It is a great irony that a secular Government should deeply embroil itself in the administration and running of Hindu temples and institutions in the guise of supervising the secular aspects of temple administration. This grotesque policy of the Government to supervise religious institutions applies only to Hindu Religious institutions.
Viselike grip on Religious Institutions
By its own account the HR & CE Dept administers (or rather mal-administers):
- 36,425 temples
- 56 Mutts
- 47 temples belonging to Mutts
- 1721 Specific endowments and 189 Trusts
This has been possible due to Tamil Nadu being ruled continuously by atheists and unscrupulous persons, a corrupt bureaucracy, a debased High Court and above all, stark apathy, indifference and ignorance among Hindus. In recent times, the covert and overt designs of Christian missionaries and agencies have added to the plight of Hindu temples.
Around 1840, the then British Government started giving up administration of temples. They asked some of the prominent mutts in Tamil Nadu to look after some of the important temples and endowments. The Heads of Mutts who were happy to takeover the administration of these temples so that they are run as they ought to be run, were careful enough to get written documents or “Muchalikas” from the British Government, which assured them that they would not take back the temples from the Mutts.
Thus some very important temples came under the complete control and ownership of these Mutts and the Mutts ran them ably and efficiently. The primary purposes of worship and utilization of funds meant for the upkeep of temples and conduct of rituals were never lost sight of by the Heads of Mutts or officers. While a few temples were thus brilliantly administered by the Mutts, thousands of other temples in the then Madras Presidency were handed over to the respective trustees with the then Government playing little or no role in supervising them.
In 1925, the Madras Hindu Religious Endowments Act, 1923 (Act I of 1925) was passed by the local Legislature with the object of providing for better governance and administration of certain religious endowments. The Act divided temples into what are known as Excepted and Non-excepted temples. Immediately after the Act came into force, its validity was challenged on the ground that the Act was not validly passed. For this reason, the legislature enacted the Madras Hindu Religious Endowments Act, 1926, Act II of 1927 repealing Act I of 1925.
This Act was amended from time to time. It is unnecessary to refer to the changes introduced later. Suffice it to say that the Act was amended by 1946 by as many as ten Acts I of 1928, V of 1929, IV of 1930, XI of 1931, XI of 1934, XII Of 1935, XX of 1938, XXII of 1939, V of 1944 and X of 1946. A radical change was introduced, however, by Act XII of 1935. The Government was not satisfied with the powers of the Board then existing and they clothed the Board with an important and drastic power by introducing a new Chapter, Ch. VI-A, by which jurisdiction was given to the Board to notify a temple for reasons to be given by it.
Thus, it can be seen that even in the pre-independence era, the Board had systematically consolidated its powers to take over and administer temples. Of course, this despicable intervention by Government applied only to Hindu Institutions.
Hindu Religious Endowments Board
Shri Krupananda Vaariar had undertaken to build the Vadalur Ramalinga Swami’s Sathya Gnana Sabha in the 1940s and had gone around Tamil Nadu collecting funds from devotees and spending such collection with great care. The Hindu Religious Board, of which one Chinnaiah Pillai was president, intervened in the selfless work of Shri Vaariar and tried his best to scuttle it. Thanks to the just intervention of the then Chief Minister of Madras State, Omandur Ramaswamy Reddiar, his evil designs fell flat.
Omandur Reddiar also intervened to stop the unjust takeover of Chidambaram Sabhanayagar Temple in 1947. But Chinnaiah Pillai and his cronies in the HRE Board were not to give up.
The 1951 Act
Notwithstanding the clear directions of the Madras Government in 1947 to drop notification proceedings and the clear direction of the Hon’ble Madras High Court in 1939 that the Board cannot undertake notification process on frivolous grounds, the Board started the notification process of the Chidambaram Shri Sabhanayagar Temple in 1950 and the then Madras Government issued a Government Order (G.O.) Ms. 894, Rural Welfare Dept. dated 28-8-1951 published in the Fort St. George Gazette on 4-9-1951.
