Sometime ago, the official Chinese media had praised India’s secular fabric saying Hinduism has prevented the spread of radical Islam in this country. In an article, Global Times raised a very pertinent question: “Why does it seem that Muslims in India have remained largely away from the radicalisation that has happened to Muslim groups in other parts of the world?”

Citing Islamist unrest in different parts of Asia, it said: “Indian Muslims seldom have extreme organisations compared with groups in many other Asian countries.” Attributing the absence of radical Islam in India to Hinduism, it said India breaks the “arc of Islam” in Asia.

“In Asia as a whole, Islam forms an arc that includes the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, southern Thailand, southern Myanmar, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Central Asian countries. There are tensions at various degrees at junctions in this arc where it encounters other religions and ethnicity, but a dent exists in the Indian portion of this arc,” explained the article.

It further said that this absence of Islamic extremism gives India a tall standing in the world, and that’s the reason why it reckons with the US, Japan, Russia and European countries when it comes to their Asia policies. “The lack of Islamic extremists in India has helped determine its role in Asia,” it concluded.

The telltale comments coming from the state-run media of China, perceived as an “enemy country” by many on this side of the border, may not have gone down well with people belonging to a section of the ideological spectrum who have developed a habit of seeing Hinduism with contempt all the time, but it certainly comes as glowing tributes to the Hindus who have suffered unspeakable miseries in the hands of their Islamic aggressors for centuries.

The observations would have also assuaged the majority community to a great extent especially at a time when there is growing feeling among them that they are being persecuted in their own country in the name of secularism. While most of the Hindu endowments are totally under state control, the religious minorities in this country are really enjoying the fruits of secularism with their places of worship and religious institutions being under the direct control of their respective communities.

* WAQF PROPERTIES: Let us take the case of Muslims who constitute the largest minority group in the country—roughly 15% of the population. The Islamic religious places are managed by autonomous bodies called “Waqf boards” completely free from state interference. Waqf means a property dedicated to the society – the property donated or constructed by Muslim rulers or people from the community for public use. It could be a madrasa, mosque, tomb or a graveyard.

Waqf boards are statutory bodies formed under Waqf Act, 1954, through gazette notification. These boards are purely elected bodies but can have a few nominated members too. Different sects of Islam have their separate boards like Sunni Waqf Board, Shia Waqf Board, etc. While state governments are authorised to form Waqf Boards in their respective states, the Central government constitutes the Central Waqf Council.

Besides physical surveys carried out by the Board, historical accounts such as “badshahnamas” or biographies of Mughal emperors are the main source of identifying and listing Waqfs. In 2005, an attempt was made to declare the Taj Mahal as a Waqf property.

This would have transferred ownership of the Taj from the government, administered by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), to the Waqf Board.

The UP Sunni Central Waqf Board claimed that Shahjahan had willed the Taj Mahal as a Waqf property in his badshahnama. However, the Supreme Court finally ruled in favour of the ASI as the UP Shia Central Waqf Board disputed the Sunni claim by arguing that since Mumtaz Mahal was a Shia, the monument should be considered as Shia Waqf.

A Wakf property can also be privately owned. While a public Wakf is for general charitable purposes, a private Wakf is for the property owner’s descendants. According to the Wakf Validating Act, 1913, one can create a private Wakf for one’s descendants, provided the ultimate benefits are reserved for charity. So, there is no state interference whatsoever anywhere in managing the Waqf properties.

* CHURCH PROPERTIES: Christians are the second largest minority group in India. Though they constitute only around 2.5% of the country’s population, they are considered as highly influential, mostly educated and rich. They are also the “freest” community as their religious places and institutions are controlled by bodies run by the community’s religious leaders alone. These bodies are completely independent and not governed by any law of the land.

According to former Union minister and a leading figure of the community Eduardo Faleiro, the Church authorities control funds equivalent to the Indian Navy’s annual budget and the Church is also the second largest employer after the government. India’s 500-year-old Catholic Church has five times the number of priests compared with any other country, he says.

As per an estimate, the Catholic Church is the “largest non-agricultural land owner” in India and the worth of its holdings may run into several lakh crores of rupees. Interestingly, there is simply neither any state overseeing of the Church administration nor any government interference in the appointment of Bishops who are the wealth administrators.

The Indian Church acts like a state within a state in the Indian Union yet gives its allegiance to the Pope in Rome.

A debate is going on within the community now with many of their own leading personalities like Faleiro, former Supreme Court judge K.T. Thomas and Prof Remy Denis demanding enactment of a law so that the Church properties in India can be governed by the government.

“The Church is not a symbol of power but service, and democratic laws must apply to it equally. All religions must be kept on the same footing,” Faleiro says, adding, “All over the world churches are subjected to the law of the state. There cannot be a state within a state. Religious organisations cannot form a state within a state.”

Justice Thomas points out that the head of the Believers Church had recently acquired a huge plantation in Kerala for Rs 123 crore. This was apart from the vast assets already held by the denomination, he says and adds that the Church in Kerala even runs its own media network.

When almost all other religions in India have laws enacted to administer their properties and their accounts are subject to judicial review, why it can’t happen with the Church, Thomas asks. “I feel the opposition from the Christians is on account of a fear that a provision for judicial scrutiny is likely to expose the expenses and magnitude of wealth of the denomination,” he further says. “We all revere the Bishop as our guide on matters of faith and morals, but not in matters of property,” says Prof Denis, president of All India Catholic Union, a forum that represents the country’s Catholic laity through 120 diocesan units. Ironically, although Church properties are acquired through contributions from the laity, it has no say in their administration.

* OTHER MINOR GROUPS: Similarly, other minor religious communities administer their properties through bodies governed by the own leaders. The Gurdwaras of Sikhs are managed by various Prabandhak (management) Committees formed under Sikh Gurudwara Act, 1925, with Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) being their apex body which acts as their religious parliament sans any government intervention.

Likewise, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Zoroastrians or Jews too have absolute command over their religious places and institutions as successive governments post Independence have never tried to meddle in their affairs barring in cases related to criminal offences. But the majority Hindus are the only community whose places of worship and religious affairs are controlled by state apparatus.

(To be concluded)