Hindu temples are not free in Tamil Nadu. Here is how the govt controls them

Hindu temples are not free in Tamil Nadu. Here is how the govt controls them

On Thursday (25th April), the police arrested four Hindu priests for keeping donations (dakshina) left by devotees on puja thalis. The incident took place in Mettupalayam town Coimbatore district of Tamil Nadu.

As per reports, the four people were identified as L Saravanan, S Vishnukumar, R Ragupathi and S Thandapani. They work as priests at the Vanabadrakaliamman Temple.

Their only ‘crime’ involves taking home dakshina, left by devotees on Puja plates. Unlike most parts of India where a particular temple administration lays down its own rules of conduct, the Hindu places of worship in Tamil Nadu are managed by the State government.

The administrative control is established through the implementation of the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Act of 1959, legislation [pdf] that was supposed to ensure ‘smooth administration’ and ‘proper management’ of Hindu temples and mutts.

According to the HR&CE ‘rules’, Hindu priests are not allowed to take dakshinas left by devotees on puja thalis. They have been directed to submit all donations to the temple hundis, a diktat that has reportedly received the approval of India’s Judiciary.

Assistant Commissioner of HR&CE, U S Kailasamurthy remarked, “There is a government order to this effect. The Madras High Court too has backed the practice and ordered to consider the entire donations, including the collections on the plate, as a temple’s revenue. The four were not following the practice.”

As a result, the four priests of the Vanabadrakaliamman Temple were arrested for flouting rules made by the Tamil Nadu government and were sent to judicial remand.

This form of governmental interference in the management of Hindu places of worship is not just limited to Vanabadrakaliamman Temple. This is the case for over 38,658 temples and mutts in Tamil Nadu as per the publicly available data.

History behind the controversial legislation

To understand how these centres of Faith fell into the hands of the Executive, we need to dive into the history [pdf] of the State. The temples in present-day Tamil Nadu flourished during the rule of the Pallavas, Cholas, Cheras, Pandiyas and Nayakars.

Following the fall of the majestic Hindu empires and the rise of the East India Company, the temples came under the control of private persons and their families.

There were accusations that the new ‘owners’ of the temple were involved in the appropriation, misuse, and unauthorised sale of properties. The devotees demanded proper management of the Hindu places of worship.

In the year 1817, regulations were issued for the supervision and endowment of temples by the East India Company. To this effect, the Madras Endowments and Escheats Regulation No. VII was introduced and the Board of Revenue was empowered to supervise the temples.

Local agents were appointed to examine the expenditure of temples. About 46 years later in 1863, the Religious Endowments Act was enacted by the then-British government. It made way for local committees, whose members were appointed for life, to oversee the administration of temples.

Over the following decades, several laws were passed under the pretext of enhancing ‘transparency’ in the management of Hindu places of worship.

In 1927, the anti-Brahmin ‘Justice Party’ oversaw the enactment of the Madras Hindu Religious Endowments Act and the constitution of the ‘Madras Hindu Religious Endowments Board.’ For the first time, Executive Officers were appointed to the temples.

Various amendments were made to the legislation in the years 1928, 1929, 1930, 1931, 1934, 1935, 1938, 1939, 1944, 1946 and 1947.

Following complaints to the Indian Law Commission about the supposed ‘misuse’ of temple funds and properties, the Madras Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act was enacted in 1951.

This established further control of the government on temples in Madras through the formation of a dedicated Department called ‘Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments.’

The position of the Commissioner was created and powers were vested in him to regulate the functioning of the temples. Besides, a plethora of officers with varying hierarchies were appointed to regulate ‘secular affairs of Hindu temples and Mutts.’

Despite the interference of the Madras government in the management of Hindu places of worship, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of the Act in the infamous Shirur Mutt case of 1954.

Five years later in 1959, the government enacted the ‘Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act.’ A Hindu Religious Endowments Commission was also formed between 1960-1962.

Tamil Nadu govt controls appointments and finances of temples

Through the ‘Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act’, the State government exercises unprecedented control over the administration, functioning and management of Hindu temples and mutts.

The government appoints the Commissioner, the Joint Commissioner, and the Assistant Commissioner of the HR&CE Department. It also appoints the Board of Trustees of each religious institution (temples and mutts with annual income of more than ₹10 lakhs).

The Commissioner is entrusted to appoint Executive Officers as well as the Board of Trustees for temples and mutts with annual income between ₹2 lakhs -₹10 lakhs.

Similarly, the Assistant Commissioner appoints Board of Trustees for Hindu places of worship with annual incomes less than ₹10000. At the same time, the Joint Commissioner does the same for temples and mutts with annual incomes between ₹10000- ₹2 lakhs.

As such, it becomes crystal clear that the Tamil Nadu government directly and indirectly appoints the Board of Trustees of each religious institution under the Department of Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments.

The government is also in charge of the assets of the temples and mutts (both movable and immovable). It controls the finances in the name of ‘improving viability’ and ‘sustained development.’

Moreover, it solicits money from the same temples and mutts to the range of 1.5%-4% under the garb of annual income audit.

Affirmative action over Hindu customs

Since 2006, the Tamil Nadu government has been using Hindu places of worship as its laboratory for affirmative action and social justice, in complete contrast to the age-old traditions of individual Hindu temples and mutts.

Every community (sampradaya) within the Hindu fold has its unique customs and ritualistic way of worship. The community decides the pujaris and the management of the temple.

The Tamil Nadu government overrides this Hindu practice in the name of social equality and appoints archakas of its liking under the HR&CE Act.

To make matters worse, a total of 11 Mutts have lost their character under the supervision of the same Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department. As such, total Mutts in Tamil Nadu have decreased from 56 to 45 as of 2022.

Use of temples for politics

All thanks to the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Act of 1959, the State government has a free licence to use temples and mutts for its political propaganda.

For instance, the DMK government under MK Stalin introduced the ‘Kalaignar Sacred Tree Sapling Planting Scheme’ in memory of party oligarch M. Karunanidhi. The temples across the state were directed to plant one lakh sacred tree saplings under the ‘political scheme.’

In January this year, the Tamil daily Dinamalar published a report stating that the DMK-led-Tamil Nadu government had given ‘unofficial verbal directive’ to temples against conducting special prayers and offering Annadanam (free food) on the occasion of Ram Mandir Pran Prathistha.

The report pointed out that the government has verbally warned temple administrators against organising special programmes on behalf of the devotees.

Several BJP leaders including Tamil Nadu State President K Annamalai had criticised the decision of the Tamil Nadu government, an allegation that it continues to deny in public.

Conclusion

It is thus clear that the Tamil Nadu government had weaponised the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Act of 1959 (with amendments from time to time) to influence, control and even interfere in the religious affairs and practices of the Hindu community.

The controversial legislation traces its roots to the East India Company and the British Empire in India. Instead of doing away with it after Independence, the law was further strengthened to control the appointment of officers, trustees, and even priests of Hindu temples and mutts.

It also gave access to the government to the finances of the Hindu places of worship. The unjustified interference, emboldened by the activism of the Judiciary, has now reached its zenith.

The Tamil Nadu government now gets to decide whether the Hindu pujari can take home the donation (dakshina) left by devotees on the puja thali.

Such is the state of high-handedness of the government in a State that boasts of the maximum number of Hindu temples in India.

Featured Image – Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai via Times Now

The article was first published in OpIndia on 30th April 2024.