Tirumala exclusively for Hindus, says Andhra Govt.

In the wake of the protests raised by Hindu religious groups over recent attempts to preach other faiths at the holy shrine of Lord Venkateswara at Tirumala, the Andhra Pradesh Government has notified that the seven hills of Tirumala would remain a place of worship only for Hindus and has prohibited propagation of other religions.

In an address to a media conference, June 9, Chief Minister Dr. Y.S.R. Reddy said that his government had issued an Ordinance on June 2 in this regard and the order had come into effect immediately.

The Ordinance also recognised the jurisdiction of Lord Venkateswara, popularly known as "Lord of the Seven Hills" and declared the seven hills surrounding the temple as a place of exclusive worship, banning all political activities including conduct of local bodies polls.

"Against the backdrop of a long history of cherished cultural legacy and sanctified Hindu tradition, the Government of Andhra Pradesh has decided that the sanctity of the Seven Hills and the Temple of Lord Venkateswara needs to be preserved as a unique religious area where the Hindu traditions shall be preserved and allowed to be nurtured as they have continuously been over the last two millennium. In order to achieve this objective, it has been felt appropriate to accord to all the Seven Hills and the Temple Town of Tirumala a special status as a place of religious importance by giving it a special dispensation and nomenclature," Dr. Reddy said.

"Accordingly, the Tirumala Hills area comprising all the seven hills, the holy teerthams (pilgrimage areas) and the central shrine of Lord Venkateswara will henceforth be called Tirumala Divya Kshetram," Reddy said, adding that the government notification would ensure that only spiritual and religious activity went on in the seven hills area and no elections or political activity would be permitted.

The Tirumala Divya Kshetram shall comprise all the seven hills called Seshadri, Garudadri, Venkatadri, Narayanadri, Vrishabhadri, Vrishadri and Anjanadri right from the foothills on all sides, the Government Order stated.

"It shall be the primary duty of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams management to continue uninterruptedly with utmost devotion the traditional rituals and practices and no other religion shall be allowed to be propagated in Tirumala Divya Kshetram area by words, either spoken or written or by signs or visible representation or by distributing any printed material or other forms of religious literature in terms of Section 2(1) of AP Propagation of Other Religions in the Places of Worship or Prayer (Prohibition) Ordinance 2007 promulgated on 22 May 2007," it added.

"The Executive Officer of Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams has been empowered under Section 114 of the AP Charitable and Hindu Religious Institutions and Endowments Act, 1987 to take action to prevent begging, consumption of intoxicating liquor, drugs or cigarettes, meat or meat products. Slaughter of animals or birds, gaming and gambling are expressly prohibited under this Act. All these provisions are intended to ensure that the entire Tirumala Hills area continues to be a spiritual sanctuary that it has been all through," it continued.

Dr. Reddy has defended the measure arguing that it guaranteed respect for people's sentiments and promoted law and order. He added that a Bill would be tabled in the next session of the State Assembly so that the Ordinance could be turned into law.

Missionary activities by Christians in Tirumala and surrounding areas are blamed for the government's new policy which includes punitive measures against violators including three years in jail, fines of up to Rs. 5,000 or both.

Meanwhile, the church has reacted strongly against the government order which the Christian leaders claim, is "biased, unwarranted and politically motivated."

"In the face of persecution, we stand by our faith and our conviction. No political power can prevent us from spreading the Good News of the Lord," AsiaNews quoted Archbishop Marampudi Joji of Hyderabad as saying.

"This ordinance is essentially political and our Christian chief minister is buckling under pressure. We believe that the Indian constitution guarantees us the right to spread our faith. It is a matter of urgent concern that Andhra Pradesh should introduce such an ordinance. The government should be sensitive to the sentiments of the Christian community which has so tirelessly served all classes of society, irrespective of caste and creed," the archbishop said.

"As archbishop of Hyderabad I say that no Christian has ever entered a place of worship of another religious community to proselytise. The Church has been involved and spearheaded dialogue between religions and within civil society. We are not afraid. In spite of laws Christians' faith is stronger than ever. People are more united and closer to the Church. We live our faith and in the face of persecution we stand with courage and unity in Christ," he added.

According to Fr. Anthoniraj Thumma, executive secretary of the Andhra Pradesh Federation of Churches and deputy secretary of the Andhra Pradesh Bishops' Council, the Council "strongly opposes the ban."

"Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy yielded to the will of Hindu extremist groups who took advantage of the fact that he was Christian to blackmail him. This Ordinance goes against many of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution and discriminates against non–Hindus. Not only religious freedom, but also the right of movement, right to life and livelihoods would be denied to non–Hindus, especially Christians who are already targeted in these areas," he said.

"The Andhra Pradesh Bishops' Council will take up its opposition when the issue comes before the state assembly," he added.

"Without meaning any disrespect to the Deity of Tirumala, and in full solidarity with the devotees and their reverence to Lord Venkateswara, one must articulate the several questions that have been raised by the controversial decision of the Congress Government of Andhra Pradesh, led by Chief Minister Dr. Rajshekhara Reddy, in the hasty Ordinance, or backdoor law, which effectively bans all non Hindu activity – worship, social work, educational institutions, freedom of religion and religious profession, presumably also Wakf – in the seven hills of the Tirumala range in the south of the State, and close to its borders with Tamil Nadu and Karnataka," Dr. John Dayal, president of All India Catholic Union (AICU), said.

"Dr. Reddy now joins Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh in becoming one of two Congress leaders who defy their party ideology to pander to the tastes of micro–minority fundamentalists within the majority religious group in their States," he added.

Terming the notified region "Special Religious Zone," Dr. Dayal queried, "What happens to Freedom of Faith in Tirumala? What happens to Article 30? What happens to a lot of many other things, including the right of the Hindus themselves to get medical assistance and education from anyone they chose? What happens to the freedom of faith of the Dalits, OBCs, Christians and others who live in the area to practise the faith of their choice?"

"The Ordinance violates the constitution of India and may go against the Supreme Court ruling in the Hindutva case which held that Hinduism was a way of life," the noted activist said, adding that Chief Minister Dr. Reddy gave in under pressure. "The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and is affiliated organisations have targeted Reddy for his religion," he said, adding that "no religion in the world claims a place exclusively as its own, where no one else can enter."