Greed, graft and grab: The sorry state of tem­ple lands

DNA (Delhi) - - OPINI N - SOFT POWER Vol 03 Is­sue No. 58 Au­thor is Di­rec­tor, IIAS, Shimla Views are per­sonal

De­spite be­ing ac­tive if not ar­dent tem­ple-go­ers, most Hin­dus, prac­tis­ing or other­wise, are hardly aware of the sorry state of our tem­ples’ prop­er­ties. This de­spite the valiant ef­forts in re­cent years by a va­ri­ety of lawyers, ac­tivists, jour­nal­ists, bu­reau­crats, pub­lic fig­ures, and es­teemed mem­bers of our ju­di­cial ser­vices to rec­tify the sit­u­a­tion. Though deeply in­ter­ested in the cul­tural, so­cial, spir­i­tual sig­nif­i­cance of our his­toric cen­tres of wor­ship and pil­grim­age, I must con­fess that I was no ex­cep­tion to this gen­eral state of ig­no­rance, bor­der­ing on the avoid­ance of the un­pleas­ant, which is a com­mon trait of many or­di­nary Hin­dus.

My eye-open­ing ex­pe­ri­ence came dur­ing a re­cent visit to Tamil Nadu where I met a group of ad­vo­cates and re­triev­ers of tem­ple idols. One of them looked me straight in the eye to say, “Tem­ples are be­ing bull­dozed, idols stolen and sold…let alone do­ing some­thing, most peo­ple don’t even know about it.” A lit­tle bit of re­search re­vealed that this was not far from the truth. Else, how might we ex­plain the baf­fling head­line in a lead­ing news­pa­per on July 1, 2018: “HC di­rects HR&CE to trace and re­store ‘miss­ing’ tem­ple tank.” Some ac­tu­ally stole a tem­ple tank and no one no­ticed? Sounds bizarre, but that is ex­actly what hap­pened with the Vada­palani Vengeeswarar Tem­ple, whose ad­join­ing pond went miss­ing.

Not that this was some tiny pud­dle that could be eas­ily for­got­ten. The records show it mea­sured 2.68 acres of prime prop­erty. Re­tired po­lice in­spec­tor, J Mo­han­raj, who drew it to the no­tice of the court, be­lieves that 26 res­i­den­tial and five com­mer­cial build­ings were over that tem­ple tank. The gov­ern­ment lawyer claimed that the tank was trans­ferred to a pri­vate party by one of the for­mer trustees with the con­nivance of the Hindu Re­li­gious and Char­i­ta­ble En­dow­ments (HR&CE) Board. But the mat­ter gets murkier when we ask how per­mis­sion was granted to build such struc­tures on a wa­ter body. As re­cently as 2005, the tank showed clearly on Google Earth.

One of the he­roes of the restora­tion of stolen or mis­ap­pro­pri­ated tem­ple lands is Jus­tice R Ma­hade­van of the Madras High Court. Ear­lier this year, on Fe­bru­ary 12, Jus­tice Ma­hade­van di­rected the HR&CE to sub­mit in­for­ma­tion on tem­ple lands in Tamil Nadu which have been en­croached or grabbed. He or­dered no­tices to be is­sued to of­fend­ers to sur­ren­der mis­ap­pro­pri­ated tem­ple prop­er­ties vol­un­tar­ily or face pe­nal ac­tion. He also asked that in­for­ma­tion on tem­ple lands be tab­u­lated and put up on the HR&CE web­site. Given the ram­pant and on­go­ing theft of tem­ple lands and prop­er­ties, Jus­tice Ma­hade­van’s in­ter­ven­tions were an al­most des­per­ate at­tempt to re­trieve the sit­u­a­tion. It is es­ti­mated that tem­ple lands in Tamil Nadu alone have come down in the last five years from 5.25 lakh acres to 4.78. In just five years, a shock­ingly mas­sive 50,000 acres are in the hands of en­croach­ers and land grab­bers!

In Au­gust, the HR&CE ac­tu­ally came back with what it had done, pur­suant to the HC’s or­ders. In­spec­tion com­mit­tees had been formed for some 40,000 tem­ples across the state to iden­tify and re­trieve en­croached prop­er­ties. Over 28,500 no­tices have been sent to some of the en­croaches of over 3,800 tem­ples, with rents and ar­rears of over 14 crores re­cov­ered from ten­ants. The In­te­grated Tem­ple Man­age­ment Sys­tem (ITMS), a web por­tal pro­posed by the HR&CE, aims at cover­ing all ac­tiv­i­ties re­lated to the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Hindu tem­ples and re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions in Tamil Nadu. As a first step, tem­ple land records will be digi­tised and made pub­licly avail­able, so that il­le­gal sale or en­croach­ment be­comes more dif­fi­cult.

But this is only a drop in the pond, so to speak. The real chal­lenge is mon­u­men­tal. That is be­cause this graft and grab of tem­ple prop­er­ties are not con­fined to Tamil Nadu alone. It is preva­lent in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Ker­ala, and other states as well. Not only are Hindu tem­ples “easy money” for cash-strapped state ad­min­is­tra­tions, but some of these funds are also used, it seems, to sup­port po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated gov­ern­ment spon­sor­ships and grants to so-called “mi­nor­ity” causes. For in­stance, it is re­ported that nearly 43,000 tem­ples in Andhra Pradesh have been taken over by the gov­ern­ment, with 82% of their in­come be­ing used for “un­stated” sec­u­lar pur­poses.

The prob­lem is that in post-in­de­pen­dence, our state has car­ried, pos­si­bly un­con­sciously, the lega­cies of our two for­mer rulers, Bri­tish colo­nial­ists as well as Mus­lim con­querors. Both these de­vised ways, rang­ing from out­right loot and plun­der to more sub­tle forms of ad­min­is­tra­tive control and revenue si­phon­ing, to mis­use the wealth of our rich tem­ples and re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions. So-called mi­nor­ity in­sti­tu­tions, in­clud­ing the SGPC, es­caped such harm­ful state control, but Hindu tem­ples con­tinue to suf­fer. They are worst off in states like Tamil Nadu, where Dra­vid­ian par­ties and pol­i­tics le­git­imised, even aug­mented, their ex­ploita­tion. At last, the time has come to re­verse if not trans­form this trend.


Makarand R. Paran­jape

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