Jaggi Vasudev and others’ assertion to ‘free temples’ seems to imply that the state takes the income generated by temples. However, that’s hardly the case.

Jaggi Vasudev with temples in his background
news Controversy Friday, March 12, 2021 - 17:55

On March 11, Jaggi Vasudev, identified as ‘Sadhguru’, launched a ‘missed call campaign’ demanding that temples in Tamil Nadu should be ‘freed from government control’. In the interview to CNN-News18 in January, Jaggi Vasudev had said, “We live in times where we understand that the government should not manage airlines, airports, industry, mining, trade — but how is it that sacred temples can be managed by the government? What qualifies them?” His demand was particular for Tamil Nadu, which is significant given that the state is set to go to polls soon. Jaggi had sought the intervention of Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Edappadi Palaniswami, DMK Chief MK Stalin, and actor Rajinikanth.

Vasudev, a spiritualist, has a large following, including many celebrities, and considerable political clout. However, this demand to ‘liberate temples’ is not really new. A cursory search will tell you that the primary argument is that India, as a secular country, cannot be having ‘control’ on the religious institutions. Those in favour of ‘freeing’ temples also contend that places of worship of other religions like mosques and churches ‘are not under government control’, so why temples?

At face value, there appears to be some truth in the statements – the purely administrative aspects of temples, such as budgeting, filling up vacancies, etc, are regulated under the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Act. 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 Devaswom Recruitment 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. 

The assumption in the ‘free temples’ argument seems to be that the state government can make money off the temples as the respective Acts lay down rules on how the coffers of the temples should be managed. This, however, is not really true for any state. Any donations given to a temple — whether from collections in the hundi, or given privately — go into its bank account. The temples’ budget needs the HR&CE Department’s approval to utilise some funds, however, these funds can only be used for activities related to the temples, and cannot – by law – be pocketed by the officials appointed by the government to the temple trusts and boards. 

Further, whatever amount goes from the temple to the HR&CE Department as administration charges can only be used for the department’s functioning, and cannot be pocketed by government officials. In Tamil Nadu, for example, between 4% and 12% of a temple’s income (decided based on the earnings of the temple) is given to the Department. 

“This amount is not calculated from the entire income, but after certain deductions are made like renovation funds etc. And this money is only used to pay salaries of those working with the HR&CE department including Commissioners and Executive officers, and for nothing else,” a former HR&CE official tells TNM. 

In addition, the Tamil Nadu state government allocates crores of rupees from its annual budget to the HR&CE Dept.

Therefore, the government cannot take the temples’ income, or put that money to its own use. In fact, in December last year, the Kerala High Court even said that donation from the Guruvayoor Devaswom Board’s coffers to the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund to help in COVID-19 relief was illegal.

The court even said that this money could not go to any government agency and could not be used for non-religious purposes. That said, malpractice and mismanagement of funds can happen in HR&CE Departments. There have been instances of idols being stolen, as well as embezzlement of funds and gold by HR&CE officials. 

But are the HR&CE laws really against India’s secular nature? And how much ‘control’ does the state really have? Here’s what we found out.

Why was the law enacted?

It is important to understand the context in which the law originated. It was first passed in the Madras Presidency in 1925 by the Justice Party government, as the Madras Hindu Religious Endowments Act, but its validity was challenged immediately. The legislature then enacted the Madras Hindu Religious Endowments Act, 1926. This Act applied to all temples, excluding those that were not under the British administration, and came about after there were allegations of malpractice and mismanagement by committees that had been set up in previous years to look into the matter.

“There was no smooth transition from the time of kings and kingdoms to the time of the British rule. So, the temples had become cesspools, creating a situation where a few were taking advantage of the big temples. Whoever was powerful, had influence in a place, could practically control a temple. So, there was a need to remove such mafias, regularise, and ensure people’s legacy is preserved. That is why the law came in the first place,” explains P Thiaga Rajan (PTR), a DMK leader and grandson of PT Rajan, former Chief Minister of the erstwhile-Madras Presidency in 1936.

The law was also amended several times thereafter in the following decades. Initially, a Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Board – a statutory body – was formed, where Commissioners were nominated by the government. The Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act of 1959 did away with the Board, and instead constituted a Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Department that is led by a Commissioner. The commissioner can conduct inquiries if mismanagement of a Hindu public charitable endowment is suspected, and bring it under the state. After several modifications, the final form of the Act that governs over 38,000 temples in Tamil Nadu, was passed in 1959.

The objective of the law remains to oversee and facilitate proper management and governance at temples, and ensure that its funds are not misappropriated or misused. This need arose, because over time, many temples evolved from local places of worship to places of learning, culture, and heritage – meaning they amassed larger public value, reasons PTR. “Even now, mostly temples that are of historic importance are nationalised, such as the Meenakshi Amman temple built by the Pandya kings. It is not just a place of worship but represents history and architecture.”

Is the law against secularism?

Each state now has its own HR&CE Department or an equivalent, such as the Devaswom Boards in Kerala. The functions of the department are varied, and include appointing trustees to the temples where a non-hereditary trustee needs to be appointed, managing construction, renovation, leases of shops in the temple such as ones selling prasadam and so on. 

