A division bench of Madras High Court has directed the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment (HR and CE) department to prominently display the names, profession and phone numbers of trustees at every temple within eight weeks.
T R Ramesh, President of Indic collective and Temple worshippers Society, had filed a public interest litigation questioning the presence of government in about 40 TN temples in violation of 1965 Supreme Court’s order and in another 15 temples without legal authority . This PIL came before a division bench comprising Justice MM Sundresh and Justice R Hemalatha on 28th September. TR Ramesh’s counsel contended that it came to light through information obtained under the RTI act that though Executive Officers (EO) were present and functioning in more than 40 temples. He said they were appointed by the HR and CE without valid, legally permissible orders to appoint them. He also brought to the notice of the court that HR and CE refused to act against illegal and unauthorized presence and functioning of various EOs and such arbitrary functioning affected the constitutional rights of the devotees, trustees and stakeholders including those who donate to the temples. Most significantly to the interest of the temples themselves.
“It is shocking to note that this illegality has been existing for the last 55 years. This is more so when the statute contemplates certain procedures such as publication of notice, calling upon the trustee and all interested persons to show cause why it should not continue” argued his counsel advocate G Rajagopalan. He also submitted that positions of the EOs in these temples and in many other temples for which schemes of administration were framed or modified were without any legal basis. He said EOs in 40 temples were functioning purportedly under Chapter VI but without any orders. He said that this was shocking and was functioning without any jurisdiction under the Statute. The petitioner said “The trustees, who have been hereditarily managing the temple, practically have no say in the administration of the temple and often times the religious denominations and the devotees belonging to such sampradayas (traditional customs) had to put up with blatant and severe interferences in the religious affairs of the temples by the ‘executive officers’ and other officials of the HR and CE department in the guise of administration” . The PIL sought to quash the appointment of EOs and to hand over the administration to the trustees of the temples from whose hands the management was taken over.
The division bench while admitting the PIL ordered issue of notices to HR and CE and state government seeking their response to the plea.
In the petition, he has listed out famous temples like Srirangam, Kapaleeswarar, Tiruttani Subramanya swamy, Tiruchendur murugan, Mannargudi Rajagopalan, Tiruvannamalai Arunachaleswarar temple and others where the presence of Eos is clearly illegal. It traced the history by citing during the colonial rule in the Bengal and Madras presidency in 1817 , the practice of control over religious institutions began.
“Religious Endowments Act of 1926 contemplated Board of Commissioners, framing of schemes to administer temples and regulation of temples, mutts and religious endowments. After Bharat attained freedom, the Madras High Religious and Charitable Endowments Act of 1951was enacted. Both the Madras High Court and the Supreme Court declared most of the provisions of the 1951 act to be unconstitutional. That being so, the present HR and CE act of 1959 was brought into force from January 1 1960. It paved way for administration of Hindu religious institutions by the HR and CE department and permitting appointment of Eos who were basically government servants subject to disciplinary action by the commissioner of the department.” it points out.
“The SC had , in the Dr. Subramanian Swamy Vs State of Tamil Nadu (2014) held that every order of appointment of an EO to a temple must disclose reasons for such appointment and that those appointments should be made only for a specific period and not for eternity. It was after this, conditions for appointment of EO rules of 2015 and gave retrospective effect to them. They should not have been given retrospective effect at all in the absence of enabling provisions in the HR and CE act” the petition elaborates.
In Tamil nadu temples can be classified as ‘Scheme temples’ (those for which schemes had been framed for administration) and ‘notified temples ( those which had been notified under the Act). But, according to the petitioner, most of them are being managed by EOs illegally. He said serious misdeeds such as theft of idols and mismanagement of temple properties had been reported under them.
It is pertinent to mention that recently Justice G R Swaminathan quashed a tender notification issued by the EO –cum-Fit Person of Palani Dhandayuthapani swamy temple to hire house-keeping service for the temple. The judge also suggested reconstitution of the temple trust board with eminent Hindu and men of impeccable character would be a good start. Leaving the temples in the care of bureaucracy and politicians has not helped” quoting an editorial of a leading daily. The petition was filed by TR Ramesh. But a division bench of Justices K Kalyanasundaram and T Krishnavali stayed the single judge order by saying EO was empowered to float tender notification.