Bus tickets issued by Andhra Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation (APSRTC) have triggered a major row in the state, after pilgrims travelling from Tirumala to Tirupati started circulating images online of an unusual advertisement on the back of the ticket - a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which is considered a sacred city in Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
The advertisement, issued by the state's Department of Minority Affairs, spoke about a 'holy Jerusalem tour' for Christians in the state, "with less cost and all facilities provided". It also stated that "in the past four and a half years, several Christians were able to take this holy pilgrimage."
In another set of tickets issued to passengers to Tirupati, there were advertisements for the state's annual Hajj pilgrimage offered to Muslims.
Thousands of pilgrims visit the Tirumala temple every single day, with the footfall even going up to 1 lakh on special occasions.
As soon as some pilgrims brought the ads to the notice of APSRTC authorities, The BJP in the state immediately latched on to the issue, with former Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD) Trust Board member and party leader G Bhanu Prakash Reddy and others staging a protest at the office of the APSRTC Regional Manager in Tirupati.
"How justified is it, to advertise pilgrimages related to other religions as devotees are on their way to visit one of the holiest sites in Hinduism? This is condemnable," Prakash Reddy told the media.
"The state government has the responsibility to act and take strict action against those responsible. If the state tries to dilute the case, devotees across Andhra Pradesh will come together and protest to protect the sanctity of Tirumala,” he added.
BJP MLA from Hyderabad Raja Singh also stepped in, demanding that Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy take action on the issue.
The Chief Minister's Office was quick to respond, issuing a statement which quoted Endowments Minister Vellampalli Srinivas saying, "On hearing that tickets from the Tirupati-Tirumala route are issuing advertisements on other religions, we immediately ordered an inquiry into the matter. We found that the tickets were printed during the previous TDP government's term."
The statement added that the tickets, which were supposed to be issued in Nellore depot, had come to Tirupati depot in Chittor district. This was against the rules, the statement pointed out.
“Information is being spread on social media with the intention of hurting devotees' sentiments and disturbing peace in the state. Legal action will be taken against individuals and media houses spreading such misinformation," it added.
The YSRCP had earlier faced controversy over the religion of former MP YV Subba Reddy, who is also Jagan's maternal uncle. Subba Reddy was appointed as the Chairman of the TTD Trust Board and social media was rife with rumours that he was a Christian like his nephew.
However, Subba Reddy strongly denied the allegations, stating, "I was born a Hindu and I will die a Hindu. These allegations and smear campaign against me hurt me deeply."