Laxmi Narayanan, an advocate from Tamil Nadu, argues that the role of the HR&CE Department does not necessarily clash with secularism (separation of state and religion), because the aspects that it takes care of – such as how much provisions should be used, how much money should be allotted for certain activities – are not to do with the religious customs and practices of the temple. The laws deal more with administrative aspects and accountability, and say that all activities, including utilisation of surplus funds, should be done in line with the religious institute’s or Hindu norms.

“Each temple is governed under its own agama shastra (Sanskrit word for manual of worship). So, if the temple’s agama or custom is that it opens at 3 am, the Department will have no say in it,” Narayanan explains. Apart from their regular duties, the department or commissioners are only supposed to intervene in situations such as disputes in hereditary trusteeship, where a non-hereditary trustee needs to be appointed, where there are economic or management discrepancies etc.

PTR says the argument that money from temples is used to subsidise governments is bogus. "No institution in the word including Isha where the cost of administration is zero. Discussion about what percentage of the funds are used is moot. That money from Hindu temples is used to subsidise secular governments is completely false. In fact every year, the government, which by Constitution is a secular government, allocates hundreds of crores to the HR & CE department, it is intended as a cost of preserving our cultural heritage left to us by our forefathers," he says.  

What is the extent of economic ‘control’ over temples?

While the mechanisms vary, a glance over a few states’ HR&CE Acts reveals that the state-appointed commissioners and their deputies don’t have a direct hand in managing finances of a temple. While trustees or those involved in day-to-day management of a temple do need to submit budgets and audits, and could need commissioners’ approval in how the temples’ surplus funds must be utilised etc, the commissioners or other HR&CE Department employees are not liable for any financial gains from temples’ coffers.

Even in Karnataka, where the Commissioner has to create a Common Pool Fund which will have contributions made by notified institutions at 5% of their gross income after certain deductions and grants from the state government, this fund cannot be used by officials for any purpose other than for religious institutions. These include giving aid to a temple in need, propagating religious tenets of an institution, promotion of temple arts and architecture, establishment of an educational institution where instruction in the Hindu religion is also provided and so on. In Tamil Nadu, the trustee, after sanction from the commissioner, can utilise surplus funds similarly. Even if a trustee is appointed by the state, they are not allowed to pocket any funds from the temple.

Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams Chairman YV Subba Reddy tells TNM that in Andhra Pradesh, most temples are run by trusts, which also have government appointed members including a Commissioner. "The government's responsibility is to ensure that temples run smoothly and that the money received by the temple is used for it and its devotees. We don't pay taxes; there is some GST for prasadams and some purchases."

In some states, the HR&CE Department can have some officers who work in temple administration. For instance, in Tamil Nadu, the HR&CE Department Commissioner may appoint an executive officer for any Hindu religious institution under it, or a temple under a math, other than a math or a specific endowment attached to a math. In Andhra Pradesh, an executive officer can be appointed for certain charitable or religious institutions or endowments based on their income, and will be responsible for maintaining records, jewels, valuables, arrange for proper collection of income and so on. However, these persons are on the state government’s payroll, not the temple’s.

PTR says, “In Tamil Nadu, the temple may decide to spend some funds for the HR&CE members who work there. For instance, a joint-commissioner may get a car from the temple board for his use to visit. In fact, every year, the state government allocates money for the temples and the HR&CE Department, and not the other way around.”

Comparison to regulation over other religious institutions

‘Free temples’ have been a long-standing demand of Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Several people, including Rajya Sabha MP Subramanian Swamy, have supported it. In fact, Subramanian Swamy had approached the Supreme Court to 'free' the famous Sabarimala temple in Kerala from government control. In 2019, BJP MP Satyapal Singh had moved a Bill regarding this in the Parliament

Supporting the demand, Organiser, the mouthpiece of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), wrote that while Hindu temples and religious and charitable institutions are “taken over” by the secular state, mosques and churches are exclusively managed by the respective communities. 

Dr M Rajendran, a historian and author of Pandiyar Kala Cheppedugal (Copper Plates of the Pandya Era) as well as books on British life in India, says that the state Wakf Boards do not play a role in the economics of local mosques, the decisions on which are taken by the local jamaat. He says that a Wakf Board largely manages and administers the properties donated to it or under it, collecting rent, recovering any lost properties and so on. Some run colleges and schools, and select devotees to send for Haj.

However, Narayanan points out that the powers of the Wakf Boards are not very different from HR&CE Departments, and the argument that there is preferential treatment to mosques when compared to temples is incorrect. 

For instance, under the Wakf Act of 1995, the Wakf Board does scrutinise and approve budgets, can appoint or remove the muttawali (a person who takes over the management of a Wakf) in accordance with the Act, set up a Wakf fund and so on – similar to the duties of the HR&CE Department. The Wakf Board can also decide what must be done with surplus income from the properties under its management, it must be done in line with the objectives of the Wakf. So, Narayanan says, the scope for malpractice, control, and politicisation is as much in the Wakfs as under HR&CE Acts, if not more.

