Meet the Culprit: Unfolding the Recent PADT Crisis

On May 12, 2014:

The ongoing bone of contention between Pashupati Area Development Trust (PADT) and Mool Bhatta, the head priest, leading to a whopping financial loss of around $3,000 a day, has called for a vigorous debate on the role of religious practitioners and underlying implication of their ulterior motives. In recent years, PADT has received considerable attention on its laudable efforts towards strengthening financial transparency and the current renovation of the age-old Pashupati Nath Temple. However, the recent crisis in relation to the head priest's ambitious demands and the subsequent barriers to performing special religious rites appears blatantly pernicious. Unless a sustainable negotiation between the administration and the protesting priests gives rise to a mutual agreement, people's deep-rooted faith on well-dignified priests promoting peace and harmony will most likely falter.

Since the beginning of April, Hindu devotees haven't been able to perform any special religious rites for the well-being of their families at the revered Pashupati Nath Temple. Last month, the head priest's growing dissatisfaction at the failure of PADT to meet his exorbitant demands culminated in an unanticipated fashion. This led to a rather unfortunate consequence: his decision, in conjunction with four assistant priests, to stop performing the special religious rites offered by the visitors.

Understandably, the devout Hindus have expressed their utter disappointment at the current disconsolate prospects, questioning the inherent morality of the religious practitioners and the impending need for potential government intervention. Worse, a large number of staunch devotees, coming from outside of Kathmandu, including India and abroad, have failed to offer the religious rites and reluctantly returned their homes.

In addition to hurting the sentiments of the Hindu community, the decision of the head priest has adversely affected the financial health of PADT. Recent media coverage states that more than 40 people a day visit the temple to perform over 120 special religious rites, voluntarily paying a wide sum of money that ranges from meager $11 to exorbitant $26,000. This results to a massive loss of $1.1 million a year in total revenues. Although the PADT officials remain fairly optimistic about arriving at a mutually agreeable solution with the protesting priest, it is of utmost necessity that one evaluates the primary aspects of this current crisis for better decision-making in future.

First, it is critical that one delves into feasibility of the demands made by the head priest. The priest has reportedly called for a steep commission of 20-25 percent of the payments made for the special religious rites, including a roundtrip air fare for his wife and two sons during every visit. Similarly, he has sought substantial funds to cover the educational fees of his children. What's worse, that the head priest and his four assistant priests receive a hefty annual remuneration of $37,500 and $20,000 along with a set of handsome perks was decided only two years ago.

At one level, the current outlook appears to sow the growing seeds of dissatisfaction among the priests. Previously, the head priest who served the temple for 21 years had resigned from his post citing personal reasons in November 2012. This, however, wasn't devoid of the rumor that he had been displeased with PADT's decision to deduct taxes from the salaries of the priests. While the truth behind rumors remains indeterminate, rumor after rumor regarding their grumble has barely abated. Their alleged claim for welfare funds, as provided to other employees, in January 2013 is a case in point.

At another level, it exhibits PADT's outright failure to successfully negotiate with the protesting priests, creating room for public disappointment. In spite of the pressing need to perform continuous review and in-depth revision regarding Puja rates and facilities given to the priests and caretakers, PADT amended the rules recently for the second time after a eight-year hiatus. Still, it made an effort to increase the number of facilities for the priests and caretakers in response to a burgeoning demand for 17 types of special religious rites. Yet, the priests seemingly appear oblivious to some of these developments.

Unfortunately, the PADT management has somewhat failed at taking concrete steps towards eliminating the prominence of trade unions affiliated to various political parties. Despite the 2048 BS Labor Act that prohibits multiple unions, over 300 PADT employees reportedly owe allegiance to different trade unions directly or indirectly even today. Certainly, fear of the political influence undermining the sanctity of the temple has always existed. This, in turn, has brought forward the enormity of government silence regarding the ongoing tussle between the temple authorities and the priests.

Strikingly, the government, that has the ultimate authority to approve any change or meditate over the pressing issues surrounding the temple, plays a significant role in the whole process. Even after a PADT board meeting chaired by the Minister of Culture approves on an issue, nothing is deemed official until the Prime Minister, the patron of the PADT, decides on it and takes a final call. In the past, government has taken quick steps, good or bad, creating avenues for intervention whenever required. The UCPN-M led government's decision to appoint a Nepali Brahmin as the head priest of the temple twice in 2008 and the subsequent legalization of a centuries-old practice allowing Shaivite Dravidian Brahmins to be priests in response to a massive protest by the Hindus is a great example.

On one side, political parties have been notorious for encouraging the PADT employees to form their own unions for the sake of their vested interests. On the other side, none of the political parties have publicly shown their genuine concerns over the recent tussle between the leadership and the administration. By utter silence, the current government appears to overlook the religious interests of the Hindus that comprise 81% of the entire population.

Under these strained circumstances, the government can't afford to condone the dismal outlook prevalent in the Pashupati Nath Temple. Instead, it behooves the government to facilitate the talks between PADT and the priests at loggerheads, and bring about a sustainable solution. Further, PADT's sheer inability to meet the demands of the priest at the cost of extravagant prices is well-justified, given the existing law that ties its hands. Moreover, the priests need to be more cautious with their social conduct, as they come under more intense scrutiny.

At a deeper level, the issue isn't about a specific religion practice, rather it is about the fundamental rights of a significant population sub-group. Unless the government makes an attempt to mediate the dispute between PADT and the priests for a lasting solution, people will question the ulterior motives of the religion practitioners. That morality prevails over wealth should be visible, otherwise the current crisis will only undermine people's inherent faith towards the priests.