There are many who ask if the Devaswom Boards controlled by the Government cease to exist, who will manage the temples? It is similar to the question during the freedom struggle, ‘If the British leave, who will govern us?’ Without falling prey to such arguments, we must work together with the clear vision that religious institutions must be run by the believers of the respective religions.
- Swami Chidananda Puri
As the entire world struggles with Covid 19, our nation is fighting this terrible pandemic with a clear vision and firm steps. Along with performing their normal duties and other activities, all states have rallied to contribute their maximum efforts. Individuals, volunteer organisations and other institutions have come together to support the government in this war-like effort, and we have all put in our best to help conquer this calamity. At the same time, as the war against Covid 19 continues, we are witnessing illegal and completely anti-Hindu activity being carried out under the guise of this struggle. This comes at a time when the lockdown has prevented us from channeling public opinion in any demonstrable manner. This is a matter of concern.
One case in point is the donating of five crores of rupees from the Guruvayur Devaswom Fund to the Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund, a move that has given rise to much controversy. Let us not forget that a similar action of the same Devaswom—donating money to the same fund during the floods of 2018—has been challenged before the Hon. High Court, and is still pending before the full bench. It was the Hindu organisations strongly condemning this move that brought the matter before the High Court. The Hon. Court not only admitted the matter, but also laid down that the utilisation of the donation should be subject to the directions of the court, and placed the matter for consideration before a full bench headed by the Chief Justice. Additionally, the court obtained an assurance from the Devaswom that no money at all would be similarly donated. In such a context, the recent action by the Devaswom are, to say the least, quite deplorable.
When such a view is taken, some people, even some devotees of the temple, may ask the innocent question: When the whole country is struggling under a pandemic, shouldn’t the Devaswom join the struggle? Should they not have some social commitment? And thus should we not complement their actions instead of finding fault with them?
Illegal action of Devaswom board
Let us look into this question further. When severe problems are afflicting the land, all of us, both individuals and institutions should work together to solve these problems. There is no doubt that without any consideration of religion or locality, all should contribute to the general fund according to their ability. No temple, mosque or church can escape this responsibility. But this should take place according to law and justice. Guruvayur Devaswom functions according to the Guruvayur Devaswom Act of 1978, which contains only 43 sections. Section 27(*1) gives the power to the Devaswom Committee to spend the money of the temple. According to that section, the Committee can spend money only on the items specified in sub sections (a) to (g). The Devaswom Managing Committee cannot donate any money or spend for any expenditure which is not specified in this section. Therefore, the action that occurred in using temple funds in such a way is illegal and deplorable.
As if this illegal action was not enough, Guruvayur Devaswom Chairman has asserted entirely untenable arguments in its justification. He has stated that there is nothing wrong in giving the money to the public fund, as the income of the Devaswom is not only from Hindus. First of all, this argument is irrelevant. What is relevant here is, has the law about spending the funds been complied with. Such arguments only bring in points of religious differences, which would make the issue communal. How despicable is such an act! It was not in accordance with the laws of the temple, which it is the Chairman’s duty to abide by. The Devaswom Chairman has the responsibility to clarify why he has made a statement to the effect that the main income of a temple which prohibits entry to non-Hindus, is not from Hindus. If we are to accept this statement, there should then be a separate social audit to determine and outline the income from different religious categories. If not, then he has a moral responsibility to apologise to the Hindu society. The Chairman of the Devaswom should not mislead the society with communal statements regarding the source of income. It is his duty to prove that the Devaswom action is not legally incorrect.
It is also at this time that the Travancore Devaswom Board has come up with another idea which requires the careful attention of the Hindu society. This is the proposal to cultivate the lands under the temples that are lying fallow. It is, of course, a good idea to cultivate vegetables or cereals on the land of the temples without in any manner obstructing the prayer routine of the devotees, or the rites and rituals of the temple; it is indeed laudable. But to depend on secular institutions like Krishi Bhavans for this is not acceptable. If it is only taking their advice, then there is no harm. But any move to use the land of the temples for non-religious activities and, gradually, to alienate the land, cannot be tolerated. If a collective of the believers of each temple undertakes the farming and adds to the income to the temple, then this cultivation is a praiseworthy venture. But farming to cultivate flowers and other articles used for the rituals in the temple must be given first priority. If, however, the land is going to be leased out or otherwise alienated temporarily or permanently in the name of cultivation, then this would indeed have to be opposed. It is hoped that the High Court would then admit the petition of the devotees, and stop this wayward act of the Devaswom Board.
