A long pending demand by the Hindu Nationalists of India, spearheaded by the Sangh Parivar, has been that of removing government control over Hindu temples, especially when no such control exists over the places of worship of the other two major religious communities in our country, viz. the Muslims and the Christians, which are owned and operated by their respective religious organizations and even receive monitory support and grants from the government rather than paying them a single paise for their upkeep.
The above issue, which is extremely sensitive in nature, was addressed by the Karnataka Govt. on March 4, when the Chief Minister of Karnataka, B.S. Bommai, who incidentally holds the Finance portfolio too, while presenting his first state budget, proposed the removal of government control over temples in the state coming under the purview of the Endowment Department. These temples can now function autonomously without having to seek permission from the government to utilize their income for development purposes.
It is noteworthy to mention that the Muzrai or Endowment Department has 34,563 temples under its purview which have been classified under three grades –viz. A,B and C on the basis of the revenue generated by them. Category A comprises of those temples whose annual revenue exceeds Rs.25 lakh and there are 207 temples which are under this category. 139 temples come under category B as they generate an annual revenue between Rs.5 to Rs.25 lakh and 34, 217 temples come under Category C as the annual revenue generated between them is less then Rs. 5 lakh.
CM Bommai further announced that compensation for government-owned land will be increased from Rs.48,000 to Rs. 60,000 to assist the temple priests and other temple personnel. The Chief Minister of the state, which is famous for being the nation’s IT Hub also mentioned that, an ‘Intergrated Temple Management System’ software would be used for internet access to the temples’ various services. It is pertinent to mention that B.S. Bommai had earlier proposed a law aimed at ‘freeing’ Hindu temples from state control while speaking to the BJP state executive meeting last December.
In this context, it would be noteworthy to mention that another BJP ruled state, Uttarakhand had also announced removal of government control over 51 of the temples located in the state, in April last year. The big question that one may ponder upon is the reason for making a big deal of government control over hindu temples and how such a control originated.
The governmental control over temples is a British legacy which have been maintained by the Indian governments, post independence. Nobody thought much of it, primarily due to lack of awareness regarding the same. However, with the growth of the hindu nationalist community, thanks to easy access to one another via social media , with their voices and opinions receiving cognizance due to the presence of a nationalist government and spurred by the recent spate of incidents, particularly the Sabarimala case, the urgency to free the temples from the shackles of government control grew.
Before the British colonizers invaded India, temples were managed by local communities which helped facilitate them as centers for art, culture and even that of a massive decentralized trade network, as per author, Sanjeev Sanyal. The same can be evidenced through the art and architecture of the ancient Indian temples. The temples were also recipients of a substantial amount of charity from the devotees, which included property that was used for the benefit of the community. Such benefits included rest houses for the pilgrims, pathshalas, gaushalas and academic institutions for the advancement of education and provision of food for the poor.
The vast treasuries of wealth available with the temples, both of movable and immovable kind soon attracted the attention of the British colonizers, whose primary purpose to invade India was with the intention of looting her wealth. Besides, the temples being the centres of hindu education and awakening, the British felt that one of the significant means of weakening the hindu establishment would be to establish control over their temples. With that end in mind, the British introduced the Madras Regulation VII of 1817. However, owing to objection from the Christian missionaries regarding the control of Hindu temples by Christians, which they considered demeaning, the British East India Company, in 1840, directed that the temples be returned to their trustees and Mutts in case of prominent temples and the Religious Endowment Act of 1863 was formulated to hand over temple administration to the trustees from the British government, who carried on with the task of the primary upkeep of these temples. The temple smooth administration of temples by the trustees continued until the British introduced the Madras Religious and Charitable Endowments Act 1925. The same led to mass scale protests from the Muslim and the Christian communities, while the Hindus, who always lacked unity and lived in denial mode, kept quiet. That led to redrafting of the Act excluding the Muslim and Christian institutions and included only the Hindu religious institutions in its purview. It was renamed as the Madras Hindu Religious and Endowment Act 1927. In 1935, a significant and debilitating change was included in the said Act by way of Act XII under which temples could be notified and their administration taken over by the government, thus rendering the temples vulnerable to government take over anytime as they deemed fit. A board constituting of 3 to 5 members was formed for the purpose.
