On May 23, Tamil Nadu’s Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) commissioner J. Kumaragurubaran asked the 44,227 temples under his control to come clean on their finances. A circular was sent out mandating that audited accounts will have to be updated on the HR&CE website from this year. “Several provisions of the HR&CE Act emphasise transparency and informing the public about the expenditure. It is in the interests of improving the administration of the temples,” he explained.
The move is a follow-up to a pre-poll promise by chief minister M.K. Stalin after doubts (and demands) were raised about temple management in the state. By digitising documents regarding properties and assets owned by temples, the government aims to make them available in the public domain. The move comes at the end of a bitter war of words between finance minister P.N.T. Palanivel Thiagarajan (PTR) and the Coimbatore-headquartered Isha Foundation whose head Jaggi Vasudev has, in recent months, steered a public campaign demanding “the freeing of temples from government control”.
The issue came to a head just before the April 6 election after Jaggi launched a ‘missed call’ campaign (#freeTNTemples) on March 12 when his followers had gathered on the occasion of Shivaratri. Before that, he had written to the incumbent chief minister E.K. Palaniswami (EPS) and Stalin, then the leader of the Opposition, on making the issue a poll promise. The ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), though, is against passing the control of temples to private hands, favouring instead more transparency in their administration.
The issue kicked up a controversy after PTR, now a minister, reacted to Jaggi’s demands by calling him a “commercial operator” and a “publicity hound” in an interview with The Hindu. For good measure, he also later tweeted, “Most warriors for ‘privatising temples’ have negligible contribution, if any at all In fact, many of the ‘privatise’ dispositions historically made a living out of the temples assets and donations received.” Incidentally, PTR’s uncle M.T. Subramania Mudaliar had played a role in the legislation of the Hindu Religious Endowment Act, 1921, and the family continues to be part of the administration of the famous Meenakshi temple in Madurai.
In an open letter, the Isha Foundation rebutted the minister’s allegations while listing Jaggi’s ‘contributions and services to the people of Tamil Nadu’. It stated, ‘We are appalled that a man (Jaggi) of his stature has been subject to the minister’s unparliamentary and uncalled for personal attack. This unseemly attack trivialises the efforts and dedication of millions of Isha volunteers worldwide who are working tirelessly in service of humanity.” Meanwhile, other accusations against Jaggi and the string of institutions he controls which have been doing the rounds for years, have found new traction (see box: Under a Cloud).
The digitisation plan, sources in the government say, will squelch the godman’s campaign as well as that of the BJP and RSS to whip up Hindu sentiments over the issue. Temple administrations will now be transparent “leaving no room for certain groups to appropriate assets in the name of religion”, they say. Indeed, the government’s plan is to register all temple assets and land records in the name of the deities to prevent individuals and other entities from usurping the assets. This is also expected to bring to an end the numerous cases pending in different courts regarding mismanagement in some of the state’s temples.
Digitising records and a Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping will provide “ground truths” for the government to act in cases of encroachments on public land and also help prepare models with 3D images of temple properties. Developing a digital record of temple lands and documents is a daunting task but the government is determined to have it done. Kumaragurubaran had earlier successfully done a GIS mapping of about 34,000 acres of industrial land in the state to showcase it to potential investors.
Jaggi has approved the digitisation effort, even calling it a “historic move”. “We appreciate your swift action, responding to citizens’ calls. Transparency is the first step towards good governance,” he added. For him too, this is a significant first step. Through the #freeTNTemples campaign, he had got several celebrities to lend their support to the call for temples being “handed back to the devotees”. In this, he is on the same page as the BJP, though the party has tried to bring temples under state control wherever it’s in power, notably in Gujarat and Uttarakhand.
Jaggi also has a larger goal. He has filed a public interest petition in the Madras High Court seeking an external audit of the temples in the state, including their present condition, properties and assets, status of possession, rent income, liabilities and overall financial status. The PIL also wanted a commission set up to examine handing over the temples to the relevant community.
The DMK stand on this was evident even before the election. “Who will these temples be handed over to if they are taken out of government control?” PTR, as the party spokesman, had wondered aloud. “Even if a temple is handed over to a group of people, wouldn’t that group need an audit and managing body? So the government will need to keep some control. What is the point then in taking temples out of government control?”
