A private member bill has been introduced in the Lok Sabha seeking freedom from Government control for Hindu temples in the country. In the wake of several issues that have arisen in recent times pertaining to temple administration, temple property, rights of worshippers, and rights and privileges of deities, the fate of this bill needs to be keenly watched though it is common knowledge that private members’ bills are rarely discussed or adopted.
The bill demands that the State shall not administer or manage any religious institution or frame any law that allows it to control a religious institution, and that all communities shall be allowed to maintain their religious institutions. Pertinently, the bill seeks to disallow diversion of temple income in the name of “secular purposes” which in the opinion of supporters of the bill is “misappropriation”. Amendment of Article 26 of the Constitution to prevent any Government from usurping any religious institution is also its purpose.
Two major issues are involved in this move – one relating to separation of State and Religion including religious institutions in a secular State, and the other regarding equality in the religious rights of majority and minority communities. Only Hindu religious institutions have fallen under tight Government control, and not those of Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Jain, and other minority communities.
Several attempts have been made over the years to free temples and other religious places from the control of “secular” authorities. In 2014 came a categorical assertion from the Supreme Court that no Government had the absolute right to take over the management of temple trusts.
Temples were brought under Government control during the British rule mainly in southern India under the Madras Regulation VII of 1817. However, in 1840, a Directive of East India Company returned the temples to trustees as Christian missionaries were averse to managing Hindu temples. Under modified arrangements, the Board of Revenue was vested with the task of supervising temple management. It helped to retain Government control.
In 1863, the Religious Endowments Act handed over temple administration to trustees appointed by the British Government. It covered mosques and all other religious institutions.
In 1923, when the Justice Party and Non-Brahmin Movement were going strong, an Act of the Madras Legislative Council led to the creation of Hindu Religious Endowments Board for “better governance and management” of religious institutions. The Board established its authority and systematically brought many religious institutions under its control and its power for “take over” of temples got established by 1935. It led to a halt in 1939 when the Madras High Court ruled that the Board could not take over temples on “frivolous grounds”.
Government interference in the management of temples was not for proper religious functions, but for management of their wealth and assets. After independence, temples that were under the control of former principalities were transferred to the Government of India and were passed to the administration of the Dewaswom Boards of concerned States – a step inconsistent with the concept of secular Government.
The Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act was adopted in 1951 to “provincialise the administration of Hindu religious institutions”. It led to “nationalization” of thousands of temples in many States. Already some very ancient and important temples like Jagannath Puri, Tirumalai Tirupati, Kashi Vishwanath, Vaishnodevi, Shirdi , Guruvayur, Amarnath, Badrinath, and Kedarnath temples were under Government control.
In Tamil Nadu, according to an estimate, the HR&CE Department controls over 4.7 crore acres of agricultural land, 2.6 crore sq.ft. of buildings, 29 crore sq.ft. of urban land owned by temples. It is estimated that the rental income out of these must be several thousands of crore, but only 3.6 crore were collected. In Karnataka, Government controls over 4 lakh temples and in the undivided Andhra Pradesh, over 2 lakh.
On the contrary, the Sikh Gurudwaras Act of 1925 brought gurudwaras under the control of an elected body of Sikhs and Government has no role in their administration . A central Gurudwara Board elected by Sikhs became the custodian of important Sikh shrines. The Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee, formed in 1920 was recognized as a representative body of Sikhs. The tradition of election is still going on in the administration of gurudwaras. So also, Jain temples are managed by Jains.
Muslims guard their religious institutions and Imams are in charge of religious activities of mosques. The Central Wakf Board – a statutory body established in 1964 is responsible for proper religious services in mosques.
Control over temples particularly big temples and those with large income has been a cause for numerous litigations since independence. The famous and prosperous Nataraja Temple in Chidambaram can best illustrate Temple-Government struggle for control for over a century. A Division Bench of the Madras High Court in 1952 upheld the right of Podu Dikshitars (priests of the temple) to administer the affairs of the temple which was an age-old practice. The Supreme Court in 1953 dismissed Madras Government’s petition seeking quashing of the high Court order.
In 2006, the Government of Tamil Nadu – pioneer in State control of temples – took over this temple by an order. It was upheld by a single-judge bench of the Madras High Court in 2009 on the ground that a new law can overrule old judgements.
In this protracted case, in 2014, the Attorney-General raised a question how the Government could take over control of a temple in a secular country. The Supreme Court removed Government control and restored the rights of the temple priests. It expressed concern over the failure of various State Governments to manage temple affairs for the benefits of the communities. In the Jagannath Temple at Puri, devotees complained of intolerable harassment . Diversion of temple funds for various purposes including pilgrimages of devotees of other religions took place.
One cannot help comparing temples with places of worship of other religions. Hindu temples have to pay income tax on all donations received while what is recognized as “minority institutions” are fully exempt from income tax. Government can have a say in the management of educational and other institutions run by Hindu religious bodies, but must keep distance from the institutions run by other religious bodies.
There can be no objection to mobilizing public resources and utilizing them for development and welfare of all communities in a developing society. But, a secular society has to adopt uniform laws. The situation is fraught with serious flaws with no practicable solution.
In Hindu temples, devotees are kept away from management. Hindus do not have a recognized common religious head or organization. There are some denominational or sect leaders, but without acknowledged power or authority. Their authority is mostly restricted to theological questions or ritual practices which may be accepted by those who have faith in them. This lack of organization, which strengthens faith of the devotees in worship, may have helped the take over of temples and other religious institutions easy for temporal authorities.
In this background, removing temples from State control may find sound supportive arguments, but will require a lot of organizational changes in Hindu places of worship.