How A Department Managing Temple Administration In Tamil Nadu Is Deceiving The Madras High Court

by M R Subramani - Feb 7, 2019 02:03 PM +05:30 IST
How A Department Managing Temple Administration In Tamil Nadu Is Deceiving The Madras High CourtA devotee walks past the entrance to the Meenakshi temple in Madurai (DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/GettyImages)
  • Rent not collected for temple land, deadlines set by courts violated. Another week, another month, but the story of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments in Tamil Nadu remains the same.

Officials of the Tamil Nadu department that manages and controls administration temples in the State continue to be slack in carrying out orders of courts, including higher ones like High Courts and the Supreme Court.

In Tamil Nadu, the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Department is in charge of the administration of over 44,000 temples and over 50 mutts along with their temples.

The HR&CE Department took over the administration of temples on 1 January 1960 through an Act passed by the Tamil Nadu Government in 1959. The Act was based on an earlier law that had been imposed by the British rulers before independence.

There have at least a couple of directives from the Madras High Court - including the Madurai bench - to the department to set its house in order. But it has been dragging its feet and has even managed to hoodwink the Madras High Court.

In particular, the court has ordered the department to provide details and take actions against those who have defaulted on payment of rent to temple properties and those illegally occupying temple properties.

One example is a ruling on October 31 last year. Then, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court asked the HR&CE department to upload on its website details of defaulters of rent to over 44,000 temples in the State.

The single judge bench of Justice S M Subramaniam also ordered the department to come out with details of unlawful occupation of the temple lands and persons occupy them without valid lease or permission.

Justice Subramaniam gave three months time to the HR&CE Department to put up the list of defaulters and other details. The department was asked to submit a compliance report on 23 January this year.

The reality is that it took another 5-6 six weeks before the HR&CE Commissioner, an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) official, issued instructions to his subordinates on the issue.

The HR&CE advocate told the court on 23 January, when the compliance report had to be submitted, that the department commissioner issued instructions on 14 December 2018.

The advocate told the court that the department’s officials were not acting as per the court’s order. He told the judge that he had come with “insufficient instructions” from the officials.

Besides, the HR&CE as well as the executive officer of Sri Thyagaraja Swamy temple in Thiruvarur district, the main respondent, failed to submit a status report on 23 January as ordered by the judge.

The basis of this case is a writ petition filed in 2013 by head - Srila Sri Sathyagnana Mahadeva Desika Paramacharya Swamigal - of the Velakurichi Adheenam or mutt that controls the Sri Thyagarajaswamy Temple. The mutt petitioned for fair rent for 12.5 acres of its land taken on lease by an individual, Pandi Thennavan.

Thennavan had, in fact, filed a petition in 2006 agreeing to pay fair rent to the land of the mutt. However, in 2011, the then executive officer of the temple fixed a rent that was lower than what his superior - joint commissioner- had indicated.

The adheenam said that Thennavan had held the lease during 1955-85 and violated conditions of the lease besides abusing it. He alleged that the executive officer had colluded with the lessee and violated the rules of the HR&CE Department on managing temple administration.

The mutt head pointed out that even per old rent rate, Thennavan owed over Rs 80 lakh, while the latter had made no effort to renew the lease of land.

He also said properties worth several crores of rupees of the mutt in the State had been let out on lease but a fair rent for them has not been fixed. The mutt said that no action was taken by HR&CE Department officials to either recover its properties or rent dues from lessees.

The HR&CE, responding to the plea, said it had suspended four executive officers in this regard and was taking action.

Based on the submissions, Justice Subramaniam ordered the HR&CE Department to take action against Thennavan if he did not hold any valid lease and recover the dues from him.

It was while dealing with the details, the judged ordered that all details of defaulters and illegal occupants of temple properties be uploaded on the Department’s website.

During the hearing on 23 January, the mutt head’s counsel complained that his client was yet to be called by the HR&CE Department for its views. The judged posted the matter to 25 January and ordered that the status report be submitted that day.

When the hearing resumed on 25 January, the officials filed a report enclosing details of properties of themutt.

The mutt counsel pointed out that audit reports of the properties showed that at least 120 idols of the trust were missing besides pointing out at several irregularities.

Upset over the details, the judge ordered the joint commissioner of the region to be present in the court with details on 31 January. Joint commissioner G Thennarasu appearing before the court on 31 January said the department had initiated action to identify the mutt properties.

The Joint Commissioner told the court that vast extent of lands in Thanjavur, Nagapattinam, Pudukottai and Thiruvarur districts have been identified and many of the properties have been encroached by third parties. He also sought more time to identify and evict illegal occupants of the mutt’s properties.

While ordering district officials to help the HR&CE personnel to complete their task, Justice Subramaniam has posted the case to 11 March when an interim report will have to be submitted.

On 12 February, Justice R Mahadevan of the High Court had ordered that all temple properties for which rents were due be identified besides other properties that are illegally occupied.

The judge said a committee should be formed to issue notice to the defaulters and a fair rent, reflecting the market trend, be fixed for these properties.

Till date, combined with the Velakurichi mutt case, the HR&CE has been tardy in implementing the high court rulings.

Bharatiya Janata Party national secretary H Raja, who has launched Hindu Temples Reclaim Movement, told Swarajya in October last year that had each joint commissioner and executive officer of HR&CE Department been asked to pull out available details of at least five temples a day, the exercise would have been completed long ago.

Unfortunately, the HR&CE Department seems to be dragging its feet. In the case of missing, stolen and smuggled idols from temples in Tamil Nadu, the Department has been charged with trying to destroy records.

What has happened in the Velakurichi mutt case is that while delaying in providing details of the temples, the HR&CE Department has succeeded in buying more time and diverting the issue.

Probably, the courts must tell the HR&CE Department and its officials that deadlines are non-negotiable. One of the reasons for the department getting away with these shortcomings is political patronage of both the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).

The ruling AIADMK has been trying its best to scuttle investigations in the idols smuggling, theft and missing cases. The DMK, on its part, is observing a deafening silence.

Probably the solution lies in doing away with the department itself, as sought in a petition by the late Swami Dayananda Saraswati. The petition has been pending in the Supreme Court since 2012.

M.R. Subramani is Executive Editor, Swarajya. He tweets @mrsubramani

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