How Ashok Gehlot govt is wooing the Hindu voter

Rajasthan goes to polls later this year

30-Ashok-Gehlot Keeping the faith: Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot at the Sundha Mata temple in Jalore district, in 2019 | Twitter

THE LAKSHMAN DUNGRI HILLS on the outskirts of Jaipur look weather-beaten, redeemed only slightly by the shrubs that grow on the rocky terrain. Set in their midst is the Khole Ke Hanuman Ji―a popular destination for the devout―where a bright orange idol of Lord Hanuman presides over proceedings. Up a flight of stairs from the main level of the shrine, away from the rush of devotees, the air resonates with Vedic chants.

At present, 546 children are studying in the government-aided Ved Vidyalayas. - Saroj Kochar, president, Rajasthan Sanskrit Academy
They [the bjp] project themselves as the protectors of Hindu religion, but all their claims are hollow. - B.D. Kalla, Rajasthan education minister

Seated on the floor of a spacious hall are the students of a Ved Vidyalaya. The pupils, boys between 10 and 17, are in white dhotis and kurtas, with a teeka on their foreheads completing the look. They are in different stages of a five-year course that focuses on learning the Yajur Veda. One of the four vedas, it is a compilation of hymns and instructions on how rituals are to be performed.

The Ved Vidyalaya, run by the Shri Narwar Ashram Sewa Samiti, is one of 26 such residential schools operating with the Rajasthan government’s support. Education here is free, and only about 10 students are taken in every year. While private players―a temple trust or social institution―provide the infrastructure, the government, through the Rajasthan Sanskrit Academy, funds these schools and decides the curriculum and the academic calendar. The Academy comes under the state’s art and culture department.

This Vidyalaya was started in 2017 with a batch of five boys; it now has 35 students and a fresh batch of 10 will join in July. The education is in the gurukul format, with the boys staying away from home and learning in a simple setting.

Their day starts at 4.30am. After morning prayer at the temple and breakfast, they head to the regular school nearby, returning at around 1pm. Post lunch, they rest for some time, and then attend lessons in the Vedas from 4pm to 6pm. The next one hour is playtime, which is followed by evening prayer. Dinner is at 8pm, and they study from 8.30pm to 10pm. Their dormitory is right next to the main hall where they study, and the amenities are basic―just a bed with storage.

Saket Sharma, a 12-year-old, first-year student from Bainada village in Jaipur district, said the time table was tough in the beginning and he would miss his family. “I am now used to the discipline,” he said. “I know I have to work hard to realise my aim of becoming a dharm guru (religious teacher).”

Saket’s father is a schoolteacher and his paternal uncle, a pandit. He wants to take forward the tradition and his aim is to join the Army as a ‘Dharm Guru’.

32-Students-of-the-Shri-Narwar-Ashram-Sewa-Samiti-Ved-Vidyalaya Belief and systems: Students of the Shri Narwar Ashram Sewa Samiti Ved Vidyalaya on the outskirts of Jaipur | Arvind Jain

Tushar Sharma, a 16-year-old final-year student, said his father was keen that he become a pandit because that would get him respect in society. The father is a salesman in a garment store in the Rajpur Khanaya area of Jaipur district. “I will be the first pandit in my family,” said Tushar. “It will be a matter of pride for me to be known as a vidwan (scholar).”

For most of these children, the school offers them a chance to rise above their extremely humble family background. Braj Mohan Sharma, general secretary of the trust that runs the Vidyalaya, said 90 per cent of the children were sent here by their parents because of poverty. “In about 10 per cent of the cases, being a pandit is a tradition they want to carry on,” he said.

The stories and aspirations of students at the Shri Gurucharan Ved Vidyalaya, also on the outskirts of Jaipur, are similar. The school was set up in 2012 and is run in the precincts of the Pitambara Peeth. There are 13 boys, all in maroon kurtas and yellow dhotis, in the current batch. The youngest of them, 12-year-old Ankush Sharma, hails from Morpa village in the Sawai Madhopur district. His father is a driver, and a relative, who is a priest, had told him he should send Ankush to a Ved Vidyalaya. “My father wants me to become a pandit,” says the boy. “It makes him happy to hear me reciting shlokas. He says I will make the family proud.”

