Despite initial reluctance of the judiciary during the British colonial rule, temples and mathas came under more and more intrusive judicial intervention even in the colonial days. This was largely because of petty minded quarrels among influential devotees (a classic example is the Vaishnavas’ long and bitter infighting in South India), greedy sevadars, hereditary beneficiaries of devotee offerings to the deity and power hungry ‘trustees’. Over time blatant misuse by the ’matathipathi’ of the matha property and income. and systematic plunder of temple wealth and mismanagement resulted in strong public opinion including that of educated and religiously inclined elite in favour of State intervention.
Return by State governments, of places of worship, religious teaching and reverence, of Hindus to their management and control.
Despite initial reluctance of the judiciary during the British colonial rule, temples and mathas came under more and more intrusive judicial intervention even in the colonial days. This was largely because of petty minded quarrels among influential devotees (a classic example is the Vaishnavas’ long and bitter infighting in South India), greedy sevadars, hereditary beneficiaries of devotee offerings to the deity and power hungry ‘trustees’. Over time blatant misuse by the ’matathipathi’ of the matha property and income. and systematic plunder of temple wealth and mismanagement resulted in strong public opinion including that of educated and religiously inclined elite in favour of State intervention. Starting with the Tamilnadu in the 1920s State governments began to bring these places of reverence under their increasing supervision over a period of about 80 years, on the ground that temples and mathas were places of public importance and interest and should not be allowed to be misused or be centers of in-fighting. But after Independence the motive of legislation became government control (instead of regulation) of the financial and other assets of these places of religious importance to Hindus. Misinterpretation of the Constitution by the Judiciary both in the States and the Center aided this development. The avarice of elected legislators and ministers made temples virtually a government department, particularly in the Southern States. The moneys and patronage involved were simply irresistible. Today the Tamilnadu Endowment Act and Rules, the oldest, is the model for similar law in States such as Andhra Pradesh. In many States big and ancient individual temples are controlled under specific individual laws. Examples are Varanasi Kashivishwanath temple, Bhadrinath and Kedarnath etc. The term ‘temple’ or ‘matha‘ does not occur in the Constitution. They are strangely treated as no more than.” public religious and charitable institutions”—not as places of worship—in the Concurrent List of the Constitution. The Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer Commission appointed in 1960 by the Government of India to look into temple and matha management in the country, produced a classic and comprehensive report in 1962. It recognized matters of gross mismanagement in places of Hindu reverence but emphasised that government should have only a regulatory role in improving matters and such regulatory role should also apply to Muslim and Christian places of worship. It also, (i) wanted a model law to be drafted by the Central government; (ii) insisted that temple income and wealth must be spent only on temples and in strengthening knowledge of Hindu religion and philosophy among Hindu populace; and in training of archakas and pujaris. A Religious Trusts Bill introduced in the Parliament was, however, allowed to lapse. Pseudo secularism had already begun to raise its ugly head. The States were left to do what they pleased with Hindu places of worship and teaching. Christian and Muslim places of worship were left out of the State legislations.
Why should places of worship and reverence be under devotee control?
The present regime of control of only Hindu places of reverence is blatantly discriminatory against the majority population. In Hindu tradition temples were not merely places of periodic visit for worship of the deity. They were places of social, literary and cultural expression of Hindu society. Places of Hindu worship and reverence were also places of sacred pilgrimage for people from far and wide in the country. Thus temples and mathas played a major role in establishing sacred connectivity and essentially a common understanding of life’s values and philosophy, among Hindus in various nooks and corners of this vast land of ours, irrespective of their language and local customs. Temples and mathas were thus verily living and vibrant symbols of Hindutva, the tattva (essence) of Hindu Dharma and philosophy. Government management of temples has tended to make them establishments of sterile commercialism, centers of mere tourist attraction and bureaucratic centers of pelf and patronage. Devotee management of places of spiritual reverence to Hindus will, besides restoring their sanctity, bring back the sense of self esteem and pride in their tradition to the Hindu populace, long lost because of several centuries of colonization, brutality and religious oppression. It will bring a sense of unity to Hindus, rejuvenate Hindu Dharma and Society and make them once again the envy of the world. Thus strengthened in a wholesome manner Hindus can play an effective role in fostering social harmony in the country.
What is required to regain devotee control and management.
