Debabrata Mohanty : Bhubaneswar, Tue Sep 04 2012,IE

It is one of the most renowned and biggest temples of Orissa. Since last week, however, the Jagannath Temple of Puri has acquired another distinction. On August 29, one of its sevaks and a member of the temple managing committee was held for planning and carrying out the murder of a fellow panel member over property.

If Krushna Pratihari now finds himself bars, the murdered priest, Taluccha Bhagaban Mohapatra, was as well known for activities outside the holy sphere. Police records show around a dozen cases against him as well as conviction on a murder charge. Mohapatra was also the local municipality councillor of the ruling Biju Janata Dal.

However, Mohapatra was not the only Jagannath Temple “sevak (servitor)” to figure in police records, accessed by The Indian Express. At least 60-odd sevaks are named in the records for 2011 and 2012, charge-sheeted in criminal cases ranging from theft, extortion, murder, criminal intimidation and molestation to wrongful restraint.

“We have just checked cases of Singhadwar and Puri town police stations. If we take into account the cases of the last five years of all the police stations in and around Puri, the numbers will run into several hundreds. Most of them are essentially goons who terrorise people,” said a home department official. Currently, the temple has over 5,500 sevaks.

Pratihari allegedly planned Mohapatra’s murder from the precincts of the Jagannath temple itself. Men allegedly hired by him accosted Mohapatra in a community hall and pumped bullets into his head. While Mohapatra looked after decoration of the deities at the temple, Pratihari’s divine duties included looking after preparation of abhada, the meal served to the Lord.

After his arrest from Koraput, Pratihari told the police that his rivalry with Mohapatra stemmed from a piece of prime land in Puri which both of them wanted. Mohapatra had allegedly used his political links to scare away Pratihari.

While Mohapatra’s murder conviction was stayed by the high court, a temple sevak said: “He was essentially a landgrabber who must have amassed properties worth Rs 200 crore. Recently he had set his eyes on Emar mutt, a 300-year-old mutt in front of the Puri temple… Using his proximity with high court judges, he could browbeat officials and locals into submission. That he could get into the temple managing committee despite being convicted in a murder case shows his influence.”

Police officials said they were getting an increasing number of cases involving temple officials. “During the rath yatra, it depresses us to see women devotees being manhandled or at times molested by these people. When someone goes to the temple, some of these priests accost them and demand to be paid at least Rs 500. If they are paid less, they start abusing the devotee and often manhandle them,” said an official.

“This January, a temple priest threw a bottle at a middle-aged woman when she protested against his fleecing tourists. The bottle hit her head, causing deep injuries. Though a case was lodged, the assailant is yet to be identified,” said a police officer.

Chief administrator of Jagannath temple Arvind Padhee admitted that people with criminal cases should not be a part of the temple. “It’s true that people with impeccable backgrounds should be there. But it is difficult to change things in an orthodox temple. Still, in the last two months, we have managed to bring some discipline by getting the servitors to behave well with the tourists and to get the rituals done on time. We would call an emergency meeting of the temple managing committee in a fortnight to discuss these issues,” he said.

Senior sevak Rabindra Pratihari added that not all servitors were bad. “There may be some bad apples, but servitors are part of our society. When the society is facing moral degradation, why blame servitors alone?”