Pilibhit sees mother Maneka’s ‘arrogant’ streak in Varun

By Sharat Pradhan, IANS,

Pilibhit (Uttar Pradesh) : As Varun Gandhi tries to brazen out the allegations of making communal speeches, people here are not entirely surprised. They see in him the “arrogant” streak of his mother Maneka Gandhi, a five-time MP from this Lok Sabha constituency, who once punished a temple priest for not looking after a monkey.

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Notwithstanding their unflinching support for Maneka, who has won five out of six elections from here since 1989, people in Pilibhit have often been at the receiving end of her behaviour.

“I am not surprised at all at Varun’s behaviour. I have personally experienced Maneka treating her own party workers like slaves. I have been a witness to her arrogance each time she visits the constituency,” said Naresh Verma, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader.

The BJP picked Maneka Gandhi’s son Varun to contest the coming Lok Sabha elections from Pilibhit, but the party has been quick to distance itself from 29-year-old Varun after he allegedly made hate speeches against Muslims.

One incident that remains fresh in the memory of many here is the demolition of an old temple simply because its priest failed to follow the diktat of Maneka Gandhi, then India’s social justice minister.

“I feel Varun has taken after his mother because she harassed me no end,” said Rajesh Giri, the priest.

The story dates back to January 1999 when during one of her routine visits to her constituency, Maneka noticed a monkey looking unwell along the Pilibhit-Puranpur highway. An avid animal lover, she stopped her car and carried the monkey with her.

Some distance ahead when she saw a temple, she stopped and requested the temple priest, Giri, to take care of the animal until she was back.

Giri readily agreed and deposited the monkey in a cage on the temple premises. But soon monkeys in the neighbourhood besieged the temple.

“There was just no way but to set the monkey free, otherwise the way hordes of monkeys had surrounded the temple, it had become difficult for me to perform even my daily rituals, leave alone for devotees who were scared in the presence of so many of the animals in and around the temple premises,” Giri told IANS.

A helpless Giri set the monkey free. Little did he realise the price he would have to pay for this.

Two days later while she was on her way back, Maneka Gandhi stopped over at the temple to collect the animal, which she planned to carry to Delhi. On being told about the fate of the monkey, she became furious and took the priest to task.

“My repeated plea and efforts to explain that under the circumstances I could not have done anything else fell on deaf ears,” Giri said. “Then she threatened to teach me a lesson.”

What followed came as a shock to the priest, as barely three days later a public works department team along with a contingent of the armed police pulled down the temple. Officially it was described as an “anti-encroachment” move.

“The temple had been there for ages – much before the highway was made, so how could it be treated as an encroachment,” asked Giri, who ran from pillar to post without getting any relief.

He finally succeeded in mobilising public support. Mass protests followed, with road-blocks and slogan shouting held all over Garra village, about 23 km from Pilibhit town.

Former Samajwadi Party legislator V.M. Singh, meanwhile, moved a public interest petition before the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court, whose then senior judge, Justice S.H.A. Raza, promptly ordered the restoration of the temple.

At that time, a Muslim judge had helped save the temple – a fact that may be entirely lost on Varun Gandhi today.

(Sharat Pradhan can be contacted at [email protected])