The Bhartiya Janta Party always claims to be working for Hindutva and issues related to Hindu Samaj. One of the burning issues, or rather one of the roadblocks in way of a true Hindu renaissance is the absence of religious instruction for Hindu children. Muslim children get the required instruction in madrasas and Christians get that in weekly meetings and Sunday school. Hindu children are largely denied their religious education. One of the biggest reasons is govt takeover of Hindu temples. This religious instruction has traditionally been the responsibility of Hindu temples, whose large covered courtyards also functioned as schools, apart from being used for religious and other community purposes. This article discusses Uttarakhand’s takeover of Hindu temples and why the same is unjustified.
The BJP promised autonomy to Hindu temples in its Karnataka election campaign. Once in power, they have claimed to provide autonomy to temples and say that all money will be used only for Hindu dharmic purposes. There is no reason to disbelieve them. However, what happens when a Congress or any other govt comes? Back to square one. So, we need to think in terms of institutional changes rather than quick ad-hoc solutions.
The Uttarakhand BJP govt recently passed an act to bring under govt control and management, the Char Dham temples of Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath along with 51 other Hindu temples. This act has led to much discussion and debate. While local priests opposed the act, the govt did not back down. The act was challenged by the various parties including Dr. Subramanian Swamy in Uttarakhand High Court.
The recent judgment of the court upheld the validity of the act while reading down a contentious section 22 that vested the properties of the temples in the body created under the new Act. The court said that right to manage own religious affairs is given under Constitution Article 26, only to a “religious denomination” and contended that Hindus professing Sanatana Dharma cannot be called a religious denomination. Readers must note that Sabarimala case rests on the point that Ayyappa devotees are a separate religious denomination. Thus mainstream Hindus has no such rights, but specific sects might have. How right or wrong this provision is for wise readers to think about!
Arguments in favor of Uttarakhand’s takeover of Hindu Temples
While it is up to the courts to decide the legality of the Act, we can discuss its other aspects. The government supporters have given their point of view for the step and we will discuss it first. They provide the following reasons for enacting the law:-
1.) The temples of Uttarakhand are located in remote locations. Earlier, Raja of Tehri used to be responsible for upkeep and maintenance of those temples and that right has now been inherited by State govt.
2.) Lives of lakhs of people are dependent on the pilgrimage, which cannot run without support of the govt. After the Char Dham Yatra ends, govt. provides for maintaining these temples during those months. Thus if govt has duties, it must have rights too.
3.) The temples of Uttarakhand are not rich like temples of South India, so govt has no ulterior motives or no hope of financial gain from the whole arrangement. The combined total annual donation is a few crores only. Sri Badrinath and Sri Kedarnath income combined was only 40 crores last year. The land owned by the temple, major form of its wealth, is not much valuable as most of such lands are in hill areas and hilly lands are not worth much.
4.) After 2013, govt had to spend crores to rebuild infra and advertise so that people may regain confidence to come visit these temples. Thus govt. has right to control these.
5.) The priests of these places make too much money. They misbehave with the pilgrims and keep a big portion of donation with themselves. They did not establish the temple, so they have no right to manage its affairs.
6.) The management of some temples was already being done according to the act of 1939. So, the state govt is only following in the steps of previous system.
Response to government’s arguments
1.) The first argument says that as earlier Rajas appointed priests and had certain rights to manage temples, now sate inherits that position. It is important to note that Raja’s slogan was not “Sarva Dharma Sambhav!”. The Raja ruled under the Flag of Badrinathji, their inscriptions started with reverence shown to Badrinathji and their title reflected their status as servants of Badrinathji. Can the state govt profess same level of devotion to the Badrinathji constitutionally?
2.) It is true that lakhs of people are dependent on the pilgrimage and govt supports through infrastructure and crowd management etc. But these pilgrims are not a nuisance as the supporters of the govt show it. Last year about 30 lakh pilgrims visited Char Dham. These earn a good deal of money to the govt by various fees, taxes etc. apart from donations. It creates huge employment in Uttarakhand. Indeed, without the Yatra, Uttarakhand’s economic condition would be much worse. A sample of the same is being seen this year. So the govt. is doing no great deed by making certain provisions. It benefits from the yatra much more. The Yatra can indeed run without govt support, as it did for thousands of years, but state govt. today cannot run without economic benefits from the yatra.
3.) It is true that Badrinath and Kedarnath are not like Padmanabhswamy or Tirupati temples. However, the facts is that if 30 lakh pilgrims came and donated only Rs. 500 per person, the donation was easily north of Rs. 150 crores last year. It is another matter that govt does not get this money. This is the money govt is targeting by bringing the act. Please note that I have taken a minimal amount of donation for this calculation, and most pilgrims donate more that this amount. As for the land owned by the temple being worthless, erect a few guesthouses and these become premium resorts. It must be noted that these temples have been endowed with hundreds of villages for their upkeep! Even if the price is very low, the huge amount of land ownership makes the total value in hundreds of crores.
4.) It is the duty of the govt to rebuild after a natural disaster. Gujarat govt rebuilt so much infrastructure and houses after the earthquake in Bhuj. Does that mean, they will now claim ownership over homes of people? If govt. gets so much revenue from these places, it also has a duty to give them support in times of need.
5.) This might be a genuine issue and persists in many places. Priests are supposed to perform their duties and in return get some money. The temples are not open throughout the year and priests may actually be impatient with devotees. However, it must be remembered that they have lived for generations in the most inhospitable conditions to provide services to devotees. Their behavior should be modified, but the act will have no impact on it. It is true that priests have not established the temple, but neither has the government. Their property rights, in the form of right to perform certain ceremonies, should not be curtailed.
6.) The act of 1939 was made at the time of British rule and it is no secret that the British wanted to control temples to control Hindu society. If a supposedly Hindutvawadi govt also wants to do the same, where is the distinction?
We have discussed it many times how govt control over temples has impacted Hindu society. Temples used to be centres of education, culture and in many cases even economy. As temples became just places of worship, their importance lessened and we Hindus lost a sense of belonging to society. All Hindutvavadis have the goal to make Bharat, the Vishvaguru. That would remain a dream until the temples are not in control of common Hindus.
Sikhs have been given right to manage their own religious sites by a democratic process which elects members of SGPC (Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee). Muslims and Christians manage their own places of worship in the manner they desire. The various “denominations” within Hindu Dharma also have rights to manage their temples. Even big Ashrams of Rishikesh and Haridwar are run without govt. interference. Why this discrimination against mainstream Hindus, who have been deemed unfit to manage their own religious places?
It is hoped that the government of the state will rethink Uttarakhand’s takeover of Hindu temples rather than trying to find fault with those who oppose them on this issue. In calling cases against themselves as “Political Interest Litigation“, they are not endearing themselves to anyone in the state. Indeed, politically it is an unwise step and one that will impact them negatively in the next elections.
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