A party claiming to represent fisherfolk has claimed that the Gorakhnath temple belongs to the community and sought its handover, creating a headache for shrine head and Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, ahead of Sunday's Lok Sabha by-election on his home turf of Gorakhpur.
'The temple belongs to Nishads (fishing community); the upper castes captured it by force in the 19th century. So, its mahant (a post now held by Adityanath, a Kshatriya) should be a Nishad,' Sanjay Nishad, 56, president of the Nirbal Indian Shoshit Hamara Aam Dal (Nishad) Party, has told a rally.
Sanjay Nishad's demand appears calculated to help his son, Praveen, fielded by the Samajwadi Party from Gorakhpur. It would deepen Yogi Adityanath's worries over the prestige battle, already turned tricky with the Bahujan Samaj Party's decision to support the candidate of arch-rival Samajwadi Party.
While the three-year-old Nishad Party fought last year's Assembly elections alone and won a single seat, Bhadohi, Praveen's induction by the Samajwadis this time suggests a budding understanding.
Sanjay had caused a surprise on Tuesday by visiting the temple with Praveen and over 200 supporters and praying there.
'Mahant Adityanath and his predecessors have used the temple for political gain since 1967, when the then mahant, Digvijaynath, was elected MP,' Sanjay said. 'We want to end this tradition of exploitation.'
Yogi Digvijaynath was Independent MP from Gorakhpur from 1967 to 1970. His successor as mahant, Avaidyanath, was elected in 1970 as an Independent, in 1989 on a Hindu Mahasabha ticket and from 1991 to 1998 as BJP member. Yogi Adityanath was MP from 1998 to 2017 but resigned after becoming Chief Minister.
The Nishad community, which BJP sources said 'always voted for Adityanath', accounts for 3.5 lakh of the 19 lakh voters in Gorakhpur. The constituency also has over 3 lakh Muslim and 2 lakh Dalit voters, considered Samajwadi and BSP supporters, respectively.
The BJP sources said that after Sanjay's temple visit, Sangh and BJP cadres had started a door-to-door campaign in areas with substantial Nishad populations. The party has asked Jay Prakash Nishad, state minister for animal husbandry and fisheries, to campaign in these localities.
"The Nishads' vote is very important to us," a BJP campaigner said. Party candidate Upendra Dutt Shukla played down the possible loss of Nishad votes.
Akhilesh Singh, former Samajwadi MP from adjoining Maharajganj, said his party had always been neck-and-neck with its rivals, if not ahead of them, in three of Gorakhpur's five Assembly segments: Pipraich, Campiyarganj and Gorakhpur Rural.
"We believe that the loss of fisher-folk's votes because of the Nishad Party's declaration of support for us would cost the BJP heavily. The temple's mahants used to win because of the fishing community's support," Singh said.
Ghanshyam Rahi, BSP district president, said: "The nexus between the BJP and the temple would be vulnerable this time."
The Nishad claim on the temple is based on the legend of Matsyendranath (Lord of the Fishes), the guru of Gorakhnath who founded the Nath sect and the shrine.
The baby Matsyendranath was apparently born under an inauspicious star and was thrown into the ocean by his parents and swallowed by a fish.
While inside it, he overheard Shiva teaching his wife Parvati the secrets of yoga and started practising the discipline. He came out of the fish after many years on attaining salvation.