Shillong: Trouble broke out at the 500-year-old Nartiang Durga temple in Meghalaya's West Jaintia Hills district on Monday as two groups clashed over the conduct the rituals. 

Forty people, including 19 police personnel, were injured in the midnight clash. Additional SP of the district P Shiem was also among those injured. Following this, the Meghalaya high court, acting on a petition filed by the villagers, has ordered the police to arrest the village headman and his nominee for priesthood if they did anything that would disturb the peace and harmony during the Durga puja rituals.   

The single bench, which heard the matter on Tuesday, directed the district administration to ensure that the puja festivities "continue in a peaceful and pious manner" according to the desire of the villagers.

In his order, the judge said, "The DC and SP of West Jaintia Hills district are hereby directed to ensure strictly that the headman should not bring his own priest and create law and order problems. If the headman and the priest, Swappon Bhattacharjee, or any other person unnecessarily create a problem, they should be put behind bars to ensure that Puja is performed in a pious and proper manner."

The Nartiang Durga temple has been traditionally looked after by the Deshmukh Brahmins, who were brought to the state from Maharashtra by the Jaintia kings many centuries ago. However, after the death of head priest Uttam Desmukh in March this year, there ensued a competition for the powerful position of head priest.

The majority of the villagers wanted Oni Maskut Deshmukh, a permanent priest of the temple, to take over as the head priest after Uttam Deshmukh's death. The village headman, however, wanted his man Swappon Bhattacharjee, whom he had brought from outside the village, as the head priest of the centuries-old temple.

The headman's action was resented by the villagers, who saw it as a violation of the ancient tradition of Deshmukh Brahmins officiating as head priests of the temple. This resulted in a fight between the two groups, just a couple of hours before the Durga puja rituals started on Monday night, a village elder informed. 

He said that the two groups started attacking each other with sticks, embers, stones, and sand, forcing the police to take action.

During the hearing, the counsel for the petitioners informed the court that the puja was underway peacefully till 10.30 pm when the headman brought his men who started to attack the devotees. 

The villagers, numbering around 900, also submitted a resolution to deputy commissioner Garod LSN Dykes on Tuesday, informing that they have decided that the puja at the temple be conducted by Oni Maskut Deshmukh.

The situation is under control now and a senior district official said that everyone was cooperating with the court order.

Additional police personnel has been deployed at the temple, according to the district SP L Syiem.

With PTI inputs