The need for state intervention in temple management was realised during the temple entry movement, which stressed the importance of treating temples as public spaces

For almost a century, the Tamil Nadu government has been trying to bring the Chidambaram Natarajar temple or the Sabanayagar temple as it is officially known, under state administration. The Dikshitars, the priest community controlling the temple, have resisted this. After litigating bitterly for two decades against the appointment of an executive officer to manage the temple, the priests have got a favourable judgment. The Supreme Court has ruled that the Dikshitars are a religious denomination, and the State has to protect their right to manage the temple as guaranteed by Article 26 of the Constitution. This judgment may appear to have settled a long tussle, but, in fact, it has raised new questions and brought back important old ones. In a State where even Jain temples are managed under a Hindu Act as approved by courts, accepting Dikshitars, who have many cultural commonalities with Smartha Brahmins, as a religious denomination, is bound to be contested. At the core of the debate is the critical question: whether temples are private or public places. If they are collective cultural assets and a part of a larger heritage, can they stay outside the purview of reforms that further public interest?

State-administered temples are not a phenomenon limited to Tamil Nadu, nor are they a peculiar outcome of the atheist principles of Dravidian party politics. Across the country, various governments have approved state administration of temples. Congress governments too had actively pursued temple reforms. Jawaharlal Nehru’s wish, as T.S.S Rajan, a minister in the Madras government, explained in 1951, was not to have any private temples. Some of the earliest attempts to regulate temple administration commenced in Tamil Nadu. The first legislation passed in 1817 set the tone and objective. The emphasis was on proper management of endowments. In 1888, when there were discussions about amendments to the Religious Endowments Act, a government committee of “six Hindu gentlemen,” which included T. Muthuswami Iyer and V. Bashyam Iyengar, concluded that legal measures were indeed needed. It is necessary “for the removal of widespread and recognised abuses,” the committee reiterated. Newspapers such as The Hindu chided those who opposed legal reforms and compared them to a thief who might “object to the Penal Code that will look upon him as one deserving of punishment.” It was during this period that the Dikshitars approached the Madras High Court to designate the Chidambaram temple as a private one. The court after hearing the arguments ruled that the temple was a place of public worship and not a private property of the Dikshitars.

Those who legally challenged state control of temples complained that it was interference in religion and sought protection under Articles 25 and 26, which provided for the right to freedom of religion. The government knew full well that not all aspects of temples were out of bounds. As Justice Gajendragadkar, who had adjudicated important religious disputes in Supreme Court, elucidated, when religions “impinge adversely on the secular rights of Citizens and the power of the State to regulate socioeconomic relations,” the state has the right to interfere in the interest of public good. Courts on several occasions have been supportive of this position.

In the landmark case of the Durgah Committee, Ajmer and Another vs. Syed Hussain Ali and Others, the Constitution Bench of Supreme Court in 1962 held that the legal protection “must be confined to such religious practices as are an essential and integral part of it [religion] and no other.” It further cautioned that without such a separation, there is a danger that “even purely secular practices” could be “clothed with a religious form and may make a claim for being treated as religious practices.”

Managing temple funds and property are secular activities, and they never qualified for protection. In 2009, the Madras High Court Bench, which upheld the government management of Chidambaram temple, reiterated this. It did not view as improper the government’s decision to administer 400 acres of temple land belonging to the Chidambaram temple and manage the large contributions.

The need for government intervention was best explained and fully realised during the temple entry movement. The need to treat temples as public spaces was significantly underscored then. In Tamil Nadu, temple entry movement, though it started in the 19th century, achieved its objective only in 1939 in Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple. It was not easy. Priests opposed it as interference in their religious practice. Nevertheless, the government pushed the reforms through by passing suitable legislation. Some of the temples such as Venkataramana temple in Moolky Petta in Karanataka, which claimed denomination status, sought cover under Article 26 and denied entry to Dalits. The Court facilitated Dalit entry.

Abolishing hereditary rights of priests was the next major step to make temples accessible to all. Priesthood for long was an exclusive preserve of select Brahmin families. Many reformers and governments considered this as unjust and felt it often led to abuse of position. The Andhra Pradesh government, through a big bold move in 1987, showed that not only removing hereditary rights of priests is necessary, but also legitimate. It chose the Tirumala Tirupati temple to demonstrate this. Predictably, the priests and their supporters saw this as an “outrageous interference” with religion.

The priests of Tirupati argued that they belong to the Vaikanasa agama, which was the liturgical tradition followed in the temple, and hence have the exclusive right to be priests. They emphasised that they were not office holders, but an integral part of temple religious practice. The Supreme Court thought otherwise. It ruled that performance of the rituals was part of religion, but the person who performs them is not.

Any qualified person could be appointed, it concluded. The Tamil Nadu government, which abolished hereditary rights of priests in 1971, took reforms to its logical conclusion. In 2006, it passed an order to appoint liturgically trained non-Brahmins as temple priests and set up colleges to train the interested. It tried to remove the last preserve of caste discrimination. This scheme is presently under litigation, and the 207 qualified non-Brahmin priests await appointment.

It is a misconception that the government is interested only in large and wealthy temples, and that in the name of reforms, it tries to take over temple properties. Numbers prove that this allegation is far from the truth. About 34,470 religious institutions, which constitute 90 per cent of those managed by the Tamil Nadu government, are small and earn less than Rs. 10,000 annually. Only less than one per cent earns more than Rs. 10 lakh annually. Preventing misuse of public offerings has been the core concern. The government recently brought temples under the Right to Information Act, which is another right step toward making temple administration more accountable and transparent.

In Chidambaram, funds and property were not the only issues in question. Some unreasonable practices too drew government attention. For instance, Dikshitars for long did not permit singing of Tamil Saivaite devotional-hymns, which is a popular practice with the non-Brahmins, near the sanctum. They even got a stay order against it. Only when the government contemplated taking legal action and issued an official order in 2008 to permit hymn singing, did the Dikshitars relent. The government has tried many times to restructure the Chidambaram temple administration. The Madras High Court even upheld its 1933 scheme involving Dikshitars to manage the temple, but with minor modification. Strangely, the government did not implement it, leading to the present situation.

It would be pertinent to recall what the central Commission on Hindu Religious Endowments constituted in 1960 observed about the situation in South India where temples had been under statuary regulation for decades. The commission, to its satisfaction, found most of the large temples fairly well administered and that “many of the gross abuses” are “happily absent”. It also quickly added that this does not mean that there is no need for further reforms. Marc Galanter’s Law and Society in Modern India explains that the constitutional mandate enables law to perform an arbitral role. Legal measures do not have to be confined to ascertaining a preordained religious sphere. Where reforms are needed, the state can implement them. In this context, even rights provided by Article 26 are not unfettered.

(Email: srivathsan.a@thehindu.co.in)

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