Two court rulings have once again brought into focus the issue of government management of temples, but not that of churches or mosques.
In the first ruling, the Supreme Court asked the Kerala government to keep its hands off the Padmanabhaswamy Temple in the capital, Thiruvananthapuram, saying the erstwhile royal family of Travancore had the hereditary rights to manage the shrine as it had done for centuries.
In the second case, the Uttarakhand High Court ruled that the state government had the right to set up a board to manage the Char Dhams and 51 other shrines to prevent mismanagement. It said that unlike the case of the Kerala, the management of the temple by priests was relatively recent and the two issues were different.
Activists campaigning to do away with government control of religious institutions say there are several contentious issues that now need to be resolved by the government. Several cases in this regard are pending in the Supreme Court.
Control of Hindu shrines goes back to 500 years. The Mughals and the British exempted Muslim and Christian institutions from paying taxes. Rulers had their eye only on the wealth of Hindu shrines.
In 1951, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru brought in the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act. The Act was aimed at ensuring proper management of temples and accounting of money received from devotees. Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) national spokesman Vinod Bansal says that a historical mistake done by the British and subsequently by Nehru must be rectified.
For decades, political parties with an eye on the minority vote have refused to scrap the law. The constitution guarantees the protection of minorities and successive governments have said that special concessions must be given to them. Over the years, every political party has tried to win the minority vote.
About 5 lakh of India’s estimated nine lakh Hindu shrines are controlled by 15 state governments that take away 23.5 per cent of the revenue in taxes. That money can be spent on anything, including matters that have nothing to do with Hinduism. The government counters that it has the right under the Constitution to provide facilities for all religious festivals, including Hindu ones, such as the Kumbh Mela or the Manasarovar yatra from taxpayers’ money, which are collected from various avenues.
Governments in many states and the Centre have often eyed the vast wealth of temples. Recently, former Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan suggested that the government should raise low-interest loans by borrowing, against the estimated $1 trillion-worth gold lying in religious trusts. Although he said “religious trusts”, critics said gold was traditionally offered only in Hindu temples and Sikh gurudwaras.
Similarly, the Tamil Nadu government issued two back-to-back orders to 47 large temples to donate to the Chief Minister’s Public Relief Fund, one saying they could donate any amount and the second one specifying amounts, so that it could raise ₹crore.
The orders came at the same time as another one offering ₹15 crore worth of free rice to mosques during Ramzan. Hindu radical groups flooded the social media with false reports that Hindu shrines were being forced to fund a Muslim mass feeding. The government rescinded the donation orders after the VHP went to court.
Governments across the country have taken over temples, citing mismanagement. In a famous case, the Supreme Court agreed with the government that it can appoint a priest in the Vaishno Devi shrine and that the law abolishing the hereditary right to the post is valid.
However, it said that the government could not control the manner in which prayers were conducted. Recently, attempts to acquire the Chandi Mata temple and Durga Mata temple in Haryana were cancelled following large-scale protests by the VHP. The Supreme Court is hearing a case over the need to take control over the Puri Jagannath temple because pilgrims are being harassed and exploited by the priests.
Another contentious issue is the rights of schools and colleges run by minority institutions to appoint anyone they like or give concessions to students belonging to those religions, while institutions run by others have to abide by strict government rules on quotas, standards and fees.
Supreme Court lawyer Sai Deepak, who is fighting one case in the Supreme Court against what he sees as discrimination, says, “there is no such control over mosques and churches. We demand that in the same way, temples should also be freed from any kind of control. The government must amend the Act, which is the root cause of the problem.” He says the government, like the kings of the past, does not have any right over the wealth of the temple.
Jana Sena chief Pawan Kalyan says articles 26 and 27 of the constitution do not allow the collection of taxes by the government from religious institutions. Supreme Court is currently hearing cases filed by Kalyan and others in the regard.
In many states, government lands owned by the temples have been misappropriated by ruling party leaders or quietly sold.
Nowhere is government control of temples more vigorously debated than in Tamil Nadu. Successive Dravidian governments, which rode on the plank of atheism, have dipped their hands into temple tills. T.R. Ramesh, the president of the Temple Worshippers’ Society, Chennai, says that between 1986 and 2005, some 47,000 acres of temple land had been “lost”. More than 10 million square feet of temple land and buildings are under encroachment.
Temple land is often given on a throwaway lease to party workers, he says. In Tamil Nadu, the government gets an annual income of just ₹58 crore from the lease of nearly 5 lakh acres of land and 2.44 crore square foot of property, when even on a conservative basis, it should be getting at least ₹6,000 crores.
BJP-led groups say they will continue to oppose the personal laws of Christians and Muslims and that everyone should be governed by the same law. Some of these issues are likely to be ruled upon by the Supreme Court in the months to come.
(G. Krishnan is a freelance writer)