Religion is the opium of the masses, said Karl Marx. No one understands it better than the Parkash Singh Badal-led Akali-BJP government of Punjab.
The state government has pressed into service 90 trains and hundreds of state transport buses to take people on an all-expenses paid pilgrimage to Takht Sri Hazoor Sahib in Maharashtra, Kashi Dham in Varanasi, Mata Vaishno Devi in Jammu and Kashmir and Ajmer Sharif Dargah in the past one year. Badal recently announced that if voted back to power in 2017, he will roll out a free pilgrimage service to Nankana Sahib in Pakistan as well.
On a pilgrimage overdrive, the government is sending 10 trains and 100 buses to Patna for the 350th birth anniversary of Guru Gobind Singh in the first week of January. That is not all. There is a free bus service to the Golden Temple (daily), Anandpur Sahib, Vaishno Devi and Jwala Ji in neighbouring Himachal from all major towns of the state.
Sources in the chief minister’s office say that 98,940 pilgrims have visited Sri Hazoor Sahib, while 22,440 and 3,060 have been to Varanasi and Ajmer Sharif, respectively.
SECULAR IS SACRED
It was following the widespread anger at incidents of Guru Granth Sahib’s sacrilege that Badal took a leaf out of his Madhya Pradesh counterpart Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s Mukh Mantri Tirath Darshan Yatra scheme in January. While the Madhya Pradesh scheme is only for non-taxpayers above 60 years, Badal’s scheme covers everyone across communities. Besides filling a form and providing an Aadhar or voter identity card, all a pilgrim needs is a clean chit from a health practitioner, who is also deputed by the state government.
Punjab tourism minister Sohan Singh Thandal, who is an MLA from Chabbewal, said the scheme, which covered four pilgrim spots, received such a rousing response that the Punjab Government has now started sending buses to Damdama Sahib, Anandpur Sahib and Jwala Ji. “It depends on the demand, which is conveyed by the MLA to the deputy commissioner, who then relays the request to the state transport commission,” he says.
Opposition leaders say the ruling party legislators are milking the scheme to woo their constituency. Thandal admits that party workers accompany every bus that goes from his constituency. Legislators such as Baba Bakala MLA Manjit Singh Mianwind even made it a point to accompany the pilgrims on the train.
Initially, the trains were flagged off with much fanfare by deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal and environment minister Bikram Singh Majithia.
Since the inauguration of the Heritage Street and Golden Temple entrance plaza in November, the government has been running a daily free bus service to the Golden Temple from most of the 117 assembly constituencies. “It’s a bid to educate the youth about our heritage,” says Thandal.
Rupnagar deputy commissioner Karnesh Sharma says the Tirath Darshan scheme is receiving an enthusiastic response. “All four trains from Anandpur Sahib — three for Sri Hazoor Sahib and one for Kashi Dham — are overbooked. The journey is a dream come true for many,” he says.
Baba Bakala sub-divisional magistrate Tejdeep Singh Saini, who undertook the five-day pilgrimage to Sri Hazoor Sahib as the nodal officer, says, “The pilgrims don’t have to spend a paisa on food and lodging.” The train is second class and the food and stay are arranged by the railways, which also provides passengers with an insurance cover.
While the pilgrim trains may be creating a buzz at the grassroots, they have attracted the ire of the Punjab and Haryana High Court. Taking suo motu notice of the scheme in January, the court said, “Considering the fact that the state is failing to make even routine payments,” it should provide details about the source of funds for this scheme. The state then disclosed that it had set aside Rs 46.5 crore under the tourism head for this scheme. “The scheme is to strengthen the social and cultural fibre of the state,” state chief secretary Sarvesh Kaushal said.
On April 28, Ludhiana resident Kuldip Singh Khaira also filed a petition in the high court, alleging that public money was being wasted at the instance of ruling party lawmakers for “free tour to supporters” to garner votes for the elections. The government is yet to respond to the allegations.
Dr Jagroop Singh Sekhon of the political science department at Guru Nanak Dev University, terms the yatras a desperate exercise in futility that will have no impact on the ruling combine’s poll prospects. “Religion is a personal affair, why should the state government intervene? These funds should instead be spent on health and education,” he adds.
(With inputs by Surender Sharma in Chandigarh)