Author: Swastik Sekhar Panigrahi, II Year of B.A.,LL.B from KIIT law school, Bhubaneswar.
FOCUSING ON RELIGIOUS ENDOWMENT ACT
Secularism in Western terms derives its meaning as indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations in the matters of state. This means the state shall not follow or promote any religion and will not recognise religion as a matter of state. But the Indian constitution redefines secularism and broadens its meaning. India has always been a land of diverse culture and religion.
Every religion has its own customs and the law of the land is imbibed from the ethical and social form of justice amongst people. The State is secular but it is not indifferent towards any religion. Their existence is respected, and the law doesn’t discriminate on the basis of race, religion, caste, creed or colour. It upholds all the righteous practices which are not immoral and considers these customs as a source of law.
President Thomas Jefferson had advanced the theory of “wall of separation between the church and the state” in 1872. And this wall of separation between the temple and the state was brought to India by the East India Company.
The colonial government considered these religions heathen and false, hence wanted to distance itself from its administration. This began in South India where some of the prominent mutts took the charge of some important temples and endowments.
They had written documents or “Muchalikas” from the British Government, which assured them that they would not take back the temples from the Mutts. This was accepted by the Indian religious societies who wanted their religious activities to be governed by their own religious leaders.
Thus, some important temples came under the control and ownership of the Mutts, and they ran them ably and efficiently. Indians respected this because they believed their religion should not be governed by any foreigner who belonged to a different religion.
But after the Government of India Act, 1919, the government got back its power. The legislators of India enacted Madras Hindu Religious Endowments Act, 1926, which took over the management and administration of Hindu temples in the province.
The government established boards and the Temple trustees had to furnish accounts to and obey the instructions given by the boards. It had the power to utilise the funds on any “religious, educational or charitable purposes not inconsistent with their objects”.
There were lot of amendments until 1951 after which the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Board was converted to a Government Administration. Thus, the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act,1951 was enacted provincializing the administration of the Hindu temples.
Religious freedom is a fundamental right given by the Constitution under Article 25 and Article 26 which embodies the ideals of secularism in our country.
Article 26 allows every religious denomination or any section of the society to have the right to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes as well as manage and administer such property.
So the interference of state in the administration of religious institutions through the Statutory Boards is completely paradoxical. It violates the mandates of Article 14 of the Constitution of India, which prohibits arbitrary and unreasonable actions of the state. It has been made applicable to only the Hindu religion, which makes it discriminatory and violative of the right to equality, which is a fundamental right under our constitution.
In State of Tamil Nadu v. Ahobila Matam , Supreme Court held that religious dominations have the right to administer their place of worship and endowments and any law that intends to take away the right altogether from the religious denominations and vests it in any other body or authority would lead to violation of the fundamental right guaranteed under Art. 26(d) of the Constitution of India.
Similar stand was taken in the case of K. Mukundaraya Bhenoy v. The State of Mysore, where the court had considered the right of administration of a religious denomination. This judgment also held that state cannot discriminate between Hindu religious denominations and other religions in the matter of temple administration.
In Angappa Goundan v. Kuppammal, the Court considered the question of Hindu temples for the public. The Court in Mukundarya Shenoy's case held that the Hindus in the larger sense, include all sections of Hindus and thereby constitute a religious denomination within the meaning of Articles 21 and 26 of the Constitution of India. Also, in the case of Sri Sahasra Lingeshwara Temple v. State of Karnataka, the Karnataka Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowments Act, 1997 was declared discriminatory and violative of Article 14 and 26 by a division bench of the Karnataka High Court.
There is no evidence which suggests that the temples in India were badly managed before the government control and this takeaway of ownership has effected the sentiments of devotees who have just become watchdogs in this matter. The control of finances of the temples has resulted in a total lack of financial autonomy, and lack of administrative autonomy as well. Many temples are unable to meet their expenditure, and they are still expected to pay a share of revenue collection to the State.
This has eroded the financial base and the autonomy of the temple management. To look at a temple as a property is an insult to the spirituality and faith of the people who have lived in this land for thousands of years. The temple is owned by its devotees, and they should be the one to manage and administer its affairs.
The state has no right to interfere in the management of the temple and its funds, or to divert it. In the case of T. Krishnan v. G.D.M Committee, the court held that no statute or law can empower any secular authority to divert the trust money for any purpose other than that for which the trust had been created as it would amount to a clear violation of right under Article 25 and 26 of the Constitution of India.
Hinduism is one of the oldest religions and has a deep connectivity with the people of India. The faith, customs and practices may be different in various cultures, but the diversity should not be interpreted as separation. Temples have always been centres of faith and devotion and act like a social and cultural hub for Hindus.
Traditionally, they have been used for various kinds of activities such as singing, dancing, education, to discuss various issues and, essentially, a place of spirituality.
Although in certain cases, misuse and financial irregularities had been observed earlier in self-administering temples, the decision to take over all the temples by the government has not been correct. Rather, the government should draw a balance in maintaining temple disciple/temple administration in terms of the Constitution of India and not by having a direct control over them.
The two cases in which the government should interfere is when there is gross and visible corruption and mismanagement by trusts, and when the pilgrimages or places of worship are too massive to be run and managed by any private trust.
Thus a glass wall should be maintained between religious and secular domains, with the administration playing an enabling role rather than a controlling one.