State Control of Temples: Is it secular or communal?

State Control of Temples: Is it secular or communal?

By S. Saraswathi

A landmark judgement of the Supreme Court restoring the ceremonial rights of the ex-royals of Thiruvanandapuram over Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Kerala — one of the richest in the country — has failed to draw due public attention because of our preoccupation with COVID-19 infection. The previous judgement of the Kerala High Court, which directed the State Government to create a trust to take control of the temple, was set aside.

A nine-year  long battle thus ended with the twin decision of recognising the right of the royal family as “shebait” having the right to management and preservation of temple property, and setting up committees to help in the administration and management of the temple. The properties belong to the temple and Shebaits have no ownership right over them.

It is  a judgement of vital consequences that may kindle expectations of similar privatisation of  many other temples like those in Mysore that have fully gone from the control of erstwhile royal families or management by local communities to the control of the government.

Control over big temples with large income has been a matter for many litigations since independence. The rich  Nataraja Temple in Chidambaram, a pilgrim centre believed to be the venue of celestial  dance of Lord Shiva and which has sculptures of 108 dance poses carved on pillars has undergone prolonged legal battle for more than a century for control and management.

A Division Bench of the Madras High Court in 1952 upheld the traditional right of the priests of the temple called Podu Dikshitars to administer the affairs of the temple. The Supreme Court in 1953 dismissed Madras Government’s petition seeking quashing of the High Court order.

The Government of Tamil Nadu tried to prove its zeal in introducing radical social reforms by    taking over this temple by an executive order in 2006. It was upheld by the Madras High Court in 2009. In 2014, in the appeal filed in the Supreme Court, the question how the government could take over control of a temple in a secular country arose nearly 65 years after the adoption of the Constitution and 38 years after the insertion of the word “secular” in the Preamble.

The SC removed government control and restored the rights of the temple priests, and also     expressed concern over the failure of various State governments in managing temples for the benefit of the communities. Harassment of devotees and diversion of temple funds to non-religious purposes and even for pilgrimages of devotees of other religions were pointed out.

Bills introduced in the Lok Sabha by private members seeking freedom from government control for Hindu temples in the country have not been successful. They demand that the State should not administer or manage any religious institution or frame any law to control a religious institution, and specifically seek to disallow diversion of temple income in the name of  “secular purposes”. These attempts are a prelude to seeking enforcement of Article 26 of the Constitution to prevent government take- over of Hindu religious institutions.

Two major issues were involved in the dispute — one pertaining to the essential character of a secular State to keep away from religious activities and institutions, and the other about granting equal religious rights to majority and minority communities. Only Hindu religious institutions have fallen under tight government control and not those of Muslim, Christian and Sikh. 

When the Board of Revenue was created in 1789, temple properties were brought under its control paving way for government control over temples under the Madras Regulation VII of 1817. However, in 1840, a Directive of East India Company returned the temples to their trustees as the Christian missionaries had objection to managing Hindu temples, but gave supervisory power to the Board of Revenue – a step towards secular control of Hindu religious institutions.  The Religious Endowments Act 1863 confirmed this by handing over administration of temples and other religious institutions to trustees appointed by the British Government.

The Justice Party and the Non-Brahmin Movement in Madras Presidency in the 1920s took up   temple administration as a social reform. The Hindu Religious Endowments Board was created by law with professed objective of “better governance and management” of religious   institutions. It systematically brought many religious institutions under its control and established its power for “take over” of temples by 1935. It was effectively stopped in 1939 by the Madras High Court ruling that the Board could not take over temples on “frivolous grounds”.

Government entry in the affairs of temples was never intended for conducting proper religious functions, but for management and administration of their wealth and assets. Rich temples own vast agricultural land, buildings and houses, valuable gold ornaments, and large donations in cash and kind.

The Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act was adopted by the Lok Sabha in 1951 to hand over the administration of Hindu religious institutions to State Governments. By 2020, an estimated 4 lakh temples across the country have come under the control of State Governments.

“Management of a temple is primarily a secular act. Indisputably, the State has the requisite jurisdiction to oversee administration of a temple subject to article 25 and 26 of the Constitution”, said the Supreme Court in a case pertaining to Sree Krishnan Temple at Guruvayur in 2005.  It also upheld the verdict of Kerala High Court that Hindu Ministers in the Council of Ministers in a State need not have faith in God and temple worship to nominate members to the managing committee of a temple. It went further in some States where non-Hindu members are included in Devaswom Board.

On the contrary, the Sikh Gurudwaras Act of 1925 brought gurudwaras under full control of an elected body of Sikhs — the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee formed in 1920. So also, Jain temples are managed by Jains. Muslims guard their religious institutions, and the Central Wakf Board – a statutory body established in 1964 – is responsible for proper religious services in mosques.  

The Government can have a say in the management of educational and other institutions run by Hindu religious bodies, but must keep away from the institutions run by other religious bodies.

The anomaly goes on since Hindus have no common religious head or organisation. Recognised spiritual leaders have no legal power or any authority to speak for them.  Lack of organisational structure increases the faith of the devotees in the worship of the deities and following ritualistic practices, and weakens their interest in temple administration, thus helping easy take-over of the administration of temples of Hindus by temporal authorities. It is neither possible nor desirable to try to introduce an artificial organisation for Hindus. Strangely, State control is considered as a secular move in the case of temples, but an unacceptable communal action in the case of other minority religious institutions. It is inexplicable, but society has allowed this double standard so long that introduction of uniform law and practice seems impossible. The future of privatisation of temples is in the hands of courts. 

The author is Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi


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State Control of Temples: Is it secular or communal?

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