August 5, 2011

A secular state that runs Hindu temples

Photo: Abhinav Bhatt
Photo: Abhinav Bhatt

The Parliament (Prevention of Disqualification) Act of 1959 was amended in August of 2006. The amendment was more popularly known as the Office of Profit Bill. The Bill shot into fame on account of the political controversy around Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s role in the National Advisory Council. It is thirteen pages long. It includes a table with the names of 55 public sector entities across India that would be not deemed to be Offices of Profit, and thus eligible to be occupied by sitting members of the legislature. Item number 20 in that table is the Tirumala Tirupathi Devasthanams Board. It keeps company with the Bihar Hindu Religious Trusts Board, with assorted Wakf Boards and the Haj Committee.

Here is the irony of a secular state’s constitution listing governing boards of religious institutions to which sitting members of the legislature may be appointed, by the state. Secularism in India over the decades has come to mean state control of religious institutions by both direct and indirect means. Many state governments have entire departments dedicated to the management of Hindu temples with some even having dedicated ministers.

The origins of state control and direct management of Hindu temples is complicated. In some instances it was the result of more than a century of British interference in the management of provinces and kingdoms where these temples were situated. In other instances it was in response to existing caste prejudices prevalent in the first few decades of the twentieth century. In either case a paternalistic state injected itself into political management of matters of faith by seeking to protect religious institutions from the moral vagaries of the elite on behalf of the unwashed masses.

An editorial in the Indian Express on 9th February 1949 summed up the debate on the Hindu Religious Endowments and Charitable Endowments Bill quite well. Describing the case in support of the Bill, that editorial quoted the proponents as those whose only intention was to ensure the proper administration of Hindu temples and trusts while preventing caste and other social abuses within these bodies. The opposition to the Bill came from those arguing that a secular state had no business legislating on the management of Hindu temples. The editorial goes on to allude to the long history of legislating on Hindu Temples during the British era.

To best appreciate how the state legislating on matters of faith had become commonplace during the British era one has to only look at the number of acts that were passed on the management of the Tirumala Tirupathi Devasthanam (TTD).

The TTD was first established by a British era legislative act in 1932. But the history of British control goes back much further. With the Nawabs of Arcot becoming vassals of the East India Company, the Tirupati temple came under the control of the East India Company in 1801. In September 2007, The Hindu carried a detailed account of the various transitions that took place prior to 1932 quoting from the Mackenzie manuscripts the infamous 1821 Bruce Code and the 1843 decision in assigning a Mutt to manage its affairs.

Post-independence state control of TTD was solidified by a series of legislations passed in 1951, 1969, 1979, 1987 before the Office of Profit constitutional amendment in 2006. To date the affairs of TTD continue to remain hostage to politics in Andhra Pradesh with the incumbent government appointing bureaucrats to manage its affairs in response to recent political controversies.

TTD is not the only instance of State interference in religious institutions. From Amarnath Yatra in Jammu & Kashmir to the annual Sabarimala pilgrimage in Kerala, the past few years have seen many instances bringing faith and government control into sharp focus. Every stray incidents of Dalits being barred from temples reinforces the original argument in favour of Government control thus deflecting the debate away from the real issue.

It is nobody’s case that caste prejudice no longer exists in India. Political empowerment of Dalits has gone a long way in reducing that prejudice to a large degree in public affairs. However government intervention in the form of quotas and laws against hate crimes targeting Dalits have done little to remove personal prejudices which continue to linger in many pockets. As six decades of interventions have shown the state is not a particularly effective vehicle in the elimination of personal bigotry.

There ought to be no room for caste prejudices and discrimination in Hindu temples. Zero tolerance against the same can only come through continued and sustained social reforms within the Hindu community, which has generally overcome such prejudices and discrimination. However by seeking recourse to state control those who are rightfully outraged over caste prejudices hurt both their own cause and the long-term interests of Hindu institutions.

The debate over the newly-discovered wealth of Thiruvananthapuram’s Padmanabhaswamy temple is an opportunity to revisit a debate India barely had in 1949. Much of the angst behind political Hindutva on the issue of proselytism arises from the fact that while Christian evangelical NGOs can funnel millions of dollars of foreign funds towards the larger goal of proselytisation, Hindu wealth locked up in trusts is hostage to government interference and corruption, instead of being leveraged towards socio-religious welfare programmes of Hindu choice. There is also angst over the failure of Hindu institutions to invest in making the large body of Hindu thought and knowledge relevant to modern times by creating new knowledge assets—digital assets, physical universities and new schools of thought with the potential for inter-generational impact.

We have an opportunity to revisit this larger debate on how should Hindu trusts be managed, and to determine how devotees and pilgrims who contribute to their large coffers can become stakeholders in the decision-making process. This should be about making Hindu trusts transparent, accountable to their ordinary stakeholders. The government and the courts can play the role of an invisible guiding hand. Ultimately, though, this is a matter for Hindu civil society to stand up and demonstrate leadership.

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