The ancient ashrama vyavastha prescribes that a man, on crossing 50, should think of renouncing familial liabilities and undertake a journey to the forests (vanaprastha) in search of finding the Self. The puranas also say the punya (divine blessings) one gets by sending someone off on a pilgrimage is far greater than what can be earned by going oneself.
The combination of a few such wisdoms and the big picture reality is perhaps what has led to Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chauhan’s new pet project. For over the next one year, he proposes to send one lakh elderly persons on all-expenses-paid pilgrimages, the expenditure to be borne by the state exchequer. The CM’s endeavour, for now, does not look like it is aimed at reserving a place for himself in the heavens. He has more mundane objectives in mind; assembly polls are less than a year away. What can be a better way to win over the electorate than sending the family elders on free pilgrimages?
The MP ‘Mukhyamantri Teertha Darshan Yojna’ has so far benefited 2,000 people, who have gone on state-sponsored trips to religious places like Rameshwaram and Ajmer. “Going on a pilgrimage is a spiritual need for our elders. By taking them on a teerth darshan, we are trying to honour them... express our gratitude,” Chauhan tells Outlook.
The state machinery has been busy in this regard, even signing an MoU with the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation Ltd for the scheme. Pilgrimage centres in the scheme are Haridwar, Badrinath, Kedarnath, Amarnath, Vaishnodevi, Amritsar, Puri, Varanasi, Ajmer, Sammet Shikhar (Jharkhand), Dwaraka, Shirdi, Gaya, Tirupati, Rameshwaram and Velankanni (Tamil Nadu), Shravanabelagola. The government has sanctioned Rs 39 crore for the first phase.
Lest it be charged with imposing a Hindutva agenda, the BJP regime has ensured that at least one centre of pilgrimage of all the minority communities is included. Thus, there is Ajmer for the Muslims, Amritsar for the Sikhs, Sammet Shikhar and Shravanabelagola for the Jains and the Basilica in Velankanni for the Christians.
“By taking them on a teertha darshan, we’re trying to honour them...express our gratitude,” says CM Chauhan.
The CM made amends to any stray hurt Buddhists by including Bodh Gaya in the list while laying the foundation stone for a ‘Buddhist University’ at Sanchi near Bhopal on September 21. In fact, expanding the ambit of the scheme, the CM declared in the presence of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa that, the island nation permitting, the MP government would like to build a ‘Sita temple’ at the very spot where Sita was supposed to have submitted herself to an ‘agni pariksha’ and include it in the “teerth darshan scheme”.
The first train left Bhopal on September 3 amidst great fanfare for Rameshwaram. BJP leader L.K. Advani, who flagged it off, described Chauhan’s regime as ‘Ram rajya’. The CM entered the coaches, hugged pilgrims, touched their feet, invited comparisons with Shravan Kumar (the ideal son in Hindu mythology). The next trip was to Ajmer and again the CM was at hand at the station to see off the pilgrims.
Till March-end next year, every week a special pilgrims train will leave from a city of the state. Sixty special trains are expected to take over 60,000 pilgrims to different destinations by then.
The pilgrims are, obviously, over the moon. Quoting an Urdu couplet, “Iraade roz bante hai, bigad jaate hai...wahi Ajmer jaate hai, jinhe Khwaja bulate hai”, 62-year-old Himayat Beg of Ratlam says, “My wish to visit Ajmer remained buried in my heart but thanks to Shivrajji, it has been fulfilled”. Adds 74-year-old Chandra Kala, “We have had two boons: first is the pilgrimage and second, a son like Shivraj. We had never thought that we will be able to go to Rameshwaram and take a dip in the sacred kund.”
The Opposition, though, hasn’t taken to the scheme quite as much. LoP Ajay Singh was scathing in his criticism. “The yatras are only to make Shivraj popular. The government’s duty is to take up social welfare schemes like electricity, drinking water etc. By ignoring the basic problems of the poor, Shivraj is not earning punya, he is doing a mahapaap,” he says.
Then there are others who see the scheme as yet another manifestation of the Sangh parivar’s penchant for feeding the people with the “opium of the masses”. “If, instead of sending 1,000-odd Muslims to Ajmer, Chauhan had implemented the Sachar panel report, it would have benefited us much more. But then, right from its janmabhoomi andolan days, the party and its leaders know only one way to get votes—tapping into the religious beliefs of people,” says a Muslim poet. Shailendra Shaili, secretary of the local CPI unit, remarks, “Even God would have been happier if the government had spent the money on saving the thousands of children who die of malnutrition every year in the state.” Unfortunately, there’s not a prayer for that.