The state control of temples has been a major issue for decades with increasing interference as time has passed.
Musings on Secularism
Secularism, in its original European construct as it unfolded during the Reformation and the Enlightenment period, argued for the separation of state and church. The malfeasance of the Roman Catholic Church in medieval Europe marred by feudal mode of production, set the ground for reforms within Christianity and heralded the arrival of Protestantism. Arguing for a ‘priesthood of believers’ in order to curtail the influence of corrupt papacy, Martin Luther King also made the case for separation of State and Church. The religious conflicts and Thirty Years War that occurred in Europe led the Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke and Voltaire to stress on reason and negation of religious involvement in state affairs.
In the context of the modern democratic nation-state, secularism, in legal parlance, means “non-establishment” (no established state religion) and “religious freedom” (freedom to practice religion subject to constraints based on civil order and public morality). Secularism is also interpreted in terms of “non-interference” and “wall of separation”. However, these characterizations tend to become problematic when applied over complex social reality as in the case of India.
The founding fathers (and mothers) of India were not in favour of inclusion of the word “secularism” in the preamble of the constitution though Liberals would argue that the spirit of secularism was present in the way they envisioned the Indian state. However, the complex societal fabric, the baggage of inherited past and the need to confront modernity make for a heady cocktail that defines the approach of Indian states towards religious affairs. Hence, the directive principle on cow protection, retention of Muslim personal laws, abolition of untouchability and Hindu Code Bills. The Constitution of India guarantees religious freedom enshrined in Article 25-28, however, article 28 translates into state involvement in educational institutions imparting religious teaching. The case for complete separation of religion and state, as many liberals would prefer, is untenable for religion is a social construct, a dimension of individual and social activity. It is inextricably mixed with other domains like education, culture, economy etc. The modern states have considerable authority over these areas, resulting in an interface between state and religion.
Particularly noteworthy in this context is the provision made in Article 25 (2) (a) which bestows the Indian state with the power to regulate the secular aspects of activities associated with religious practices. This amounts to government interference in economic, financial and political matters of religious institutions. The selective interpretation and application of this section provide justification for increasing encroachment of government over temples, particularly in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
The Legacy of Temple Nationalisation
Historically there always has been a close relationship between the state and temples in the southern region, dating back to the medieval period as they kept their temples under close supervision. However, that doesn’t justify the blatantly discriminatory interference of the state in temple affairs in a democratic and secular setup, even when the Article 25 (2) (a) is considered. The bureaucratic management of temples is a legacy of colonial-era prevalent in southern states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. However, it is the HR & CE Act of 1959 (Act 22 of 1959) responsible for the present form of temple nationalization. Passed by the Tamil Nadu government, the landmark Madras HRCE (Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment) Act of 1951 entailed the bureaucratic management of thousands of temples in the state. While introducing the bill in 1949, TSS Ranjanhad argued that state protection of funding of institutions was meant for the service of the people and revival of temples would be akin to the revival of people. The need for an active and vigilant state to curb unscrupulous trustees, priests, land tenants served as justification for setting up the HR&CE department. With the benefit of hindsight, it can be said that the department itself has become part of the problem that it sought to solve in the first place.
The Tamil Nadu government argues that the state’s instrumental (to protect cultural heritage) not constitutive (to shape Hinduism as a religion) involvement in temple affairs doesn’t violate the tenets of secularism. It looks at temples as public trusts for which the state has a direct responsibility. In actual fact, however, it is difficult to distinguish between “temple as public trust” and “temple as religion”. The state interference in secular aspects of administrative management of temples under the aegis of section 25 (2) (a) actually amounts to control of religious aspects in practice, the most pertinent example being poor financial management (secular affair) by HR&CE leading to non-performance of rituals in accordance with the Agama Shastras (religious aspect). It is a clear violation of the tenets of secularism and distinguishes the government control over Hindu temples from other forms of government involvement- Waqf boards and SGPC (Shiromani Gurudwara Parbandhan Committee).
A Tale of State Incapacity
The administrative affairs of thousands of Hindu temples in Tamil Nadu is handled by an extensive bureaucratic setup- the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (Administration) Department. The department employs 1336 personnel against the total sanctioned posts of 2409. A total of 38, 481 temples fall under the control of the department including Hindu & Jain temples, Holy mutts & temples attached to them, and charitable & specific endowments. The HRCE department controls and manages 4.78 lakh acre of land owned by various religious institutions. It also controls 22,600 buildings and 33,665 sites which are made available to tenants on rent supposedly accruing in crores. The extensive property attached to temples make them susceptible to political interference and explains why the government wants to tighten its control.
The organization includes commissioners at the central, region and districts level; inspector in the localities; and a support staff of clerks, auditors, and officers. HRCE officials summon temple trustees and priests to government offices to inquire about activities. Much of the discretionary power pertaining to routine affairs is vested in the Executive Officer (EO). The EO is a full-time government employee looking after accounts, framing budgets which consist of expenditure for worship, supervising priests and organizing festivals. Budgets for allocation of salary to temple personnel, the conduct of rituals, the organization of festivals are subject to HRCE approvals just as the relationship between temple personnel and land lessees are subject to administrative rules.
