Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | We must resolve our muddled approach to temple autonomy

The practice of secularism in India has been marked with confusion, and a verdict of the Supreme Court in a case involving the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram has done little to offer clarity. The positive point is that the ruling recognizes the centuries-old trusteeship of the erstwhile Travancore royal family and its descendants, who manage the temple, but it effectively circumscribes this relationship by imposing an administrative committee that will be its real manager from now on.

There is also another committee, an advisory one, that will advise the trustee and ensure regular audits of the temple’s finances and its properties.

In principle, nobody can object to any trustee delegating his or her job to an administrative committee or seeking advice from an advisory panel on temple policies. However, the real problem is that the judgment effectively embeds the state in temple administration, even while retaining an outward form of hereditary trusteeship.

Consider, first, the composition of the two committees. The administrative committee is to have five members, one of whom will be nominated by the trustee, and another will be the chief tanthri (head priest) of the temple. But its chairperson will be a district judge from Thiruvananthapuram. The other two members are nominees of the Kerala government and the Union culture ministry. Thus, three of its five members are government nominees.

As for the advisory committee, it is to be headed by a retired high court judge to be nominated by the Chief Justice of the Kerala High Court, and will include one nominee of the trustee and a chartered accountant who will be nominated by the retired judge after consulting the trustee. Here, what we have is not just the state inserting itself into the picture, but also the judiciary having a say in the advisory committee.

The redeeming feature may be that all members of both committees have to be Hindus who believe in the religion’s mode of temple worship, though given the unstructured nature of Hinduism, anyone who claims such belief—even if he is, say, a Communist by conviction—will be deemed Hindu for the purposes of being part of the committees. The role of the royal family may assume relevance in that context.

This judgment, however, rakes up larger issues of principle in matters that involve religious practice. A secular country should not be giving the State, or its nominees, any role in the running of temples. The direct effect of the apex court’s judgment is that not only the State, but the judiciary too will be an indirect player in how the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple is managed. This appears violative of the spirit of secularism and Article 25 of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees freedom of conscience and also the free profession, practice and propagation of religion. It also seems violative of Article 26, which guarantees freedom to “manage religious affairs, subject to public order, morality and health" to every “religious denomination or any section thereof".

Let’s assume, for a minute, that State interference in running religious institutions does not directly affect the right of any Hindu to worship or practise his or her religion. But can the same be said of the right to propagate religion? Will state and central government nominees participate in any such “propagation" of religion, which includes attempts to convert people professing other faiths? We need to ask whether the insertion of state nominees does not artificially constrict the rights of Hindus to propagate their religion as they like.

The Sree Padmanabhaswamy judgment did not overtly go into the issue of whether the temple itself has denominational rights, as guaranteed by Article 26, but such rights are essential since Hindus do not follow the same practices everywhere or worship the same deity in the same way. In an earlier judgement on the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, a five-judge bench voted 4:1 to allow women of reproductive ages to enter the premises, but this was done by explicitly denying the reality that Swami Ayyappa’s devotees constitute a denomination with specific essential practices. This was seen to imply that only Hindu religious orders would be denied denominational status, and thus some of the guarantees of Articles 25 and 26. Clarity is needed on this.

While the Sabarimala judgment is being reviewed by a nine-judge constitutional bench (which will examine issues relating to other religions, too, including women’s entry to mosques and female genital mutilation), the issue that needs debate and clarity is whether Hindu diversity of practice should make space for a wider range of beliefs and practices to be considered “essential" and thus inviolate under the law.

Most Hindu religious orders can, for commonsense purposes, be regarded as minority religions in their own right. So, should the State not restrain itself from inserting itself in the running of temples, except in cases of a clear contravention of the fundamental human rights assured by the Constitution? Some 100,000 temples are under state control in five southern states alone, and other states are beginning to entertain the same bad idea. The country needs a far less muddled approach.

R. Jagannathan is editorial director, ‘Swarajya’ magazine

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