Government agencies responsible for maintenance and renovation of old temples are stuffing the broken portions with stones, while artisans having expertise in carving traditional designs are dying of hunger.
Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh had some time back dubbed the term “secular” as the “most misused” word in the country’s political discourse. He also pointed out that due to this rampant misapplication of the word, there have been instances of tension in our society, and hence it must end now. The assertion has not come out of the blue. Such wordplay by a section of the ideological-political spectrum in a bid to show Hinduism in poor light has proved quite damaging to our social fabric. The overbearing view that the majority community should not be allowed to dominate and hence kept under tight leash has led to enacting laws so as to control their endowments while their minority counterparts enjoy all the freedom, sometimes to unreasonable extent.
Supreme Court lawyer J. Sai Deepak says, “The Hindu temples have been usurped upon by the very institution that is duty-bound to protect the freedom of religion—the Indian state.” After the Apex Court struck down the Hindu Religion and Charitable Endowment (HRCE) Act in 1954 terming it as “unconstitutional”, Hindu endowments were brought under state control through the backdoor by enacting the same law albeit at provincial levels.
The main alibi was that it would check misuse and misappropriation of the properties. However, experience in the last half century reveals that it has only given rise to corruption, by none other than the state apparatus itself. There are umpteen numbers of cases wherein the politicos in power and the bureaucrats managing the temple affairs have been accused of massive corruption—the Tirupati episode being the latest glaring instance.
On the other hand, it amounts to “taxing” the Hindus for practising their religion in their own country. “For every hundred rupees a Hindu donates at a temple in Tamil Nadu, Rs 18 land in the coffers of the government. So, in effect, Hindus are paying a Jaziya-type religious tax even after Independence,” says Deepak, who is the legal mentor of the Indic Collective that advocates the right of the Indic way of life to exist and thrive.
Other ill-effects of the laws are also equally detrimental to the secular fabric of the country. They not only violate the fundamental rights of Hindus but also discriminatory in nature. Deepak points out: “Recently, the Devaswom Minister of Kerala took a lead in organising ‘beef festival’ there. Similarly, a top executive of the board that controls the affairs of Tirupati temple is a Christian while 40 other employees working there are non-Hindus.”
“Why are matters of a certain faith being allowed to be managed by those who profess a different faith?” he asks. This infiltration of temple management by non-Hindus facilitates religious conversion too. “The traditional eco-system has broken down. So people specialising in certain roles such as sculptors have suffered financially and thus been made more vulnerable to proselytisation.”
State meddling in the day-to-day business of Hindu temples is also bringing a bad name to the followers of the faith. In recent years, many of the temple practices have been introduced at the behest of the state authorities without taking the consent of the community leaders. Queuing up for darshan against a payment, for example, has actually embarrassed well-meaning Hindus but they only are blamed for it, whereas the decision was taken by the government of the day.
A closer look at the state of Hindu temples that are not popular or famous shows that approximately 85% of them receive a meagre Rs 10,000 annually or even less in contributions from devotees. In other words, temples with a monthly income of less than Rs 1,000 are under state control to “check corruption” and the state appointees have the last word in all matters, from approving budgets for performance of daily rituals there to appointing key functionaries to their administration.
On the other hand, the government agencies responsible for maintenance and renovation of old temples are simply stuffing the broken portions with insipid stones, whereas the artisans having expertise in carving traditional architectural designs are dying of hunger. The best example of it is the Sun Temple at Konark in Odisha which has lost its sheen to so-called preservation work.
Moreover, there are also instances wherein the old Hindu structures have been painted with artwork typical to other faiths. In a recent such incident, the HRCE Department of Tamil Nadu has been accused of painting the ceiling of the 1,000-year-old Lord Vishnu temple at Thirukannapuram with Christian angels. It is alleged that some of the top officials of the department are Christians who have facilitated this.
“By making temples subservient to it, the state has ended up smothering the cultural life of India and thus has alienated the Indians from their own roots,” Deepak says, adding that “in a way, the state in India has paralysed its own majority community”.
Talking about the way out, another Supreme Court lawyer preferring anonymity said, “We are not totally against the laws concerning the Hindu endowments like the Christians. But it should be simple ‘regulation’ as in the case of Waqf properties and not ‘total control’ or ‘takeover’. The state should play the role of an ‘observer’ and ‘auditor’ in case of irregularities, but they must not interfere in the administration or rituals of the temples. That’s exactly what the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) does as far as government functioning is concerned.”
Ideally speaking, the scope of the state’s power should be strictly restricted to regulation of financial, political or other secular activities of an institution. This will ensure that at no point of time, the state has the power to take over the administration of any Hindu institution, directly or indirectly. This approach strikes a balance between the rights of religious denomination under Article 26 and the power of the state to intervene in secular aspects of administration under Article 25 (2)(a).
Secondly, the role of any HRCE legislation must be minimal and should not have the effect of undermining, diluting, curtailing or encroaching upon religious aspects under the garb of intervening in secular aspects. Clearly, the state’s overarching role in administering Hindu endowments should be done away and replaced with a minimalist framework whose mandate is limited to corrective intervention through regulation in the event of mismanagement.
A model legislation should empower traditional temple management systems to the extent that such systems are not inherently discriminatory on a caste or gender basis. Where the history of the traditional management system of a certain temple is lost or unavailable, the legislation must provide for community representation.
Resources of Hindu endowments and the proceeds from there should not be used for any secular purpose without the consent of the community, and in any event, should not be used to benefit any other community in the form of subsidies like Haj trips. Also, no member of any other community should have a say or role, direct or indirect, in the administration of Hindu institutions.
Lastly, the model legislation should provide for annual and random audit of the accounts of Hindu institutions. This is for the limited purpose of ensuring that there is no mismanagement. A legislation with all these attributes would go a long way in undoing the harm done by decades of state intervention. Severing the state from the temple would also allow the Hindu community to access and use its own resources to protect and further its interests. These resources could be used to tackle the existential threats to Hindu way of life and their civilisational journey.