Hindu dharma is implicitly at odds with monotheistic intolerance. What is happening in India is a new historical awakening... Indian intellectuals, who want to be secure in their liberal beliefs, may not understand what is going on. But every other Indian knows precisely what is happening: deep down he knows that a larger response is emerging even if at times this response appears in his eyes to be threatening.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Sacred and temporal

When the government takes over temples it undermines Indian secularism

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa is silent on The Sunday Express report that her government has plans to take over the Kanchi mutt. The Maharashtra government, barely weeks after coming back to power, has busied itself in its old idea of bringing the cash-rich Sai Baba shrine under its control. If things work according to plan, its ministry of law and judiciary will soon get to decide matters relating to the appointment of shrine officials and how temple funds are to be distributed. This is, therefore, as good a moment as any to revisit the perennially controversial issue of temple takeovers by Central and state governments.

No matter how secularism is defined in the Indian context — whether in terms of the strict separation of church and state or in terms of equal respect being accorded to all religions — it clearly disallows state involvement in the administration of temples. If we go by the first principle, administering to the religious affairs of the people is not the business of the state given the clear separation between the sacred and the temporal. If we go by the second principle, why should Hindu temples alone be marked for such interference from the government of the day? We may, in principle, accept this even while we make the distinction between the secular functions involved in the running of religious institutions — as, for instance, the management of the enormous funds from the public that come their way — and their religious functions. Several court rulings have, in fact, recognised this separation and argued that the state is well within its rights to regulate the functioning of temples. We would, however, argue that this line of separation is far too nebulous to stand scrutiny, that taking over the administration of a religious institution amounts to deciding each and every aspect of its functioning, in both letter and spirit.

It is certainly true that many of these institutions, despite the enormous investment of public faith and resources in them, have failed to conduct themselves in a transparent, accountable and corruption-free manner. But state interference should not and cannot be the answer. Institutions like temples and mutts are located strictly in the sphere of civil society. Ultimately, it is the communities that support these institutions which have both the right and the duty to manage them in a manner that conforms to the general principles and values that govern religion and society. If things reach a point of breakdown, the courts can always step in. As for the state, the message is clear: if the secular principle has to prevail, it must scrupulously keep out of the sacred space.

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