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“TN Temples Are Being Systematically Stripped Of Their Assets,” Says H Raja

H Raja in conversation with Swarajya.
Snapshot
  • The media glare is never too far from H Raja. But there is one project of his that has gone largely unnoticed so far—his efforts to restore and reclaim temples in Tamil Nadu.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) national secretary H Raja is known more for his controversial statements against the Dravidian movement, leaders and parties. His comments have often sparked protests, putting his party in a spot of bother. However, a relatively unknown fact about Raja is the Hindu Temples Reclaim Movement (HTRM) that he launched on 4 February this year.

It is a movement that can soon change the course of Tamil Nadu’s politics, given the way people are responding to it, political analysts say, although Raja appears to have little support from his party.

Swarajya caught up with Raja at his residence in one of Chennai’s busiest areas, Vadapalani, to talk about the HTRM and the precarious state of temples in Tamil Nadu.

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Excerpts

On why he has launched the Hindu Temples Reclaim Movement

The Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Department policy note for 2018-19 fiscal says that it has 38,646 temples under its wings, with total land holdings of 4.78 lakh hectares of irrigated and non-irrigated lands, 22,600 buildings and 33,675 plots that amount to 28 crore square feet.

Nowhere in the world will you find temples like in Tamil Nadu with so many properties. The HR&CE Department has not managed the properties properly. So, a movement became necessary for protecting the temples and their properties.

A year before the launch of HTRM, I visited various temples. I found quite a few atrocities being committed. It was after this that I decided to start the HTRM.

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On a sample survey of temples in the state

We took a sample survey of the temples. In the survey, we uniformly found that 5 per cent of the temples exists no more. Among the 38,646 temples, we estimate that at least 1,800 temples could have been demolished to give way to buildings and shopping complexes.

Then, at least 20 per cent of the temples have been abandoned or are under-used.

On how Hindu temples in Tamil Nadu are being mismanaged

Encroachment of temple properties is terrifying. For example, the Thiruvannamalai Arunachaleswarar Temple owns 550 grounds opposite Malar Hospitals in Chennai at Arunachaleswar Puram. All the lands have been illegally occupied. Mylapore Kapaleeswarar Temple has 303 grounds on Greenways Road in Chennai, and some of the occupants pay a pittance as rent.

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At Vanambadi near Kumbakonam in Thanjavur, a 1,000-year-old temple, built by Rajendra Chola, has the Somaskandar idol lying displaced. On the other hand, other idols too are lying uncared for, and the complex dilapidated. The Centre provided Rs 40 lakh to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) for its reconstruction. Till date, it has not been set right.

These temples were functioning when the HR&CE Department took over them. The department took over the temples from the trustees saying they were being mismanaged. But the department has abandoned temples without managing them.

The government’s eyes are deliberately closed to the damage that is being caused. It is suppressio veri suggestio falsi: Suppressing the truth is equal to telling lies. Though the government denies damaging the temples, there is no mai-baap for the HR&CE Department and no one to question the staff.

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On how the late Jayalalithaa challenged his statement on temples, giving way to constructions, and how her orders are yet to be implemented

In April 2003, when I was a member of the Tamil Nadu Assembly, I got a report of Hindu Munnani protests against the demolition of Thiruvannamalai Ilayanar and Idumban Temple Complex in 1997. I found out that the temple figures in the HR&CE Department list. An executive officer (EO) had been appointed even without the existence of the temple. I raised the issue in the assembly, but the then chief minister J Jayalalithaa refuted it saying my information was false.

I gave her the documents and told her that if you prove me wrong, I will apologise. To the credit of the late Jayalalithaa, the next day she admitted that the temple is not there and the government would restore it.

In July 2003, the government issued an order to demolish the building and restore the temple. But to date, the temple has not been restored. The point is that even the order of a powerful chief minister like Jayalalithaa has not been implemented by the HR&CE Department.

