Anuraag Saxena, founder, India Pride Project, spoke to The Sunday Guardian on a host of issues. Excerpts:
Q: Do you think the proposal of appropriating temple gold is legally or morally correct?
A: This proposal is as morally tenable as the government taking away your house or car, and not your neighbour’s. You cannot appropriate private wealth to respond to a public calamity.
Q: But isn’t that like a tax or other financial policies? Few people pay, for the greater good of the nation.
A: True, but a tax is not applied on subgroups of people or communities, especially on religious grounds. Try saying that only Jains should pay GST, or only Gujjars can own land, or only Chettiars can invest in promissory notes. Sounds ludicrous, right? Why is it acceptable then, to say only a temple’s wealth should be appropriated, not of other religious-institutions. That is not just unconstitutional but immoral in a secular State like India. Such a move would not just test the hypocrisy of our secularism, but would also test the public’s patience.
Q: Well, if not by mandate, why can’t temples give their gold away?
A: Sir. It is temple gold, kisi ke pitaaji ka maal nahin hai. Temples were built with a specific objective, often recorded in the Sthala Purana. When Marthanda Varma dedicated his kingdom to Lord Padmanabha Swamy, its documentation specifies spatial limits, purposes and obligations. Kashi Vishwanath, was destroyed thrice; by Qutb-al-din Aibak, then Sikandar Lodhi, then Aurangzeb who built the Gyanvapi mosque over it. Despite multiple brutal attacks, the temple is still responsible for various Parva, runs food-kitchens and supports social efforts in Varanasi. Temples were meant to revere a cow, not become a cash-cow.
Q. We have seen recent examples of temple wealth being liquidated, isn’t it?
A: This view comes from people who don’t understand prana pratishta,and that a deity is a “being” that can own his/her own property. Justice Mahadevan said this in a Madras High Court judgement, “Foreigners and disbelievers see the idols as antiquities worth only in value, in terms of money, but the people of this country see them in the semblance of god, culture and identity”. Look at the paradox in Kerala. An atheist government is administering temples. No wonder they are selling off Nilavilakku (large brass lamps). For them it is just metal to be sold by the kilo. It is dangerous to rubbish the faith-value in divine spaces and objects. People often ask me, what is the value of stolen murtis and objects you are bringing back to India. I tell them they are priceless. It sounds provocative but I ask them, what is the value of a woman in the flesh-trade, or a pouch of blood diamonds. The very act of putting a price on these makes you a criminal.
Q: Are there vested interests who are eyeing temple wealth? Who are these people?
A: Not just wealth, but all types of temple belongings have been raided for centuries. Let’s not forget, in Christopher Columbus justification for the India expedition, the word “gold” appeared 17 times, and “Lord” and “God” just once. There have been barbaric attacks on temples by the invaders, be it Somnath, or Ram Janmabhoomi, or Kashi Vishwanath. Today’s greed manifests itself in different ways. Appropriating thousands of temple murtis, temple lands, hundi-donations and wonder what else. Surprisingly, the law legitimises the appropriation of only Hindu religious institutions, while exempting other religions.
Q: Do you see a situation where you would support temple wealth to be appropriated by the government?
A: Look, India was founded on the principle of equality. Not just equal rights, but equal responsibilities. Why should we not take an equal view of our Muslim and Christian brothers? Why should their institutions not be allowed to contribute towards this national calamity? If religious-institutions are to be touched, it should be done in a secular manner. All such institutions should be treated equally and not just temples. In fact, there is a huge opportunity to monetise unused lands owned by religious-institutions, including in big cities. Also, unlike gold which fluctuates in value, real estate is only going to get scarcer, and hence more precious.
A financially prudent way might be to nationalise all such surplus lands and unlock their value for public good. Anything that is imposed on only a single faith would lead to a Sabarimala-type outpouring of public emotion, which is something that a secular country needs to avoid.