Shri TR Ramesh: Dharma warrior and tireless temple activism to free Hindu temples from state control  

For those familiar with the movement to free Hindu temples from government control, Shri TR Ramesh needs no introduction. He is the president of the Indic Collective Trust that promotes Indic civilizational values through legal intervention. A relentless campaigner against violations and irregular practices in temple administration, Shri Ramesh has taken on the HR & CE Department in several temples and on several issues across Tamil Nadu. 

In the second part of the series The sacred and the secular, we bring you an  interview with Shri TR Ramesh, who responded to the HinduPost through email. 

1.) Has the legislation that  has invested the secular Indian state with exclusive powers to interfere with the religious affairs of only  the Hindus, been perfected in post-Independence Bharat with the Hindu Religious Charitable Endowment Act?

The HR & CE Acts of various states (except the Andhra Pradesh Act) do not give powers to government officials to interfere with the religious aspects of Hindu Institutions. Yet, they do interfere and with impunity. Courts hardly pull up government officials for such interferences. The Travancore Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act 1950 clearly starts that the tantri (A Vedic head and authority in a temple) is the final authority in religious matters. But the government acts in violation of this provision and the courts seem to side with the government. 

2.) Can you trace the trajectory of Indic Collective in the movement to free Hindu temples from  government control? 

Indic Collective was formed with the primary objective to stand up for Indic civilizational values through legal interventions. One such important value is to nurture and develop Hindu institutions including temples, mutts and charities by ensuring that the appropriate sampradhayas (traditions), sects or communities administer them without any interference from the  government or its officials. Indic Collective, in this regard, has done excellent research and awareness campaigns. 

Not stopping here, the Indic Collective has also filed cases before High Courts and Supreme Court to achieve our one important goal of freeing Hindu temples from government control. The president of the Indic Collective (Shri TR Ramesh) has obtained a stay of the Tamil Nadu (TN) Government Order that seeks to give temple and Hindu endowment lands to encroachers and squatters. 

Similarly, Indic Collective’s intervention in the Tanjore Temple Consecration Case helped the temple carry out rituals according to traditions. Recently, the President of the Indic Collective filed a Public Interest Litigation before the Madras High Court after which government was forced to withdraw its circular seeking a transfer of  Rs. 10 crores from 47 temples to a Government Fund. 

In December 2019,  Indic Collective filed a detailed petition before Supreme Court of Bharat, in which the presence of the  government in the administration of Sri Subramaniaswamy Temple, Tiruchendur, has been challenged along with the  draconian provisions and rules of the TN HR & CE (Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment) Act 1959. The  Hon’ble Supreme Court has issued notice to the  TN Government seeking its reply to the Petition. The TN Govt is yet to file its reply. 

3.) What are some of the challenges in the free Hindu temples from state control movement  and how do you address them?  

Currently, some of the biggest challenges are the lack of transparency in the administration of the temples by the HR & CE Department, the department’s failure to conduct external audits of the temple accounts as mandated by law, the department’s failure to comply with the mandatory provisions of the Right to Information Act (RTI) 2005 in the temples they administer as well as  their own department. The only way to address them is through filing specific cases before the courts. But the delays of the courts themselves are challenges!

4.) In Tamil Nadu, what has been the impact of Dravidian politics  and the backlash against ‘Brahminism’ on the government take over of temples in the state? 

There have been two or three such impacts—all  of them extremely negative and against the culture of this state. These include non-protection of immovable properties of Hindu Institutions and non-realisation of due income from them. Secondly, closure of Dharmic institutions associated with temples like veda patashalas and agama patashalas, music schools, ayurvedashalas and ghoshalas. Thirdly, closure of such institutions and non-realisation of due income led to the exodus of Brahmin priests, traditional temple artisans and musicians to the cities and to mundane jobs. Fourthly, it also led to the  closure of many temples in villages. Finally, it is important to note that such  demographical changes  can lead to unrest and culture clashes. 

5.) What have been some of the consequences of government control and management of Hindu temples? 

As I said earlier, temple properties are disappearing. Between 1986 and 2015,  temples and mutts have lost 47,000 acres of valuable lands. Even in the current holding of 475,000 acres of agricultural lands and 29 crore  square feet  of sites, more than 50 percent are under encroachments or hostile occupation fetching no revenue for the temples and mutts. 

Valuable movable properties like icons, statues, antique jewels and vessels made of precious metals have been lost in thousands. HR & CE administrators have not updated the temple property registers for more than 30 years! We do not really know the extent of loss of such valuables.

One sees interferences in the religious matters of temples. As a result, we now see ‘innovations’ in worship such as observing the death anniversary of former TN Chief Minister late C N Annadurai who was a sworn atheist and an anti-Hindu.

Government control has alienated devotees from temples. Today, major temples have contract housekeeping personnel and security personnel instead of volunteers. All decisions are taken by government servants with devotees having absolutely no say in conduct of festivals and rituals in temples. Rank inefficiency and corruption in day to day administration of temples and diversion of
temple funds for non-temple and non-Hindu purposes is also common. 

Aesthetic and heritage values of temples are destroyed in the name of renovations. New sannadhis (shrines) are  being built. Modern offices and annadhanam (offering of food) halls are being built inside ancient temples without any sense of conservation and preservation of ancient structures. Murals have been effaced;  inscriptions done away with. 

6.) The collusion between evangelical forces, communalism, and political parties hostile to Hindus and the left-liberal media that brands the movement to free Hindu temples as “Hindutva” are serious barriers. How do you address them? 

