BJP’s Tamil Nadu Promise Of Freeing Temples Points In Right Direction, But It Is Not Good Enough

R Jagannathan

Mar 24, 2021, 10:50 AM | Updated 10:49 AM IST

Devotees at the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai in Tamil Nadu. (DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/GettyImages)
Devotees at the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai in Tamil Nadu. (DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/GettyImages)
  • The only logical way to free temples from the state’s clutches is to let devotees take control, and this would need legislation – and strong constitutional backing – to work.
  • If there is only one thing the Narendra Modi government at the Centre will do for its largely Hindu voter base, it must be the freeing of temples from state control. It does not matter whether the states controlling temples are non-Bharatiya Janata Party governments, or ones run by the BJP. But states cannot run temples or any religious institutions. Period.

    In this context, the vague promise made in the BJP’s Tamil Nadu election manifesto is a start, but it does not go far enough. The manifesto, which promises everything from a ban on religious conversions based on force or fraud to anti-cow slaughter legislation, has this to say: “The administration of Hindu temples will be handed over to a separate board comprising Hindu scholars and saints.”

    This is actually too generic to mean much. One wonders why the same manifesto was not also used for Kerala, where too state control of temples by godless communists has been a bane, and where too state elections are due.

    The Tamil Nadu manifesto seems to promise reform, but this promise can easily be subverted since any government can then pack the same board with scholars and sants of its own choice. It is not significantly different from Andhra Pradesh’s Christian Chief Minister appointing his own uncle to head the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD).

    The only logical way to free temples from the state’s clutches is to let devotees take control, and this would need legislation – and strong constitutional backing – to work.

    The laws would have to promise how temple boards should be constituted, and each temple, or groups of temples belonging to different sampradayas, can customise the laws for their own purposes. A Sabarimala need not have the same rules as a Tirupati Balaji temple or the Ram temple in Ayodhya.

    Perhaps the only omnibus requirement applicable to all freed temples should be the method of electing the governing boards, the constitution of the electoral base of devotees, and provisions for inclusion of different caste groups through voluntary affirmative action by each temple. And, of course, entry should be unrestricted for all Hindus. Non-Hindus can be debarred or allowed to enter after signing an affirmative note of respect for the deity and the unique practices of the temple in question.

    The law should have provisions for the setting up of new kinds of temples, which could have different practices, different rituals, and different methods of creating priesthoods. There can be for-profit temples, as well as non-profit temples that exist only to provide education, healthcare and food for the poor based on incomes from land owned by them, or with gifts from devotees.

    The only other area where states can directly take control is the building of non-temple-related infrastructure around the place of worship to help devotees enter and exit easily. If a temple has the resources, it should be able to create its own surrounding infrastructure, just as corporate townships like Tatanagar and various public sector steel plants once did.

    To put it simply, what we need are the following:

    One, a separate legislation at the central level that specifically forbids states from controlling any religious institution. There is no need to specify Hindu institutions. The legislation will only impact Hindu temples, since mosques and churches are not run by the states.

    Two, the law needs to be supported by constitutional changes to articles 25-30, which currently protect only minority institutions, at least in the way these articles have been interpreted by states and courts. Hindu institutions need equal rights, and not special favours from governments.

    Some constitutional changes were proposed in a private members’ bill drafted by BJP MP Satyapal Singh in the last Lok Sabha. It is time to revive it, since this would ensure that temples, religious charities and educational institutions will not in future be taken away by any state.

    Three, the land and properties owned by Hindu religious and charitable institutions should be held in trusts for devotees. These trusts, or boards, should be enabled to use or monetise these properties to grow the faith and provide public services for the poor and underprivileged members of their own sampradaya, or to grow the devotee base.

    Rich temples like the Sree Padmanabha Swamy and Sabarimala in Kerala or Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh should not only determine their own practices, but also use a prudent part of their resources in any way they deem fit for the benefit of their communities.

    If the BJP wants to retain its Hindu vote base without seeming sectarian, its war-cry for 2024 – in addition to sabka saath, sabka vikas, and sabka vishwas – should be “Equal rights for Hindus”.

    India needs rescuing from minoritarian politics, and equal rights for Hindus and freedom from state control of temples are more important than empty promises about banning conversions. You can’t prevent conversions with laws.

    If you free Hindu temples and the related resources, Hindus can win back those among the poor who were lost to other religions by providing them with material benefits that only churches and mosques seem able to provide right now.

    Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.

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