U-Turn On Puri Rath Yatra Proves Again Why Governments Shouldn’t Control Temples; They Can’t Be Trusted To Defend Traditions
The most important takeaway from this episode in the Supreme Court is that governments should have no business being in the running of temples.
For, if a government is of secular character, irrespective of the party in power, it has nothing, in-principle, to do with religion.
Lord Jagannath’s Ratha Yatra is one of the most glorious and grandest Hindu traditions that has been going on for centuries.
Cyclones, wars, famines, floods come and go, but the world’s largest chariot procession rolls on like a powerful force, overwhelming all obstacles in its way.
The divine force has again proven to be a juggernaut that it is by overcoming the impediment put by the Supreme Court on 18 June when it stayed the Ratha Yatra citing Covid-19 pandemic as the reason and over possible fears of the procession becoming a vector for the spread of the virus, given that lakhs of devotees attend the celebrations when their beloved Lord Himself comes out of His abode on to the streets to meet them.
“Lord Jagannath will not forgive us if we allow the yatra,” said the court, while passing its order halting the juggernaut.
But it turns out the Lord isn’t a fan of someone else making pompous pronouncements on His behalf.
Yesterday (22 June), the apex court had to modify its order and allow the yatra to start, albeit with reasonable restrictions.
The procession will be carried out to the full extent of rituals while the devotees will watch it digitally on their screens rather than physically in the streets.
But more than the SC’s U-turn on this issue, it is the state government’s flip-flop that is of concern.
On 18 June, senior lawyer Harish Salve, representing the Odisha government, had agreed with the court’s wisdom that the yatra can’t be allowed.
“The moment there is any celebration, people will congregate on the streets,” he reasoned.
But after public outcry and the BJP-ruled central government and other parties filing review petitions, the state government changed its tune.
Yesterday, Salve submitted that the state government “had no objection to the conduct of the Yatra in Puri with appropriate precautions being taken to prohibit public participation” and that “it will coordinate with the Temple Committee as well as the Union Government to ensure smooth conduct of the Rath Yatra.”
Since yesterday, there has been a rush to take credit for reversing the SC’s order. Supporters of both the BJP and the BJD are running an online campaign to thank their party leadership for making SC reverse its stand.
The BJD’s hypocrisy on the matter is too naked to go unnoticed by the public at large, but the BJP is not covering itself in glory either by signalling that the highest court of the country runs as per the wishes of the ruling party at the centre.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s tweets explaining how the PM himself intervened are good for earning some political brownie points, but are a huge blow to the SC’s credibility and independence.
Nonetheless, the most important takeaway from this episode is that the governments should have no business being in the business of running temples.
The traditions and rituals of the temples aren’t their primary concern.
It is convenience. If given a choice to pick one, they would go with the latter like the Odisha government did and innocently agreed with the court’s observations instead of fiercely defending the Puri Ratha Yatra tradition and insisting on making all arrangements rather than hiding behind its inabilities giving Covid-19 as an excuse.
Set aside for a moment the fact that the secular state should ideally stay away from entangling itself in temple management.
Also set aside for a moment the other very important fact that a secular state should treat everyone equally — that if mosques and churches aren’t under its control, temples shouldn’t be either.
Rather, let’s focus only on the fact that there is a huge conflict of interest if the governments control temples.
Take Sabarimala temple and the Kerala government. Not only is the state “secular” but there is a communist government in the state which is a double whammy for temples if they are being managed by members of the ruling party.
When the emotions were running high on the Sabarimala issue, the government threw caution to the wind and in its communist zeal, left no stone unturned to suppress centuries-old Hindu religious traditions which were a symbol of diversity.
Take the Tirupati temple and the Andhra government ruled by a Christian Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy, who has appointed his own uncle as chairman of the temple board.
His officials tried to sell off the temple lands to make some quick bucks recently, but were thwarted from doing so after outrage by Hindus.
Take Tamil Nadu and its notorious HR&CE department, which controls tens of thousands of temples in the state.
It is notorious for losing precious idols from the temples which are smuggled away into foreign lands.
It squanders away crores of rupees every year that could accrue if temple lands are utilised properly.
It has allowed encroachments on these lands to take place and the government officials in charge of the management bleed the temple wealth either because of incompetence or corruption.
Decades of apathy and mismanagement has given rise to the movement to free Hindu temples from government control.
But there are not just two Hindu sides in this debate — those who want to free temples from government control and those who don’t.
There is another — temples under government control are fine as long as my party is in the government.
Most of the BJP supporters advocated for freeing temples from the government control until recently, but have discovered some positive aspects of the same government control after the party leadership made it clear through its actions that it likes managing temples as much as any other party.
Sadly, the BJP supporters have a habit of opposing policies that hurt Hindus when the non-BJP parties are in power, but supporting the same policies when the BJP implements them.
When Narendra Modi fiercely opposed minoritarian policies of the UPA, those were worthy of opposition, but when the Modi government itself is doubling down on minorityism, the supporters see 3-D chess moves in it.
Ditto with temple control.
When the BJP supports freeing temples from the government control in its Karnataka election manifesto, party faithful greet the announcement with cheers.
But when the BJP government takes over temples in Uttarakhand, they support it as a bonafide move to create better facilities for devotees.
This is the worst way to do politics.
In a democracy, you design laws and institutions assuming your worst enemy to be in charge of it someday, not yourself.
That’s the way to build robust systems.
The BJP supporters may be happy with the Yogi Adityanath government controlling temples in Uttar Pradesh today, but they need to understand that in future, an Azam Khan could be calling the shots in appointments to temple boards.
Yesterday, when you cheered Devendra Fadnavis for taking crores of temple money for infrastructure projects, with what face would you oppose Sharad Pawar if he allots the temple money to his pet projects.
Let’s be clear, a fox cannot be put in charge of the hen-house, and it doesn’t matter what the colour of the fox is.
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