Op-Ed: Change of Guard Would Not Restore Faith in Sanctity of Temple Affairs

By Sandeep Sahu

So Pradeep is out and Pradipta is in! But this replacement of one blue-eyed bureaucrat of the BJD government with another doesn’t answer the all-important question: will it usher in the much needed improvement in the running of the affairs of the Shree Jagannath temple in Puri?

My take on the issue is it won’t. I am not saying this because I have doubts about the efficiency of the new Chief Administrator of the Shree Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA). In fact, Pradipta Mohapatra has been among our more sincere, efficient and hard working bureaucrats, who proved his mettle during the Phailin in 2013 by pulling off as the crisis manager the remarkable feat of evacuating some nine lakh people living close to the south coast in the hours leading up to the landfall. He has also had a very successful stint as the Special Relief Commissioner (SRC). And the fact that he has been both collector of Puri and CA of SJTA before should stand him in good stead in his second innings as the temple administrator.

My apprehension that the change of guard at the top of SJTA may not make a huge difference to the way that the affairs of the temple are managed has its origins in the ad-hocism that has marked the state government’s handling of the myriad issues involved in the administration of the 12th century shrine. The apathy, inefficiency and cynicism has reached the nadir in the last three or four years.

It goes without going that the Nabakalebara in 2015, the only one during the 18 years of the Naveen Patnaik government, was a monumental exercise in sloth, corruption and mismanagement. From the alleged ‘fixing’ of the daru to the utter chaos during the all-important Brahma Parivartan ritual, it was a text book case of how not to go about organising such a marquee event that comes only once every 12 or 19 years. As if that was not bad enough, the Niladri Bije saw the ugly spectacle of servitors manhandling the collector Arvind Agarwal in full view of TV cameras. It was followed by a controversy over a servitor taking a woman devotee on to the chariots during the nine-day Rath Yatra when the chariots are stationed in front of the Mausima temple. By all reckoning, it would go down in history as the most mismanaged Nabakalebara in the last century or so.

It is remarkable that no one has been held accountable or punished for the monumental failure to ensure the smooth passage of such an important event even three full years after it. The suspension of the two servitors held responsible for the chaos has long been revoked while no one knows the contents of the report of the inquiry conducted into the whole Nabakalebara mess by the then chief administrator Suresh Mohapatra more than a year after it was submitted to the state government. It may be noted that Mohapatra was appointed chief administrator in place of Arabinda Padhee on the eve of the Nabakalebara to placate the Daitapati servitors, who were up in arms over some of the reforms initiated by the latter, fearing disruption of the rituals. The Daitapatis appeared to be dictating terms to the temple administration and the state government eager – even desperate- to avoid a run in with them. When it became an embarrassment for the government to persist with him much longer in the wake of the Nabakalebara fiasco, it replaced Mohapatra with Pradeep Jena on the eve of the last Rath Yatra.

To his credit, Jena ensured that the Car Festival went off without much of a hitch. But all that good work was spoiled by what has happened since the beginning of April this year over the missing key to the Ratna Bhandar. The best course to follow for the temple administration once it was known that the keys were missing, as anyone can see, would have been to be upfront about it, file an FIR and inform the High Court about it. Instead, it chose to send everyone on a wild goose chase by hiding the news about the missing keys and making the ridiculous claim that the 17-member team did not feel the need to enter the inner chamber of the Ratna Bhandar since it was able to ‘inspect’ the structure from outside by using search lights. It was this failure to take the people into confidence that has landed the government in the mess that it finds itself in.

Though it is natural – and even logical – to hold the temple administrator responsible for the shoddy management of the missing key affair, I have my doubts about whether it was entirely Jena’s doing. It is clear that he was made a scapegoat for what was essentially the failure of the political class keen to protect some of its own, apart from kowtowing to the servitors who have become a law unto themselves.

Remarkably, even at this late stage, the government appears determined not to order a stock taking of the immense wealth stored inside the Ratna Bhandar, raising suspicion that it doesn’t want the truth to come out and deepening apprehensions that some of the precious jewellery may have gone missing in the 40 years since 1978 when an inventory of the ornaments was made last.

Pradipta Mohapatra clearly has his task cut out. He has inherited a mess that would require all his wisdom and efficiency to sort out. But like his predecessor, he too may find that there is just too much political interference making the job of setting the house in order a Herculean task for any administrator. His task has been made harder by the Supreme Court order denying any share of the offerings made by the devotees to the servitors, who have already indicated that they would challenge the order.

The politicisation of the servitors’ class is now complete. And the government appears to be in crisis management mode rather than going in for the much needed reforms that would restore public faith in the sanctity of the temple and its rituals. Given the odds, this may well turn out to be the toughest assignment in Mohapatra’s career.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)