Saturday, December 2, 2023

State control of temples – unjust and undesirable

By MR Lalu

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent remarks about government control of temples have attracted national attention. He triggered his guns on the state governments in the southern part of India, especially the DMK led government in Tamil Nadu. His meaningful assertions came soon after the country felt the tremors of objection to the anti-sanatan remarks made by a young minister Udayanidhi Stalin from the DMK. India witnessed political upheavals discharging disagreements on what he said, especially on the analogy he made to describe India’s largest and the world’s oldest religion. But the prime minister’s statement should not be taken as a mere allegation leveled against a state government as the facts on the ground, on multiple occasions forced the temple believers in the state to throng to the streets and register their protest. The DMK, known for its atheistic credentials, has been capturing and controlling temples with a questionable pace. Alarmingly, the reality does not stop there. Many temples in the state are known to have been desecrated and vandalized by Islamic groups and miscreants but the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment (HR&CE) Department which manages the temples in the state has failed to ensure their safety. The government is accused for not giving adequate protection to Hindu religious places and its indefatigable supply of immunity to Islamic elements and other religious groups is frequently questioned. Most of the famous Hindu temples are forcefully brought under the control of the government as part of its baleful attempt to capture their massive wealth and revenue.

Situation is almost similar in Kerala. The Left government led by the CPI (M) is facing the ire of the Hindu community for its unpardonable attempts to capture temples that have ample revenue and are popular. A regrettable standoff between the local administration and the temple authorities brought unpleasant scenes in one of the largest Devi temples, the Vellayani Bhadrakali Temple in the southern part of Thiruvananthapuram recently. The Kerala Police had unnecessarily muscled in on the annual festivities of the temple in which saffron colored flags and ribbons were used for decoration. The questionable objection of the police was against the saffron color in the temple premises and they ordered for the removal of the saffron decorations. This was because the state government is politically skeptical of the saffron presence in temples which it defines as a depiction of the RSS-BJP hegemony. Saffron is the color of sacrifice in Hinduism and considered as sacred in temples across India. The same government is pleasantly supportive of religious flags and religious colors used on festive occasions in mosques and churches. This means, Hindus are the only community that requires upholding the norms of secularism in the state.

In its recent verdict the Supreme Court exposed the duplicity of the state government. The apex court in its historic verdict upheld the right of the erstwhile royal family of Travancore to “manage and administer” the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple with its inexhaustible riches in Thiruvananthapuram. The court had considered the royal family’s stand that the temple was a private temple and its treasures belonged to the royal family. The state government was eying on the treasures of the temple that piled into billions and the apex court had derailed its attempt to take control of the holy shrine. The Devaswom system is prominent in Kerala and almost all known temples come under different Devaswom Boards. And these boards are controlled by the state government. The Guruvayur, Travancore, Malabar and Cochin Devaswom are the main boards under which temples are managed and administered. Both Travancore and Cochin Devaswom Boards were formed by the Travancore Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act of 1950. The Guruvayur Devaswom administers the affairs of the Guruvayur temple and the Malabar Devaswom Board was formed by the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (H.R. & CE -Amendment) ordinance of 2008 by the Government of Kerala.

Alarmingly, appointments to these temples under the boards are always under suspicion. This is mainly due to the fact that most of the posts are filled by ruling party’s workers and their relatives. In its landmark judgment, the high court of Kerala raised concerns on the appointments to various posts in temples that are administered by different Devaswom Boards. A bench of Justices P R Ramachandra Menon and Devan Ramachandran maintained its position calling the appointments to the Devaswom Boards as ‘riddled with secrecy’ and asked the government to change the complex and suspicious system of appointment immediately. Notwithstanding the stiff opposition from the believers, the famous Mattannur Mahadeva Temple in Kannur district was forcefully taken over by the Malabar Devaswom Board and the CPI (M), the ruling party had a displeasing stand while it struggled to justify the board’s act. The party consistently exposed its duplicity further by describing the Hindu temples ‘public property’ while it considered churches and mosques private property. The state government through sheepish means could grab administration of many privately managed temples especially eying on their massive revenue.

The Malabar Devaswom Board administers temples in the Malabar region with Malappuram district, the only Muslim dominant district in this region. In its controversial move, the Devaswom Board, managed by the Communist Party decided to paint the walls of Thirumandhamkunnu Bhagavathy Temple, a famous Hindu pilgrim centre in Malappuram district in green and had to face severe opposition from the believers as the temple they accused resembled a mosque. Conceding to severe protest from the locals, the Devaswom Board had to restore the walls into their original appearance. Controversial women entry to the world famous Sabarimala Temple was a conspiracy hatched by the same ruling dispensation that ultimately forced the women of the state to shriek their protest. Grabbing billions as revenue from various temples, the government’s biased approach on Hindu religious centers began to be menacing and insulting. State control of Hindu temples remains an annoying issue to the Hindu majority while the governments never dare to hold their reins on religious places occupied by minorities. So vote bank matters. A slight movement in this regard would see severe electoral backlash. The colonial aggression by state governments puts the trustworthiness of Hindus under suspicion. Modi’s accusation was accurate and indisputable but being in office, was he sincere enough to bring a comprehensive central legislation entrusting the right to self-governance of temples with the Hindus?

(Author is freelance journalist and social worker based in Kerala. The views expressed are personal opinion of the author.)

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