Bill to free temples from government control introduced in Lok Sabha; BJP MP Satyapal Singh's bill gives fillip to decades old demand
Despite the equal rights under the constitution, stated objectives of the Endowment Acts and observations by the SC, government control over Hindu temples has only increased. Dr. Satyapal Singh's bill to free temples aims to do justice to the ethos of equality enshrined in the constitution itself.
The British wanted to control Hindu temples as sources of revenue and sadly this tradition continues even today. The country which is deemed 'Secular' does not see the need to get out of management of Hindu temples. State government see the temples purely as a source of revenue generation and giving almost nothing in return. The demand to free temples from government control is almost 7 decades old. However nothing much happened all these years as the governments did not want to lose a major source of their incomes even though it was in contravention of the constitution they adhere to.
The bill was introduced for the second time by Dr Satyapal Singh in Lok Sabha on 22nd November. He had first introduced the bill in 2017 which was kept pending. After tabling the bill, Dr Satyapal Singh addressing the media said that the rights of majority & minority communities must be equal and hence the bill. He further said that post-Independence care was taken by the constitution to allow the minorities to control their educational and religious institutions so that their fears are allayed. However, the Hindus were not extended the same treatment. Over the lat 7 decades, it has come to mean that the majority community cannot enjoy the same rights as the minorities. Hindus cannot manage their institutions, rules and regulations are imposed only on Hindu institutions. This is discrimination and hence my bill is introduced to ensure that everyone is equal before the eyes of law, he said.
The bill demands that the state shall not control, administer or manage any religious institution, shall not frame any law that allows it to control a religious institution, all communities should be allowed to maintain their religious institutions, disallow misappropriation of temples income in name of secular purposes and amend Article 26 and other articles, and prevent any state from usurping any religious institution.
Details of the bill
Dr. Satyapal Singh has introduced 'THE CONSTITUTION (AMENDMENT) BILL, 2019' in the winter session of the parliament now. The bill calls for the amendments to Articles 15, 26, 27, 28, 29 and 30. The bill declares the following in its statement of objects and reasons:
"As per our Constitution, the State has no religion. The State has to treat all religions and religious people equally and with equal respect without, in any manner, interfering with their right to freedom of religion, faith and worship. As evident from the sub-text of the debates of the Constituent Assembly, the rights assured for the majority were only made explicit to the minorities as an assurance to the latter in the backdrop of the peculiar circumstances then prevailing in the aftermath of partition. In any case, it was never the intention of the makers of our Constitution to deny to the majority the rights expressly provided to the minority. Yet, it gradually led to interpretations that only the minorities were given rights withheld from the majority generating an unhealthy feeling of discrimination among the majority community. It goes without saying that nursing any real or perceived grievance against the State by any section of citizens, majority or minority, is detrimental to the unity and integrity of the country."
The sections then provides details of Article 26 and the observations of SC in this regard in various cases and then states:
"There has been widespread legitimate grievance and feeling of discrimination among Hindus that despite the Constitutional provisions and judicial decisions, Hindu temples and religious and charitable institutions are routinely 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. Hindus also genuinely feel that such State control results in despoiling the Hindu religious centers, large scale misappropriation of the temples' income and properties and its redirection to secular purposes by the State, which is a major factor in the grinding poverty afflicting most Hindu temples, priests and their families. In order to maintain the secular character of the State and prevent it from usurping the religious and charitable institutions of any religious denomination or a section thereof, it is felt necessary to amend article 26 of the Constitution."
In the annexure, the bill contains several extracts from the constitution itself which stresses on Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth and Freedom to manage religious affairs.
Recommended Amendments to Articles in Constitution
Dr Satyapal Singh's bill recommends several amendments and additions to many articles in constitution to reflect the objective and reasons of the bill. While it says that clause (5) of Article 15 be omitted, it says that following clauses be introduced in Article 26. Namely:
- Notwithstanding anything contained in article 25, the State shall not control, administer or manage, whatsoever, any institution, including its properties, established or maintained for religious or charitable purposes by a religious denomination or any section thereof.
- All laws in force in the territory of India in so far as they are inconsistent with the provisions of this article shall, to the extent of such inconsistency, be void.
- The State shall not make any law which enables it to control, administer or manage, whatsoever, any institution, including its properties, established or maintained for religious or charitable purposes by a religious denomination or any section thereof, and, any law made in contravention of this clause shall, to the extent of such contravention, be void.
- In this article the expressions "law" and "laws in force" have same meaning as respectively assigned to them in clause (3) of article 13.".
For Article 27, it recommends that the following clause be inserted as: " No moneys out of the Consolidated Fund of India, the Consolidated Fund of a State, the Contingency Fund of India or the Contingency Fund of a State or out of the fund of any public body shall be appropriated for advancement or promotion of a section of citizens solely or primarily on the basis of their religious affiliation or belonging to one or more religious or linguistic denomination.". Similarly, for article 28, it has been recommended that the clause "Nothing in this Constitution shall be deemed to forbid the teaching of traditional Indian knowledge or ancient texts of India in any educational institution, wholly or partly maintained out of State Funds." be inserted.
The bill prominently recommends that Article 30 be amended so that the word "minorities", be substituted with the words "all sections of citizens, whether based on religion or language". Similarly, the bill recommends that the words "interests of minorities" in Article 29 be substituted with the words "cultural and educational rights".
Support for the bill
The bill to free temples from government control has found support from many quarters. The Democratic Social Justice Party (DSJP), a Kerala-based party, supported the bill to stop government control of Hindu temples. In a statement, the party urged the Centre to debate and support the bill introduced in the lower House by BJP MP Satyapal Singh so that it gets passed in Parliament and not allow it to lapse as in the case of most private members bills.