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There may be exceptions, but most officers in the department are not honest. There is collusion between HR&CE and Revenue Department officials that is very dangerous.

On Supreme Court rulings not being honoured

On the Chennai-Bangalore national highway, between Poonamallee and Kanchipuram, at Pappanchatram village, the Kasi Viswanathar and Venugopala Swamy temples exist within 100 metres in a complex. In 1887, the village zamindar gifted 177.7 acres to the temples for holding daily pujas. Today, a residential school and a water theme park have come up on these lands. In 2013, the Supreme Court ordered that the lands be retrieved. Till date, it has not been done.

The illegal occupants and encroachers sought a stay, but it was rejected. Today, the temples are in such a pathetic situation that there are no resources even to light a lamp there when the 177.1 acres are valued at over Rs 2,000 crore.

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On an omnibus judgement on Vasudevanallur Sankaranarayanar Temple lands by Madurai bench of Madras High Court in February 2018

Justice R Mahadevan gave his ruling on 12 February, which is very clear. The verdict said not a single temple is being maintained to uphold the objectives for which our forefathers wrote their properties to the temples – a severe indictment of HR&CE Department.

The judgement stipulated that a committee should be formed for temple properties and within six weeks, market rates should be fixed for these. If the present lessee is ready to pay the current market rate, then they can continue there. Otherwise, the property can be auctioned afresh.

Second, HR&CE officials were ordered to prepare a list of the encroachment of temple properties and submit a report within six weeks.

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Third, the ruling said a notice should be issued by the department within two weeks asking the lessees to pay the rent arrears within four weeks voluntarily. If the rent arrears are not cleared within the stipulated time, then the leased out temple property can be retrieved. If no one does this, then action should be taken against officials for inaction. Even eight months after such a judgement, it has not been implemented.

On low rent for temple properties

On a temple property near the Thuraiyur bus stand (in Tiruchirappalli), shops are still paying Rs 90 as monthly rent, while a little further people pay Rs 4,000 as rent. Properties like these haven’t been retrieved.

In Vedaranyam, the Vedaranyeswarar Temple lands get rent of Rs 2.45 per annum. Corporate firms, which are paying low rent, are earning huge profits. The lessee should pay market rates. Why is this not being done?

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Going by the Vasudevanallur Temple lands ruling, if each of the HR&CE Department’s 628 senior staff had examined the affairs of 50 temples each, it could have retrieved the lost properties in the last few months.

The Supreme Court has ruled that Waqf Properties can be let out at the market rate only. Section 34 of HR&CE says temple properties have to get a fair or market rate. The temple committee that fixes the rent value includes a district registrar who decides the fair value. Have they done this any time till now?

On systematic and scientific frauds in temple administration

A systematic fraud is being committed with regard to temple properties. The HR&CE Department doesn’t appear in public interest litigations on temple frauds. Judgements are also delivered ex-parte allowing the present lessee to continue.

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A person filed a Right to Information (RTI) petition seeking to know the number of bank accounts that Thirukkachchi Nallur Temple near Poonamallee has and if it had immovable properties at Chintadripet and Sowcarpet in Chennai. The EO replied that the temple had two bank accounts and, based on the records with the temple, it did not have any immovable properties at Chintadripet and Sowcarpet. He asked the person who sought RTI to provide any information that he might have in his possession.

The temple, however, owns 23 houses in these two areas of Chennai. Those who have taken a lease of these houses pay rent by cheque every month. A third account was opened, and these cheques were deposited in them. Since 1997 till now, some Rs 10 crore has been looted from that account.

I gave all these details including statements from the banks to the HR&CE Commissioner R Jaya (who has now been replaced by T K Ramachandran), who sent it back to the temple officials asking them to respond to the application. Wonder why the Commissioner didn’t order the arrest of the persons who swindled the money?

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On other flaws in temple management

Article 25 of the Constitution is very clear. It says that the endowment can intervene only with the secular aspects of the administration of the temple.

