Panna: The curious case of royalty, religion, politics in Madhya Pradesh

The widow of the former ‘Maharajah’ of Panna is likely to walk out of prison on 10 September on bail. This has, however, been preceded by three days of public drama, charges and counter charges

The widow of the former Maharajah of Panna was arrested for breaking a 300-year temple tradition, raising questions about women's rights and age-old temple customs in Panna, Madhya Pradesh (photo: @KashifKakvi/ Twitter)
The widow of the former Maharajah of Panna was arrested for breaking a 300-year temple tradition, raising questions about women's rights and age-old temple customs in Panna, Madhya Pradesh (photo: @KashifKakvi/ Twitter)

Kashif Kakvi

Jeeteshwari Devi, widow of deceased titular maharaja Raghavendra Singh of Panna, a former princely state in Madhya Pradesh, was arrested on 7 September and sent to judicial custody on charges of breaking a 300-year tradition and hurting religious sentiments at the Jugalkishore temple on Krishna Janmashtami, disturbing public order and peace, and assaulting public servants.

A video clip that went viral on social media shows her in a traditional white widow's sari, stepping into the sanctum sanctorum of the temple adjacent to the palace built by the royal family three centuries ago. A priest appears to push her out even as another unidentified person tries to pull her by the arm. She falls to the floor as loud voices are heard admonishing her and a policewoman tries to lead her away.

Several hours after the incident, the police told media that the allegation was that she was 'inebriated' when she 'forcibly' entered the temple.

The priests, however, had a different story to tell. No woman, let alone a widow, has ever entered the sanctum sanctorum in the last three centuries; so when Jeeteshwari Devi stepped into the sanctum and picked up the ceremonial 'chawar' (hand fan), they said they tried to snatch it from her.

The viral video clip prompted plenty of questions about the treatment of women and widows in Hindu temples. Everyone has the right to worship the deities, and obscurantist traditions of Hinduism need to be discarded, said some, while others pointed out that if a member of the erstwhile royal family could be so ill-treated, ordinary people and Dalits could hardly expect anything better.

Jeeteshwari Devi's teenaged son added yet another dimension to the story. The custom for the last three centuries, he explained in a video statement, has been for the incumbent maharajah to signal the beginning of the ‘puja’ on Janmashtami. His father, who passed away in his fifties earlier this year, had done so until last year. Customarily, the district magistrate and the superintendent of police would also be in attendance.

This year, as the male heir, he had reached the temple but was denied entry. When word reached his mother, she grew upset and reached the temple to find that the nearest entrance was shut. Some temple staff, however, led her to a different entrance. When she was told that instructions had come from ‘higher ups’ to not let her only son perform the ritual, she reportedly stepped into the sanctum sanctorum in a fit of anger.

Another branch of the former royal family of Panna is closely associated with the ruling BJP in the state, with one of its members, Brijendra Pratap Singh, a powerful mining minister in the government. The two branches have long been at loggerheads for control over property worth several crores, and the police and courts have seemingly favoured the more powerful branch. This could also explain the conduct of the police and the state in this matter.

This is not Jeeteshwari Devi's first brush with the law. In July 2021, local police had arrested her on the basis of a complaint filed by her mother-in-law Dilhar Kumari, and booked Jeeteshwari, Raghavendra, their children, and another accused on charges of criminal trespass and under sections of the Arms Act.

As per the complaint, Jeeteshwari and the her co-accused tried to forcibly occupy a wing of Raj Mandir Palace, the 19th-century building which was home to the erstwhile royals. When guards tried to stop Jeeteshwari, she allegedly threatened them with a firearm. While a guard managed to disarm her, Raghavendra was reportedly injured in the fracas.

The deceased and reclusive ‘maharajah’, who took little interest in property and litigation, clearly did not help. The more vocal Jeeteshwari Devi became the public face of this branch of the family, and many people seem to resent her taking the place of her husband.

Local sources also point out that Jeeteshwari Devi had incurred the displeasure of the ruling BJP by fiercely opposing the Ken-Betwa river-linking project. The Betwa river in Madhya Pradesh flows through Panna, and she demanded that a proper scientific and geological study be done before the project got underway.

As things stand, however, the weakened branch of the family with little political power is seemingly fighting a losing battle. But the episode is likely to linger, with age-old questions about the place of women and widows in Hindu temples left unresolved.

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