Meanwhile, India after gaining independence from British rule had become a Republic on 26 January 1950, with its Constitution guaranteeing certain fundamental rights to its citizens. Special religious and administrative rights were guaranteed to Religious Denominations or sections thereof.
The Board also tried to take over the famous Shri Guruvayurappan Temple in Guruvayur, Udupi Shri Krishna Temple under the management of Shri Shirur Mutt of Udupi and Shri Venkataramana Temple belonging to the sect of Gowd Saraswath Brahmins in Mulkipetta of South Kanara district.
All the above religious institutions challenged the takeover by the HRE Board. In the meantime, a new Hindu Religious Act was passed by the Madras Government, known as the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act, 1951. The Board was now replaced by the Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments Department, headed by a Commissioner who was given vast powers under the Act.
The Government facing stiff opposition in the Kerala region against its order on Guruvayur temple, withdrew the order. Shri Lakshmindra Thirtha Swamiar of the Shirur Mutt, the Podu Dikshitars of Shri Sabhanayagar Temple and Devaraja Shenoy representing the community of Gowd Saraswat Brahmins in Mulkipetta filed Civil Miscellaneous and Writ petitions challenging the Government Orders.
On 13 December 1951, a Division Bench of Hon’ble Madras High Court presided by the Learned Judges Justice Satyanarayana Rao and Justice Rajagopalan passed two landmark judgments.
- 1952 I MLJ 481 – Devaraja Shenoy vs. State of Madras – quashing the Government order to takeover the administration of the Shri Venkataramana Temple in Mulkipetta.
- 1952 I MLJ 557 – Shri Lakshmindra Thirtha Swamiar of Shri Shirur Mutt vs. State of Madras quashing the Government order to takeover the administration of Shri Udupi Krishna Temple and Shri Sabhanayagar Temple in Chidambaram.
In the Shirur Mutt Case, many provisions of the new HR & CE Act of 1951 were held ultra vires of the Constitution. The Division Bench clearly defined a Religious Denomination, their rights - religious and administrative. It also explained how these rights were intermingled and could not be separated in the case of a Mathathipathi and since it was the same with the Podu Dikshitars of Chidambaram Temple, it equated them to Mathathipathis.
Equally important were the findings of the Division Bench that the attempt of the Board and the Commissioner HR & CE to takeover the temples were not only unconstitutional but bad on merits.
Appeals to Supreme Court
The Government of Madras filed three appeals against these two landmark verdicts. On 9 February 1954, a five-judge Constitution Bench of the Hon’ble Supreme Court dismissed the civil appeal 39/1953 after recording the statement of the Advocate General of the Madras Government that the G.O. passed to takeover the Chidambaram Shri Sabhanayagar Temple would be withdrawn. The Government sought no leave and none was granted.
Similarly the Government’s Civil Appeal no.15/1953 filed against the verdict of Hon’ble Madras Court in the Shri Venkataramana Temple Mulkipetta was also dismissed after the Government offered to withdraw the G.O. appointing the Executive Officer.
The Government of Madras contested only the Civil Appeal 38 of 1953, pertaining to the Shirur Mutt Case and even in that appeal did not contest on merits. The Advocate General argued only on constitutional grounds. This was clearly recorded in the Supreme Court judgment.
Thus, it is amply clear that the HR & CE Department and the Government never had any case right from the beginning on merits, and they simply wanted to takeover the administration of large and famous temples to pave way for the takeover of all other temples in the Presidency.
The 1954 Supreme Court judgment in the Shirur Mutt Case
The judgment of the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court in the appeal related to the Shirur Mutt (AIR 1954 SC 282) and the judgment by another Constitution Bench in the Venkataramana Devaru vs. State of Mysore (1958 SCR 895) are landmark judgments that Courts in India are expected to follow regarding Article 26 of the Indian Constitution and Denomination rights.
The Hon’ble Supreme Court agreed with the Hon’ble Madras High Court that many of the sections of the 1951 HR & CE Act were ultra vires the Constitution. It also clearly observed that while the legislature could seek to regulate the administration, it must always leave the administration to the denomination. It struck down the sections of the 1951 Act which sought to appoint Executive Officers to religious institutions as arbitrary and ultra vires the Constitution. The Advocate General of Madras agreed with the Court and said he could not defend those sections.
