Sadguru’s campaign to free Hindu temples in Tamilnadu from State control has elicited a strong response from politicians and media. One of the popular digital news platforms had published an article trying to justify the Government control of Hindu temples by giving various reasons. I will try to provide answers to the points raised in the article. My focus will be only on the temples under the control of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment (HR&CE) Department of Tamilnadu while answering the points mentioned in the article.
The Article states that the Government cannot make money from the temples, excluding the administrative fees of 12-14% and audit fees of 4% taken from the temple funds. It says Government Officials cannot pocket the remaining temple funds. Basically, the article states that the Government cannot take the temple’s income for its own use. In reality, it is an absolutely factual error.
First thing first, the HRCE department controls 44121 temples in Tamilnadu. These temples are managed as per the 1959 Tamilnadu Hindu Religious Charitable Endowments Act. So, there is a certain procedure for utilizing temple funds. Section 36 of the 1959 HRCE Act is clearly violated here. Section 36 states that only temple trustees can utilize the surplus funds of the temple but there are 19000 temples in Tamilnadu that have no Board of Trustees. Ever since 2011, government-appointed ‘fit persons’ are managing these 19000 temples in the absence of trustees, which is in clear violation of the law. The proviso to Rule 2(1) of the functioning of Board of Trustee Rules framed under Act 1959 proscribes the interim period for which a Fit Person could be appointed to a maximum of three months only. Thus, in temples where there are no trustees, no funds could have been appropriated without following the due process laid down under section 36 of the Act 1959.
Besides, section 47 of the 1959 HRCE act states there needs to be a formation of the Board of Trustees. So Section 47 is also violated since there are no trustees in 19000 temples. Moreover, adequate provisions must be made under sub-section (2) of Section 86, for the arrangements and the training referred to in sub-section (1) of Section 35 and allocating funds for purposes specified in items (a) to (g) of sub-section (1) of Section 66. Additionally, as per Section 36, objections and suggestions shall be invited by the Commissioner and it shall listen and consider all the objections and suggestions from the temple stakeholders. But this procedure is not followed by HRCE. There are no trustees in 19000 temples. So due to the absence of trustees, Section 36 and Section 47 of the HRCE Act are violated by the HRCE department. There is no accountability about keeping adequate provisions and allocations before utilizing surplus funds. Finally, the process of listening to objections and suggestions from the stakeholders for transferring surplus funds is not followed at all by HRCE or the Commissioner. Tamilnadu HRCE does not even follow its own 1959 HRCE Act.
Tamilnadu Government in May 2020 took 10 crores rupees from temples for Covid relief funds, which were given back to the temples, thanks to Shri TR Ramesh challenging the fund transfer in the Madras High Court. There are many such examples of Government officials taking temple money for their own requirement. The Government officials took temple money without following the due process of Section 36 of the 1959 Act, which is not in the temple’s best interest. Shri T.R.Ramesh, President of Indic Collective trust, has cited many examples of how temple money is not used to serve the temples or in the temple’s best interest. Close to 66 lakhs of rupee was taken from Tiruttani Sri Subramanya Swamy temple for the renovation of the Commissioner’s office, building a library for the Commissioner’s office and other constructions. There is nothing wrong with renovating the offices or building the library, but why can’t the Government use its own money for these renovations or constructions? Why is temple money used for a renovation or construction which is not benefiting the temple itself? There are many such examples where temple money is used for secular activities like Computerization, building a conference hall and toilets in the Commissioner’s office.
The article by the said online media has described that the Tamilnadu Government allocates money from its annual budget to the HRCE Department. Will this allocation of money be enough to compensate for all the fund transfer, thousands of acres of temple land misplaced, idol thefts, damage of heritage structures in the past 70 years? The article does not mention basic facts. It also admits that only trustees can utilize surplus funds and there needs to be a mandatory formation of the Board of Trustees as per Section 47 of 2959 HRCE Act. But where are the trustees in those 19000 temples? There is no answer to this question. The article states that since HRCE or Government allocates funds for the temple, justification is provided for using temple funds by HRCE members or a Joint Commissioner for buying a car. This logic is wrong. For instance, Government or HRCE officers were using a car belonging to Sri Kamakshi Amman temple, Mangadu and the fuel and maintenance expenses were used from temple funds. The basic logic is why cannot Govt use its own money for using vehicles or for construction of offices etc. Devotees did not donate so much money, jewels, land etc. to be enjoyed personally by the HRCE or Government officers. Devotees donated this much amount of money in the best interest of the Deity of the temple. So, the funds of the temple need to be used in a manner that benefits the temple, its deity and use the surplus funds mainly for the propagation of Sanatana Dharma. But the important point is that decision on the use of surplus funds of a rich temple needs to be taken after consulting all stakeholders associated with the temple ecosystem as mentioned in Section 36 of 1959 HRCE. HRCE does not do that. The temple stakeholders are not even aware of any fund transfer. The devotees or even in some cases the priests are not aware of the funds.
