Bengal: Why Uttarakhand's Tourism Minister, Satpal Maharaj, Matters In Darjeeling

by Sumati Mehrishi - Mar 27, 2021 06:14 PM +05:30 IST
Bengal: Why Uttarakhand's Tourism Minister, Satpal Maharaj, Matters In Darjeeling Satpal Maharaj (Facebook)
Snapshot
  • In Darjeeling district alone, Satpal Maharaj's following is said to be around 1.5 lakh people and growing.

Earlier this month, Member of Parliament from Rajya Sabha Leishemba Sanajaoba, who represents the Bharatiya Janata Party from Manipur, urged the Centre "to put Meetei/Meitei Mayek (Manipuri script) in Indian currency notes".

This development is a reminder of something similar that took place nearly four decades ago.

Back then, another politician played a role in creating awareness in the Northeast on the issue of Nepali's inclusion the 8th Schedule.

He was sort of an outsider. He came from a region that would later be Uttarakhand, where Nepali people and culture live and thrive harmoniously with the Garhwali and Kumaoni culture and values, and count as a vital and integral element in state politics and evolution.

On 11 March 1985, Satpal Maharaj, a politician born in Uttarakhand's Haridwar district and known as a spiritual guru in Garhwal, Kumaon and other parts of India reached Darjeeling.

"Maine Gangtok tak Nepali bhasha ko manyata dilaane ke liye ek padyatra ki thhee. Uske baad Nepali bhasha ko 8th schedule mein manyata bhi mil gayee," he told this author.

Maharaj is MLA from Chaubatkhal (Pauri Garhwal district in Uttarakhand) and the state tourism minister.

He began the 'Jan Jagaran Padyatra' (Awake Humanity Foot-march) on 11 March 1985 from Gandhi Maidan in Siliguri (West Bengal).

The yatra saw him walking through Darjeeling, to cover a distance of 250 kms to reach Gangtok in Sikkim. The padyatraas in "Uttar-Poorvanchanchal (Northeast)" aimed at creating spiritual awareness.

A note on the website of Manav Dharm, an organisation supported by Maharaj mentions that it (the yatra) "also called upon the Government to recognise and alleviate the various problems endemic to these areas, and to heed the pleas of the local people, who felt grossly neglected by the authorities."

Importantly, this particular yatra "also supported and re-energised the long pending demand of recognition of the Nepali language."

He organised a public signature campaign as a Member of Parliament (MP). He told the local press in Darjeeling in December 2019: "Ek truck load kagazon ka ban gaya, wo submit kiya. Aur tab Nepali bhasha ko aathvi anusuchi (8th schedule) mein manyata milee."

In its purpose, the yatra seemed to wrap people-centric social concerns and cultural issues that directly addressed a community of people. The Nepali-speaking communities.

Maharaj has a following in, and communication with the people, within Nepal as well.

During more than two decades, Maharaj's presence amid the people of the Nepali-speaking communities has continued and formed in Uttarakhand, in West Bengal and parts of Northeast and firmed across generations.

In the process and over the decades, Maharaj saw his presence and importance in the region growing. The language that initiated the bond was Nepali, but Maharaj's own language, empowered by the satsang, pravachan and spiritual addresses he imparts in Northeast, across the country, and in Nepal, has developed its own vocabulary and audience.

In 2019 December, Maharaj dedicated an ashram to the people of Darjeeling.

He said that the ashram (the construction of which took five years to get completed) was dedicated to the elderly citizens, especially the "vridhh mataein" (elderly women addressed as mothers) of Darjeeling who face difficulties in walking the steep hill areas. He said, "Sheher ke andar jo vridhh loag hain, unki seva karne mein yeh sahayak hoga."

He added, "Bharat to Guldasta hai, ismein sabhi bhashaon ko maanyata milnee chahiye. Sabhi bhashaon ka samarthan hona chahiye. They should be encouraged."

Interestingly, in his sermons, Maharaj touches upon local issues from the past and present. These often find resonance in the subject of his spiritual address -- that envelopes aspects such as maya, shareer, aatma, positive change on the personal front, and its impact on nation building, Bharat and "Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam".

For instance, in one of his addresses to people in Siligudi, Maharaj spoke about lifestyle practices detrimental to spiritual and domestic harmony, such as the consumption of alcohol by the simple and humble workers of the tea gardens in the region during the British era.

He reportedly said that being in the influence of alcohol, the workers would spend their hard earned money on buying alcohol, they would go home and resort to creating commotion at the domestic front.

He said that when the workers eventually were exposed to spiritual values and teachings in dharma, it led to positive change in their lives and made a ground of "atmagyaan".

Maharaj is addressed as Sadhguru or Satguru or Guru Maharaj by his disciples and devotees. People's reverence for him seems to have grown owing to his pravachans, satsangas, and padyatras.

He is offered garlands in reverence. In Darjeeling district alone, his following is said to be around 1.5 lakh people and in Sikkim, nearly half of what it is in Darjeeling, and growing.

Clearly, his devotees are attracted to the pravachans and anecdotes where he shares his insights into "puraatan gyaan" and touches upon several episodes and anecdotes from different religious texts. Manav Dharm also undertakes social service as "janta ki seva".