The real issue, then, is about the mismanagement of temple properties and its funds, which run into hundreds of crores of rupees. Stalin has now asked the HR&CE to put up a temple-wise list of rental dues defaulters on the official website. “The irony is that the list of defaulters includes prestigious schools run by private trusts and social clubs with bars attached,” says political commentator N. Sathiya Moorthy.
The argument of those who want temples ‘freed’ is that India, as a secular country, shouldn’t be ‘controlling’ religious institutions. They also contend that places of worship of other religions like mosques and churches are not under government control, so why the temples? “Government control over temples is wrong. But asking for it to be handed over to a board of scholars and spiritual people is impractical and illegal. Temples of different sampradayas (traditions) cannot be brought under a single board,” says T.R. Ramesh, president of the Chennai-based trust Indic Collective, and the Temple Worshippers’ Society.
Even before the polls, Jaggi had made his position clear. “If you read the fundamental rights and then look at the HR&CE laws, it is absolutely outrageous. Why is it that everyone else can manage their religious affairs, but one community, and the majority community at that, cannot?” he asks.
Others point out that the government’s intent is retaining its influence. “The state’s view that its intervention is not aimed at deforming the Hindu religion, but ensuring the administration of endowments stays true to both the will and intent of the grantor is flawed,” says senior lawyer L. Ravichander. Analysts also point out that the present structure of government involvement was the result of social reform movements of the early 20th century pushed by the newly appointed legislators who came to power under the Government of India Act, 1919. The Madras Hindu and Religious Endowments Act, 1926, was a response to the large-scale exclusionary practices of temples at the time. The temple-entry movements, catalysed by campaigns like the Vaikom Satyagraha in Kerala, was aimed at securing freedom for all sections of society.
Further, the secularism provisions in the Constitution sought to subordinate the freedom of religion to other fundamental rights. Article 25 begins with the words, ‘Subject to the other provisions of this part’; the freedom to manage religious affairs in Article 26 is subject to public order, morality and health to ensure that secular reforms are not stalled; Article 25(2) empowers the state to enact laws to regulate or restrict any economic, financial, political or other secular activity associated with religious practice.
“The majority judgment in the Sabarimala case is an example of a reform that would have been stalled if the founders had adopted a separation of the church and state model of secularism,” says constitutional lawyer B.N. Suchindran. In that sense, those wanting the HR&CE laws scrapped have no option but to chase their case in courts. N
UNDER A CLOUD
Jaggi Vasudev at a Sivaratri celebration
For nearly three decades, Jagdish ‘Jaggi’ Vasudev and his Isha Foundation have been working in Tamil Nadu ‘to bring physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing to the Tamil people’ through yoga, social outreach and ecological projects. According to the foundation, several social development programmes have been initiated for rural communities in health, education, holistic development and farmer welfare. It claims a reach of 7,500 villages with an impact on “at least 11 million lives”.
The outreach includes Isha Vidhya, an education initiative for students of nine districts, and the ‘Rally for Rivers’, an ecological movement to increase the green cover “by contributing over 38 million trees”. Isha says farmers in TN and Karnataka planted 11 million saplings through its ‘Cauvery Calling’ programme in 2020.
According to the so-called Sadhguru’s many detractors, however, he has contravened laws in developing assets in the name of public charitable trusts and other entities. Palanivel Thiagarajan claims he has evidence against the one-time yoga instructor which establishes “beyond all probable doubt that he has repeatedly and consistently violated multiple laws and statutes.” He plans to present the evidence to relevant authorities.
Accusations against Jaggi include acquiring lands without due process, illegal constructions and encroachment of notified forest lands in Ikkarai Boluvampatti, in the foothills of the Velliangiri hills near Coimbatore, including a traditional ‘elephant corridor’. Environmentalists and social activists have raised concerns and registered court cases, but as often happens in high-profile cases, these have been obscured in a haze of bureaucratic and legal arguments.
The Isha Foundation says these allegations are false and stresses that every aspect of their operation is 100 per cent compliant with the laws of the land.
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Source: India Today