The problem is acute especially in seven states, Tamil Nadu being the worst hit, followed by Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Odisha and Maharashtra.

 

The recent Sabarimala episode has proved that too much of political or judicial interference in matters of faith not only creates chaos in a deeply religious society like India’s, but also hits at the very root of secularism that was so close to the heart of the makers of the Indian Constitution. So is in the case of absolute state control over the places of worship.

Ironically, in India, the affairs of around 25 lakh mandirs (temples) and maths (monasteries) belonging to the majority Hindu community are regulated by various state authorities, whereas the places of worship of other faiths in the country enjoy absolute freedom as they are owned by their respective communities and the governments have almost no say in their rituals and other matters.

It has not only hurt the very secular fabric of the country but also created a sense in the mind of the majority community that they are being persecuted in their own land even after Independence. Not for no reason. Hindu leaders rightly point out that the Hindu Religion and Charitable Endowment (HRCE) Act, 1951, is discriminatory in nature as it applies to Hindu religious places alone.

The Act has no doubt its roots in our colonial past as it was first enacted in 1925 by the then British rulers to serve their imperial purposes. But when it was refurbished and re-promulgated in 1951, Hindus thought that irrational clauses in it would be done away with and other religions would also be covered under it. But it turned out to be even more draconian than its original colonial form.

When the constitutional validity of the Act was challenged, the Supreme Court dubbed it unconstitutional and struck it down outright. But after reorganisation of the southern states, the then Tamil Nadu government reintroduced it in 1959 as a provincial law, with other states following suit. All these laws have been challenged in various courts all over the country many times in the past, but to no avail.

Two basic questions have been raised all through: 1. If India is a “secular” country and secularism means “dharm nirapeksh” where the state purports to be officially neutral in the matters of religion supporting neither religion, then why the state apparatus is trying to control religious affairs; and 2. even if it is to be done and secularism means “sarva dharm samabhava” where the state intends to have equal respect for all religions and treat them all at par, then why state power is targeting Hinduism alone.

While the state argues that its intervention is necessary to bring about social welfare and reform as well as to correct historical social inequities, many view this kind of selective interference as aimed at “reforming the religion out of its existence”. They say usurpation of Hindu endowments alone is against all tenets of what constitute a “principled separation” between the state and the religion.

They also hold that singling out a particular religion violates not only the very secular spirit of the Indian Constitution but also the basic rights guaranteed under it. They opine that the HRCE Act infringes upon Article 25 of the Constitution, which guarantees the citizens their fundamental right to profess, practice and propagate their religion, as well as establish and manage their religious institutions.

They point that while this right is very much available to followers of all other religions in the country, only Hindus have been constrained by the law.

In fact, the state governments have assumed total financial and managerial control over lakhs of Hindu temples across the country through their respective HRCE Acts, accusing their administrations of mismanagement of funds.

However, no other religious institution (barring Jains’ as, by legal definition, they are Hindus)—churches, mosques, gurudwaras, pagodas and synagogues belonging to Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and Parsis, respectively— has been brought under the Acts despite similar allegations cropping up there too.

“Shall we assume that the state governments believe that Hindus have poorer and lower standards of ethics and values than Indians of other religious denominations? Or is it that in a ‘secular’ India, religious minorities cannot be touched, while Hindu institutions, and of course the donation money they attract, are considered easier to be meddled with?” asks a lawyer-activist from Tamil Nadu who is fighting many legal battles for this cause.

The fact of the matter is that in all these decades that Hindu religious institutions have been under the thumb of the HRCE departments, the ability of the Hindu community as a whole in managing its own institutions has been systematically clipped and pared down.

The problem is acute especially in seven states, Tamil Nadu being the worst hit, followed by Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Odisha and Maharashtra.

To top it all, fresh controversies have now erupted on two more fronts—the regulatory bodies controlling Hindu endowments having non-Hindus as members and giving non-Hindus right to enter the premises of Hindu religious places. Recently, the Communist government in Kerala amended Section 29(2) of Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, 1950.

The Section had made it mandatory that only Hindus could be appointed on the Travancore-Cochin Devaswom Boards (TCDBs), but now the amendment has paved the way for induction of non-Hindus too into them.

Even otherwise, the board already has an atheist—CPM leader A. Padma Kumar—as the chief of Travancore Devaswom Board. Other TCDBs are also now open to individuals who do not subscribe to the values of Hinduism.

Similarly, the Supreme Court recently asked the management of Jagannath temple in Odisha to examine if non-Hindus can be allowed to enter the hollowed precincts as long as they follow the shrine’s dress code and traditions. This has sent alarm bells ringing in the majority community. To pre-empt such a move, a case has been filed in Kerala High Court this week seeking direction to ban entry of non-Hindus into Sabarimala temple.

The properties belonging to one religious community being accessed or managed by the members of other religious communities certainly goes against the basic tenets of the Indian Constitution. Moreover, targeting only Hindu religious institutions in the name of secularism has given rise to widespread resentment in the majority community. No doubt, anger is simmering among the Hindus across the country against the “injustices” meted out to them in their own country.

(To be concluded)