Hits And Misses Of ‘Free Hindu Temples’ Movement After Padmanabhaswamy Verdict 

Hits And Misses Of  ‘Free Hindu Temples’ Movement  After  Padmanabhaswamy Verdict Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple. (Pic: @Kuvalayamala/twitter)
Snapshot
  • This is the real fight Hindus face: a “secular” consensus against community control of temples.

The Supreme Court verdict of 13 July 2020 in the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple case (read full judgement here), which handed back control to its erstwhile trustees, the descendants of the Travancore-Cochin royal family, gives us a vantage point from which to evaluate the progress made by the 'Free Temples' movement among Hindus.

The movement – which includes everyone from lawyers dedicated to the cause of Dharma to organisations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and individual politicians such as Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Rajya Sabha MP Subramanian Swamy – can roughly be said to have three broad objectives: one is to get Left historians and the general public to acknowledge the damage done by erstwhile Islamic rulers, who destroyed thousands of temples in their bigoted, iconoclastic zeal, and restore them to Hindu ownership, either to rebuild or to build afresh (Ayodhya Ram temple, Kashi, Mathura, etc).

The second prong of the movement is to retrieve the damage done under British colonial rule, where Hindu temples, and Hindu temples alone, were brought under state control. This continues even after Independence, especially in southern India. It is estimated that over 100,000 temples are under state control in the five southern states.

The third prong is preventive, defensive: the idea is to stop further state ingress into temple management. The Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple case and the Uttarakhand government’s recent bid to impose state control on Char Dham temples (plus 51 more), through the Char Dham Devasthanam Management Board Act, fall in this category.

The bill has since received the Governor’s assent. Subramanian Swamy has challenged the law in the Uttarakhand High Court, and, at the time of writing, the court had not given its verdict.

There are thus battles being waged on three primary fronts: retrieval of temples destroyed or built over by Muslim rulers in the past; retrieval of Hindu temples already under state control, especially in the southern states, and prevention of further takeovers of temples by states.

A fourth battle, which has been clubbed by the Supreme Court along with issues relating to other religions, is Sabarimala in Kerala and Shani Shingnapur in Maharashtra. It involves the rights of temples to follow their own traditional rules and practices.

Before we discuss the latest case in depth, here is a synopsis of the state of the war to regain control of temples by civil society and devotees.

#1. Reclamation of temples erased or built over by Islamic rulers in pre-colonial India. The first major victory is the Supreme Court verdict last year in the Ram Janmabhoomi case, where a five-judge bench headed by then Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi voted 5-0 to hand the property to the Hindus, and asked the state to give Muslims a five-acre plot of land as compensation elsewhere.

But there are two flies in the ointment: one, even before the Babri structure was demolished, the Narasimha Rao government, obviously in a bid to balance the “secular” image of the Congress, passed the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, that disallows Hindus from reclaiming – even through courts – the desecrated or demolished Kashi and Mathura temples.

This left only Ayodhya as a disputed site. Till this law is repealed, there is a legal impediment to Hindus claiming their destroyed temples, or the sites of built-over temples. The second problematic issue with the Ram Janmabhoomi verdict is that it again brings the state into the picture in managing temples.

The Ram temple trust, called the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teertha Kshetra, has been formed by the Centre under court orders, no doubt with many genuine Hindu stakeholders included. But it leaves behind a ticklish issue of separating state from temple management open once more.

#2: The second challenge is to retrieve temples from government control. This is proving to be long-winded, since no state government is willing to let go temples even after many judgements in favour of Hindus. In January 2014, in what was truly a landmark judgement, a bench comprising justices B S Chauhan and SA Bobde, the former now retired and the latter the current Chief Justice, asked the Tamil Nadu government to return the Chidambaram Natarajar Temple to its original trustees, the Podhu Dikshitars.

