Temples face existential crisis under state governments

The condition of temples under the control of respective state governments is pathetic, so much so that they are facing an existential crisis. The massive misappropriation of the temples’ wealth that started with the advent of the East India Company in the country, is still going on, say activists and scholars.

All the renowned Hindu temples including Tirupati, Guruvayoor, Puri, Srisailam, Kashi, Mathura, Ayodhya, Vaishno Devi, Siddhi Vinayak, Shirdi, Amarnath, Badrinath, Kedarnath, Rameshwaram and the ancient Shiva temple at Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu are under the control of the respective state governments.

Siddheshwar Shukla, fellow at Makhanlal Chaturvedi National University of Journalism and Communication, told The Sunday Guardian: “Although Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution guarantee every individual the fundamental right to profess, practice and propagate their religion, establish and manage religious institutions, various state governments are controlling all the prominent Hindu temples.” 

“Mostly through the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment Act (HRCE Act) of 1951, state governments control the direct management of the temples, while mosques and churches are autonomous. Even after repeated observations from the apex court against the practice of the state managing temples, state governments have not initiated any changes in this regard,” Shukla said. Kishore Kunal, a retired IPS from Bihar, who was chairman of the Bihar State Board of Religious Trust, told The Sunday Guardian: “There are two ways by which the state controls religious places. The first implies the direct state control of temples and the other, by creating various religious boards such as Waqf board to regulate mosques and madrasas. The first way of control is the worst scenario as it gives no autonomy to the temples, but in the other case, autonomy is protected.” “The condition of temples under government control is pathetic and massive corruption is involved. Ideally, any government should distance itself from managing religious affairs, but in the name of caste discrimination and infighting of priests, the government encroaches on the whole management of temples,” Kunal added.

Kunal, who is also a Sanskrit scholar, said, “Most of these temples had beentaken over by the state governmentsafter Independence, but the story of the government taking interest in temple trusts in India goes back to around the 1840s when the British asked several prominent individuals to administer temples and endowments.” According to Shukla, “It is obvious that the current laws in the country are discriminatory and against Hindu religious institutions. Even a religious board like the Waqf board can serve the interest of these temples better than direct government control. Most of these public controlled temples are becoming a revenue-generating industry for various state governments. It is a strange thing to see, at least for me, when the bulk of the Hindu population does not protest when a strong reaction should naturally be there. Even the so-called advocates of Hindu religion are silent and not taking up the cause of Hindu temples upfront.”

“Ever since the N.T. Rama Rao government in Andhra Pradesh brought the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD) under the stategovernment’s control, citing provisions of the Temple Empowerment Act, around 34,000 temples have been controlled by the state government. Only 22% of the revenue of these temples is said to be given back for the temple’s maintenance and management purposes, while the remaining 78% fund is used for other works,” Shukla said. According to a study carried out by the Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha (HDAS), a religious forum pushing for the “free temple movement”, besides Andhra Pradesh, the condition of government-controlled temples in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, and Maharashtra is also pathetic. “In Tamil Nadu, the state temple trusts own around 5 lakh acres of land that ideally should earn over Rs 1,000 crore annually, but the revenue data shows annual income of a mere Rs 70 crore annually,” the HDAS report said.

S.R. Ravi, a priest at the Tirupati temple, told The Sunday Guardian: “All lands that belong to the Tirupati temple have been leased out, but the tenants are not paying even 20% of the total crop cultivation. Earlier, the tenants had to pay 50% of their produce as rent, but now all of them need to pay only 25%. The state government has even enacted a law which prevents eviction of tenants.”  The HDAS study has revealed that in Karnataka, 25% of the two lakhtemples are on the verge of closing due to the lack of resources and in Kerala, funds from the Guruvayoor temple are diverted to other government projects, thus affecting the maintenance of 45 Hindu temples. Land belonging to the Ayyappa temple (in Sabarimala) has been grabbed by anti-social elements of the state.

Similarly, the government of Maharashtra took over almost 30,000 temples, including the management of important Hindu shrines like Shirdi and temples like Siddhi Vinayak

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