Like the three farm laws framed without consulting stakeholders, the National Monuments Authority last week released draft bylaws for several shrines in Odisha. The proposed regulations prohibit construction within a radius of 100 metres of any archaeological site.

This was done without seeking the views of temple administrations or the state’s ruling Biju Janata Dal government.

The list of archeological sites identified by the National Monuments Authority, which functions under the jurisdiction of the Union culture ministry, included the iconic temple of Jagannath in Puri and the Brahmeswar and Ananta Basudev temples in the state capital, Bhubaneswar.

The famous Lingaraj temple in Bhubaneswar is also covered in the scope of the bylaws.

Huge uproar

The draft bylaws have caused a huge uproar in Odisha. Last year, the state government, after consultation and persuasion, decided to clear structures within 75 meters of the Jagannath temple in Puri to develop it as a world heritage site. The project will involve an investment of Rs 3,500 crore.

The Odisha government also plans to develop the Lingaraj temple and its surroundings, known as Ekamra Khetra, as a heritage site at the cost of ₹700 crore.

The draft bylaws will not allow this.

When Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik visited Puri on February 8 for the first time during the Covid-19 pandemic, he asserted that no one could stop the work of Lord Jagannath.

This prompted the Union culture ministry to withdraw the draft bylaws with regard to the Jagannath temple on Monday. However, the draft still stands for the Bhubaneswar temples.

Temple officials and the local Biju Janata Dal MLA, Ashok Panda, who is a minister in the state government, have demanded that the draft regulations be withdrawn immediately.

The Jagannath temple in Puri. Credit: By Subham9423 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Panda questioned the silence of the Bharatiya Janata Party MP from Bhubaneswar, Aparijita Sadangi, who so far has not uttered a word to demand the withdrawal of the bylaws. The Union ministers from Odisha, Dharmendra Pradhan and Pratap Sadangi, have also been silent on the matter.

Critics of the draft bylaws contend that there cannot be differential treatment for temples located in Bhubaneswar and Puri based on a whimsical framing of the regulations. After all, they say, the government of Odisha has acquired the land surrounding the temples after patient persuasion of all those who owned homes and establishments there.

There is significant resentment in Odisha that the bylaws unilaterally framed by the National Monuments Authority places Lingaraj temple on an equal footing with museums and other monuments. This completely disregards the sanctity of the shrine, they say.

Ayodhya temple effort

Many note that the controversy around the Odisha temples is taking place against the backdrop of massive mobilisation of funds by BJP leaders across the country for a Ram temple to be constructed in Ayodhya.

As part of the project, the Rajasthan government has even sought high-priority clearance under the Forest and Wildlife Act to denotify the Bansi Paharpur block of Bharatpur’s Band Baretha wildlife sanctuary to allow mining of the unique pink sandstone for the construction of the temple.

Even as the BJP leadership is willing to relax norms to facilitate the construction of the Ram temple, it has unilaterally framed a bylaw that prevents the government of Odisha from going ahead with its plans to showcase the 11th-century Lingaraj temple.

Glorious history

The BJP leaders of Odisha would do well to read the writings of Utkalmani Gopabandhu Das, a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi, on the Lingaraj temple. In an illuminating article titled “Repair of Lingaraj Temple” Das wrote in the prominent Odia daily The Samaja on July 18, 1925, he appealed to the British government to uphold the enduring glory represented by the temple.

At the same time, he emphasised that the temple had to be preserved not only because of its religious significance but also because it was the embodiment of India’s ancient history and represented the excellence of Indian art and sculpture. In that sense, he described the temple as part of the history of humanity representing the glory of Odisha.

The BJP leadership in the state and the Centre should be mindful of the temple’s rich history and shun petty politics aimed at thwarting the Odisha government’s plan to make it a heritage site.

The unilateral manner in which the bylaws were drafted by the National Monuments Authority without taking into account the views of temple administration and state government serves to prove that fears of Biju Janata Dal President Naveen Patnaik have come true.

In December 2020, speaking at an event to mark the party’s founding, he noted that national parties often frame policies without being sensitive to a state’s unique ethos and cultural attributes.

But the BJP’s obsession with “one nation, one culture” leads it to impose uniform norms on a diverse and plural country. If the government withdraws the bylaws relating to the Lingaraj temple, it will mark the triumph of cultural liberty and the constitutional vision that celebrates the idea of India.

SN Sahu served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President KR Narayanan.