Control Over The Temples
Why is government interfering with our temples?
The issue has now reached the supreme court. Is it the government’s job to regulate temples and priests?
This interference does not happen in other religions. Why is this discrimination only against the Hindu temples? What did the Supreme Court say in this matter? Will the age old system of handling temple affairs by governments change?
Many prominent people raised these issues, for example, Jaggi Vasudev, popularly known as Sadhguru. He said, “When everything is being privatised then why is temple management still under the government control?” It seems true on face value. What is the need of govt. interventions in temple administrative matters? Can’t temple community handle it? What is the need of Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act?
Different states have their own acts. Tamil Nadu has Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments Act 1959, and Madras has Madras Hindu Religious Act and Charitable Endowment Act 1951. There are 5 Devaswom boards in Kerala which governs these Hindu temples, which is covered under Travancore-Cochin Hindi Religious Institutions Act 1950. So all governments have control over the Hindu temples – many people say it’s wrong.
The allegation is that the handling by government has led to shortage of fund, with no money for proper maintenance. Problems with HR&CE Act are its poor maintenance of temples, non-digitization of manuscripts, improper conduct of rituals. The allegation is that the state has the control over money, for instance, from temples like Tirupati, the money goes to state government.
Numbers on social media suggest that temples are closing in thousands, there are 2000 such temples which ran out of fund for prayers. The serious allegation reached the Supreme Court. Is there any truth to these allegations? Is there a loot by politicians? Or is there any kind of politics involved? The special target is on the Kerala and Tamil Nadu governments.
What are these governments saying in their defence?
The states are saying that they are not earning money from temples, and that these are wrong assumptions that temples are under control. The state governments say that the acts which manage temples in the state clearly mention that whatever amount goes from the temple to the HR&CE department as administration charges can only be used for the department’s functioning, and cannot be pocketed by government officials.
Whatever donations are raised from the temples are given to the temple – whether from collections in the hundi, or given privately – goes into its bank account, and budget is then defined. Also, states further said that the HR&CE department oversees the budget use for temple – no official can pocket the money. Government has mentioned only administrative charges for its department functioning. For example, Tamil Nadu govt. said that it charges 4-12% of a temple’s income who manages the temples. The management fees help to pay salaries of officers in department.
So, the allegation that temple money is used to run government is not correct. A recent example is that the Kerala High Court said donation from Guruvayur Devaswom fund to Chief Minister Relief Fund for Covid-19 (CMDRF) is illegal, because this money was not used for temple administration. So, how is the allegation right? This is the defence – but many questions still are unanswered.
The unanswered questions
- Why is this rule only on temples, and not on mosques, churches, and gurudwaras? Why is there a discrimination in secular state?
- Is there no malpractice by officers and mismanagement of funds?
- Government is saying that they are secular, they are not trying to govern religious aspects or rituals of temples, they only manage administration. If this is the case, then why are the govt. nominating priest?
The history of temple control
The issue is complicated so we have to tread back in history as to why government entered temple administration.
Firstly, there are various theories as to why the British entered temple administration. One theory is that the British wanted to control Hindu temples, suppress Hindus and spread Christianity, so they gained authority over temples slowly. On the other hand, there is another argument that – when the British took over the country, the transition of power was not smooth, there were still some small states that controlled temples, had funding and power.
That is why the British interfered to regularize temple management, for instance, appointment of priest. But, the Christian missionaries were annoyed, demanded separation, so the British stepped back, created a separation between state and temple in 1863. But, Indian legislators in 1919 wanted control over temples again, hence, Madras Hindu Religious Endowments Act 1926 was implemented. The logic given was that the temple is not just a place of worship, it is a way of life – there are many things to manage. So, control by one private entity could lead to misuse, so the temple administration started.
Is there any other institution that runs practically on no cost, when temple administration mostly runs on at cost or an honorarium? Tamil Nadu govt. is saying that they are not looting temples. In addition, they said that the Tamil Nadu state govt. allocates crores of rupees from its annual budget to the HR&CE Department. And, they manage funds not because of religion but to protect culture, tradition.
Agreed for a second that there is no loot, but the argument does not end here. There is an emotional angle to it too. Why is the temple management under state jurisdiction? It should be independent – many have demanded of independence, such as Viswa Hindu Parishad, Rajya Sabha MP Subramaniam Swami (he was also the one who voiced to free the Sabrimala Temple) etc., similar demands in Kerala too. Waqf board and churches are independent – whether there is money angle or not. Then, why is this political control on temples?
The opposite argument is – if made independent, will there be no corruption and politics in temple administration? Also, it’s because of the state control that the Dalit can visit temples and take part in trustee nomination. This cannot happen under a private body. Social justice can only be done by the government.
Still, the topic is complicated. The Supreme Court has given right to control Hindu temples in matters of administration, but where is the line between matters of administration and matters of religion?
For example, govt. says that they won’t interfere in rituals and prayers, but government will decide how much money to be spent on these rituals and prayers. Govt. will decide appointment of priest. So is this not an interference? Where is the line? That is for the Supreme Court to decide now.
Battle of control in court
The bench comprises of the chief justice and senior justice. FormerBJP Delhi spokesperson Ashwini Upadhyay filed petition for Hindu, Jain, Sikh, Buddhist to have same control as Muslim, Parsi and Christian. Secondly, he said that the temple regulation endowment acts violate articles 14, 15, 26 – hence should be removed.
Senior advocate Gopal Sankar Narayanan said that in Karnataka 15,000 temples are closed down, and that these are closed because of poor state administration. Chief Justice Lalit retorted if there was proof or documentation to the allegation.
The second interesting aspect that the Supreme Court noted is the scale of wealth generation by temples. The highest court said, “We can’t compare with other religions. They may have their own systems of checks and balances; we don’t know that. But the scale is definitely different.” Supreme Court is against the demand of no system of checks and balances. Doesn’t scale matter?
Thirdly, the Supreme Court said, “There is 150 years of history – these temples, or places of worship, or these denominations – they have functioned in a particular way. Which means they have catered to the larger needs of society, and not only their temple, and not aggrandize themselves. After all, why did we have the inams (land parcels granted by erstwhile rulers) abolition?”
Can that be forgotten and abolished. The court also said, “You are virtually rolling the clock back, because all these temples, centres of religion had become places of wealth. Some of them like Sringeri, etc., gave it up voluntarily.”
So, what will happen to temple management if the 150-year-old model ceases to exist all of a sudden? That is why the Supreme Court wants more material and information – two weeks’ time granted to petitioners. The next hearing is in 19th September.
It is correct that in day to day activities of temple government, interference may not be required. But, if there is no state control, power will be concentrated in few hands, which is also not desirable.
Solution lies in the middle ground – state control should not be excessive, as well as not entirely off the table. State’s role should be to oversee the religious institutions and ensure smooth functioning. Many state temple and free temple activists demand that state-appointed-people in temples should always be kept under observation and scrutiny so that misuse of funds does not happen.
These activists also say that donation money should be tracked. Also, MP and MLA funds should be tracked. Alert and aware people, ensure smooth operation whether temple or democracy.
It’s a very sensitive issue, of which the solution can’t be easy and simple. The government should not increase its interference, but create an overall responsible system.
[Images from different sources]
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