TNM Poll Watch: Why Karnataka BJP govt had to shelve ‘free Hindu temples’ project

CM Bommai had said in January last year that a Bill would be tabled soon to free temples from government control. But 15 months later, here’s why there has been little progress in this direction.
Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai
Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai
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In January 2022, the Karnataka government had made a grand announcement. Taking a cue from self-styled godman Jaggi Vasudev, Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai said that Hindu temples would be freed from government control. For many years now, the right wing has been pushing the narrative that Hindu temples are in the clutches of the government, and that funds collected through these temples were being spent on developing churches and mosques. The Karnataka unit of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had even included it in their manifesto for the 2018 Assembly elections. On the basis of this narrative, the Bommai government decided to bring in a policy change.

Announcing the decision in January last year, CM Bommai had said that in the subsequent Assembly session, a Bill would be tabled to “free” the temples. But 15 months later, here’s why there has been no progress in this direction.

While the announcement was tailored to suit the right-wing narrative of Hindu victimhood, it was actually based on several fallacies. While it is true that a significant number of temples in the state are regulated by the Karnataka Hindu Religious Institutions And Charitable Endowments Department, or the Muzrai department, the funds collected by them are definitely not used towards development of mosques and churches.

Of Karnataka’s 1,80,000 temples, only 35,500 temples come under the Muzrai department. Based on their annual income, these temples are divided into three categories: Grade A which has 205 temples with an annual income higher than Rs 25 lakh, Grade B which has 139 temples with an annual income between Rs 5 and Rs 10 lakh, and Grade C which has 34,219 temples that earn less than Rs 5 lakh per annum.

Temples under Grades A and B respectively contribute 10% and 5% of their annual income to the Muzrai department. A common pool is created with these funds, which is administered by the Commissioner of the Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowments department. Now the amount from this pool is used for the maintenance of smaller temples with lower income that come under Grade C.

The funds are used for payment of archakas (priests), cleaning of the temple premises, regular maintenance work like painting, buying flowers and other expenses. In addition, the funds are also used to pay the salaries of the Muzrai department employees who audit and maintain temple ledgers. Apart from this, this money is not used for any other purpose.

So, ‘Hindu money’ from Hindu temples was not being used for maintenance of mosques and churches.

Many meetings were chaired by CM Bommai where the Minister for Muzrai, Hajj and Waqf Shashikala Jolle and officers from the Muzrai department were in attendance. Sources say that the officials made it clear that giving financial autonomy to Hindu temples is untenable, as it would mean that the smaller Hindu temples cannot survive. And that there is a high possibility of such autonomy leading to large-scale corruption in prominent temples with high income. And that the move could also have devastating social implications. After much consultation, it was decided that the proposal must be shelved.

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