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.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Robbing Peter to pay Paul – The Karnataka way

Sandhya Jain
Daily Pioneer

There is a growing sense of disquiet in the Hindu community in several parts of the country on the issue of state management of temples, particularly the attitude of certain regimes towards temples well-endowed with land and funds. While sharing the Hindu apprehension that this could cause the closure of hundreds of temples, I would like to first express concern at the virtual derailment of the social reform agenda that has been the distinguishing feature of the Hindu community for the past 200 years.

On Gandhi Jayanti this year, I tried to put my finger on a sense of something missing. I soon realised that secularism and modernity had taken us so far ahead that we were finally spared the hypocritical spectacle of political dignitaries queuing up to clean public toilets previously cleaned by zealous municipal workers. We were also spared platitudes against untouchability, uplift of women, and other issues to which Bapu addressed himself so eloquently. No matter what our present-day difficulties with parts of his political legacy may be, on the issue of social reform Mahatma Gandhi was second to none.

Hence the surprise that his agenda merited no affirmation or renewal when it is nobody's case that we have resolved the problems Gandhi struggled to overcome in his lifetime. This is confirmed by the unease in a section of society in Uttar Pradesh after Ms Mayawati foolishly squandered her Government away. I am most disturbed by caste-based rape, disrobing and other forms of abuse of women, which is intended to humiliate families and communities.

I also find it unacceptable that upper caste Hindus distance themselves from these atrocities by pinning the blame for such incidents on a certain social stratum. This is too clever by half. So long as caste-based discrimination persists in Hindu society, all Hindus will have to be concerned about it.

Temple entry is another issue we have to face. Despite laws, decades of sensitisation and awareness, we still find Dalits being beaten for entering a village temple. We must forthwith end this negation of the very humanity and dignity of our fellow-beings. Until we do so, we lack a cast-iron case against state encroachment in the religious realm. Temples that prevent free access to citizens espousing the same religion cannot in justice claim the freedom to manage their affairs without let or hindrance.

Having said that, we may in fairness examine some of the issues agitating Hindus in different parts of the country. There is some unrest over a Karnataka Bill whereby private or trust-run temples must pay a minimum tax. But what is truly upsetting the community is the use of income collected from Government-controlled temples. One does not know the veracity of the allegations, but they are serious enough to merit a public debate.

It has, for instance, been claimed that, in 1997, the Karnataka Government received a revenue of Rs 52.35 crore from 2,64,000 temples. Of this, Rs 17.33 crore was returned to the temples for maintenance; Rs 9.25 crore allocated for madarsa development and Rs 3 crore for church development. The balance Rs 22.77 crore was diverted towards Government programmes. The situation was much the same in 1998.

However, in 1999, it is alleged, the State collected Rs 65.35 crore in revenue; gave Rs 15 crore for temple maintenance; and diverted Rs 27 crore to madarsa development and Haj subsidy and Rs 8 crore for church development. No details were available about the use of the balance Rs 17.35 crore.

In 2000, the temples generated a revenue of Rs 69.96 crore, but received only Rs 13.75 crore for maintenance. The madarsa-Haj subsidy rose to Rs 35 crore. In 2001, temple revenue further rose to Rs 71.60 crore, while maintenance grants shrank to Rs 11.50 crore, and madarsa development funds rose to Rs 45 crore. Church development received Rs 10 crore. In 2002, the State received Rs 72 crore as revenue, returned Rs 10 crore for temple maintenance, and granted Rs 50 crore for madarsas and Rs 10 crore for churches.

Hindu friends protest that this studied neglect of temples under the direct control of the State Government could cause as many as 50,000 of the 2.6 lakh temples in Karnataka to close down within five years. Many ancient temples are in extremely poor condition, and their managements and priests carp about inadequate funds. Even salaries are not disbursed regularly, and priests are forced to survive on donations made by devotees in the arti plate.

In neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, the Government withdrew a demand for Rs 36 crore from the Sri Venkateshwara Temple at Tirupati in July after a public furore and litigation in the High Court. There is, however, a move to take away temple lands and distribute them among poorer sections in the name of social justice. Around 3,000 acres of temple lands have been identified for takeover.

Yet Government sources themselves admit that nearly 80 per cent of the State's temples have no income other than that received from the vested lands. Thus, once the lands are seized, many temples may fail to conduct daily puja. What is more, the Andhra Pradesh Government has failed to pay the Rs 28 crore compensation towards temple lands previously acquired for building bus terminals, police stations and other public utilities.

There can be little doubt that this is a grossly unfair situation. Many issues are involved here. To begin with, state presence in the management of Hindu temples makes a mockery of the separation of religion and state. But even worse, it militates against the fundamental right to freedom of religion because state intervention is creating obstacles in the functioning of temples by depriving them of their legitimate funds and putting their very existence in jeopardy. This is an act of cultural vandalism, consistent with the agenda of a communist State; the respective State Governments should, therefore, clarify their political ideology and agenda.

It is suspected that there is a purpose to this de facto nationalisation of Hindu temples. The strong economic foundations of temples are being bled to support activities inconsistent with the legitimate goals of Hindu dharma, which is what the Haj subsidy, madarsa and church development, must be acknowledged to be. These monotheistic creeds are not only at variance with Hindu dharma, but their very raison d'etre is expansion by the eradication of Hindu dharma and culture. Hence, when the state acts in a blatantly partisan manner to promote these faiths, the adherents of Hindu dharma certainly have a genuine grievance.

Above all, at a time when Governments are rushing to abandon the commanding heights of the economy, state presence in the management of places of worship is incongruous to say the least. Hindu temples were once great centres of learning, and even today illustrious spiritual leaders like Sri Sathya Sai Baba and Amritanandmayi Ma have inspired magnificent medical and educational institutions through community service.

The argument that the managements of cash-rich temples are necessarily corrupt and need regulation is simply irresponsible and arrogant, especially when it is the established corruption of state-controlled managements that is prompting Central and State Governments alike to shed equity in the public sector! It is high time the state similarly retreated from the temple precincts.

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