The celebration of Indra Jatra – the festival of the rain god – was marred in Nepal yesterday as violence erupted in the capital over the new government’s decision to appoint Indian priests at the Hindu temple of Pashupatinath.
“Go back to India, Indian priests” and “Down with the government” screamed protesters who blocked the road leading to the 5th century shrine in the capital, burnt tyres on the road and forced shops to shut down. Tension simmered in the area with the committee spearheading the protests giving the communist-led government of Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal till the evening to revoke the decision to appoint two new priests from India or face greater disruption. The violence came as a sequel to the effort by the earlier Maoist government to break with the 300-year-old tradition of appointing only priests from India to conduct the ceremonial worship at the temple.
The chief priest, Mahabaleshwar Bhatt, and two others resigned under Maoist pressure and the then government of Maoist premier Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda last year appointed Nepali priests for the first time in the history of the temple. However, the appointments were opposed by the orthodox worshippers, who moved court to stop the change. The dispute is still in court with the judges having asked the government not to make any new changes till it is resolved. After the Prachanda government fell in May, the new coalition government decided to continue with the old tradition.
It recently shortlisted two new priests from India’s Karnataka state, Girish Bhatt and Raghavendra Bhatt. At least five religious organisations of Nepal, led by the Maoists, are opposing the new appointments. They say that the government has flouted the Supreme Court direction not to make any changes till the case is resolved.
They also say that with Nepal having undergone a sea change, new priests should be appointed on the basis of free competition and qualifications from Nepal instead of India.
The socio-religious dispute has been threatening to develop into an India-Nepal standoff. Last year, when the row erupted, India’s political parties had condemned the interference and asked the government not to hurt the sentiments of Hindus worldwide and keep politics out of religion.