Mumbai: For the last 20 years, the trustees of the Chilkur Balaji Temple in Hyderabad have fought off government attempts to get more involved in their affairs, from installing collection boxes to adding a special line for VIPs.
And, last week, the Hyderabad high court granted the temple, autonomy from any government interference.
Two decades of fighting have been worth it, said trustee C.S. Rangarajan, who says his family has been running the temple for centuries and generations, but the state’s overtures intensified only recently.
“They only wanted it to make money,” Rangarajan said. “Thank god, for a legal system.”
The decision is likely to pave way for many more legal battles at temples across the country between caretakers and politicians tussling over trustee seats, land and donations.
War of the faithful: Devotees at Chilkur Balaji Temple in Hyderabad. (Photo: K. Sudheer/ Mint)
At the heart of the matter is the conflict between the Indian constitution, which guarantees the freedom to practice religion and form institutions free from government involvement, and ground realities.
Across the country, temple endowment boards, also called endowment departments, are accused of selling vital temple assets, namely land, at rockbottom prices or simply handing it over for political purposes. Mint contacted three constitutional law experts and while they were willing to admit there were issues with such temple endowment boards, none was willing to say it on the record.
Run as government departments, these boards have government officers as executors. For example, the Shree Siddhivinayak Ganapati Temple Trust in Mumbai has an IAS officer as its chief executive officer. In Kerala, there is an endowment minister in the state government, who oversees its four endowment boards.
Endowment departments are also blamed for politicizing religious appointments—appointing loyal party workers to memberships of ‘plush’ boards or forcing religious appointees of temples to take an oath of service in the presence of government officials.
For example, Andhra Pradesh chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy drew ire when he tried to take over temple lands in the state, to give to the landless poor under his pet project, Indiramma Pathakam.
The state’s high court intervened and issued a stay order. At a hearing last month, chief justice Anil Dave refused to lift the stay and asked the government to stay away from temple assets.
State governments elsewhere also have been charged with interfering in religious rituals—the endowment department prohibited a temple in Tamil Nadu from performing the poorna kumbha, a Vedic welcome ceremony in which a holy pot filled with water, mango leaves and a coconut is offered to a guest.
Bolstered by the recent victory in Hyderabad, the Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha (HDAS) will lead temples and other Hindu groups such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to launch legislative battles with state governments across the country, especially in south India, where the problem is acute.
“We are all concerned. These governments don’t believe in God and are running our temples. We will follow the HDAS’ lead and do whatever they say to rescue our temples from the disbelievers like the DMK party and the communists,” said VHP vice-president S. Vedantam, referring to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, a political party led by Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi, and other leaders who don’t believe in Hinduism.
Last year, two separate benches of the Karnataka high court overturned the Karnataka Hindu Charitable Endowment Act, 1997, which allowed the state government to appoint an endowment commissioner, audit temple funds, appoint priests, constitute a team monitoring temple affairs and pool funds.
In response, the state government appointed a committee, headed by former justice Rama Jois to recommend modifications. “We have recommended that the temples should be independent and left alone. A state council, headed by former judges can be formed to help broad administration,” Jois said.
Hindus believe that endowment boards are accused of converting temples into a business—placing large hundis, or collection boxes, around the complex, selling tickets for quicker access to deities and encouraging devotees to change traditional offerings from flowers, coconuts and jaggery to money.
They have been accused of taking over temples that have large hundis or collection boxes that earn a few crores every year. “Until we did not attract crowds, they were willing to leave us alone. As we became more popular, they became more desperate to take over and install hundis,” said Rangarajan at Chilkur Balaji.
But temples are equally responsible for the mess, says Swami Dayananda, convener of HDAS.
Since the old temple system exploited tenants on its lands and did little to funnel the temple revenues back in the temples “the government had to step in and install good governance,” he said.
“But, it has now become the source of the mess that they had come to clear in the first place. Now, the temples are suffering. Hindus are suffering. Enough is enough. We don’t believe in violence, but we will fight in the courts. We need a legal system to ensure fair, good governance in temples. Not the entire government.”