Now, when a temple has to be consecrated, the HR&CE Department’s permission has to be obtained. Why? If I reveal the name, these officials will go and torture the concerned Sivachariar (a priest in a Shiva temple). But in a temple in Thanjavur, the priest said that when he was asked to perform the temple’s consecration one (HR&CE) official asked for a 25 per cent cut.

The Perumbanar Temple at Varagur village near Thirukattupalli in Thanjavur is ready for consecration, but the HR&CE officials are not giving permission.

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According to Section 34, no official has the power to let on lease any property for more than five years. But the HR&CE Department is giving a permanent lease of properties. The law is very clear – even if the document says the lease could be renewed after five years, it has to go to the government, but it seldom happens. These actions are ultra vires of the Constitution.

At Vedaranyam, the Vedaranyeswarar Temple has the largest land holding of 28,600 hectares in Tamil Nadu. Of this, 15,000 acres have not been surveyed at all. When the temple EO petitioned the collector to survey the lands, he was transferred. Was he transferred because he tried to save the temple property?

In villages such as Nallicheri, Pilloor and Agaramangudi some people have taken the initiative to perform the temple’s consecration. Why does the HR&CE need to give permission when it doesn’t have to spend any money? At Agaramangudi, my native, months have passed by since permission has been sought for the consecration that has not been done for 12 years.

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On HR&CE Department officials protecting the corrupt in their lot

At Pandanallur Pasupatheeswarar Temple, HR&CE Joint Commissioner K Gajendran took away idols worth Rs 300 crore and replaced them with fake ones. He was arrested, but the department employees protested against this.

Similarly, no gold was found in the main deity’s idol at Palani Dandayudhapani Temple. Sthapati Muthiah and former HR&CE official Raja were arrested. A state-wide dharna was held in protest.

Again, when HR&CE Additional Commissioner M Kavitha was arrested in the Ekambareswarar temple idols theft case, the whole department gets shaken. Why?

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Is the department telling us that it will systematically loot the temple properties and no one can question it? Parties like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi and Dravidar Kazhagam that don’t have faith in the Hindu religion, support these protests and agitations.

My anger is that HR&CE officials have been arrested for their complicity in various cases that are being supervised by the courts. How can the department agitate? Those who protest should be transferred.

I have given all details backed by evidence to Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami. He said he would look into it, but no action has been taken until now.

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On Section 29 register to record temple properties and belongings

As per Section 29 of the HR&CE Act, every temple had to maintain a register – Section 29 register – to list endowment properties, the idols in the premises, their specifications, the jewels with it and even vessels and utensils. This should have been done three months after the act came into existence in 1959. Many temples don’t maintain this. This shows that even the Congress governments that ruled before 1967 in Tamil Nadu did nothing to preserve the temples.

In the Vasudevanallur Temple lands case, the HR&CE officials’ first response was that they were not sure if the lands belonged to the temple. Then another person gave the proof that the lands, in fact, did belong to the temple.

I asked the superintendent of Vadapalani Murugan Temple for Section 29 register. He says he has it only from 2015. What about the period before that?

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On Section 92, which stipulates that the income from temples can be diverted to the consolidated fund of the state

The HR&CE department staff – from officials to lower grade employees – are government employees, who draw their salaries from the consolidated fund of the state. Section 92 says the HR&CE Commissioner can only take a maximum of 18 per cent of temple funds to the consolidated fund. Up to 2016, it was 12 per cent. The rule was brought in so that from the rest of the available income, other temples with lower or no income can be maintained. However, the HR&CE Department has become such a white elephant now that all the temple funds are diverted to meet its needs. Priests are paid meagre salaries with some appointment orders saying they will not get any salary. In Thirukkachchi Temple, the priest earns a monthly salary of Rs 10, and even that has not been paid for three years!

