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How PVNR’s Places of Worship Act Helped Hindu Temples

By VedAitharaju

Much mud by Right Wing Hindu Fundamentalists, has been slung on The Places of Worship Act 1991, enacted by the then minority government of PV Narasimha Rao. Though today, a majority Hindu party in power, has made no attempts to do away with the act. The narrative of constant blame against PV Narasimha Rao, is continued, he is labelled often as an “Anti-Hindu.” by imminent scholars like J. Sai Deepak. 

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But none have so far, cared to study in-depth as to how Rao’s Places of Worship Act, by maintaining the status quo of all worship places, has immensely benefitted Hindus as a large political community through the 90s. And even in the future. 

The backdrop of Ram Janabhoomi movement, and the Rath Yatra is public knowledge to all. But a similar movement and DhammaMukhtiYatra was organized by Arya Sasai, a Buddhist monk who demanded the handover of the Mahabodhi Temple/the Bodh gaya temple from partial Hindu management. This movement was led by a flavor of “Ambedkarite” Neo Buddhism and had no visible ties to traditional schools of Buddhism. This yatra was organized in 1992, and resulted not only in large scale protests, but also a mob attack on the Brahmin priest of the temple. [1]

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Who are Neo- Buddhists? 

As the book The Re-Birth of Bodh Gaya says “Instead of giving voice to Anti-Hindu rhetoric, and their idealogy of separation, most of the foreign Buddhists distanced themselves from the campaign..”

While traditional Buddhists, predominately foreign in origin wanted long-lasting peace and didn’t back the idealogy of separation or politics of religion. Neo Buddhists who often used Ambedkar as their face, wanted full separation for Mahabodhi temple from both Hindus, and Hindu priests. These Neo Buddhists were mostly new local converts to Buddhist faith. 

The Mahabodhi issue was quite an old one, a claim to the Shiviate temple of Mahabodhi, was made by a British Buddhist Edwin Arnold, a court case followed, citing it as an ancient Buddhist shrine, and demanded immediate handover of it to the Buddhists from the Shaiva Hindu management of the temple. The court case was lost by the neo-Buddhists. But the issue dragged on, before a compromise of peace was made by Rajendra Prasad, former President of India in 1924. [2]

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A compromise of sorts where both Hindus and Buddhists share the temple. But the compromise wasn’t peaceful for long. 

A wave of neo-Buddhism distinct from the traditional schools of thought, emerged in 1990, after Ambedkar’s ashes were kept in a newly constructed stupa. Post the Mandal Commission, an energized wave of Neo Buddhism emerged to stake a claim against Vedic Brahminical-driven religious institutions. This wave had its ground work under the regime of VP Singh. [3]. 

The wave ensured fresh demands to hand over the Mahabodhi temple complex to full neo-Buddhist control. By April 1992, Arya Sasai lead a mass movement to take over the peacefully co-existing Mahabodhi temple, and break the sectarian bond between Hindus and Buddhists. The movement to a large extent was backed by imminent leaders like Lalu Prasad Yadav. 

The delegation led by Sasai had even met PV Narasimha Rao, when he was the Prime Minister and demanded support for their cause of separating Hindus and Buddhists in the Mahabodhi temple. [4]

It wasn’t just Mahabodhi. Neo Buddhist have claimed Ram Janabhoomi, the temple of Mathura, and multiple temples in the past. In fact, the Thalaivetti Muniyappan temple case of Tamil Nadu in 2022, is one such example where the Madras High Court had passed a judgment validating a Buddhist claim to a Hindu temple. The only reason legal experts say the case cannot be taken as an example for future cases, is because of The Places of Worship Act 1991. [5]

It wasn’t just the neo Buddhists, there were intellectual attempts by certain Jain scholars who claimed the major Hindu temple of Tirupathi as a Jain Shrine. The attempt to claim Kedarnath temple was a Jain temple too was made.  

If there was no Places of Worship Act. Post the Ram Janmabhoomi court case, India’s temples would have been torn apart by multiple court cases, and petitions, and utter chaos of attempts to claim major Hindu shrines. 

Religious conflict and violence would have increased not just between Hindus and Muslims. But between Hindus and Buddhists, and Jains and Buddhists, and Jains and Hindus. 

PV Narasimha Rao’s decision to implement Worship Act, came at a crucial culmination of India, when religiously mobilized movements begin to make their foray into mainstream politics. 

His decision, at that time must be seen with a new perspective, armed with the sources given above. It was perhaps necessary, to not just maintain peace between religions, and the balanced secular order of the country, but also to ensure Hindu temples and their historical heritage aren’t destroyed by useless battles. 

A crucial question, therefore, comes up. There was a genuine reason for the Worship Act to come into place. If Hindu Right Wing intellectuals feel Places of Worship Act is against Hindu interests, and criticize PV Narasimha Rao who had his heart and mind in the right place, and did it so to ensure communal balance and safeguard the interests of Hindu. Why hasn’t a majority government with 303 seats in Parliament made any attempt to erase this act? Why blame a stalwart leader? 

Why do both the Hindu Right Wing intellectuals as well as key Muslim leaders like Owaisi attack PV Narasimha Rao? Was his desire for a balanced harmony between religions and his desire to protect Hindu heritage made him an enemy for both? The answers perhaps are worth probing for. 

Also read: The hypocrisy of MIM

References:

[1]: The Rebirth of Bodh Gaya

Buddhism and the Making of a World Heritage Site

By David Geary

[2]: https://pragyata.com/the-bodh-gaya-temple-controversy/

[3]: Identity, Rights, and Awareness

Anticaste Activism in India and the Awakening of Justice Through Discursive Practices

By Jeremy A. Rinker 

[4]: The Rebirth of Bodh Gaya

Buddhism and the Making of a World Heritage Site

By David Geary P. 77

[5]: https://scroll.in/article/1029855/madras-high-court-ruled-that-a-temple-was-a-buddhist-site-how-will-this-impact-mosque-temple-cases#:~:text=It%20said%20that%20permitting%20the,is%20that%20of%20the%20Buddha

Ved Aitharaju
Ved Aitharaju
Screenwriter By Study. Filmmaker By Profession. And a Columnist By Fealty. To Express The Intricate Threads of This Multiverse. A Scout by Providence Lost in The Boundless Paradox Of Creation.

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