Temples are not milching cows
Our temples are not only the abode of the deity, but the centres of religious practices, cultural activity and of maintaining ecological balance. With their banyan trees, groves, tanks, tulasi and other flowering plants, the temples are crucial for maintaining local biodiversity. They are places that remind us to love and care for the plants and the animals, and to offer to them whatever we can. As a part of this, there is the practice of feeding the fish in the temple tanks. But we now hear with consternation that the Malabar Devaswom Board has decided to auction the right to catch the fish in the tank of the famous temple of Sree Lokanar Kavu, which is the birthplace of many legends, and a repository of history. Even the fish that depend on the Devi of Lokanar Kavu have no peace from the Devaswom Board. Undoubtedly, this is not acceptable, and such a move should be opposed tooth and nail.
Travancore Devaswom Board often claims to be in a financial crisis, and the way they’ve found to escape it is strange indeed. They have decided to sell away the unused lamps, utensils, and other items of bronze, brass and copper of the temples. Reports are coming that they have begun taking the inventory of such items, as well as valuable items like gold. The temples have many articles that are connected to history and tradition, and their value cannot be assessed by the value of the material of which they are made. By all standards, this is robbery, and must be stopped. Here also, we hope the Hon. High Court of Kerala will come to the rescue of the devotees.
A move parallel to the first one was made by the Government of Tamil Nadu, which ordered that the temples administered by the TNHRCE (Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments) should compulsorily give crores of rupees to the Chief Minister’s Covid 19 fund. The devotees opposed this reverse discrimination and approached the Madras High Court. In this case, the court has cancelled the order and ordered that there is no need for a compulsory donation from the temples.
The Devaswom Boards which are under the control of the Government are constantly indulging in activities that are detrimental to the interests of Hindu society, thus trampling on the feelings of the devotees. We all know about the affidavits submitted by the Kerala Government in various courts, which cut at the very root of the centuries-old tradition of Śabarimala Temple. We have not forgotten how the government and the Travancore Devaswom Board hurt the deep-felt sentiments of the devotees and insulted the collective psyche of the Hindu society in the name of the Supreme Court order regarding the entry of young women therein.
The activities of the Karnataka Hindu Charitable Board in using the funds for purposes other than of the temple and religion have been questioned in several courts, as has been repeatedly reported. Let us remember also the action of the Hon. High Court of Bombay in questioning the Maharashtra Government on their action of utilising the funds of the Siddhi Vinayaka Temple for non-religious purposes.
Whenever we say that it is unjust for temples to be under the control of the government, that it is discrimination against the Hindu society and a political handcuff on our freedom to worship that is enshrined in the Constitution, the response that comes from politicians and the Government authorities is: ‘The Government does not take any money from the Devaswom Boards, on the contrary, grants are given to them. The government is trying to save the Hindu temples, and is giving grants to maintain and nurture them; anyone can see this if he examines the records.’ This is the usual strain of responses from ministers and politicians. There are many questions that must be asked when we hear such claims. First of all, the Constitution does not authorise the government to collect money from the public compulsorily for the upkeep of any religion (*2). That being the case, is it not unconstitutional to give grants for the expenses of the temples?
