The Supreme Court has fumed the fire in the ongoing debate over freedom of temples from government control. On Friday, the Apex Court, in the case of State of AP And Ors. v. Ahobila Mutt Parampara Adhena Shri Lakshmi Narasimha Swamy Devasthanam, refused to entertain the plea of Andhra Pradesh Government to assail the order of the High Court. The court reaffirmed that the State’s decision to appoint ‘Executive Officer’ to control and manage the affairs of Ahobilam Temple in Kurnool was violative of Article 26(d) of the Constitution and affects the Mathadipathi’s right of administration. The observation of the Bench comprising Justice S.K. Kaul and Justice A.S. Oka is in tune with the long-standing demand to rejuvenate the essence of ‘freedom of religion’ by liberating Hindu Mandirs from government control.
Legal landscape over control of temples in India
In India, Hindu temples are not entirely free from government control. The management of temples, their administration and control are regulated by the state governments under the provisions of the respective state Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Acts.
These acts provide for the constitution of boards and committees for the purpose of administering, managing and controlling the affairs of temples and other religious endowments. The acts also provide for the appointment of officials for the administration of temples and for the regulation of their finances. However, the state government does not interfere in the religious practices or rituals in the temple.
Controversy over arbitrary government control
The alleged bylaws play a crucial role in defeating the constitutional mandate of Article 25 and Article 26 regarding the freedom of conscience and the free profession, practice and propagation of religion. Hindu mandirs are overpowered by arbitrary management bodies that jeopardize the cultural rights of the diverse Hindu community. Consequently, the Hindu community has been raising demands to free the temples from arbitrary government control.
It is argued that the government control over Hindu temples should be removed, and that Hindu temples should be governed by the Hindu community, just like minority religious places are governed by their respective communities. The controversy stems from the belief that the government control of Hindu temples is a form of discrimination against the Hindu majority and an infringement of their religious freedom, while the lack of government control of minority religious places is seen as preferential treatment.
Government’s hypocrisy preserving the Temples
The sorry state of affairs is evident from the fact that the management rights of Hindu temples are left at the mercy of state governments. Recently, the government of Tamil Nadu submitted before the Apex Court that it is impossible for them to form a Trustee Committees led by Retired Judges to look after all the 38,658 temples under the HR & CE Department of the government.
The submission of the Tamil Nadu government illustrates the hypocrisy of the state government that is bestowed with the power to take care of the temple, but contrarily finds it impossible to even appoint a commission. The issue highlights the agonizing state of affairs with regards to Hindu temples throughout the nation.
Consequently, there have been increasing demands to break free from the ‘colonial hangover’ as the control over Hindu temples were taken over by the British Raj, through the Hindu Religious Endowments Act of 1863. The draconian act gave the government control over the administration of Hindu temples and their properties.
However, the reality did not change even after Independence. In the post-independence era, the Hindu community has been battling over the government control of Hindu temples, arguing that it was a form of discrimination against the Hindu majority and an infringement of their religious freedom. But the government seems to give a deaf ear to these voices.
Free Temple from Government Control Movement
The “free temples from government” movement has led to various protests and demonstrations in different parts of India. In 2017, a massive rally was organized in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, where thousands of people participated in a protest demanding the transfer of control of Hindu temples from the government to the Hindu community.
Similarly, in 2018, a large protest was organized in the state of Andhra Pradesh, where members of the Hindu community demanded the transfer of control of Hindu temples from the government to the Hindu community and put an end to the corruption and mismanagement of temple funds. Further, in 2019, there were protests in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where the government passed an ordinance to transfer control of certain temples and other religious institutions to trust boards.
Likewise, in 2020, protests were organized in the state of Karnataka, where members of the Hindu community demanded the transfer of control of Hindu temples from the government to the Hindu community, and also demanded an end to the corruption and mismanagement of temple funds.
More recently, in 2021, there were protests in the state of Maharashtra, where members of the Hindu community demanded the transfer of control of Hindu temples from the government to the Hindu community, and also demanded an end to the corruption and mismanagement of temple funds.
Various Hindu organizations, political parties and religious leaders have organized these protests. They have attracted significant media attention and public support. However, there still persists a lack of political will to come up with robust legislation on the subject matter.
Legal Complexities in the way of Freedom of Temples
The issue requires dealing with a plethora of legal complexities as the transfer of control of temples from the government to the Hindu community would require the amendment of various state laws and regulations that currently govern the administration of temples.
The Modi-led nationalist government has put in place various policies and initiatives aimed at transferring control of Hindu temples to the Hindu community. For example, in 2019, the government of Uttar Pradesh passed an ordinance to transfer control of certain temples and other religious institutions to trust boards, which are to be composed mainly of members of the Hindu community.
Further, the BJP government has also introduced the bill of “The Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HRCE) Amendment Bill” in many states. The bill seeks to transfer the control of Hindu temples from the government to the Hindu community. It also aims to put an end to the corruption and mismanagement of the temple funds.
However, it’s important to note that the transfer of control of temples from the government to Hindu community is a complex issue and there are many legal and constitutional challenges that need to be addressed. Also, there are concerns that the free temple movement could be used for political gains and could also lead to communal tension. The issue brings out the essence of the Supreme Court in the recent observation that “Let the temple people deal with it…Why religious places should not be left to religious people?”
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