These places of Hindu worship and teaching have been managed by well entrenched and large bureaucracy under legislative control for a long time. A huge Case Law, generally adverse to Hindu sensitivities, has accumulated over the years thanks to much puerile litigation. We will, therefore, need to establish the credibility of the new model of governance evolved, to the satisfaction of State organs including the Judiciary as well as of the common temple-going Hindu masses who look for proper treatment, orderliness, and financial accountability. Reasonable traditional arrangements of remunerating sevadars and long standing trusteeships would need to be accommodated. The only way this can be done is for temples, small and medium ones to begin with, to be actually run efficiently by local Hindu temple committees. The manner in which the committees are put in place, the manner in which succession takes place from time to time, the transparency and accountability that the committees show in financial and personnel management, and the support they receive from stake-holders, are all crucial for the new model of governance to gain credibility and to succeed. The first step, therefore, is to form such committees and to run temples which are not under any State law and gain grass root experience and responsiblity.
The possible route to regain control
There appears to be good ground to challenge the Constitutionality of government control of places of Hindu reverence. This aspect is dealt with briefly in the next section. But it seems virtually impossible, with the present constellation of political parties and forces, to get the State legislatures or the Parliament to enact any significant change either in the Endowment law or in the Constitution. All politicians, irrespective of the political party, are now benefiting from temple property, temple income and the associated patronage system. Large scale Hindu public agitation could help but sustaining it till success is achieved is very difficult, considering the fragmented nature of Hindu political mass. By a process of elimination, we come to litigation. High quality Constitutional battle appears a viable option. But steps to implement this option must go hand in hand with the implementation, State wise, of the suggestions in paragraph 3 above.
Legal and Constitutional aspects
The Constitution says that the Indian Republic is ‘secular’. It is, therefore, a travesty to allow the State to interfere in the present manner in the control of places of Hindu religious sanctity. The travesty becomes worse when such interference is only in respect of one religion—the religion of the vast majority –Hinduism. It is open to argument if the term ‘denomination’ in the Constitution, has been defined and treated rightly and fairly by the Courts from the standpoint of Hinduism. There is ambiguity and perhaps contradictory opinion in several judgements on what is ‘secular’ and what is ‘religious’ in the affairs of a temple. It is not certain if a temple can be categorized as merely a ‘religious and charitable institution’ (Entry 28, List III of the Constitution) and laws to control temples and mathas can be enacted, overriding the Fundamental Rights guaranteed under Article 25 of the Constitution to all citizens in regard to practice of religion. Another relevant aspect is whether protective rights under the Constitution, of ‘minorities’, meant to prevent possible ‘majority’ oppression in our democracy, can be construed and interpreted as privileges not available to the ‘majority’.
It is also to be noted that in many cases affecting temples and mathas which went before higher courts in the country, it was the claims of hereditary trustees, and other sevadars, that were pressed, contested under the pretext of ‘religious freedom’ and adjudicated upon; the more basic issue of religious freedom of Hindu society at large in respect of places of sacred reverence to it, does not seem to have been specifically and effectively argued or considered.
Elements of a Model of good governance of temples and mathas.
Any system of good governance of places of worship, religious teaching and reverence of Hindus should rest on the following basic principles:
The mechanism of governance should rigorously obviate mismanagement and should be transparent and accountable but confine government to a regulatory role and not allow it to get into a control mode.
There is some opinion in the country that the model to be canvassed should completely keep government out of temple legislation and leave everything to devotee hands. If a statutory recognition is to be sought to the model of governance, it is not possible to keep government totally out of the picture because implementation of any statute has necessarily to have a nexus with government. Also it must be recognized that given the impossibility of having a single religious authority, in the very nature of things in Hindu Dharma, the State cannot be just wished away. Without some supervisory authority on non-religious matters, from whatever distance it may be exercised, it is very unlikely that all stakeholders in temple management can be taken along to support a new system of governance that insists on accountability and transparency.
The SGPC Act applicable to Sikhs and the Wakf Act applicable to Muslim trusts are hardly suitable models. The former is basically a political instrument; the latter is a dead letter for all intents and purposes.
Elections on western model for governing entities of temples should not be immediately attempted. Elections are not likely to promote harmony and unitedness, nor will they result in good governance of temples, given the fractious nature of society and insufficient democratic maturity, which we witness in India even after 50 years of Constitutional democracy.
There should be a Statutory Dharmic Council in each State. Members should be venerated Acharyas of ancient Sampradayas and mathas in the State and widely respected and eminent exponents of Hindu Dharma. A Committee comprising the Chief Justice of the State High Court, the Chief Minister of the State, and the Leader of the Opposition (if any of them is not a temple worshipping Hindu, the next senior most member in the institution, who fulfils that criterion) shall invite suggestions, select and nominate the members. In filling up the Council, the Committee may consult those who already stand nominated. Suitable criteria for membership could be evolved. The Council should reflect all the ancient Sampradayas in the State and should have in its membership, at least two lay Hindus, erudite in Hindu Dharma and knowledgeable in managing religious entities. The number of members may not exceed eleven. It may be reconstituted once in a few years on a rotational basis to ensure participation by all Sampradayas and continuity. This Council shall be the ultimate authority to decide on all matters of spiritual and religious nature. The Council shall also have general powers of supervision in respect of all Dharmic aspects in the governance of all places of sacred reverence to Hindus in the State.