The court held that “even if the management of a temple is taken over to remedy (an) evil, the management must be handed over to the person concerned immediately after the evil stands remedied. Continuation thereafter would tantamount to usurpation of their proprietary rights or violation of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution in favour of the persons deprived. Therefore, taking over of the management in such circumstances must be for a limited period.”

This was a major victory, and the temple has since been handed back to the Podhu Dikshitars. But here’s the problem: the court verdict – which took 27 years from the year of initial challenge to the 1987 takeover by the state – should have forced the state’s Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Department to consider framing laws to hand other the remaining temples back to devotee control or non-state stakeholders, but that has not happened.

And Tamil Nadu alone had 44,121 temples under the HR&CE as in mid-July 2020. Will the war have to be fought temple by temple, for decades into the future?

According to T R Ramesh, a redoubtable warrior in the cause of freeing temples from state control and president of the Indic Collective Trust, a non-profit outfit with similar objectives, the Tamil Nadu government order (GO 232 dated 19 September 2019), releasing the Chidambaram Natarajar Temple from HR&CE control, talked only about this one temple. But the GO also quotes an important passage of the Chidambaram temple judgement which applies to all temples.

“Even if the management of a temple is taken over to remedy the evil, the management must be handed over to the person concerned immediately after the evil is remedied... Management by state can only be for a limited period. Failure to prescribe duration in the impugned order would make it liable to be set aside.”

Adds Ramesh: “There are over 35,000 temples under TN HR&CE which earn less than Rs 10,000 monthly, but even these have not been released from government control.”

He suggests that the only way out may be to file for a writ of mandamus in the Supreme Court directing state governments that the operative parts of the Chidambaram temple judgement should be extended to all temples.

Ramesh files many court cases to prevent Tamil Nadu from encroaching further into temple management and/or restrain current custodians from allowing temple assets – whether land or ancient idols – to be frittered or stolen. But it is an uphill battle.

#3: The third prong is prevention of state entry into temples that are already privately run. This is where the Sree Padmanabhaswamy case becomes relevant. In a verdict on 13 July, a two-judge Supreme Court bench with justices U U Lalit and Indu Malhotra – the latter being the lone dissenting judge in the 4:1 Sabarimala verdict which allowed women in the reproductive age to enter – said that control of the temple will revert back to the descendants of the Travancore royal family, as was agreed to by the Indian government at the time this princely state was integrated into the Indian Union.

As part of the agreed covenant, control of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple was to remain with the Ruler of Travancore-Cochin even after the state acceded to the Indian Union.

But in 1971, Indira Gandhi abolished hereditary titles and privy purses by the 26th amendment, thus leaving the gates open for a legal challenge on whether trusteeship rights for the temple could be passed on once there was no 'ruler’ left to govern it.

No one, including the state, challenged the rights of the last ruler of Travancore, Marthanda Varma, who died in 1991, or that of his younger brother who stepped up to the same role after him.

It was only in 2009, when a tenant (an advocate) was asked to vacate a temple-owned premises, that court cases started getting filed challenging the rights of the successors to the former ruler of Travancore from any role in managing the temple.

The Kerala High Court, in a judgement in 2011, rejected the rights of the royal family to manage the temple, and said the state must step in. The state was also directed to audit the valuables and properties of the temple, and display some of those in an exhibition centre within the temple complex. Control and day-to-day administration of the temple thus went from an executive officer appointed by the royal family to a state-appointed committee.

It is this that the Supreme Court has overturned to return trusteeship and overall control back to the royal family, but with caveats that the royal family itself proposed: a five-member administrative committee and a three-member advisory committee, both under the guidance of the royal family.

The advisory committee will be headed by a former high court judge nominated by the Chief Justice of the Kerala High Court, a chartered accountant and a nominee of the royal family.

The administrative committee of five members shall include one nominee of the ruling family, the chief tanthri (head priest), the District Judge of Thiruvananthapuram (who shall be its chairman), and one nominee each from the Kerala government and the Culture Ministry at the Centre.

