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Free temples from government control

Free temples from government control
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Free temples from government control

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Disinvestment is the present day mantra. The union government says it has no business to be in business. According to them government should not...

Disinvestment is the present day mantra. The union government says it has no business to be in business. According to them government should not manage industry, mining, trade, airports, airlines etc. Government should focus on governance it says. This has now raised another important issue if Government has no business to be in business should it continue to manage temples? What qualifies them?

This is an issue which is highly debatable. A demand to free temples from the control of government is presently gaining greater momentum in Tamil Nadu which is going to have Assembly elections soon.

The Isha Foundation urged Tamil Nadu government to free temples from its control, to enable their upkeep, preserve their sanctity and reverse their alarming state of decline in the south Indian State.

Head of the foundation, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev in a tweet said, "To protect the thousands of temples in Tamil Nadu that are gradually being ruined, the Tamil Nadu government should free temples from the clutches of the government and hand them to the devotees," Sadhguru tweeted tagging Chief Minister Edappadi Palanisamy, Opposition Leader MK Stalin and actor Rajinikanth in Tamil.

Quoting the Government Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department's submission in Court, Sadhguru tweet in Tamil read, "11,999 temples (are) dying without a single pooja taking place. 34,000 temples are struggling with (revenue of) less than Rs 10,000 a year and 37,000 temples have (appointed) just one person for pooja, maintenance, security etc."

Sadhguru called the temples "the source of our Tamil culture," and said that they must be cared for and managed by devotees who "value temples more than their lives." He termed the desecration of temples "slow poison" adding that he was pained by the neglect and apathy towards these vibrant spaces of worship.

This issue had become a matter of intense debate ever since the case of Sabarimala temple hit the headlines. Those who support freeing of temples from government control say that the practice of government control over the temples began with British rulers interference in temple management and even today the Hindu educational institutions, temples and religious traditions are subject to government control. The Hindu Religious Endowment Board assumed powers to take over and administer temples through Act XII of 1935.

Similarly, States have their own Acts – for instance, Tamil Nadu has the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act 1959. Kerala's five Devaswom boards which govern a majority of the Hindu temples are covered under the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, 1950, Madras Hindu Religious Act and Charitable Endowment Act, 1951, Guruvayoor Devaswom Act, 1978 and Koodalmanikyam Devaswom Act, 2005.

Appointments to these boards are done by a Devasowom Board which came into being in 2015. In Andhra Pradesh, there's the Andhra Pradesh Charitable and Hindu Religious Institutions and Endowments Act, 1987. Karnataka and Telangana have similar laws.

Those who want temples to be free from Government control argue that 65-70 per cent of the temple income is used for non-temple or merely administrative purposes, the Archakas who perform the prayers are paid meagre salaries, and sometimes nothing at all. Further temples, originally centres of learning, hardly use funds to run Veda Pathshalas and share knowledge about the Sanatan Dharma.

Those who support the free temples movement feel that despite the Constitutional provisions and judicial decisions, Hindu temples and religious and charitable institutions are being taken over by the secular State on the pretext of maladministration, mismanagement, etc., whereas mosques and churches of the minorities are allowed to be exclusively managed by the respective communities even though Article 26 confers right equally upon all sections of citizens.

They further argue that state control results in large scale misappropriation of the temples' income and properties and its redirection to other purposes by the State. This leaves the temples and priests in poverty.

But those who feel that the temples should continue to be under the Endowments department say that all hundi collections are deposited in the designated temple bank account. The bank account is in the name of the deity or the Devasthan. Since these temples are constituted under a State Act, their income is exempt from income tax under section 10 (23BBA) of the Income Tax Act and that there is no possibility of diversion of funds.

They also raise the question, if the temples are free from government control, is there any guarantee that they would be administered properly and that there would be no politics in the Devasthanams? What kind of checks and balances should be there to ensure that there is no misappropriation of funds by the private trustees.

Despite different arguments, the fact remains that 14 per cent of the funds in government controlled temples go as administration fees, 4 per cent as audit fees (Section 92), 25-40 per cent as salaries and 1-2 per cent for prayers and other festival expenses. Between 4-10 per cent of the total collections go to the 'Commissioner Common Good Fund' (Section 97). Further, money is transferred to various popular schemes run by the government like free meals and marriages.

It is also said that of late the governments have become insensitive towards certain incidents like desecration of idols or theft of idols and damage to Rathams etc. Replacement of the idol is not the solution. Idol is not a commodity. It has huge sentiment value and is believed to have lot of energy or power acquired due to daily pujas and chanting of mantras as these temples are ancient temples and part of Indian heritage. These idols, apart from the religious sentiments, are priceless.

Normally, in any well-managed organisation, those responsible would be held accountable and punished, but not in the government. Of late we have seen certain comments by law makers who virtually belittled such incidents saying 'what is there a new idol will be installed' in its place. This amounts to callous attitude and adds strength to the demand that temples should be freed from government control.

Moreover, it is a fact that when the government controls any institution, political interference, patronage and corruption invariably seep in.

While hearing a PIL on this issue sometime back, the Supreme Court asked as to why should government officials manage religious places and temples in the country while taking note of the fact that several devotees visiting the Jagannath temple in Puri were being harassed.

A bench of Justices S A Bobde and S A Nazeer observed this while hearing a plea which has highlighted difficulties faced by the devotees at Jagannath temple and their alleged harassment and exploitation by the 'sevaks' (staff). "It is a matter of perspective. I do not know why government officials should manage temples?" Justice Bobde observed during the hearing.

They referred to the apex court's 2014 order by which administration of 1,500-year-old Nataraja Temple at Chidambaram was taken out of control of Tamil Nadu government, a bench of Justices S A Bobde and S A Nazeer said , "We had occasion to examine the issue in case of Chidambaram temple. I do not know why government officers should run the temple. In Tamil Nadu, there are many cases of theft of idols. What are government officers doing? It may be added here that Justice Bobde, was part of the bench which passed the order on Chidambaram temple.

The people who are active in free temple movement further argue that in 1925, the Sikh Gurdwaras Act was passed that brought gurdwaras under the control of an elected body of Sikhs. So the British had one set of laws for Hindus and another for the Sikhs, Muslims and Christians. This is one aspect which the NDA government needs to seriously examine and debate in the Parliament.

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