However, the people TNM spoke to agreed that churches do enjoy much more leeway in India. Many churches are set up individually and locally and formulate their own mechanisms, and others have loose affiliation to bigger churches, some of them outside India. “Those that are Roman Catholic are affiliated to the Vatican Church, and are accountable to those norms,” PTR says. “Bishops that head the diocese here are elected in the church, and it is a tenure post. Diocese also manage any educational institutions that are under them. They enjoy more independence,” adds Dr Rajendran. 

There’s malpractice, but is the alternative better?

Like any other public institution, there is scope for corruption and malpractice in temple administration and the HR&CE Department as well.

Dr Rajendran points out that problems have come up because political parties reportedly want to appoint people of their favour as non-hereditary trustees. He says that there are around 38,449 temples in Tamil Nadu of which 3,079 have hereditary trustees. “People who have given land, money, donations historically or have ancestors who built the temple,” he explains. However, the other temples have non-hereditary trustees i.e., those appointed by the HR&CE Department of the Tamil Nadu government.

“The DMK or AIADMK governments – as and when they have been in power – have appointed trustees for 16,723 of the temples, and some of these appointments were political, as they wanted their respective party members or sympathisers to be among the temple trustees,” says Dr Rajendran. “But for the balance temples out of the 38k, there are no takers because those temples do not have enough income.”

Both Dr Rajendran, and Laxmi Narayanan also point out that these trustees are changed or transferred as political power changes hands, which creates the possibility for corruption and malpractice. However, while Dr Rajendran believes that the HR&CE Act should be done away with, and control of the temples should rest with local residents, Laxmi Narayanan says that state regulation should remain even as malpractices and corruption should be checked and curbed.

Dr Rajendran reasons: “The government should have minimal control in these matters. Over the years, everything has become systemised in temples; the lands, gems and jewelry have been accounted for. If the management is left to the local residents and trustees are from them too, that would increase accountability as well. Local residents will have to face the public as they live there. On the other hand, if the government appoints someone externally, they can simply be transferred elsewhere after the term of three years. So, if a person is with the government, they can do mischief but won’t have to face music as he/she can get transferred. This is not the case with a local resident who has to live there.”

Advocate V Manohar, who practises in the Madras High Court, is a critic of the HR&CE Act. However, he does not believe the entire Act should be scrapped, and calls for changes. “The Act gives a lot of scope for officers to misuse. The purpose of HR&CE Department is to regulate but instead in the name of regulation, constraints are created, politicians control things indirectly.”

Manohar says temples should be given more autonomy as far as appointments and fund management goes. “In Tamil Nadu, temples have to give a budget for any amount to be sanctioned, and there is an inordinate delay. The HR&CE Department in Tamil Nadu makes all appointments for temples under it, including the security guard. Many of the appointments done are of outsiders who have interest in protecting the temple. Temples should be allowed to manage their funds and the government should audit,” he says. Manohar also argues that Wakf Board do not control budgets as much as government officials do under the HR&CE Act.

Laxmi Narayanan argues that without some state regulation, there won’t be enough checks to ensure that mismanagement does not happen — and this goes for all religious institutions, including Hindu ones. “Yes, corruption happens in some places even if the Act is in place, but who is to say that it won’t, without it? Even in cases where there are hereditary trustees, there can be dispute between the heirs about who gets to be one. If a person is going to embezzle funds or indulge in malpractice, there has to be regulation to ensure that he/she is accountable. That said, the state control could be minimised so that the trustees do not change simply to the tune of who is in political power.”

Further, PTR asserts that privatisation is not a better alternative and private parties are just as susceptible to political influence and misappropriation of funds. “How would we know if there is no political influence when a third party's nominating or appointing trustees? And who should decide who this third party is?”

Both Narayanan and PTR state that these regulations are necessary to ensure social justice. After the first such law to nationalise temples came into effect in Madras Presidency in 1920s, several issues came to light, such as Dalits not being allowed entry into temples, and no one other than Brahmins being trustees. “My grandfather, PT Rajan, enacted the law that one need not be a Brahmin to be a temple trustee in early 1930s. It took several decades from there on to incorporate social justice aspects in the law,” PTR says.

Now, the Tamil Nadu HR&CE Act, under section 47, mandates that where a Board of Trustees for a temple needs to be appointed by the HR&CE Department, one of the three persons should be a member of Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe communities. Similarly, under section 25 of the Karnataka HR&CE Act, 1997, a Committee of Management for a religious institution is mandated to have at least one person from SC or ST communities, and two women. In 2019, the Jagan Mohan Reddy government in Andhra Pradesh, issued an order for 50% reservation in all temple committees and endowment institutions for people from SC, ST and other OBC communities; and half of those in these categories would have to be women.  

“Enforcing the law is easier when it is a people’s asset than when it is a private asset, which is the aim of the HR&CE law. This also means that if, say, a Dalit is not allowed entry into a temple, he/she can file a complaint with the police, the HR&CE Department, the Collector… they need not be at the mercy of temple authorities or fight a court battle,” PTR says.

(With inputs from Dhanya Rajendran) 

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