice their lives at altar TTD prestige,” said Ramana Deekshitulu, honorary advisor on Aagama matters, and a former hereditary chief priest.
“The TTD is forcing the archakas to sacrifice their lives. If I get injustice there is a remedy, I would go to court get it rectified. Or chief minister Jagan may one day understand my problem and call me back to serve God. But once a life is lost, where is the remedy. Forcing the Priests and staff to perform their duties amid a fatal health hazard is unpardonable. It cannot be recommended,” Deekshitulu told The Lede.
“If a TTD-employee is hospitalized, he can be replaced with other employees. There is no replacement for a priest who is hereditarily appointed. If no hereditary priest is available, then you have to stop the Nitya Kainkaryas. It is not acceptable. Unmindful of this eventuality, pubic is allowed to enter the temple, where priests have no protection,” Deekshitulu averred.
The officials are not interested in the general public and their motive is ulterior, said Narasimha Yadav of TDP. “They are interested in VIPs. They started darshan only to allow the VIPs, who are in their own good books, to visit Tirupati. They opened the darshans only to entertain this category of VIPs which include corporate bosses, contractors, movie stars, etc. They are not interested in the common public, who cannot afford to reach Tirupati braving ubiquitous corona,” Yadav said.
A similar sentiment is expressed by Tirupati BJP leader and former TTD member G Bhanu Prakash Reddy. ”About 167 members have been tested positive, which include archakas, Potu workers, security people, employees, etc. The situation is alarming. It can’t Brooke any delay,” he said urging the CM to take an early decision before the Hindu sentiments are hurt.
Noted Tirupati activist, Naveen Kumar Reddy said continuing the darshans, despite the lockdown in Tirupati defies the logic.
“There is an all-round discomfiture against allowing darshan. TTD employees are a worried lot. Now the TTD wants the employees to stay for 15 days at a stretch in Tirumala. TTD is not taking even the voluntary lockdown being observed at Tirupati into cognizance. We are clueless about what purpose this adamant attitude is serving. There is no evidence that the devotees are exerting pressure for the darshan. Now, the TTD not able to sell the earmarked tickets for the month of August. Still, the TTD doesn’t want to shut the temple for the public,” Naveen Reddy said adding that MP Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chowhan might be the victim of TTD attitude.
Dr. BN Sudhakar Reddy, a local political commentator, and practicing psychologist, is of the view that current corona cases in Tirupati were the result of TTD open-door policy.” Before the darshans, the cases were negligible and the town was relatively safe. Now, many people from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, two corona hotspots, entered the town for the darshan. It is their movement that played havoc with the lives of Tirupati people,” Reddy said.
But TTD repeatedly asserted that devotees were corona-free only employees are contracted. Speaking to media sometime back TTD Chairman SV Subba Reddy admitted that 140 staff members contracted COVID-19.
“Although 140 staff members have contracted COVID-19, not a single pilgrim was tested positive. Of those infected, 70 have recovered,” Reddy told media. He also reiterated that there was no plan to shut the temple for the public.