The word ‘secular’ was sneaked into the constitution by the 42nd amendment during the period of national emergency in 1976, when the opposition leaders were all incarcerated, there was a chokehold on the dissemination of news and freedom of expression, and the term of the parliament had already expired. Until that time, there was no such word in the Constitution. The great visionaries such as Ambedkar who framed the Constitution, had not included such a word. But the fact today is that the Constitutions is ‘secular.’ This being the case, why is the government giving a special benefit only to Hindu temples? Why maintain the places of worship of one religion, with the help of an elaborate set-up of officials, politicians and ministers created for this purpose? Either the government should control and administer the institutions of all religions, or none at all. Wouldn’t this be real ‘secularity’? Is it right to administer and maintain only the Hindu religious institutions? In considering such questions, a moment’s examination will lead us to conclude that the funds give to the temples are not munificence, but an obligation.
History of government interference in Hindu Temples
The process of government interference in temple matters began in this country long ago, with efforts to take control of the assets of the temples. In 1811 Colonel Munroe, offered on behalf of the East India Company to protect Travancore militarily and otherwise, in exchange for a levy of Rupees 8 lakhs per annum. When the Queen of Travancore expressed her helplessness, Munroe suggested taking control of the temples with their wealth of income and properties. When Munroe became the Regent Diwan of Travancore, he implemented this meticulously, which paved the way for handcuffing the temples. The affairs of the temples underwent ups and downs throughout the years that are too elaborate to discuss here. When the British government took over the governance of the country from East India Company, most of the land of Bharata came under the control of the British government. The remaining provincial princes agreed to the over lordship of Britain. During this period, the British government took over the governance of the temples and Hindu institutions through various enactments and legislation. The temples, which went through the control of the revenue department and chartable institutions department, have only to tell the story of losses and alienations of their properties.
When the Madras Religious and Charitable Endowment Act attracted opposition from other religions, the Hindus, who were at the time largely religiously unorganised and unaware of the potential dangers of this act, remained indifferent, had their name added and it became The Madras Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowment Act. This led to the mockery of the Hindu institutions, which were the only religious organisations coming under control of the government. This Act had extensive provisions, and as similar legislations were enacted in other parts of the country, the temples of those regions gradually came under the control of the British government. The administration of Devaswoms came about under different names in different provinces. As the temples of South India were greater in their financial stability and their ownership of landed property, it was here that the British Government tightened their grip. It must be remembered that the rich temples of the Western and Northern parts of the country had already been looted and destroyed in successive onslaughts by Mohammed Ghazni, Alavudeen Khilji, Baber etc., coming down to Aurangazeb.
When the transfer of power from Britain to India occurred with independence in 1947, the laws concerning the devaswoms continued as before. Even when India became a Sovereign Democratic Republic in 1950, the devaswoms continued to remain under the control of the government. Later, in 1976, we became a Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic by the 42ndAmendment to the constitution indicated above. Still there was no respite for the devaswoms. While the propriety and the legal and moral validity of a ‘secular’ state controlling the places of worship of only one religion continues to this day unchallenged, the very freedom which Article 26 of the constitution (*3) grants us to run the religious institutions according to the faith is getting denied.
Today, when even essential services are being privatised, the running of temples by the government is a mockery. We must put an end to this practice. Our ancestors set apart certain landed property for the upkeep of the temples. When the government seized these assets forcefully, they also took over the liability of running the temples. In the language of the Hon. High Court of Kerala, they stepped into the shoes of the ‘ooraalans’ of the temple (*4). If they continue to nurture such temples as per the prescriptions laid down by our ancestors, there would be no problem. However, they are not only failing to do so, but are laying their hands on temples which were painfully rebuilt and renovated by the Hindu society. ‘Hands off’ should be our cry.
We must be absolutely clear that the grant that the government gives the devaswoms is not munificence. If it were, it would have been unconstitutional. When the merger of the princely states of Travancore and Kochi took place in 1949, the two states signed a covenant in the presence of V.P Menon, a representative of the Govt. of India, who was the then advisor to the Ministry of States. According to that covenant the Government is obliged to give to the Devaswom an amount of Rupees 51 lakhs every year (*5). Later on, with the enactment of the Kerala Land Reforms Act of 1964, lakhs of acres of land were lost by the temples on the promise of an annuity. The annuity fixed under that law has to be indexed with the cost of living from time to time and paid to the Devaswom. This would amount to several crores. The direction of the Hon. High Court in this regard is very clear (*6). But is the State Government doing anything in this direction? Again, lakhs of acres of Forest lands were lost to the temples by the Kerala Private Forest (Vesting and Assignment) Act, 1971, that too without any monetary compensation. Is the government giving the Devaswom the crores of rupees in income they receive from these forests every year? (*7). Without divulging these facts to the public, what is the moral authority of the government in stating that they earmark crores of rupees in the budget to give grants to Devaswoms?
