A Step Towards Secular India…

 Indian democracy is governed by a written constitution. The 42nd amendment of the Constitution of India inserted the word “Secular” into the preamble thus making India a Secular Republic. But is India truly a secular country? While the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines secularism as “the belief that religion should not play a role in government, education, or other public parts of society”, the most commonly accepted definition of secularism is “separation of religion and state”. By this definition, I would submit that the India of today is not a secular country, especially in consideration of recent debates on temples being controlled by the government, interestingly, only Hindu temples.   My question is, if mosques, Gurudwaras churches are not under the control of the government, then why only temples? 

Now by this, I don’t mean to compare one religious place to another; however, lately, I have been pondering, like most of you have, if it violates the concept of secularism that our constitution talks about? Or is it just the sheer hypocrisy of vocally secular government? 

 The Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment Act enables the state government to interfere in the temples’ management, ritual, practices along with the temple properties and income. Bizarrely, the state government can use the money generated by a temple for purposes that have absolutely nothing to do with not just the temple, or other temples but even those which have nothing to do with Hindus or Hinduism!

 The Supreme Court in April 2019 questioned government authorities taking over administration of religious places, saying that the task should be entrusted to the devotees of the temple as it expressed concern over the various failures of several states government over managing the temple affairs in India. 

 “We had occasion to examine the issue in case of Chidambaram temple. I do not know why government officers should run the temple. In Tamil Nadu, there are many cases of theft of idols. What are government officers doing? These idols, apart from the religious sentiments, are priceless,” said the Justice Bobde, who was a part of the bench which passed the order on Chidambaram Temple in 2014. 

 In April 2016, more than a 1,000-year-old temple, built by Rajendra Chola-I in Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu, was pulled down by the state government in the name of renovation. The government said that the temple was only ‘dismantled’ and would be put together again.

In May 2010, the temple tower of the famous 500-year-old Kalahasti temple in Andhra Pradesh, built by King Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagara, collapsed. A UNESCO report released in August 2017, raised an alarm that the Tamil Nadu government, which manages more than 36,000 temples, neither had the capacity nor qualified experts to carry out conservation work, leading to the “massacre” of ancient temples.

 Recently, there was a huge battle won when the Supreme Court on Monday upheld the rights of the Travancore royal family in the administration of the historic ‘Padmanabhaswami temple’ in Kerala, setting aside the 2011 verdict of the Kerala high court which had directed the state government to set up a trust to take control of management and assets of the temple. Settling the long-running dispute and probably taking the first step towards freeing Hindu temples of state control — the apex court overturned the previous judgment. This bill was introduced for the second time by Dr Satyapal Singh in Lok Sabha on 22nd November. He had first introduced the bill in 2017 which was kept pending.

The bill demands that the state shall not control, administer or manage any religious institution, shall not frame any law that allows it to control a religious institution, all communities should be allowed to maintain their religious institutions, disallow misappropriation of temples income in name of secular purposes and amend Article 26 and other articles, and prevent any state from usurping any religious institution. The Padmanabhaswamy temple show to fame as one of the world’s richest temples after the discovery of wealth locked in for centuries. The controversy over the administration and management of the historic temple has been pending in the apex court of India for the last nine years.

 “The days of the Endowments Act are numbered and it is bound to be scrapped by courts even if it is not repealed by the government. Then, lakhs of temples in the country will be freed from the clutches of the government,” BJP leader Subramanyam Swamy has said.

 From decades, people were opposing against this systematic discrimination. For the fact that Hindu Temples belong to the Hindu society and the State must exit immediately. This debate has been living in a controversial space from quite some time now. What began with the British rulers trying to control the temple, continues even today. Although with this recent verdict, the journey of freeing Hindu temple from government control has started but the question remains, What business does the government have in places of worship?

By Karishma Gwalani

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