These forces fear the freeing of temples from government control. The  government runs a secular agenda in temples and they never realise the true income from the properties of temples and endowments. According to my calculations, the true income of temple and endowment properties in Tamil Nadu would be about Rs. 5000 to 6000 crores per annum. The government realises only Rs. 200 crores. The true  income of temple lands would lead to establishment of schools, colleges and hospitals- all free of charge – for Hindus in every district. This would be a huge setback for the evangelical forces and Leftists who carry out the agenda for the missionaries and against the Hindus. 

7.) The ostensible purpose of the government take over of Hindu temples is their apparent “mismanagement.” Yet it seems strange that the government, which itself has such a dubious track record in addressing corruption, is called to play rescuer! Your comments, on this. 

Just an example would suffice. Under the TN HR & CE Act 1959, every temple earning more than Rs. 1000/- per annum should be subject to external audit. Every temple earning more than Rs. 5.00 lakh per annum should also be subject to concurrent audit. However, currently,  only an internal audit by HR & CE officials happens in temples. The internal audit is only a sham because about 1.4 million audit objections are pending resolution since 1986. Even if a temple is taken over for reasons of proven mismanagement, as per the Chidambaram Temple judgment,  the government should correct the mismanagement and immediately transfer the administration back to the trustees.

8.) What is the current legal  status of the litigation to free Hindu temples from government control? 

Swami Dayanada Saraswatiji’s petition has been pending from 2012. The arguments have not even  started. Even the Interim Application seeking external audit of a few temples is yet to be heard by Hon’ble Supreme Court.

9.) What is the preferred model of managing temples that will resonate with Hindu Dharma’s values and restore the civilizational unity of the country?  

There cannot be one model. Models would change according to the size of the temple, the crowd it attracts, it’s  external properties, the architectural and heritage splendour  and so on. However, if we base the temple administration on the Chola Kingdom’s oorar sabhai (council of members from the community) and introduce modern accounting and audit standards along with transparency and accountability—that would be the model for our temples. Of course, the oorar sabhai would have to respect the denominational character of the temple first. 

10.) Twenty-three percent of the temple revenue fills the government coffers. And  no other  religious faith is required to contribute even a mite to the coffers. Isn’t this a form of reverse discrimination practised by a so-called secular state on  Hindus, who form 79.8 percent of the majority in the country? 

The money taken from temples as administration and audit fees does not fill government coffers as many believe. But it does help the government maintain a useless department and gain some surplus while doing so!  In a sense, this is actually taxation of Hindus for believing in their gods. It is a religious tax that is at once unconstitutional and obnoxious. This is one of the most compelling reasons why the government should be booted out of temples. 

11.) It needs enormous political will and commitment to Hindu Dharmic values  to repeal  70 years of selective discrimination and pseudo secularism. How supportive is the BJP and its parent bodies  of the free temples from state  movement?   

I believe BJP is very much a pseudo secularist party, although the general belief is, they stand up for Hindutva. The BJP is definitely not for freeing Hindu temples from government control. Very recently, the BJP Government in Uttarakhand brought a legislation taking over all the important temples in that state.  

12.) Most Hindus today are  deracinated, secularised, liberal and disconnected from Dharmic traditions  and  values.  As much as we need advocacy and leadership at the highest echelons  (as is being spearheaded by the Indic Collective), every Hindu needs to take ownership of this movement.  How do you think this can  be orchestrated? 

The biggest reason for deracination of Hindus is Hindu temples and endowments losing hundreds of thousand acres of temple and inam (a gift of land or land revenue) lands. This is particularly true of Kerala and parts of Tamil Nadu;  particularly Kanyakumari District. If lands of a  docile religion are taken away, the result is that aggressive religions easily and quickly occupy those spaces. Once Hindus lose their lands, they lose their true identity. 

Today, the social media plays an important role in creating awareness. Particularly, regarding the fundamental rights available to Hindus in comparison to the rights enjoyed by citizens of other religions. 

The Sabarimala Judgment by the Constitutional Bench of the Hon’ble Supreme Court in September 2018 was an important turning point. The judgment and the reaction to it by the faithful in Kerala made fence sitters and even the secularised, liberal Hindus think how courts seem to have the licence to decide what is good or bad for Hindu religion, and how the courts could issue a mandamus (a judicial remedy in the form of an order from a court to any government or subordinate court to do some specific act obligated by law) as a command to millions of practicing Hindus that their belief is liable to be struck down in the name of ‘Constitutional morality’ and in a petition filed by atheists and non-Hindus.

Therefore, many Hindus  seriously await the outcome of the review of the Sabarimala Judgment by a nine-judge Constitutional Bench of the Hon’ble Supreme Court. 

Hindus do not take ownership of movements to protect their religious rights.  We have seen that time and again. However, certain legal luminaries like Shri K Parasaran, Shri C. S. Vaidyanathan, Shri Abhishek Manu Singhvi and even a young achiever like Shri J Sai Deepak can think for Hindus and usher in a change that would restore the Dharmic way for  Hindus by which they can revive their traditions and values. 

13.) What is the way forward  for the  ‘free temple from the state’ movement ? 

First,  we await the hearing in the nine-Judge Bench of Hon’ble Supreme Court  in the Sabarimala Review Petition. Until that is done, I do not think there would be any opportunity for the Supreme Court to hear Pujya Swami Shri Dayananda Saraswatiji’s Writ Petition 476/2012 pending before Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, I would be pursuing my earlier cases before Madras High Court and would be filing more cases there and in Kerala High Court including removal of the  Government from Shri Guruvayoor Temple. We would also be doing a lot of awareness campaigns. However, I do not foresee Hindus doing any agitations to free their temples from government control. 

Nor do I expect the BJP government doing Hindus any favour in this regard.


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About the Author

Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali is a communications professional,  author and researcher in Indic Studies.  She is a Contributing Editor with the HinduPost. She loves to wander in the forests with her camera.