‘Temples serve greater societal requirements,’ says SC, questions the need to review 1863 Religious Endowments Act

3 September, 2022 | Pranay Lad

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The Supreme Court questioned the relevance of public interest litigation (PIL) that pushed for Hindus to have the same right as Christians and Muslims to manage religious places like temples withou...

The Supreme Court questioned the relevance of public interest litigation (PIL) that pushed for Hindus to have the same right as Christians and Muslims to manage religious places like temples without government interference, noting that because all temple revenues come from society, they could be returned to the people by establishing colleges and universities.

The case was heard by a bench consisting of Chief Justice of India UU Lalit and Justice S Ravindra Bhat. While the PIL highlighted the issue of Hindus being “singled out,” with state governments controlling temples and their revenues, the bench questioned the necessity to modify the 1863 Religious Endowments Act, saying that the act has enabled temples to serve “greater societal requirements.”

“What is the point of this?” This has been running for a long time… If it is a temple receipt, it is by the people. As a result, it must be returned to the people. Consider Tirupati, where there are colleges… State-owned corporations establish universities in Delhi. “What’s the problem with that?” the bench asked throughout the hearing.

“This Act has been in effect since 1863.” We have a 150-year history of various denominations catering to the wider demands of society rather than their own. Some temples have even donated land. “Now you’re asking us to turn back the clock,” the bench added.

Petitioner Ashwini Upadhyay, an attorney and former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesman, argued that Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs should have the same right to create, operate, and maintain religious places as Muslims, Parsis, Christians and that the state cannot refuse this right.

According to the PIL, the government oversees around 400,000 of the country’s 900,000 temples, but no church or mosque-related religious organisation is under official control or management.

It is worth noting that religious endowments are included on the concurrent list, allowing both the Centre and the states to pass legislation granting governments authority over the administration, supervision, and tax of Hindu sacred places.

In the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, similar legislation exists. All temple hundi collects (offerings) are deposited into temple bank accounts. The government spends 14% on administrative expenditures, 4% on audit fees, and 4% to 10% on the ‘Commissioner Common Good Fund.’ Additionally, funding is allotted to several government-run programmes.

According to Datar, citing the Tamil Nadu legislation, similar laws have been established in other states, including Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana, permitting state governments to use temple money for non-religious or administrative purposes. Sankaranarayan, in support of him, alleged that 50,000 temples in Karnataka had been closed owing to a lack of funds, and temple properties had been completely squandered.

The Naganathswamy Temple case, according to the PIL, began on April 10, 2016, when the King Rajendra Chola-built Naganathswamy Temple in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, was “torn down by the State under the guise of rehabilitation.”

The petition acknowledges that mosques and churches are not supervised by state governments, but that this causes “very substantial harm to Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs.” The judge did, however, order the attorneys to submit proof to support their accusations concerning temple closures and other charges of money misappropriation. It then set a hearing on the matter for September 19.

As the Supreme Court made these observations, it is worth noting that the Madras High Court made an unusual statement while hearing a suit in which the petitioner requested protection to worship at a temple dedicated to the family god. The Madras High Court remarked that temples might become a source of law and order issues and that such temples should be closed down to restore society’s peace and normalcy. “It is a contradiction that the closing of a temple leads to calm,” the court had remarked at the time.

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