Another point worth noting here: the Government often comes out with the statement of expenses incurred for the upkeep of temples like Sabarimala. On a perusal, we will find that the amounts so spent are for maintaining roads and making other infra structures and the extra expenses incurred to make the government “manage the temple”. But what must be asked is, do they show anywhere the extra income during the Śabarimala season, by way of more taxes such as road tax; entry tax; sales tax; extra income to Kerala State Road Transport Corporation by way of highly increased tariffs; the fees levied on the temple for services like law and order; health; fire services etc.? Śabarimala is pointed out as an example. Similarly, when they speak of the expenditure incurred for other temples, they are silent about the additional revenue to the exchequer.
Hindu temples - Victims of 'Secular' politics
While the Muslim and Christian communities are able to spend the income from their places of worship on improving their own communities, such as running their institutions and providing other services to the community, following their system of belief, we can see that this is not the case with Hindus. The Hindus are forced to be silent witnesses to the politicians in the ‘secular’ government spending the income as they please. How long should we be silent? We have already discussed the impropriety of a secular government running the places of worship of only one particular religion and not others. The High Court of Kerala had appointed a high-power commission to study the irregularities and corruptions in the Travancore and Cochin Devaswom Boards. The commission's recommendation is noteworthy. It was said that it is a pressing matter of urgent necessity to release the Devaswom Boards and their functioning from politics. “Ministers of the government and Members of the Legislature charged with the responsibility of nominating members of the Board should not nominate persons identified as belonging to or having an affiliation with political parties. Only eminent persons who are held in high esteem by the public and who have proven integrity should be nominated. It will be an added advantage if they have proven administrative ability or have background in the financial and legal matters. (*8)
The regulations for electing members to the different Devaswom Boards are not only peculiar, but against the secular concept of our constitution. There are five Devaswom Boards under the control of the Kerala Government: Travancore, Kochi, Guruvayur, Koodalmanikyam and Malabar. Election to these boards has to be done by the Hindu ministers of the cabinet and the Hindu members of the Legislative Assembly. According to the secular constitution, people do not contest the elections to the Assembly or join the Cabinet on the basis of religion. That being the case, then how far desirable is it to divide them on the basis of religion for this purpose? Are they the representatives of the Assembly or the Cabinet or of Hindu society? In either case, the unconstitutionality and impropriety can be easily established. These MLAs or Ministers need not be believers of any deity or temple. Thus, it will be the political belief of each that would guide them. In an ideal democratic set up, the representation of the people ought to be there in all administrative branches. Is it there at present? For instance, at present, only two electors will be there from the District of Malappuram who are eligible to vote for electing members of the Devaswom Boards. Among the 140 MLA’s, only 74 or 75 would be eligible. If we consider the religion-based political approaches and the trends in demographic changes, this is certainly going to come down drastically in the near future. So how is the representation of the Hindu people among the electors going to be ensured?
Whichever way we look at it, the conclusion is inescapable that the control of the government on the places of worship of only one particular religious denomination is undesirable and it must end. The Government of Karnataka took over the control of the famous temple at Gokarna with the help of the Hindu Charitable Endowment Act. Cancelling it and restoring the traditional system, the Hon. Supreme Court later stated clearly that the action of bringing the places of worship of Hindus under the control of the Government is not desirable. Similar observations were made by the Hon. Supreme Court when they cancelled the action of the Government of Tamil Nadu in taking over control of the historical Chidambaram Temple, and restored it to the traditional management. The Court also observed that if at all any temple must be taken over to rectify any malpractice; it must then be restored to the old system after the rectification. In the case regarding the irregularities of the Jagannath Temple of Puri, the Hon. Supreme Court observed that the Hindu temples are to be run by Hindus, and that these matters fall beyond the purview of the Government.