Major Fraud by the Madras Government in the 1959 Act
Left with no choice but to come up with an amended Act in light of the above judgments of the Madras High Court and Supreme Court of India, the Government of Madras passed a new Act known as the Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments Act of 1959 (Act 22 of 1959).
In that amended Act, it committed serious frauds which till today continue unchallenged. To understand these frauds we need to know more about the 1954 Supreme Court judgment in the Shirur Mutt Case.
Under the 1951 Act, the HR & CE Dept. had powers under sections 56, 58(3)(b) and 63 to 68 to appoint an Executive Officer to religious institutions including Mutts. Of these, sections 56 and 63-68 were held ultra vires the Constitution of India and were struck down by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in the above-mentioned judgment. The same judgment upheld Sec. 58(3)(b) as valid (this section was earlier struck down by the Division Bench of Madras High Court) since there were adequate appeal safeguards and since the Executive Officer so appointed could only be a servant of the Trustee and could not be empowered to act as the Trustee himself.
Any honest and law-abiding person would imagine that the Madras Government, in deference to the Supreme Court of India and to meet the ends of justice, would have deleted the two sets of sections struck down and retained the section upheld by the Hon’ble Supreme Court.
What happened was exactly the opposite.
The Government of Madras introduced a new section [section 45] in the 1959 Act which was even more arbitrary and draconian than Sec. 56 of the 1951 Act. It also retained the Sections 63-68 in the new Act which now carried the numbers 71-76.
The only section relating to appointment of Executive Officer that was upheld by the Hon’ble Supreme Court was not carried in the new Act. But this would not seem strange if we understand that the intention of the Government and the Department was that no appeal safeguards should be provided to the Trustees of Hindu Institutions against the Department’s illegal and arbitrary orders. Sec. 58(3)(b) of the 1951 Act had earlier afforded such safeguards – it was therefore removed by the Government.
More intriguing is the fact that this rogue department continue to appoint Executive Officers under Sec. 64 of the 1959 Act (the equivalent of Sec. 58 in the 1951 Act) without any power to do so. For example, the Deputy Commissioner in 1963 modified the scheme for Shri Kamakshi Amman Temple of Kachipuram, which is under the ownership of the Kanchi Mutt. While proceeding to modify the scheme under Sec. 64 of the Act, the Deputy Commissioner appointed an Executive Officer and this is an illegal act.
These frauds show there were adequate number of scoundrels and scalawags in the HR & CE Department sixty years ago, and we all know the Dept. has no dearth of such people now.
Going against the dictum of the Hon’ble High Court and the Hon’ble Supreme Court did not stop here. One classic example of the arrogance of the Government is the amendment they brought out soon after the Full Bench judgment in the Rajan Kattalai Case in the Supreme Court (1965 SCR (3) 17). In this case, to get over the quashing of the Extension of the Executive Officer’s appointment, the Government amended the HR & CE Act introducing Sec. 75-A which gave such extensions retrospective effect notwithstanding any judgments by any courts including the Supreme Court. This attempt to retain control over Rajan Kattalai of Tiruvarur Thiagarajaswami Devasthanam in utter contempt to the judgment of the Highest Court of the land in that case was thwarted by the Hon’ble Madras High Court. The Hon’ble High Court of Madras, held:
- “by introducing Section 75-A the Legislature has simply directed the Commissioner of Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments and Executive Officer of Sri Thiagarajaswami Temple to disobey or disregard the decision of the highest court of the land in S.D.G. Pandara Sannadhi v. State of Madras (1965) 2 M.L.J. 167. The obvious purpose of Section 75-A extending the impugned notification is to nullify the effect of this decision of the Supreme Court.” (emphasis added).
In view of this judgment of the Madras High Court, the Government could not succeed in retaining administration of Rajan Kattalai Endowment, but this and other illegal sections 75-B and 75-C are still part of the HR & CE Act, not only in utter disregard of the dictum of the Supreme Court of India, but also in violation of Article 31A(1)(b) of the Constitution.