The article states the role of HRCE, or Government is managing the administrative and accounting aspects of a temple. If that is the case, then why temple priests are not given a decent salary even in rich temples? According to Shri TR Ramesh, there are 20 priests in Sri Kapaleeshwarar Temple, Chennai and out of 20 priests, only 3 priests are paid Rs. 650 per month and the remaining 17 priests are not being paid salary at all. In 2018, the priest of Sri Rajagopalaswamy Kulasekara Perumal temple in Mannarkoil filed a petition before the Madras High Court in which he claimed that he was getting a monthly salary of Rs. 750 which is shockingly low. As of 2019, in Sri Dhandayuthapani Swamy Temple, Pazhani, which is the richest temple in Tamilnadu, there is absolutely no record of names and any other details of 32 main priests conducting pooja and having access to the Sanctum Sanctorum of the temple and they are not being paid salary at all.
Also, there is no external audit conducted by HRCE in any rich temple in Tamilnadu. There are so many allegations of financial fraud against HRCE. Why can’t HRCE conduct an external audit and publish the audit reports on its website for transparency purposes? HRCE also conducts an internal audit but the internal audit is not conducted properly and there are a million audit objections pending which remain unresolved by HRCE. For not having external audit and irregular internal audit along with a million objections being unresolved, HRCE charges 4% Audit fees from temple funds. Internal audit, whenever it is conducted, is not published at all by HRCE. So, the transparency and accountability factor goes for a toss. Consequently, secular or administrative activities are not done properly by the Tamilnadu HRCE.
The article states that HRCE does not interfere in the temple’s religious activities. There are instances of interference in Religious activities in temples by HRCE. One noticeable example of the interference of religious activities by HRCE was in Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple Srirangam. According to Shri TR Ramesh, the Executive Officer of Sri Ranganathaswamy temple in 2011 forced the priests to offer Naivedya to the Lord of various Kala poojas at one go in morning pooja itself, so time is ‘saved’ in allowing devotees for darshan, with the objective of earning more money from uninterrupted Rs 250, Rs 500 & Rs 1000 tickets for Darshan. The Executive Officer also stopped on many days the ritual of Viswaroopa Darshan held in the mornings when the crowd of devotees is expected to swell to accommodate darshan for ‘paid’ devotees.
The article talks about the comparison of temples with other religious institutions with respect to State control. I do not believe in this comparison with other religious institutions. Furthermore, a Hindu need not worry about the status of the institutions of other religions. Often, many Hindus say that other religious institutions should also be under the control of the Government just like the temples. But it is not the solution in a secular democracy. After India gained independence, the Constitution gave certain rights to everyone living in this country. All religions in this country were guaranteed fundamental rights by the Constitution. Various Hindu communities or Sampradaya like other religions have the rights to manage their religious institution. The important aspect here is that these rights need to be recognized in order to ensure that Hindu temples are freed from State interference and administration.
The article also claims that HRCE is preserving temple history and architecture. Really? heritage structures and inscriptions are badly damaged in the name of renovation. I can give so many examples of irresponsible destruction of heritage structures. In Tiruvottiyur Sri Thiyagarajaswamy temple, the inscriptions were removed from the prakaram of the temple during the renovation in 2014 and they have been placed under a clump of coconut tree. According to a devotee, the stones are beneath the trees and if one of them gets uprooted in some cyclone then the inscriptions would be lost forever.
All that I described above is just half the story regarding the mismanagement of HRCE on Hindu temples in Tamilnadu. In the second part of this two-part series, I will try to discuss the history of the temple takeover in Tamilnadu, other issues of mismanagement like land encroachment and Idol thefts and will briefly touch on the alternate framework for temple management. At the same time, I will try to answer the remaining points mentioned in the said article which justifies the management of the Hindu temples by the secular State.
References- Major inputs provided by Shri TR Ramesh, President of Indic Collective Trust