Government control of Hindu Temples: A Legal Analysis

Author- Jerrin B. Mathew*


Covid 19 news coverage was not just limited to medicine and healthcare, it covered various socio-economic topics that was happening due to Covid 19 Pandemic. One such issue that became a hot topic for a few days was the management of Hindu temples by the government authorities. There were allegations in social media against the government for appropriating funds from temples and giving it to mosques. Amidst all these, Subramanian Swamy also challenged The Uttarakhand Char Dham Devasthanam Management Act, 2019. The question of a secular government controlling Hindu temples arose once more in public discourse.

The question of government control of Hindu temples is not new in Indian legal cum religious discourse. It has been there right from the 1950s, just a few years after independence. People start questioning the secular nature of our country when they find that only Hindu temples have to pay money to the government, whereas Mosques and Churches don’t have to do so. It is seen as a discriminatory practice towards Hindus and the majority. Is it?

Is India secular?

People start to question secularism when it comes to government control of temples. That’s precisely what we should ask to dig into this issue. Is India secular? To answer this, we need to answer what do we mean by secularism. There is no single answer to it. Supreme Court in its various judgements has described secularism. Secularism in this regard means that the government doesn’t give preference to a particular religion. All religions are equal before the law. The honorable courts use the Sanskrit slogan of Sarv Dharm Sambhavto emphasising on Indian secularism. The common phrase that is used in the west i.e. separation of church and state, is not used in India.

Christianity, the most popular religion in the west, has denominations which are run like big Organisation. Role of each person is designated. It works like a bureaucracy. A Catholic must submit to the church authorities in matters of fund management even though he disagrees with the use. A protestant can change the church if he is not happy with the fund management of his pastors. In other words, separation of church and state was more feasible for the west because of the organised nature of Christianity. On the other hand, many religions including Hinduism are not Organised or Bureaucratic.

If we look at the constitution of India, we see that Article 14 and 15 provides for equality before law to all people of all religions in the country. Article 15 states that there shall be no discrimination based on religion, but it also says that nothing prevents the state from uplifting socially and economically backward classes. Hence if people of a particular religion are backward then there can be measures taken for their upliftment.

Now let’s look at some current Indian practices and laws. There is no official state religion of India. Article 14 professes equality before the law. However, we have criminal law for specific religious communities. Bigamy is a criminal offence under section 494 of IPC1860. It is only applicable to non-muslimsand gentile Hindus of Goa since a Muslim can have up to four wives in India and a gentile Hindu can have a second wife under some conditions. Only Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains can have access to Hindu Undivided Family business.Thus, the tax benefit that a person receives in having a Hindu Undivided Family business is only available to Muslims, Christians and Parsis.

Sikhs are the only community in the country who are legally exempted from wearing helmets.[i] We have different personal laws for different religious, regional and tribal communities. If people from Schedule Castes convert or were converted in the past from Hinduism to Sikhism or Buddhism, they retain the reservation provided by the central government, however, if they convert to any other religion, they will lose the reservation benefits.[ii] Even today all the major government projects are inaugurated by Bhoomi pooja. This was upheld by Gujarat High court stating that these poojas are meant for compensating the wrong done to the earth. Hence, its for the benefit of all. [iii]

Various governments have given subsidies to schools run by religious organisations. Similarly, governments have given subsidies for religious pilgrimages of different religions, even pilgrimages for foreign countries. Similarly, some government posts in tribal areas are only given to Hindus and some seats in the legislature in Sikkim are given only to a particular religion.[iv] We have regiments in the army exclusively named after religion and castes. Article 25 allows the government to ‘reform’ Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, and Hindu religion. Only two religious institutions Travancore Devaswom Board and Tamil Nadu Devaswom board are mentioned in the Constitution under Article 290A. These boards get around 46 lakhs and 13 lakhs respectively amount from the government every year. Lastly, yes many big Hindu temples are managed by the government of India and state governments in some manner.

The paragraph above paints a picture of the relation between state and religion in India. Most of these laws and practices are currently approved by the courts. We can call this picture anything but separation of church and state. We surely don’t follow the model of separation of church and state that is followed in west. The above paragraph was not to deviate from the topic of temple funds but to give readers a realistic lens with which they should look at topics dealing with secularism in India.

History of Temple Administration