What Hindus should know
HR & CE Dept. officials carry out of a lot of illegal activities in temples and other religious institutions. Most of their orders replacing Trustees or interfering in temple matters are without jurisdiction or in abuse of it. The general impression of Hindu devotees is that these officials have the power under law to do such acts. Nothing can be farther from truth. Every Hindu Devotee should be aware of the following facts:
(1) HR&CE Dept. or Government cannot appoint Executive Officers to any religious institution without valid reasons and without following natural justice:
As per the Supreme Court’s judgment in the Velur Devasthanam Case 1965 SCR (2) 934, a case must be always made out for an appointment of an Executive Officer. Government or HR & CE Department or even Courts cannot appoint Executive Officers without strong justification. This is the position in the case of non-denominational temples. In case of denominational temples like Chidambaram Shri Sabhanayagar Temple, the HR & CE Dept. has no rights at all, in view of the special status accorded to denominations by Article 26 of the Constitution and by Sec. 107 of the HR & CE Act.
Further, the Commissioner or the Department need to follow the principles of natural justice while seeking to appoint an Executive Officer and failing to do so would invalidate the appointment. This has been the dictum of a Division Bench of Hon’ble Madras High Court in D. Nagarajan vs. Commissioner, HR & CE AIR 1971 Mad 295.
(2) General Policy or “Better Management” cannot be reasons for takeover of temple administration: HR&CE Dept. cannot appoint Executive Officer to any religious institution stating it is Government policy to appoint Executive Officers for most temples. Better or efficient management too cannot be reasons for takeover of temples from the Trustees.
(3) Executive Officer can be given powers only to look after the properties of the temple. He cannot interfere in religious matters or other matters of administration: Even in cases where Courts have approved the appointment of Executive Officer due to presence of mismanagement in the religious institution, the Commissioner can give powers pertaining only to the properties of the temple or institution to the Executive Officer. No other powers, administrative or religious can be assigned to the Executive Officer.
(4) Executive Officer’s office premises should not be within the temple premises: As per rule 8 of the Temple Entry Authorization Act, 1947, “the temple buildings and premises shall not be used for purposes not connected with or arising from the worship, usages and observations of such temples”.
(5) Any notice issued by the HR & CE Dept. appointing Executive Officer should state the reasons for appointment and should provide reasonable opportunity to reply or refute the notice.
(6) Executive Officer or any other HR & CE official cannot introduce innovations concerning the time, place or mode of worship in the temple or stop or discontinue any religious practice followed in the temple.
(7) Executive Officer has no authority to fix archana or darshan charges: This may come as a surprise to many but it is only the Trustee or Trustees who can fix these charges and not the Executive Officer or any other official in the HR & CE. This is as per Sec. 57 of the HR & CE Act, 1959.
Frauds committed by HR & CE in appointing Executive Officers to Hindu Religious institutions
In 1970, a division bench of the Hon’ble High Court of Madras came down heavily on the practice of HR & CE in not following natural justice while appointing an Executive Officer for a temple. If one imagined that the Department would have corrected itself and adhered to the principles of natural justice after this judgment one could not be more wrong.
To this day, the practice of the HR& CE is to begin by issuing “an order” appointing an Executive Officer to a religious institution. If the institution receiving the “order” does not seek any legal remedy, the Executive Officer takes over immediately. If the Trustees file a suit or writ against the arbitrary takeover attempt, HR&CE would state in the Court that this memorandum can be treated as a notice and the trustees can reply to it. Trustees and institutions naïve enough to fall for this stratagem would accept this in the Court and start replying to the HR & CE Dept to the “notice”. HR&CE Dept. would usually pass a “final order” appointing an Executive Officer while the purported “enquiry” is still on.
If the trustees file a case against this “final order”, HR&CE Dept’s stand in the Court would be that there is an alternate remedy available to the petitioners by way of review petition to the Government. Courts usually are inclined to tell the petitioners to avail this alternate remedy, which in reality is no remedy at all as the Government is known to uphold all the illegal and unethical orders of the HR&CE Dept.