Way forward for Hindu temples
In this situation, the Hindu society must wake up and work for the emancipation of temples. The need of the hour is for the Hindu societies of all denominations and the cultural and devotional organisations to join together as a united front that includes the participation of the acharyas of Sanatana Dharma. The charitable and religious institutions are under the Concurrent List of the Constitution as item 28 in List 3 of Schedule 7 under Article 246 (2). Therefore, it is possible for the Parliament to legislate for releasing the Devaswom administration from the hold of the State Government and ruling political party. The Supreme Court can direct the Central Government to ensure common justice. Urgent efforts are required in this direction.
There are many among us who may ask the question, if the Devaswom Boards controlled by the Government cease to exist, who will manage the temples? It is similar to the question we have heard during the freedom struggle, ‘If the British leave, who will govern us?’ Without falling prey to such arguments, we must work together with the clear vision that religious institutions must be run by the believers of the respective religions.
These are the urgent and important steps required: The acharyas in various parts of the country should create awareness of the injustice that is being perpetrated on the Hindu temples, and the reverse discrimination suffered by Hindu society. The society should feel the need for joining together to end this injustice. Efforts should be made in all seriousness to bring the gross injustice of the present situation to the notice of the Central Government. To bring this before the Hon. Supreme Court and get favourable orders, it is absolutely essential to have a joint front as indicated above. Another important point is that we must prepare a draft law for the consideration of the Central Government and the Supreme Court. To the obvious question—‘what do you have in place of Government controlled Devaswom Boards?’—we must include a very clear answer in the draft. The most important point to be brought about is that the temples should be run by their believers. The believers should be properly represented in the Devaswom administration, and there should be absolutely no political interference in temple affairs. We have concrete examples of such systems right before our eyes today. There are thousands of temples, groves and mutts currently not controlled by Government Devaswom Boards; Collectives of the devotees are running them. Similarly, there are collectives such as advisory committee, festival committee etc., even in the temples controlled by Devaswom Boards.
In this same manner, collectives in the form of committees or trusts can be formed from among the devotees or from the locality to govern a temple’s affairs, and from this an executive body can be elected. Such bodies would be re-elected periodically and from each of them, a few can be elected to a committee at the Panchayat level. In a similar way District level Committees can be formed. From these, the representatives can form a State level body. Such a three-tier arrangement should be insulated from political interference by legal mandate. It should be ensured that political workers cannot be permitted into, in any of these committees. In addition, there should be advisory bodies at the district and state level consisting of experts in the fields of Veda, Tantra, Jyotisha, Vastu and temple-based performing arts. They should also be involved in decision making. The great temples or Mahakshetras can be under the direct control of the District level body. Through the state level body, the income from the temples should be divided among all temples in an equitable manner to ensure that all of them have sufficient funding to conduct their activities. Other activities, such as running education institutions, service centres, centres providing labour, schools of Dharma, Veda and Pooja, all should be done at the district and state levels in an established manner. If a Board for Santana Dharma studies is established at the state level, it can train teachers, conduct regular classes and periodic examinations and issue certificates. This will go a long way in preserving and re-establishing Sanatana Dharma. These are initial suggestion, which must be developed and discussed at various levels. In any case, the efforts should begin on a war footing. Let us visualise the best for all.
