On July 25, Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan tweeted that he was tested positive.
Later he was shifted to a COVID hospital for treatment. It is not often that a chief minister falling ill becomes a hot topic of discussion in a neighbouring state.
But, Chouhan’s tweet has become a hot topic in Andhra Pradesh’s temple town Tirupati, located about 1500 km away from Bhopal.
The tweet raised curious questions, interesting debates, and political statements. Political and independent commentators were quick to use 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 Chouhan’s health?
Exactly a month ago, on June 27, Chouhan was at Tirumala for darshan. Though the local BJP leaders deny this, many in Tirupati believe that the MP chief minister might have contracted the virus during his Tirumala visit.
The Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam’s (TTD) honorary advisor and former chief priest of Lord Venkateswara, Ramana Deekshitulu too did not rule out the possibility.
Between June 11 and July 27, Tirupati has become a hotbed of COVID-19. As many as 17 priests who tested positive have been shifted to Chennai’s Apollo Hospital for better treatment, despite that fact the Tirupati is a regional health hub with super-specialty hospitals and a Medical College.
The senior pontiff of the shrine Pedda Jeeyar Swamiji, who never mingles with the public, tested positive, and he had to be shifted to Chennai. In all, 187 employees of TTD, the governing body of Tirumala and affiliated temples tested positive.
And the cases have been on the rise ever since the temple was reopened to the public on June 11. Until July 25, Tirupati town reported 3319 with a death toll of 34 and the active cases stood at 1753.
On July 27, Tirupati town alone reported 183 cases in the district. This is why many think the MP chief minister, who had visited Tirumala amid growing COVID 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 darshan much to the panic of residents.
TTD is perhaps the most politicised institution in Andhra Pradesh. It is not religion but politics that govern the temple administration.
From according VIP status to the rich and influential, to appointing members to the trust board to offering laddus and sesha vastras, every aspect is exploited by every ruling party to curry favour.
Chief ministers love to offer laddu, sesha vastra and a portrait of Lord Venkateshwara whenever they meet influential persons in the national capital.
Charges of theft of jewellery, diversion of TTD funds for politically beneficial activities, charges of corruption have plagued the temple administration in the recent past.
Still, no shrine in India is as popular as Tirumala. Before COVID-19 struck, about 70,000 to one lakh devotees from across the globe would visit and wait, at times for 24 hours for darshan.
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 are gifted TTD membership, which is most coveted of all appointments made by the government.
Though TTD has been 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 be transferred to a religious body. Many complain that the present dispensation is in no way different from the previous one.
The closure 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’s 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 Hospital? I am told he is in critical condition and he is not stabilising. 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 the altar of TTD’s 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 hospitalised, 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, public is allowed to enter the temple, where priests have no protection,” Deekshitulu averred.
The officials are not interested in general public and their motive is ulterior, said Narasimha Yadav of the opposition Telugu Desam Party. “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 common public, who cannot afford to reach Tirupati braving the 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.
Noted Tirupati activist, Naveen Kumar Reddy said that 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 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 is not able to sell the earmarked tickets for the month of August. Still, the TTD doesn't want to shut the dashan,” Naveen Reddy said, adding that MP chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan might have been a victim of TTD’s attitude.
Dr BN Sudhakar Reddy, a local political commentator and practicing psychologist, is of the view that the current COVID cases in Tirupati were the result of TTD’s 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 while only employees have contracted the virus. Speaking to media recently, 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.
The debate over the priests of the sanctum sanctorum contracting the virus has hit panic buttons everywhere. The footfall of devotees has come down drastically.
Though TTD sold online tickets expecting 10,000 to12,000 pilgrims a day, sales have not crossed 50%.
According to the TTD website, 5068 pilgrims visited Tirumala on July 27 while on July 26 the number was just 4557.
The figures for July 25, July 24 and July 23 were 5090, 4255 and 4834 respectively.
It is a wonder as to why nearly two thousand staff members are pressed into service to take care of 5000 pilgrims.