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The “disturbing” trend that has emerged in some states in the recent past of non-Hindus being appointed to administrative posts in prominent Hindu temples seems to have made a veritable mockery of the term “secularism”. Time and again, there have been controversies over appointment of non-believers in administrative positions in Hindu temples. And such cases are not just restricted to the southern states that have mostly been in the limelight for such incidents. In 2017, in an exercise apparently meant to project herself as a secular leader, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee landed herself in a huge controversy after she appointed her close aide and now Kolkata Mayor and Urban Development Minister Firhad Hakim as the chairman of the then newly formed Tarakeshwar Development Board (TDB) of the famous over 200-year-old Tarakeshwar Shiva temple in Hooghly district of the state. Earlier, Becharam Manna, a Hindu and a Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader, was appointed as the chairman of the temple board. The TMC had justified Hakim’s appointment by saying that Hakim had been appointed chairman of the temple board, and not the Tarakeshwar Mandir Trust. The development board is meant to look after the infrastructure development of the area like maintenance of roads, supply of drinking water, and carrying out daily maintenance, while the Mandir Trust is responsible for the overall welfare of the temple and the priests who are appointed in the temple.
Mamata Banerjee has been consistently accused of playing “appeasement politics” by appointing Hakim. Under pressure, Banerjee on Monday decided to drop Hakim and, instead, appointed Ratna De Nag, a Hindu and a Trinamool Congress leader who lost from the Hooghly Lok Sabha seat, as chairperson of the Tarakeshwar Temple Development Board.
Partha Chatterjee, West Bengal Parliamentary Affairs Minister, said: “A circular has been issued recently that Firhad Hakim will be replaced by Ratna De Nag as the chairman of the temple board. Hakim is also very busy with other portfolios and so Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has decided to change the chairman of the Tarakeshwar temple board. After Hakim was made the chairman of the temple board, a wrong message had been spread by the Bharatiya Janata Party to create polarisation that Hakim has been made the overall in-charge of a Hindu temple. We received huge criticism from various sections of people in Bengal. At the time, questions had been raised that as a leader from a minority community, how can Hakim be placed at the top-most position of a temple? This was cited as another example of Banerjee’s blatant appeasement politics. At that time, Banerjee had already clarified that Hakim has been made the chairman of the temple board and not the Mandir Trust.”
However, Sayantan Basu, state general secretary of BJP’s West Bengal unit, said: “After Banerjee received criticism for appeasing Muslims, she has decided to change the chairman of the temple board. We welcome her decision as she has appointed a Hindu in a temple board. Even she (Ratna De Nag) has lost in Hooghly. This might have prompted her to take some steps as part of a damage control exercise. Mamata Banerjee has decided to provide honorarium to Muslim imams. Do they need honorarium? The real need of the hour is jobs and overall development of Muslims, things Banerjee has failed to provide during the last eight years.”
Last year, the Kerala government led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan passed a bill in the state Assembly for an amendment of the Travancore Hindu Institution Act, where the clause that a Hindu must be the head of the Devaswom Temple Trust was omitted. The Travancore Devaswom Board termed the notification as contrary to the law. Cornered on the issue, the Kerala government said the omission was an “error” and directed the law department to rectify the “omission”. The Kerala government also told the High Court that only a Hindu would be appointed to the commissioner posts of the Travancore and Cochin Devaswom Boards.
In an e-mail interview from San Francisco, California, United States, Advocate J. Sai Deepak, who practises as an arguing counsel before the Supreme Court and Delhi High Court, told The Sunday Guardian: “While there are many cases of temples being run by government appointees and executive officers, not all of whom are Hindus, the one prominent case of a temple administration having a significant number of non-Hindus is the case of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD). There is currently a writ petition filed before the High Court of Andhra Pradesh filed by the Indic Collective Trust, seeking removal of non-Hindus from the administration of the TTD.”
Advocate Deepak, an engineer-turned-litigator, added: “I am part of the team representing the Indic Collective Trust in the aforementioned writ petition filed before the Andhra Pradesh High Court in relation to the TTD.”