Viewed purely in terms of voting strength, two of the three members of the advisory committee and three out of the five in the administrative committee, are representatives of either the judiciary or the state.

This may pose no problem in the near future, since the immediate impact of the verdict will be seen to favour a return to the status quo as existed before 2009. But in the long run, one cannot be sure if politics and possible disagreements in the royal family itself may lead to any issues with the governance of the temple.

The Supreme Court verdict, which asks the temple to bear the costs of its own security in future – now rendered more expensive after public discussion of its untold wealth has increased security risks – may need modification if the temple’s revenues fall short of expenses, and some of its properties and assets need either rental rates revised or even sold.

The net gains from the Supreme Court verdict in the Sree Padmanabhaswamy judgement are the following: a) status quo has been restored and control shifted back to the royal family and two committees set up under his tutelage; b) the 'free temples' movement has now found effective legal advocates for its cause, and this will be vital for the future, as more battles need to be fought.

The reasons to worry are the following: a) it has taken nine years to reverse an illegality in order to restore authority back to the royal family; as long as the courts take so long to deliver verdicts, it means any trouble-maker seeking to put a spoke in the wheels of the temple’s administration can find a way to drag matters to court again; b) restoring the status quo depended heavily on the covenant signed between the ruler of Travancore-Cochin and the newly-independent government of India when the state acceded to India in 1949.

This means, the decision may not be quoted as a precedent to free other temples from control, which do not have such special protections and covenants; and c) question-marks remain over how the wealth and properties of the temple will be protected and, if necessary, monetised in future if costs soar.

The possibility of a return to state meddling cannot be ruled out if there are dissensions withing the royal family, or the heirs run out, or either the state or central government nominees decide not to play fair and create controversies over the decisions of the ruling family.

Says Ramesh of the Indic Collective Trust: “The Supreme Court judgement in the Sree Padmanabhaswamy case is significant, but more could have been done. For Hindus, it gets just a bit more than pass marks. For the royal family and traditions of the temple, it (the judgement) gets more than pass marks.”

#4: The battle to stop state interference in Hindu temple practices and rituals is still open. In Sabarimala, where Lord Ayyappa is worshipped as a naishtika brahmachari (eternal celibate), woke feminists managed to get the Supreme Court to treat this as an unfair discrimination case even though other Ayyappa temples allow all to enter.

The courts also held that Sabarimala was not entitled to the protections of Article 26, which allows all religious denominations and their sub-sections to maintain their age-old practices. The Sree Padmanabhaswamy judgement also explicitly side-stepped this Article 26 issue.

While a nine-judge constitutional bench headed by the Chief Justice, Sharad Bobde, will finally decide this matter, it has gotten clubbed with practices considered questionable in other religions (mosque entry ban on women, female genital mutilation, etc). Apples and oranges will be judged together.

But while there is still hope for Sabarimala, in the smaller Shani Shingnapur, a Maharashtra temple where women were not allowed into the sanctum sanctorum until 2016, the temple management, under pressure from a BJP-led state government, simply surrendered to feminist activism.

The problem is that parties like the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have shown little interest in deeper temple control-related issues.

The Uttarakhand Char Dham takeover, the Sabarimala judgement and the Shani Shingnapur cases show that the 'Hindu nationalist' party many consider as 'guardian' of the idea of Hindu Rashtra, has no interest in being anything more than woke secularism.

This is the real fight Hindus face: a “secular” consensus against community control of temples.

The BJP seems as 'secular' as the rest. In doing so, they are covertly aiding the expansionary interests of the Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Islam, for the latter’s places of worship and the assets they generate can be funnelled back into proselytisation.

Hindus have to fight with their backs to the wall on two fronts: against the alleged 'guardians' of Hindu interests, the BJP-Sangh Parivar, and against the conversion merchants of Islam and Christianity.

(Note: This version corrects the names of the judges who decided the Chidambaram Natarajar temple case. The second judge on the bench was not J Chelameswar, but SA Bobde, the current Chief Justice).

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