The Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Department has asserted before the Madras High Court that the government, despite being secular in nature, was entitled to administer temples through the Department since Article 25(2) of the Constitution empowers the State to enact laws for regulating or restricting any economic, financial, political or other secular activity associated with religious practice.
In a counter-affidavit to a batch of cases filed by Indic Collective Trust and its president T.R. Ramesh, the HR&CE Department said most of the renowned temples in the State were constructed by erstwhile kings who had also endowed them with several properties. The kings managed the temples by appointing officials. That’s exactly what the present day government was doing through the HR&CE Department, it said.
A Division Bench of Justices M.M. Sundresh and R. Hemalatha was told that the HR&CE Act of 1959 had received the assent of the President on November 19, 1959. It was preceded by a 1951 Act whose constitutional validity was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1954. However, the petitioners were attempting to get the temples relieved of the supervisory control of the HR&CE Department by tarnishing its image, it said.
Denying the charge of misappropriation and misuse of temple funds by the Department, it said collection of funds under the heads of special darshan, Abhishegam, Archanai, Urchavam and so on goes to the kitty of the temple concerned and not to the government or the Department.
The court was informed that there were 38,449 religious institutions under the control of the Department. Of them, 56 were mutts, 57 were temples attached to mutts, 1,721 were specific endowments and 3,479 were temples with hereditary trustees. Non-hereditary trustees had to be appointed to 16,783 temples which were now being managed by Fit Persons on a temporary basis until the appointment of the trustees, it said.
District committees had already been constituted for the appointment of non-hereditary trustees. The Department, however, conceded the charge of using temple vehicles, drivers and typists for the use of its officials. Stating that the vehicles allotted to the Department long back were not roadworthy at present, it said temple vehicles were being used until the government allotted money for the purchase of new vehicles.
It, however, said the vehicles as well as drivers were being used only for official purposes and not put to private use. Similarly, its counter-affidavit stated that the two petitioners before the court had magnified and exaggerated the negligible amount of temple funds used for purchasing food, refreshments and beverages for the participants of review meetings chaired by the HR&CE Minister, Secretary and Commissioner.
The Department also told the court that the idea of starting a television channel titled ‘Tirukovil’ was only in the stage of proposal and no final decision had been taken yet. Even otherwise, the television channel would only help in propagating of the Hindu religion and its tenets by telecasting important temple festivals and special pujas, it added. After taking the counter on file, the judges adjourned the cases to September 25.