Himachal Pradesh Assembly election 2017: How 'royal' politicians in hill state take divine route to electoral success

With just one day to go before polling for the 13th Vidhan Sabha elections in Himachal Pradesh, the kardars (managers) of the local deities in the higher regions of Shimla, parts of Solan, Sirmaur, Kullu and Mandi are busy carrying out a custom known in local parlance as loon and lota (putting salt in water kept in small brass pot)a practice that sees religion dictate regional politics, with deities 'instructing' followers (read voters) on selecting the 'right' candidate.

The custom, in ancient times, was used for solving disputes and extracting the truth from a person. Now, the peculiar custom is being employed as a means to garner electoral gains by a few, who implore the voters in these hill areas to pledge their votes to members of the royal hill clans in the name of the local deity.

The locals are made to believe that if they don't vote for the 'royal' politicians, they will incur the wrath of their deity.

Himachal Pradesh. Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

For centuries, the lives of people in the hill state have been controlled by the will of the deities, patronised by royal clans (around 36 still exist in the state). But as the power structures in the state started shifting away from the devtas, the royals became politically active to retain their control.

Even now, during the election time, the will of the devtas, or local deities, is invoked under the garb of the old custom. The custom persists in parts of Himachal, despite the state's commendable performance in social indices and widespread land reforms.

Deities still 'rule' hill state

In Himachal Pradesh, each town and village has its own devta. They have familial relationships, just like humans, and often visit each other. Some are even known for their diverse temperaments. All of them have a retinue of attendants looking after their daily needs – kardar (manager), kayath (cashier), pujari (priest), goor (medium/oracle).

All their decisions are 'spoken' via their goors. They own large chunks of land and carry out judicial, executive and legislative duties for smooth governance of their subjects, despite democratic institutions in place to do the same.

As late as July 2017, Jamlu Devta of Malana – a region infamous for the production of high-quality charas (hashish) known as Malana Cream – 'ordered' the local villagers to close all the guesthouses running in the village. Most villagers shut down their units in compliance with the divine decree. Apparently, the devta was angered and accused the guesthouses of polluting the local culture.

Similarly, in 2015, despite a high court clearance to the Rs 5,000 crore Himalayan Ski Village Project in Manali, the construction had to be stalled because of the intervention of the devtas, who disapproved of the investments made by Alfred Ford.

Just like these, many precedents have proven the mettle of the devtas over the decisions of the democratically elected governments. After years of delay in Jaypee group's Karchham-Wangtoo hydroelectric project, in 2006, after the construction finally resumed, people of the affected villages rallied to Wangtoo, in Kinnaur district, as per the wishes of the devta, to set up a symbolic shrine and vowed not to let the work proceed.

When the electoral process was introduced in Himachal, the initial response of its people was to seek advice from the devtas. The practice of invoking devtas is common before any important event, not just the elections.

Elected politicians in the state also participate. Anurag Thakur, member of Lok Sabha from Hamirpur, invokes the Indra Naag (deity for rain) a day before all IPL matches so that it doesn't rain.

"Barring Lahaul-Spiti, where Buddhism is predominant and in the plains, in the interiors of Kullu, Sirmaur, Mandi, a few regions of Kinnaur and upper reaches of Shimla, the practice of seeking advice from devtas is very common," says Shrinivas Joshi, former special secretary to the Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh.

"With the spread of education and internet penetration, these old practices are now fading... but, not entirely," says Shailendra Kalia, of MBM News Network. For example, he says, a devta would still make a prediction when asked, but a follower of Congress would interpret and retell it as a prediction of his party's victory, while a BJP supporter would tell otherwise.

"But royalty is a different tale... the royal blood is considered to be related to devtas, hence people vote the royalty and there is no dearth of it in Himachal," adds Joshi.

For example, Kasumpty in upper Shimla region has three royals contesting this election. According to tradition, at least one vote from each family must go to the royalty to avoid dev-dosh (wrath of devtas).

"Maheshwar Singh (MLA, Himachal Lokhit Party), the chief priest of Raghunath temple, Kullu, would always win the election, no matter which party he joins... people believe that he is related to the devta," says a contestant from Kullu, not willing to be named.

When the Congress government decided to take over Raghunath temple in September 2016, allegedly because Maheshwar Singh was planning to merge his party with the BJP, Kullu Devi Devta Kardar Sangh termed the government decision political, and called a meeting to oppose it, and chalk out a strategy.

When a contestant doubts the integrity of voters, especially from the royal clans, he/she asks voters of a particular village through the kardar to take a sip of water mixed with salt. Then the kardar recites a mantra to complete the process. It is believed that if the voters betray, they would dissolve like the salt dissolves in the water.

The practice, thus, helps the royalty politically. "The feudal relationships in the guise of devta's kill the basic spirit of democracy. Unfortunately, these practices are still common in many parts of Himachal Pradesh," says Tikender Panwar, of the Communist Party (Marxist) in Shimla.

Read live updates on the Himachal Pradesh Assembly Election 2017 here.

Updated Date: Nov 09, 2017 08:50 AM

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