The hill shrine of Sabarimala in Kerala is witnessing a tug of war between the self-proclaimed protectors of Lord Ayyappa and the self-obsessed, publicity seeking pseudo liberals who are treating the shrine as a place to conquer. Mischievous media is adding fuel to fire by sensationalising every moment. A clueless state government, which has the Constitutional obligation to follow Supreme Court orders, is fighting a perception battle and is losing it, thanks to its own loose-tongued leaders mouthing inanities.
A desperate political party is trying to fish in the troubled waters, while the Opposition doesn’t know which side to take. TV studios are erupting with pitched battles of upholding traditions versus upholding Constitutional sanctity. The mob so far has prevented the implementation of the court order using intimidation. In this melee, a curious statement went unnoticed in the national media. The Tantri—the liturgical head of the shrine—has threatened to close the shrine if any woman dares to enter the temple premises.
Whether the Tantri or the chief priest has the rights to close the temple is a question that gives rise to various other questions regarding the management of temples in general. Though there are temples run by individuals or private trusts, most temples are under the respective state ‘Devaswom’ or ‘Devasthan’ boards.
A pitched propaganda has been unleashed recently that governments meddle with only Hindu temples and claims such as the collections of Hindu temples are used to subsidise religious practices of other religions are flung with abandon. This allegation is not true as most of the mosques are controlled by state wakf boards which in turn are controlled by the Central Wakf Council. Wakf board is equivalent to Devasthan boards of various states. In fact, there is no Central Devasthan board and all states do not have Devasthan or Devaswom boards.
The Justice Shashvat Committee in its report on Muslims in India in 2011 had found that the Wakf properties constitute a land bank worth Rs 1.2 lakh crore and could have generated an annual income of Rs 12,000 crore, but was yielding only Rs 163 crore. The committee found that there was a severe shortage of senior Muslim government officers to manage Wakf affairs. It also points to the general lower socio-economic status of Muslims. The state Wakf boards or Devaswom boards are statutory bodies and must account for each paisa that comes to them. They come under the purview of vigilance and RTI.
What would happen if the government decides to hand over the temples to devotees for managing them? The first issue will be who all could be classified as devotees? Could everyone bearing a Hindu name be a devotee? How would the temple administration committee be formed? If it is a village temple, the villagers could select the committee, but how about the major temples such as Tirupati or Sabarimala? Who all could vote for the committee members? Should it be pan-India voting or should it be pan-world voting?
Often, when this question is asked, the people who vociferously argue for ‘freeing the temples’ would say that the temples should revert to original owners. So, who are the original owners of the temples? Many temples have been owned by various dynasties, including the British. So, who should the temple and its property be handed over to? Should it be to the priests of the respective temple?
In many temples, priesthood is hereditary. This is an anomaly in a democratic country. Why should not any Hindu, irrespective of the caste, be appointed the Tantri, if he or she has enough knowledge of the rituals and customs? Why should it be the privilege of a chosen few? There is an SC order of December 16, 2015, that says there should not be any discrimination based on caste while appointing priests. But one can be assured that such rulings would remain a utopian dream for a long time.
This privilege should have been abolished along with the abolishment of Privy Purse for princes. The kings gave away their hereditary kingdoms and joined the Indian Union. Some kings did that voluntarily and some needed coercion. It seems striking down hereditary priesthood is more difficult than integrating recalcitrant kingdoms such as Hyderabad, Junagadh or Travancore to the Union of India. It shows how much caste privilege is etched in the Indian psyche.
What is required perhaps is not handing over the temples to devotees but to democratise the temple administration. The Devasthan board can be formed state-wise and should have members elected by Hindu voters through an election. The system of Hindu legislators appointing members of Dewasom board is faulty. Each temple can have boards such as local panchayats, district panchayats, etc and at the apex, there could be state-wise Hindu assembly for temple affairs.
All hereditary rights should cease and all appointments should follow the rules of public appointments. The only restriction on eligibility of members could be that they should be Hindus as this is for the temple board. Similar rules should be made applicable for Wakf boards and churches, where respective community members would elect the administrators of their faith democratically. This religious parliament can choose which customs to keep and what to reform, within the boundaries of our Constitution. This would set the pace and direction in which a religion wants to reform. This is far better than allowing a lethal minority among the faithful to arm-twist the silent majority using violence in the streets so that the pelf and privileges of some can be protected.
Author, columnist, speaker