The Andhra Pradesh Endowments Act 1956 clearly states that non-Hindus or believers should not be appointed as trustees or heads of Hindu religious endowments or temple committees. However, time and again, there have been controversies over appointment of such non-believers as chairmen of Hindu temples in Andhra Pradesh, thanks to dubious backgrounds of the appointees.
The lure of money, power and pelf are the main reasons for everyone to vie for the posts of temple trust boards that have huge assets and daily revenues due to heavy rush of devotees. The world’s richest Hindu temple, Lord Balaji, or the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD) often runs into such controversies as it sits on a pile of assets worth thousands of crores and daily hundi (collection boxes) running into around Rs 4 crore.
Former Ongole MP YV Subba Reddy, 59, took over as the new chairman of the TTD trust board on Saturday evening. Subba Reddy is maternal uncle of Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy. Subba Reddy was YSR Congress MP in the previous Lok Sabha, but he didn’t contest recent elections.
Though there were allegations in social media that Subba Reddy was a Christian as per a record held by the 16th Lok Sabha website, sources close to the former MP denied them and maintained that he was since his childhood an ardent devotee of Lord Balaji. As if to prove his devotion to the Lord, Subba Reddy climbed by foot the seven hills atop Tirumala on Friday night.
Subba Reddy’s appointment was made on Friday evening after the sitting trust board chairman Putta Sudhakar Yadav, a TDP leader submitted his resignation to the government, after he was asked to leave by Endowments Minister V. Srinivas. Though some of the TTD members of the previous board have quit, Yadav continued till the government sent a notice to him.
Lax implementation of the law and “compromises” made by the Chief Minister and ministers while appointing chairmen of these temple committees, are the main reasons for such controversies. There is no clear policy to check the background of these persons before making them heads of prestigious temple trusts.
Even in a “non-administrative” case, as in engaging the services of a security agency owned by non-Hindus, as far back as in 2011, the Madras High Court had ruled that a Hindu temple cannot be compelled to engage the services of an agency owned by non-Hindus. Ultimately, the court said, reforms in matters of religious administration, if any, have to come from within and not outside, and the court could not thrust reforms.
Justice K. Chandru made this observation while dismissing a writ petition filed by a private security agency owned by a family of Christians, challenging a tender notification issued by the Subhramaniya Swamy Temple at Tiruchendur in Tuticorin district of Tamil Nadu. He pointed out that Section 10 of the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act clearly stated that all servants of a temple, right from the Joint Commissioner to the last grade servants, including the security guards, must be Hindus. He rejected the petitioner’s contention that its exclusion would amount to discrimination practised by a state government official such as the Joint Commissioner of Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department, in the name of religion.
He also pointed out that the Joint Commissioner was only a supervisory authority in his capacity as the Executive Officer of the temple, which was actually managed by a Board of Trustees which had decided to engage a security agency owned by Hindus alone. He held that courts cannot direct a temple management to engage the agency even if it undertook to provide personnel professing Hindu faith alone. A temple cannot be termed “State” so as to compel it to engage contractors professing other faith. “Guarding a temple or a place of worship is a sensitive issue and ultimately it is for the temple to decide on such matters,” the judge said.
‘MOCKERY OF SECULARISM’
Asked why, time and again, non-Hindus are appointed in administrative posts in prominent Hindu temples, Advocate J. Sai Deepak told The Sunday Guardian: “I cannot speculate on the reasons, but largely the motivation appears to be to take over the administration and assets of temples, which inevitably leads to subversion of the institution, including its religious traditions and practices. Effectively, it creates a barrier between the community and its own religious institutions.”
“Without a doubt, this violates every known principle of secularism and also seriously infringes on the rights of a community to manage its own religious affairs and run its own religious institutions,” Sai Deepak added.
“Logically and legally, only members of a community can run their own religious institutions. However, deviation and departure from this position is rampant when it comes to temples. Either fiscal corruption or appeasement of one community at the expense of the other by taking over the latter’s religious institutions seems to be the motivation mostly,” he said.
With inputs from S. Rama Krishna in Hyderabad and Sulagna Sengupta in Kolkata.
(This report was first published in The Sunday Guardian on 22.06.2019. Courtesy to TSG).