Vikas Sharma, who has been teaching at this Vidyalaya for ten years, said the opportunities for these children after completing the course include becoming a priest, a dharm guru in the armed forces, specialising in astrology, becoming a Sanskrit teacher or specialising in Vedic studies by studying further.

34-Students-of-the-Pitambara-Peeth-Ved-Vidyalaya Ancient wisdom: Students of the Pitambara Peeth Ved Vidyalaya, on the outskirts of Jaipur, during class | Arvind Jain

He also pointed out that the majority of the students come from Brahmin families―priesthood and Vedic knowledge are considered their domain. He admitted that there was an inherent bias against those from the marginalised castes who want to become a priest. “An upanayana ceremony is performed for every child, which means that he has been initiated into the next phase of life as a student of divine knowledge,” he said. “The ceremony is done traditionally only for Brahmin boys.”

This played out when the first Vedashram for girls was opened in April in Jaswantgarh. The debate was whether women could study the Vedas and perform the yagnas that are referred to as ‘Karm Kand’. The school, affiliated to the Rajasthan Sanskrit Academy, is funded and run privately.

“At present, 546 children are studying in the government-aided Ved Vidyalayas,” said Saroj Kochar, president, Rajasthan Sanskrit Academy. “While the Vidyalayas are allowed to take in only ten students a year, the demand for Vedic education is growing. It is important to pass on the knowledge of Vedic literature to the younger generation. The essence of sanatana dharma is in our ancient scriptures.”

For the 26 Ved Vidyalayas in 19 districts, the state funding includes Rs500 a month per student, Rs800 to meet miscellaneous office expenditure and Rs8,000 as the teacher’s salary.

Those running the Vidyalayas said they want the government to enhance the assistance, especially the salary of tutors. “Rs8,000 is not enough for a respectable living. If you want good teachers, you need to pay them more,” said Kailash Chandra Mundra, chairperson of the Kallaji Vedic Vishvavidyalaya in Chittorgarh, which also runs a Ved Vidyalaya.

The government aid was introduced during Vasundhara Raje’s term in 2006-07. The Congress government under Gehlot took it forward. In the state budget for 2023-24, Gehlot appears to have made a conscious effort to be seen as being sensitive towards the Hindu community’s causes. The aim is to neutralise the BJP’s barbs about the Congress appeasing minorities and ignoring Hindus.

Gehlot also announced in the budget that 13 more Ved Vidyalayas would be opened and that Sanskrit Mahavidyalayas would come up in 16 districts. Additionally, Rs20 crore would be spent to renovate Sanskrit Mahavidyalayas and Vidyalayas, and Rs140 crore would be earmarked to restore and renovate temples. The chief minister said that temple corridors will be developed on the lines of the Mahakal Temple in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh.

The state government also proposed to develop ‘Lav-Kush Vatikas’ in forest areas, the name bearing an obvious connection to the Ramayan, but the stated aim being to promote ecotourism.

Other initiatives with a saffron tinge include renovation work in the 593 temples under the state Devasthan Department and taking 20,000 people on pilgrimage this year under the Senior Citizen Pilgrimage Scheme.

The state government had, last year, set up a Brahmin welfare board under the social justice department to ensure the welfare of priests. This year, it announced that a centre of excellence in panchakarma would be opened at the University for Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy in Jaipur. There are also plans to open more ayurveda universities.

Taking aim at the BJP, Gehlot said on May 4: “You come up with one issue or the other to provoke people in the name of religion and caste. Aren’t we Hindus? Where is it written that the one who votes for the BJP is a Hindu?”

Rajasthan Education Minister B.D. Kalla pointed out that eight of the 26 Ved Vidyalayas came up after 2018, when the current Congress government took charge. “The BJP likes to take credit for everything,” he said. “They project themselves as the protectors of Hindu religion, but all their claims are hollow. It was not the BJP but the Congress that regularised Vedic education in the state way back in the 1980s.”

It is clear that, in an election year, there is a distinct saffron hue to the state government’s outreach.