There have been instances in recent times where HR &CE officials demanding bribes to cancel takeover proceedings were arrested. In 2009 a Joint Commissioner of HR & CE Dept was caught accepting bribes for this purpose.
Commissions and Omissions
HR & CE Dept. claims it is administering only the secular aspects of Temple Administration and ensuring that the moneys due to the institution are realized and used for the purposes for which the endowments were made. Lofty sounding, but if one were to analyse what really happens in the temples administered by this rogue department one would find corruption and looting not found even in traditionally corrupt Government departments.
Temples and Mutts in Tamil Nadu own 500,000 acres of agricultural and other lands. The tenancy laws in Tamil Nadu and the non-functioning Revenue Courts make it almost impossible for landowners to realize any rent or revenue from the leased lands. The HR&CE Dept., which is hand in glove with the Government, takes no credible action to realize these rents or arrears of rents. The Dept. gave a shocking reply to a recent query under the RTI Act that it has no records of the ageing arrears or amount due to the temples. This admission alone is enough to boot out this rogue department from the temples.
Temples in Tamil Nadu also own about 22000 buildings and about 33,000 sites. These buildings and sites are leased out at values much below the market value. The corrupt HR & CE officials and Tamil Nadu Government officials and Ministers pocket huge sums for favouring leaseholders. These buildings are also leased out to non-Hindus especially Christian missionaries and charities which carry out their anti-Hindu activities from these places. This is against the intent and dictum of the people who had donated these places to the temples.
Huge corruption money flowing out of such transactions is the main reason Government does not want to give up its hold on Hindu Temples and institutions. Highly inflated project costs are another way by which HR & CE officials loot temple moneys. For example, Podu Dikshitars of Chidambaram had dismantled the Paniya Nayagam temple dedicated to Lord Subramanya, within the Chidambaram temple precincts, as the roof and pillars were bound to cave in due to loose soil in the basement. This was done as per advice of engineers and stapathis; a new construction plan drawn at a cost of Rs. 90 lakhs and work begun. The Executive Officer after assuming office in the Chidambaram temple stopped the sponsors from continuing the work. He has now given a proposal for the same work at a cost of Rs. 10 crores!
A luxury Toyota car was bought for Sri Maasaniamman Temple near Pollachi at a cost of Rs. 11.5 lakhs. The first question that comes to mind is why a luxury car is required for a temple. It has come out in newspapers and through RTI queries that this car was used for private purposes of the HR &CE Secretary in the Tamil Nadu government. It is also now known that the monthly petrol bills of this corrupt official were taken from Temple funds.
Funds accumulated in fixed deposits in the accounts of rich temples would suddenly be transferred for flood relief, tsunami or Chief Minister’s relief fund. Funds were repeatedly taken from Tiruverkadu Mariamman temple to conduct free marriages by the Tamil Nadu government. This temple which had huge deposits of money became almost bankrupt.
Since the HR & CE stopped having external audit from 1985, it is almost impossible to gauge how many antique and valuable temple jewels have been looted. There is widespread belief that valuable diamonds and stones in jewels have been removed and replaced by ordinary stones in many temples. Missing Maragatha lingams worth thousands of crores have not been recovered. Jewels from 215 temples have been stolen and this rogue department does not even reveal the actual value of the jewels stolen. In many cases the loss of jewels is not known to the outside world at all.
On 22 December 2010, devotees discovered that about 156 globes made of gold and 108 globes made of silver, in the palanquins of the God and Goddess in the Perur Temple, were missing. This came to light only when the Golden and Silver palanquins were taken out in procession.
More than 400 antique metal icons have been stolen from temples under the administration of the HR&CE department, which has not taken any credible follow up actions to recover the valuables. Instead of installing closed-circuit cameras, burglar alarms and modern safety locks, the Department keeps many icons belonging to various temples at one safe room in a big temple. These icons are thus deprived of poojas and maintenance. Continuous neglect of these icons can result in irreparable damage. Further, these sacred icons were meant for worship and this Department willfully ignores this primary purpose. While millions are wasted and looted by Dept. officials no care is taken to protect these treasures.