For audit purposes, 1.5 per cent of the temples' funds where the income is less than Rs 5 lakh per annum and 4 per cent of funds for ones where the income exceeds Rs 5 lakh can be availed of over and above the stipulated 18 per cent. However, we see how HR&CE officials are getting luxury cars, computers and air-conditioners for officials from temple money.

When an HR&CE officials’ meeting was held in Chennai with 270 participants, the Mylapore Kapaleeswarar Temple administration was asked to provide refreshments and mineral water by the Commissioner. (I have a copy of the letter). How can temple funds be misused like this?

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On Hindu gods being ‘perpetual minors’ and temple properties not being up for sale

Properties of temples that are the very basis for their existence are being sold. Hindu gods are perpetual minors. Temple properties cannot be alienated in favour of anyone, and there is no period of limitation (for the minor status of gods). The property of a minor cannot be sold or leased without the clearance of the courts. Hindu god is a legal entity. You can buy properties or get registration (patta) in the name of god, but you cannot sell them.

In 1985, land holdings of temples were 5.25 lakh acres. Now the policy note says land holdings are 4.78 lakh hectares. Where have these 47,000 acres gone in these 30-33 years?

On idol thefts

All the 38,646 temples were functioning when the HR&CE Department took over. Now, without proper administration 8,000 temples are non-functional or abandoned. Most of the abandoned temples, built by Chola emperors, are the ones from where age-old idols have been smuggled out.

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Theft of idols from functioning temples is less because they are under constant public watch. For example, Subhash Kapur, Deenadayalan, Sanjeev Ashok, Khader Basha are now in prison in connection with idol smuggling. At the New York gallery, Nataraja and Sivagami idols from Suthamalli were found with a tag of $8.5 million. On seeing the name of Suthamalli, which is in Tamil Nadu, S Vijayakumar, who authored the book Idol Theft, is now trying to identify all missing idols, blogged details that went to the idol wing police and the case is on.

How did these idols go from Suthamalli? Temple officials open the temple only once in three months. No pujas are being conducted there. Thieves used the three-month gap to steal the idols.

On the network of idol smuggling

In Thiruvarur, there is an Idol protection centre. A village near Kumbakonam has five temples, and there was a festival at the Ayyanar Temple recently. The temple priest took the idols after signing the documents from the protection centre for a festival there. It is Akhilandeswari Temple which is famous at the village and not the Ayyanar Temple.

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On the night of the festival, a burglary took place at the Akhilandeshwari Temple as someone from the protection centre gave information to the burglars. This seems to be a vicious network.

The festival was at another temple, but the burglars broke open the Akhilandeswari Temple thinking the idols will be there. Since the idols were not there, the burglars took away the brass lamps.

On the need for CAG audit

All temple administrations should be subject to the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) scrutiny, especially temples with income over Rs 5 lakh per annum.

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Certain payments, too, have to be examined. For example in Tiruchendur, the temple authorities collect Rs 2,000 for abhishekam per person on auspicious days. You need to pay Rs 500 on ordinary days and Rs 2,000 on auspicious or festive days.

At least 10 people pay for the abhishekam on auspicious days. Do temple officials buy things to perform 10 abhishekams or one? So, why Rs 2,000 from 10 devotees? What happens to the remaining amount?

Likewise, god is not an item to be exhibited. So, such charges should not be collected. The audits should examine these aspects.

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On Section 10, which states only professing Hindus can be appointed in the HR&CE Department

Section 10 of the HR&CE says that any officer or servant appointed under the HR&CE Department should be a “professing” Hindu. If a person ceases to profess Hinduism, then he is not eligible for appointment in the HR&CE Department.

A government can be secular. We are not against appointing a Christian or Muslim in government jobs, but they can’t be appointed in HR&CE Department.

At Kulasekharapatnam near Thoothukudi, a Christian is an accountant in a temple! Even a cleaner cannot be appointed in a temple if he/she is not a Hindu. That is the law. I am only asking them to act as per law.

