A temple in Kerala has become the site of a heated controversy, after its administration was taken over by the Malabar Devaswom Board on Tuesday.
So, when the Board-appointed Executive Officer arrived at the Guruvayur Parthasarathy temple in Thrissur, he was not only armed with an interim order from the Kerala High Court, but was also accompanied with a heavy police escort. According to reports, three ACPs, seven Circle Inspectors and several more police personnel were stationed around the temple for the takeover.
"The last time we went to take over the temple, the Hindu Aikya Vedi (HAV) and other devotees locked themselves inside the temple for hours together. We had to leave without taking charge. This time around, it was important for us to avoid any confrontations, since this is a very sensitive matter," Biju TC, the Executive Officer, told TNM.
The heavy police presence came in anticipation of stiff resistance from various Hindu groups including the Hindu Aikya Vedi (HAV). The HAV refused to back down after the takeover was completed, calling for a hartal in Thrissur district on Wednesday, in protest against what it calls the LDF governmentâ€™s attempts to take over temples.
A prolonged legal battle
The issue of a Devaswom Board-takeover of the Guruvayur Parthasarathy temple kicked off in 2008, during the UDF government's tenure.
Back then, a group of people approached the Malabar Devaswom Deputy Commissioner, alleging corruption in the administration of the temple. The temple was then being governed by a committee comprising of prominent devotees of the temple.
The complainants demanded that the temple be declared a public temple, governed by the Malabar Devaswom Board, which governs around 1,400 temples in Kerala.
However, the issue stayed in limbo for many years, says Biju, the temple's Executive Officer.
When the Pinarayi Vijayan government came to power, the Board initiated the takeover process and the temple committee approached the High Court against it.
Although the court declared it a public temple, it said that the Board had to frame a proper scheme for the takeover, taking into consideration the bye-laws of the temple committee.
When the Board submitted this scheme to the court, it gave its permission for the takeover on April 24 this year. The Board then took charge of the temple for a month. However, after the temple committee approached the HC against the Executive Officer's appointment, a different bench ruled on May 29, that the status quo before the April order be maintained.
The following months saw multiple cases filed by both the parties. While the temple committee filed a contempt of court case against the EO, for not handing back charge. The Devaswom Board filed a case against the temple committee, alleging that the EO was facing threats that made it difficult for him to go to the temple to hand over charge.
Both parties also filed revision petitions against the two previous court orders. On September 19, both revision petitions were dismissed and the HC asked the EO to take charge of the temple administration.
Resistance from Hindu groups
However, when the Board-appointed team, reached the temple on September 21, it was faced with a crowd of protesting devotees led by the HAV.
"Their people camped inside the temple for hours together, without agreeing to hold discussions with us. We waited till 5pm and still they did not vacate the place, or agree to talk to us," EO Biju says.
Following this, the Board once again approached the court, filing complaints against 90 people who obstructed the EO's discharge of duty and seeking police protection for the officials carrying out the takeover of the temple.
In an interim order passed on November 3, the court asked the police and the District Collector to provide protection, so that the EO could take charge.
"Ever since the issue was taken up after the new government came to power, there have been at least nine court orders with regard to the administration of the temple," Biju points out.
Politics of the protests
According to Biju, Board officials have often tried to negotiate with the temple committee, but have never received cooperation from the latter.
"They saw it as a highly emotional issue and gave it a political turn deliberately. The government isn't hijacking temples. We are making sure that temple administration is carried out properly," Biju says.
However, right wing leaders accuse the government of taking â€˜anti-Hindu actionsâ€™ under the guise of secularism.
Among those who have trenchantly criticised the Pinarayi Vijayan government is BJP State President Kummanam Rajasekharan.
"The Devaswom officials, with the help of the police, broke the lock of the temple in the wee hours to take charge. Their action is against communal harmony and the Constitution. The government that calls itself secular, is taking over Hindu temples," Kummanam lashed out in a recent Facebook post.
He also accused the LDF government of turning a blind eye towards Christian and Muslim religious places of worship, but targeting Hindu temples.