Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar recently announced a government plan of Rs 72 crore for the redevelopment of Punourdham in Sitamarhi, the believed birthplace of Hindu goddess Sita. The announcement, made on December 13, comes just before the scheduled inauguration of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, which has been highly publicized by the BJP and the Sangh Parivar.
The Bihar government’s decision has stirred controversy, sparking a war of words between the JD(U) and its former ally the BJP. The plan involves developing Sitakund and beautifying its surroundings to attract more devotees, and it is in line with the Centre’s list of 15 tourism-cum-religious places on the Ramayana Circuit.
The state government’s plan includes the creation of a parikrama path, a Sita Vatika, Luv-Kush Vatika, a shanti mandap, a cafeteria, a parking lot, and a 3-D animation film depicting Sita’s life. The state’s tourism department is also working on redeveloping about a dozen sites associated with Lord Ram and Sita.
The BJP has criticized the JD(U) for allegedly using the redevelopment plan to deflect allegations of Muslim appeasement and engaging in “soft Hindutva” ahead of the Lok Sabha polls. However, the JD(U) has defended its position, emphasizing that the development of sites related to Sita is essential for Bihar’s culture and tourism, and not a political strategy.
The BJP has accused the JD(U) of concentrating solely on the Ram Temple’s development while ignoring other significant places, including those associated with Sita. Neeraj Kumar, a JD(U) MLC and member of the Bihar State Board of Religious Trust, stated that the government respects all religions and works for the development of all religious places, not just those associated with Hinduism.
The JD(U) has emphasized that there is no politics involved in their redevelopment plan. They also criticized the Centre for allocating Rs 3,000 crore for the Ram Temple development without simultaneously focusing on sites related to Sita. They argued that the development of Sita-related sites is equally important and should not be overlooked.
The BJP has labeled the JD(U)’s move as “soft Hindutva,” claiming that it is an attempt to appeal to the Hindu vote base ahead of the elections. Despite these political disputes, it remains uncertain whether the BJP can leverage Hindutva sentiment in Bihar during the Lok Sabha elections, given the state’s historic association with socialist politics.
In the broader Opposition space, the focus on Sita as a way to counter the BJP’s Hindutva push has also been observed. During the Haryana leg of the Bharat Jodo Yatra earlier this year, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi criticized the RSS’s omission of Sita from their salutation, emphasizing the significance of Sita in Indian history.
The controversy surrounding the redevelopment plan for Sitamarhi reflects the complex intersection of politics, religion, and culture in Bihar, and its ramifications on the upcoming elections.