"It is a travesty of justice that the government seeks to control only institutions and temple wealth of only Hindus and use it for the benefit of all. If the government does not support the bill it should move another bill to exert control over the religious institutions of all faiths to ensure justice to the Hindus", the party said in a statement here. The DSJP said it agrees with the MP's view that "Rights of majority and minority communities must be equal".
Rajya Sabha MP Subramanyam Swamy who has moved the Supreme Court to free the Sabarimala temple from government control says that this was much due and the SC has already made observations over this. He informed that it has ruled several times that control of Hindu temples should be for a brief period in cases of mismanagement and must be handed back to the trust. He gives the example of the Sabhanayagar Temple in Tamil Nadu where the SC ordered that the government should give back the control to a trust.
Scientist and social commentator Anand Ranghanathan has said that if a secular state believes that religion should be kept out of state, the corollary that the state should keep out of religion must also be true. Our constitution is plural and not secular as there are many articles and amendments which make it plural. The government taxes and manages temple income and resources but does not do the same with mosques and churches. Governments of 5 southern states control 90,700 temples and TN temples own 478000 acres of land. The state governments earns billions in revenue. This money and resources must be handed back before anyone cries for secularism, he says.
Genesis of control of Hindu temples
The British wanted to control the religious institutions in India for its revenue. But owning to the complaint of the Church that the government of the crown was managing pagan places of worship, they brought in The Religious Endowments Act 1863, which handed over temple administration to the trustees from the British government. The stated purpose of the trust was utilization of funds for the upkeep of temples. Hundreds of temples in the Madras Presidency were handed over to the respective trustees with the government playing little or no role in supervising them. Trustees ran the temple following the tenets applicable to the temple.
This arrangement continue till 1925 when the British introduced The Madras Religious and Charitable Endowments Act (1925) which aimed to manage all the religious institutions in the province. But the Muslims and Christians protested vehemently and the Act was redrafted to exclude them. Two years later, the act was renamed as the Madras Hindu Religious and Endowments Act 1927, and was made applicable to Hindus only.
Targeting Hindu temples did not stop here. The purport of the act was again altered when a legislation by way of Act XII of 1935 was introduced through which temples could be notified by the government and their administration taken over. Through this legislation, the Hindu Religious Endowment Board assumed powers to take over and administer temples. The board consisted of three to five members.
Post-Independence, the Tamil Nadu government took control of temples and their funds by an act passed in 1951 called the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act, 1951. The act’s provisions were challenged in the Madras High Court and subsequently in the Supreme Court in the Shirur Math case. Many provisions of the 1951 act were struck down by both courts. With some changes, The Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act was passed in 1959. The Congress was in power in the country then. It said that the purpose of the act was to see to it that religious trusts and institutions are properly administered and ensure that the income is not misused.
The new act abolished the Hindu Religious Endowments Board and vested its authority in the Hindu religious and charitable endowments department of the government headed by a commissioner. It also mandated that if the government believes that any Hindu public charitable endowment is being mismanaged, it may direct the commissioner to inquire and bring the endowment under government control. This provision of mismanagement does not apply to Muslim and Christian communities.
Observations of Supreme Court
The Supreme Court of India has on several occasions questioned the government over the dichotomy in favoring some communities and being averse to others. Earlier this year, while adjudicating the case with respect to the Jagannath temple in Puri, thebench of Justices S.A. Bobde and S.A. Nazeer asked as to why should government officials manage religious places and temples in the country. The Moseb Kaba Chowdhary & Anr. Vs State of West Bengal, deals with Article 14 of the Constitution of India. The Supreme Court had ruled that Article 14 condemns discrimination not only by a substantive law but also by a law of procedure.
In M.P. Gopalakrishnan Nair and Anr. Vs State of Kerala and Ors., the Supreme Court again observed that India is a secular country and Secularism has been inserted in the Preamble by reason of the Constitution 42nd amendment Act, 1976. The object of inserting the said word was to spell out expressly the high ideas of secularism and the integrity of the nation on the ground that these institutions are subjected to considerable stresses and strains and vested interests have been trying to promote their selfish ends to the great detriment of the public good. The SC further concluded that:
- The constitution prohibits the establishment of a theocratic State.
- The Constitution is not only prohibited to establish any religion of its own but is also prohibited to identify itself with or favoring any particular religion.
- The secularism under the Indian Constitution does not mean constitution of an atheist society but it merely means equal status of all religions without any preference in favor of or discrimination against any one of them.
Despite the stated objectives of the Endowment Acts and observations by the SC, over the decades the control of government over Hindu temples has only concretized with hardly any challenge or the control being returned to the original trust. This has led to a widespread legitimate grievance and feeling of discrimination among Hindus. Hindus today feel that despite the Constitutional provisions and judicial decisions, Hindu temples and religious and charitable institutions are routinely 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 equal right upon all sections of citizens, Hindus and their institutions do not enjoy the freedom as that of the minority communities. Hindus also genuinely feel that such State control has resulted in large scale misappropriation of the temples' income and properties by the State and redirected to cater to its political compulsions. Hence, while the rights granted in Article 25 and 26 are to be protected, they do not intend to deny the same guarantee to Hindus. Hence the state has to balance its involvement in temple administration in terms of the Constitution of India. The Acts enacted over control of temples are themselves discriminatory and such Acts have to be struck down as unconstitutional.
While the passing of this bill will ensure constitutional rights are fully implemented to all irrespective of communities, the Government should balance its involvement in the religious affairs and restrict its role to more of an arbitrator than a full-time manager.