Another crime commonly perpetrated by the department officials is soliciting sponsors to celebrate festivals even for temples that have sufficient and surplus income. Two things are achieved in this manner. One, the unscrupulous officials are not called upon to show the incomes realized from specific endowments meant for such festivals. Soon the endowments or their existence would be soon forgotten and those properties can be sold or leased out for a pittance. Two, bribes can be taken from competing sponsors or accounts can be easily fudged when there are multiple sponsors.
Kapaleeshwar temple in Mylapore has many income generating properties. Still, the Department takes more than 80% of the money required for the Arupathi Moovar festival from sponsors who are given undue positions of importance during festivals ignoring devotees whose families and communities have contributed for generations.
Prasadam stalls are amongst the biggest frauds openly committed by this rogue Department. Only food prepared piously in the temple kitchen and offered to the deities in the temple in traditional manner can be termed as prasadam. However, Prasadam Stalls are auctioned by the Department (needless to say many improprieties are committed in these auctions and allotments) to the public and supposedly the stalls are allotted to the highest bidder. This means the Department openly allows third parties to produce food items to be manufactured outside the temple premises and packages them to be sold at temples. This is an act which is at once blasphemous and anti-religious besides being a huge fraud on devotees visiting the temple.
Besides, prasadam shops and stalls, other shops and commercial activities are permitted by the Department. These acts of the Department are detrimental to the serene atmosphere that needs to be maintained in temples and commercialises Hindu religious institutions.
Hundies serve the Department in two ways. One, they generate income which the Department fails to realize from the properties of the temple it is administering. Two, they are the easiest source of income that can be looted. In most temples, the real amount generated by hundials is never accounted for. The only exception to this story is the tale of the Hundies illegally installed in Chidambaram Shri Sabhanayagar temple. At Chidambaram the Department is trying to prove a point by showing a big collection of hundie monies. In the first place, the Hon’ble Division Bench of Madras High Court in 1951 had clearly ruled that the Podu Dikshitars are justified in not having any Hundie in the temple and further stated installing Hundies and introducing archana tickets commercialises the temple.
But after assuming office in the Chidambaram Temple, the Executive Officer came with a posse of policemen and installed Hundies in the temple that never had Hundies in its entire history. This is against the law, temple tradition, and in contempt of the Hon’ble High Court of Madras.
After installing Hundies, the Department did two things to ensure it is able to show good collection in the Hundies. It did not handover the second key of the Hundies to the Trustees and they do not seal the Hundies each time after they open it for counting. When it was pointed out the Podu Dikshitars’ collection in gold and other valuables far exceed the Hundie collections even today, and the public have not contributed a single gram of gold to the Executive Officer like they do to the real owners of the temple, the Podu Dikshitars, about 4 gms of gold suddenly appeared among the hundie collections!
What Hindus should do
Hindus should question any attempt to takeover temples in their respective areas by HR & CE Department. They should remember that HR & CE officials have no right to takeover temples that are run by devoted trustees. HR & CE Dept. is only a supervisory department even for temples under its administration, and cannot decide matters pertaining to rituals and religion.
Devotees should ask HR & CE Dept. pertinent questions regarding the temple properties, the income realized, in whose presence Hundies are opened, what are the procedures followed in making and distribution of prasadams, salary arrears of temple employees, income arrears for the properties, why Executive Officer was appointed for each temple, for what period the appointment has been made, order copies of the appointments, arrears of income pending from temple properties, action taken by the Executive Officer, the festivals celebrated in the temple regularly 25 years ago, festivals celebrated now, vehicles bought for the temple, who uses the vehicles and for what purposes, etc. under the Right to Information Act.
Hindus should remember that it is not the duty of a secular government to manage the affairs of Hindu Temples or institutions. They should also remember that the same Government keeps away from mosques and churches.
Hindus should join together and petition the Government and the Courts to bring back outside agencies to audit the HR & CE Dept.
Hindus should take legal action against the Government to restore the temples back to the Trustees or to appropriate Hindu associations.
The author is a banking professional and research scholar on Hindu religious affairs
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