He walked into the BJP from the Congress in March 2014, before the Lok Sabha polls. Senior leader Rajnath Singh was the leader presiding over the address and formal gathering to mark the Maharaj's entry.

He said that Maharaj has been active in the politics of Uttarakhand and is known as a national leader since the 1970s. Maharaj served in the H D Deve Gowda and I K Gujral led governments.

As evident in Rajnath Singh's welcome address back then, Maharaj's entry to the BJP was inclusive of aspects political, social and cultural -- hence uniquely valuable.

"Jab Mahabharat mein Rajasu yagya hua thha, to Shri Krishna ne jhoothee pattal uthaane ka kaam kiya thha. Aaj wohi seva main samarpit karna chahta hoon," he had said at his address, seated next to Singh. His voice during this address was the sharpest when he mentioned the need for India to leave China behind in progress and development.

In 2014, Locals in Darjeeling would notice Maharaj's presence as that of a spiritual guru "who supports the BJP". A voter told the Economic Times: “There is a dark horse too, a religious guru by the name of Satpal Maharaj, who is supporting BJP and he wields substantial influence in the hills.”

Maharaj's image as a social–reformer, his addresses and satsangas usually seem to hit matters of emotional calling in the people of the Himalayan region, where social, economic and political issues often ball up to demand community-centric addressing of problems and solutions.

Maharaj's spiritually inclined addresses are valued socially. His interactions and addresses held in Nepal barely go without the mention of Shiva as the soul of the cultural and spiritual ties that bind the people of India and Nepal.

When he talks about India in Nepal, he usually places the imagery of Kedarnath and Pashupatinath as being two expressions of Shiva himself, that emerge as one in episodical continuity, and continuation.

To the people he is addressing, his words seemingly, press gently, for the need to stay aligned with dharmic queries, and be aligned intellectually to do away with prejudices and divides that come in the way of social and cultural progress of the region.

One thing that stands out in his padyatras done in the Himalayan regions in India is that his interaction has touched villages, castes, communities, blocks, people and cultures intrinsic to Sanatan. This, while not excluding the teachings of other religions and cultures.

In Uttarakhand, people's relations with Nepal and Nepalis are looked at as an emotion. The emotion is often titled as "roti beti ka sambandh". Roti is bread and beti, daughter. In 2020, amid India's tensions with China at the LAC in Ladakh, a bit of coldness seemed to be needling this warmth in Nepal-India border areas in Uttarakhand.

Maharaj, just as any other leader from the BJP, was quick to revise and recall the emotion for the prying sections of the media and perhaps for the public on both sides in general.

In 2020, when the lockdown to fight Covid-19 was announced, Maharaj raised concerns for the return of the people of Nepal stranded in Uttarakhand.

His presence in Darjeeling would not be noticed until recently. In 2019 December, during his visit, The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) appealed to its youth wing — Gorkha Janmukti Yuwa Morcha — to withdraw its general strike called on 29 December, "keeping in mind the festive season".

A press note (dated 26 December, 2019) saw GJM president Binoy Tamang mentioning that "keeping in view of Christmas, Dukpa New Year, Sikkimese New Year, visit of Shri Satpal Maharaj to Darjeeling and inconvenience caused to tourists, he requested for Darjeeling to be a 'strike-free zone'", in order to not cause inconvenience to people. They were protesting against the CAA and NRC.

Now, let's look at the dots that connect themselves in Maharaj's work.

Devprayag in Uttarakhand is the Bindu Connecting India And Nepal. Maharaj played an instrumental role in Ram Barat — the symbolic wedding procession of Ram, which started from Devprayag and reached Janakpur (Nepal), Sita's home. Many of Maharaj's own pravachans happen in Nepal and Janakpur in Nepal.

The Ram Barat from Devprayag has Ayodhya as the sacred stopover. The Ram Barat from Ayodhya, along with the Barat from Devprayag, travelled to Nepal. The rituals in Janakpur of Rama and Sita's wedding were attended by devotees.

Maharaj told this author, "Sadbhavna pehlaate hue hum jab Janakpur pahunche to wahan badaa grand welcome hua. Parampara hum shuru kar rahe hain ki yahan se Raghunath ji Janakpur jaayen."

Maharaj was himself present at the Ramjamabhumi poojan on 5 August 2020. He has been instrumental in initiating this element of cultural exchange.

When Maharaj reportedly sent the 'Ramayana' to Xi Jinping to "remind him that 'expansionist' thinking gets bad results", urging him to read the Ramayana and "see what happened to Ravana who has intelligence and power second to none," there was, carefully and decisively, no mention to the nation that has Sita's abode Janakpuri cradled in it.

From Darjeeling to Dehradun, Maharaj packs his politically cultural messages tightly when it comes to the Nepali emotion or the intrinsic togetherness of the Pahadis with Shiv, Siya and Ram as soul.

The language of this spiritual guru's pravachans spoken and silences unspoken, clearly plays a role that's larger and much wider than his political expanse. It seems to be speaking to a small part of the Northeast, at least for now, with its voice emanating from Uttarakhand and emotion from Nepal.

Sumati Mehrishi is Senior Editor, Swarajya. She tweets at @sumati_mehrishi 

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