There shall be a Statutory Hindu religious Tribunal in each State, with three members. A retired Judge of the high Court or the Supreme Court shall preside over this Tribunal. A personage of great Hindu Dharmic scholarship and a retired civil servant highly regarded for his/her integrity and administrative capability shall be the other members. Membership of the Tribunal shall not be open to politically active persons. The Chief Justice of the State High Court shall nominate the Chairman of the Tribunal and in consultation with him select the other two members. This Tribunal shall be the final authority on all non-religious, (temporal) matters, which come under dispute or question. All matters connected with temple trustees, the welfare of sevadars , pujaris and archakas and associated personnel shall be finally decided by this Tribunal. Appeal against the Tribunal’s decision shall lie only in the Supreme Court, subject to its procedures. The Tribunal shall be reconstituted at five-year intervals on a rotational basis.
The only other State level entity required is a Temple Management Board of five members. The State government should constitute it. The Statute should prohibit the nomination to the Board, of serving government officials or persons active in politics, but mandate membership of women. Members shall be temple-worshipping Hindus, with a good record of public service. The Board will have quasi-judicial authority in implementing the Statute, supervise (not control) the financial and administrative management of temples and mathas. It shall not have a large bureaucracy. Its main purpose is to educate, encourage and guide temple management committees in transparent and accountable management of temples. Appeals against the Board ‘s decision shall lie with the Tribunal.
Individual temples or groups of small temples of the same Sampradaya shall have individual temple management committees. They should have rotating membership once in a few years. The manner of nominating this committee is for further careful thought. The Statute shall provide specifically for membership of women and Hindus of all classes, and ‘castes’ in these committees.
At the District or the regional level as may be required by the number of temples and mathas, there shall be a Committees to supervise the temple level committees. They will also operate as localized dispute settling entities. Representation of individual temple management committees could be provided for in these Committees. There shall be minimum qualifications prescribed for the membership of the temple and the regional committees.
Obligatory and desirable purposes shall be prescribed in the Statute for the use of temple income. Expenditure proposals for any purpose other than for temple rituals and for immediate and direct temple needs, shall be subject to scrutiny and prior approval of an independent and competent committee for each temple or group of small temples. Illustratively, obligatory purposes are proper performance of temple rituals; training of archakas, adhyapakas and reciters of holy texts; loan liabilities; repair, renovation and extension of temple premises, cleanliness and hygienic maintenanace of pilgrim amenities. Desirable purposes are, illustratively, free food supplies to pilgrims; propagation of fundamentals of Hindu Dharma; commissioning of and publication of religious literature; financing scholarly research in Hindu history and publications; promotion of temple architecture, sculpture and fine arts; creation and maintenance of schools and colleges specializing in Hindu religion and philosophy; poor homes for destitute devotees, Hindu widows and aged people and socio-economic welfare activities among needy communities.
A Dharmic Fund shall be constituted at the State and at the district or regional level. Each temple with sufficient income shall contribute a portion of its income to these Funds, as prescribed. These Dharmic Funds are to be utilized for rejuvenation, education and welfare of poor and underprivileged communities of Hindu Society in accordance with Rules under the Statute. These Funds shall be audited and reports thereof published in local language.
External and concurrent audit shall be prescribed and annual accounts mandated to be published for each temple or group of small temples.
Such a model will reflect a fine balance of the Constitutional guarantees, concerns of accountability, authority to enforce the Statute, Case Law, sentiments of Hindu devotees at large and also reasonable elements of religious tradition. It is very likely to be widely accepted. It will ensure in a constructive manner salutary principles of good governance of places of public worship and reverence of Hindus.
- As mentioned earlier a suitable entry point for judicial recourse must be looked for. Simultaneously and without any more delay temple management committees must be set up State by State and experience gathered in satisfactorily governing temples to which the Endowment Act does not apply. Intensive legal research must be undertaken under the leadership of a dedicated Entity to be identified, on the massive Case Law to enable a comprehensive judicial challenge on a solid footing against the Endowment Acts, as indicated in paragraphs 5 and 6 above. This judicial challenge will take some years to fructify and will require the services of some of the best Constitutional lawyers in the country. A substantial Fund is required to be set up for the entire exercise. The dedicated Entity mentioned above should be amenable to be held accountable for efficient use of finances made available and spent.
October 14, 2006 R.Venkatanarayanan