The Supreme Court today agreed to hear the petition filed by BJP leader Subramanian Swamy against continued control and oversight of temples by the state government of Kerala.
Unlike in other places, the control of temples in Kerala — which used to rest with the kings before independence — was directly transferred to the newly formed democratic government when India became free.
This was done as part of the normal transfer of powers and assets from the former administration to the new one.
At the same time, the religious institutions of other communities, such as the Christians and the Muslims, were not run by the kings, and were therefore not transferred into the control of the state government.
The Hindu right wing of Kerala, including members of the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh, have in recent years taken up the cause of ‘freeing’ the temples from the clutches of the government.
They allege that government control has made these organizations inefficient and lax, leading to stunted development.
ALL ABOUT THE MONEY
At the core of the issue is money. Devotees donate thousands of crores of rupees every year at various temples controlled by the Board every year.
A large part of the money is given directly to the priests without receipts, while another chunk is given at the temple counter for sacrifices and ceremonies, with receipts.
Devotees also put money in the collection box, or hundi, which is also supposed to be entered into the temple’s accounts.
Right wing activists point out that, despite thousands of crores of rupees coming into the temples every year, hardly any infrastructural development takes place at Hindu organizations.
In comparison, they point out, Muslim and Christian religious institutions in the state have expanded at a fast pace, setting up new schools, colleges, monasteries and other institutions across the state.
Part of the reason for the difference in the fortunes of Hindu religious institutions and Christian and Muslim institutions has been the management of the funds.
While a large chunk of funds in Hindu temples are lost in the form of ‘unreceipted’ payments, even the ‘on-the-record’ funds are almost entirely spent on paying the salaries of temple employees due to their high salary levels.
Whatever remains is used for meeting regular expenses, leaving little for infrastructural investment and expansion.
Another problem is the sheer number of ‘non-remunerative’ temples maintained by the Boards, including nondescript ones that have to be ‘subsidized’ by the money pouring into more popular centers like Sabarimala and Guruvayoor.
Corruption among employees is also another problem, especially given that many of the temples are home to unimaginable treasures that are yet to be audited and accounted for.
FREEING THE TEMPLES
The votaries of the ‘free temple’ movement want the temples to be handed over to the local priests and management committees.
They argue that priests and others associated with the temples are less likely to misuse the funds and to invest it in developing and expanding the institution.
Rahul Easwar, grandson of former Sabarimala head priest Kandararu Maheswararu, welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the petition seeking handing over of temples to temple committees.
“This is a great cause that they have taken up,” he said, referring to the petition.
“The Sabarimala temple has Rs 821 cr in its bank account, but they don’t have even 10 lakh rupees to file for a review petition. Then why do we need a Devaswom Board,” he asked, referring to the Board’s reluctance to file a review petition against the recent Supreme Court decision permitting young women to enter the temple.
However, the move is also likely face opposition from organizations of non-upper-caste Hindus.
Many non-upper-caste Hindus are skeptical of the claim that temple management committees — usually comprising local upper caste Hindu notables — can be relied on to manage the funds with less corruption compared to an elected government.
They are also worried that such a move would also be a blow to their efforts to open up temple-related jobs — now almost entirely held by upper caste communities — to non-upper-caste candidates.
At present, the Board’s employees comprise almost entirely of upper castes.
It was only last year, under the Left Front government, that the Travancore Devaswom Board first followed the principle of allocating a part of its priestly appointments to OBC and Dalit communities.
Besides non-upper-caste organizations, the ruling Left Front too is opposed to any such move.
CPIM MP MB Ragesh said the Sangh Parivar has been trying to take control of the rich temples by unleashing a misinformation campaign on the subject, referring to an online campaign that alleged devotees money is being diverted to non-religious activities by the government.
In this regard, he pointed out, the government had issued a clarification a few months ago showing that all the funds collected by the Boards are being spent for the operation of various temples, and not used for non-religious purposes.
Rahul Easwar, however, said it was not about the money and pointed to the exercise of control over Hindu religious institutions by the secular government.
He echoed the sentiment that while it may have been acceptable for the former kings — who were avowedly Hindu and ruled according to Hindu scriptures — to control the temples before India’s independence, the control of a secular state over these institutions cannot be seen in the same way.
“The control is with the political class. Are the Christian churches managed by governments? We want freedom for believers,” he said.