*1 - Section 27 of The Guruvayoor Devaswom Act, 1978 - Authority of Committee to incur expenditure for certain purposes. - The Committee may, after making adequate provision for the purposes referred to in subsection (2) of section 21, incur expenditure out of the funds of the Devaswom for all or any of the following purposes, namely: -
(a) maintenance, management and administration of the Temple , its properties and the temples subordinate thereto;
(b) training of archakas to perform the religious worship and ceremonies in the Temple and the temples subordinate thereto;
(c) medical relief, water supply and other sanitary arrangements for the worshipers and the pilgrims and construction of building for their accommodation;
(d) culture and propagation of the tenets and philosophy associated with the Temple ;
(e) the establishment and maintenance of or the making of any grant or contribution to, any poor home or other similar institution which is maintained for the benefit mainly of persons belonging to the Hindu Community;[(ee) the construction of buildings connected with the affairs of the Devaswom:]
(f) the establishment and maintenance of any educational institution which provides for encouragement of education in the [Sanskrit or Malayalam Language] the maintenance of any such educational institution owned or managed by the Devaswom or in which the Devaswom has interest; and
(g) the making of any contribution to any religious institution:
Provided that nothing contained in clause (e) shall prevent the continuance of any grant or contribution to any poor home or other similar institution which is maintained by or for the benefit of persons other than those belonging to the Hindu Community, if such grant or contribution was being made to such poor home or institution before the commencement of this Act as the customary practice associated with the Temple:
Provided further that no expenditure shall be incurred for any of the purposes mentioned in clauses (f) and (g) unless the same is sanctioned by custom or practice associated with the Temple.
Note: Sub Section (2) Of Section 21 of The Guruvayoor Devaswom Act, 1978
(2) Every such budget shall make adequate provision for -
(a) the dittam or scale of expenditure for the time being in force;
(b) the due discharge of all liabilities binding on the Devaswom.
[(c) the construction, repair, maintenance and renovation of buildings connected with the Devaswom; and)] 5
(d) the maintenance of a working balance.
*2 - Article 27
No person shall be compelled to pay any taxes, the proceeds of which are specifically appropriated in payment of expenses for the promotion or maintenance of any particular religion or religious denomination.
*3 - Article 26
Freedom to manage religious affairs
Subject to public order, morality and health, every religious denomination or any section thereof shall have the right-
(a). to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes;
(b). to manage its own affairs in matters of religion;
(c). to own and acquire movable and immovable property; and
(d). to administer such property in accordance with law.
*4 – ... the ooralans were in the position of trustees. By divesting the trustees of their rights and the deity of the ownership and having stepped in to the shoes of the trustees who were holding these properties for the benefit of these temples, in my view, the state has become a constructive trustee in possession of trust properties (Hon. Justice Balasubrahmanian in the judgment in O.P number 214 of 1992; High court of Kerala).
*5 – The obligation of the Covenanting State of Travancore to contribute from its general revenues a sum of Rs. 50 lakhs every year to the Devaswom Fund as provided for in the Devaswom (Amendment) Proclamation, 1123 M.E and a sum of Rs. One lakh every year to Sree Pandaravaga referred to in Provision (A) to sub-section (1) of Section 23 of the Travancore Interim Constitution act of 1123 M. E,
shall from the appointed day, be an obligation of the United State and the said amounts shall be payable there from and the Rajpramukh shall cause the said amounts to be paid every year to the Travancore Devaswom Board and the Executive Officer (referred to in sub - clause (b) of this Article) respectively.
(Article (viii) of the covenant entered into by the rulers of Travancore and Cochin for the formation of the United State of Travancore and Cochin.)
*6 – The first respondent shall prepare the final annuity statement in respect of the temples within a period of one year and the annuity on that basis shall be paid without further delay. The first respondent shall consider the requirement of revision of annuity periodically in accordance with the rise in prices of the commodities and the annuity should be revised on that basis.
*7 – The first respondent shall ensure utilisation of the income which they are getting from the forest lands owned by the Devaswoms in Malabar which got vested in the government under section 3(1) of the Private Forest (Vesting and Assignment) Act.
*8 – .... (3) De-politicisation of the Board and it's working is a matter of highest priority. (4) Ministers of the Government and members of the Legislature charged with the responsibility of nominating members of the Board should not nominate persons identified as belonging to or having an affiliation with political parties. Only eminent persons who are held in high esteem by the public and who have proven integrity should be nominated. It will be an added advantage if they have proven administrative ability or have background in the financial or legal matters.
(Swami Chidananda Puri is President of Advaithashramam, Kolathur and Founder and Managing Trustee of Sanathana Dharma Seva Trust, an organisation to spread sanathana dharma and vedanta)