An analysis of the conduct of the HRCE board reveals the two dimensions of the mismanagement of temples- political and administrative. The political interference plays out in term of trusteeship patronage, rent collection, fund diversion for state coffers and involves political parties of all hue- Congress, AIADMK, DMK, who have retained power in the state. The administrative aspect has more to do with the larger malaise afflicting the Indian state. A legacy of the socialist era, the overarching nature of the state, as pointed out by policy experts, translates into corruption, penury, idol theft and mistreatment of invaluable heritage property. As a consequence of the state mismanagement, temple finances are thrown into disarray with small temples being the worst affected victims. Priests often complain that there is less money for festivals and sometimes not even enough for the conduct of daily rituals.
Trusteeship and Tenancy Rights: Political Patronage in Temple Administration
Of all the plum posts available for grab in Temple administration, trusteeship is the most coveted as the opportunities abound for rent-seeking behavior. The board of trustees, especially the managing trustee, is the temple’s top legal authority. Trustees are pivotal in allocating temple resources and get to decide who receives land leases, how much rent is paid, and which contractors get the lucrative renovation contracts. The arbitrary method of management leaves scope for corruption and personal benefit making temples attractive for politicians.
Trusteeships, argued Franklin Presler, have become a major source of political patronage. HRCE regulations have reduced hereditary trusteeship and curtailed the authority of existing ones. The boardusually consists of three to five members with one female and one belonging to SC/ST community. The board functions for two years. If on an average basis three individuals are appointed as trustee per temple then it leaves 66,000 positions up for grabs by influential political parties. This explains the disinclination of political parties to free temples from government control. Temple trusteeship has turned into yet another medium to gain honor, profit, and power.
Under the Congress rule before 1967 elections, trustees were appointed by “area committees” which in turn were appointed by the government and largely constituted of party members. The tenure of the area committee lasted for five years. In 1958-59, fifteen of the fifty-five area committees were also Congress MP or MLAs.
The 1967 assembly election coinciding with the fourth general election saw coming of DMK government in power. Basing its politics on anti-Brahminical narrative mixed with Dravidian identity, the party emerged as a dominant political player in the region. But for all its posturing, DMK’s rule saw increased politicization of temple administration. In order to control local temples and fill trustee posts with its coterie, the DMK government brought the HRCE amendment act of 1968 abolishing the area committees and reducing the term of trustees from five to three years. By the mid-70s, at least a hundred DMK MLAs had opted for trusteeships.
The imposition of emergency led to set up of a special Enquiry Cell under the aegis of governor rule to investigate alleged affairs of corruption in temples. Based on the report, the government dismissed all non-hereditary trustees in all temples.
This meant thousands of vacant trusteeship posts when the AIADMK came to power in 1977. In order to avoid corruption charges, the AIADMK showed restraint in its approach to trustee postings by appointing several “non-political” individuals. It also made the provision to appoint at least one trustee from SC/ST community. Later, party officials were accused of using temple land as party offices.
Political interference, in its perverse form, plays out in land tenure rights as well. Temple lands are a lucrative avenue for resource and are dominated by intense competition among political parties and powerful individuals to grab tenancy rights at a fraction of the market rate. The problem is also exacerbated by non-payment of rent due and encroachment. Needless to mention the adverse impact it has on temple finance affecting the conduct of ritual ceremony and lives of temple officials.
The problem of rent payment has historical causes tracing back to land reforms of 1950s-60s. As part of reform measures, intermediary land rights were abolished to provide ownership rights directly to legitimate owners in a system called the Ryotwari in South India. Temple lands were typically based on INAM land tenure which were set to abolish with the understanding that temples would switch over to Ryotwari system. However, the complicated provisions to prove land ownership in front of the settlement officers by a certain deadline created problems for the temples. It led many temples to lose ownership rights which rightfully belonged to them.
New measures meant to protect tenants made it difficult for temples to evict defaulting tenants, fare rent laws reduced rent on agricultural wetlands, Land ceiling multiplied small tenants putting the burden on temple authority to collect rent. Added to the woes were the provisions of the Tamil Nadu Cultivating Tenants (Right to Purchase Land Owner’s Right) Act which put landlords (temples in this case) on unfavourable terms vis-à-vis tenants in land transactions.
Loss of ownership rights, uncertainty about existing land titles, and nonpayment of rents have an adverse impact on temple finances. The meddling of political parties has only worsened the situation as the incriminatory evidence from the news reports show.
The case for government control of temples sits on flimsy grounds in light of the secular principle that Indian state adheres to. The private motive of politicians and bureaucrats in HR&CE drive the lethargic government mechanism to control temple resources while the glorious temples and temple personnel languish in obscurity. It is imperative for the government to recognize the need to grant autonomy to temples with minimal supervision aimed to check discriminatory practices and fund embezzlement. The state ought to function as protector of heritage and culture but in its current form, it acts more as an extractor. In this democratic setup of ours, one possible avenue for civil society to address its grievances is to act as a pressure group by taking the route of activism and public awareness campaigns, decisively affecting the policymaking. In the past few years, several promising initiatives have been undertaken to free temples from state control. While these efforts by conscientious citizens are underway, what is also required is a robust public debate on best temple management practices which would serve as a framework for the revival of temples in their full glory if and when state shackles are lifted.
This is first in a series of articles covering the “Temple Ecosystem in Pre-Colonial India” as part of the advocacy and public awareness campaign of Indic Collective Trust. The introductory piece attempts to discuss the dimensions of state control over Temples in India and makes a case for adhering to the secular principle which would mean autonomy for Hindu temples.