After independence, the Tamil Nadu government took control of temples and their funds by passing an act in 1951 called the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act, 1951. The act was challenged, first in the Madras High Court and then in the Supreme Court in association with the Shiroor Math case. Many provisions of the 1951 Act were struck down by both the courts and a changed Act, The Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act was brought forth in 1959. The basic purpose of the Act was stated to be the prevention of misuse of income and to ensure proper administration. Under the new Act, the Hindu Religious Endowments Board was abolished and its authority was vested in Hindu religious and charitable endowments department of the government, headed by a commissioner. Hence, this was a case of ‘Frying Pan to the Fire’ for the Hindu religious institutions with a tightening of governmental noose on them. If the government gets a feel that any hindu public charitable institution is being mismanaged, them the instant commissioner may inspect and bring it directly under government control. However, such provisions are not applicable for the Muslim and Christian organizations.
A study, particularly on a temple in Tamil Nadu has revealed that 65-70% of the temple income is used for non-temple, or specifically for administrative purposes. The temple priests receive meager or no salary, thus compelling them to move away from such profession for greener pastures. Further, temples, which earlier used to be centers of hindu learning, were hardly found to be utilizing their funds for education in the vedas or imparting knowledge on Sanatan Dharma. Hence, the government control over hindu temples were covertly found to be hampering the practice of the hindu culture, which may gradulally succeed in wiping out the hindu ideals totally from the minds of the hindus, particularly the younger ones. Another significant aspect of the harmful impact of government control over hindu temples is the tax applicable on hundi donations to these temples when their incomes are either not spent by the government appointed officers or if the surplus money available with them is invested on fixed deposits. These way Hindu temples have become a tool for contributing to the government treasury, which is not the case with others.
The significant observations with regard to government control over hindu temples are as follows:
It seems that the government is keen only to ensure proper administration and ‘correct’ utilization funds of hindu religious institutions and not of the others. This is derogatory to hindu interests in the sense that it appears as if the government has less faith on the hindus.
It is only the contributions made by the hindus to their temples that the government utilizes for its myriad programmes while that donated to other religious institutions is used for their upkeep and betterment, thus facilitating the practice of those religions rather than that of the hindus.
The temple collections are not used for setting up institutions for imparting knowledge on hindu religious texts and sanatan dharma leading to the formation of a crop of hindus who have little or no knowledge of their religion and hence have a tendency of loathing it and moving away from it.
The government charges a hefty fee from temples for their temples but pay little or no salary to the priests, who eke out their living from devotee donations and offerings, thus discouraging hindus to take this up as profession.
Temple property has de-facto become pseudo government property. For example, in Tamil Nadu alone, 47,000 acres of land and more than 10 million square feet of valuable sites belonging to Hindu Temples have been encroached or taken over by the government, often for serving the non hindu interests.
Often idols and other precious treasures and artifacts go missing from temples. If the controlling authority is the government itself, it is an uphill task to fix accountability for the same, thus encouraging such activities. Recently a disturbing video emerged on social media, of such theft.
The ancient lineage of priesthood is interrupted due to government interference.
Government control automatically leads to political interference, which goes against the interest of the hindus. An incident in 2017 of appointment of a prominent non hindu political leader in the trustee board of an important hindu temple in West Bengal, that of the Shiv Temple in Tarkeshwar had led to mass scale protests by the hindus leading to his removal.
Many hindu activists have raised their voices against such bias against hindu temples in the form of government control over the same. Such a law permitting government control over hindu institutions not only violates the Articles 14 (advocates equality and equal treatment of all Indian citizens), 15 (Speaks against discrimination on grounds of religion, cast, creed) and 26 ( provides a natural right to all communities to control their own religious institutions) but also goes against the basic structure of the Indian Constitution. ‘How can a secular state exercise control over religious bodies‘ – they argue. Advocate Sai Deepak has been a prominent name who has constantly been fighting for the freedom of hindu temples from the clutches of government control. Advocate Ashwini Upadhyay too, filed a PIL with regard to the same last September.
The common belief is that it is the collective activism of all the hindu activists, coupled with the intense pressure exerted by the Sangh Parivar which led to such a step by the Karnataka government. Some progress has been made and the others should follow suit. There is no element of doubt that the archaic British laws, imposing government control over hindu temples had been retained by their apt followers, well after independence. Was the intention same – to wipe out the hindu spirit from the minds of the hindus? Hence, with the installation of a nationalist government at the Centre, it is natural to expect that such control should be done away with it and the Karnataka government has taken the right step in that direction for the other state governments to emulate.