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On Section 49 of HR&CE Act that doesn’t allow permanent management of a temple taken over by government

HR&CE cannot permanently manage a temple taken over from traditional trustees. If the department finds any mismanagement, it should intervene, take it over, rectify the problems and hand it back again.

The significant problem is that there is no temple management committee anywhere especially under Section 49 of HR&CE Act. There are 34,000 such temples whose income is less than Rs 10,000 per annum, and they don’t have such committees. How can such temples be maintained?

On why the big fish could soon turn rivals

One danger I face is that soon some VVIP could turn a rival because I have taken up this issue of reclaiming temple properties. We can’t allow our temples to perish. The opposition is less than what we expected. I expect the opposition to my organisation to increase. Rumours and malicious propaganda against it will float. This is because many VVIPs are enjoying the 4.78 lakh hectares of temple lands.

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On the way forward

We will come out with a comprehensive report and approach the Law Commission. When M G Ramachandran (MGR) was the chief minister, a movement of village temples, priests and Vishwa Hindu Parishad were active. MGR appointed a committee under Kundrakudi Adigalar to look into the administration of Hindu temples with eminent personalities like Justice Krishnaswamy Reddy as members. The panel recommended handing over temple administration to experts thorough with the Hindu religion on the lines of the Waqf Board. The report was adopted by the state assembly. So, I am not taking up anything new, and a solution is already available. There should be an independent board for Hindu temples.

But what is the purpose of handing over temples to a board after the temples have been stripped of their properties and wealth? So, our initial efforts would be to retrieve temple properties and then form a board.

Governments should not control the temples. However, there are hurdles to overcome as traditional trustees no more hold responsibilities. Their roles have been taken over by EOs as “fit person” resulting in all controls resting with HR&CE Department.

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Under Section 45, the “fit person” is a temporary arrangement. In thousands of temples, such “fit person” exists. How can such things continue?

Let village committees be formed for regular management. The government should involve people in managing temples, not alienate them.

On awareness among the public on the mismanagement

Our efforts are to bring mass Hindu awareness. To some extent, awareness has set in on the mismanagement of temple properties. People are now convinced that there is some truth in what I say.

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Whichever temple I go to, some 100-200 people come and give details of the properties that are being mismanaged.

At least 10 people come to meet me daily on temple affairs with records. That’s why I have opened an office in Chennai. I will need to set up a legal team, but it involves funds.

We have taken up the issue in a big way, and we can’t drop this. Then there can be no redemption for our temples. We need to take this to its logical end. I will overcome anything that will be a hurdle to this.

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On the next move of Hindu Temples Reclaim Movement

First, we will have all the temples surveyed. We will categorise them into temples where daily pujas are taking place, temples that have been abandoned and temples that have been demolished to give way to buildings. Once the survey is done and since endowment is in the concurrent list, I will knock every possible door. It could be the Law Commission, Supreme Court or the Centre.

The Madras High Court judgement has given a good grip on the temple issue with the Vasudevanallur lands case. Instead of filing separate PILs for individual temples, we can ask the government to retrieve temple properties as per the Vasudevanallur judgement.

We will appoint a team of 10 persons per temple, and we will use this judgement to get back temple properties.

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On the new HR&CE Commissioner’s initiative

The new HR&CE Department Commissioner, T K Ramachandran, has invited suggestions to teach Hindu scriptures like thevaram and Divya Prabandham. I think this is a fallout of our temple reclaim movement.

No one has thought about this until now.

In churches, they teach the Bible. No one teaching Hindu scriptures was seen as the religion’s strength, but it has become its weakness now. Children should have been taught Hindu scriptures in temples on a daily basis. It is a good move from the HR&CE Commissioner to seek suggestions. This could bring in a link between the temple administration and Hindu public.

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This article is part of Swarajya’s series on Indic heritage. If you liked this article and would like us to do more such ones, consider being a sponsor—you can contribute as little as Rs 2,999. Read more here.

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