Thursday, 6 August 2020

The Court and Temples

Updated: August 3, 2018 11:55 am

The Supreme Court has asked the concerned authorities (management) of the world famous Jagannath temple in Puri why the non-Hindus should not be allowed inside the temple premise for “darshan” or otherwise, something that has been proscribed as per the customs and practices since centuries. Though the apex court is expected to give its verdict after considering the response of the temple management, one thing is clear. Of late, the Supreme Court has been involved in cases relating to the practices prevailing in various Hindu temples, be it    Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra or jagannath Temple in odisha or  the Sabarimala temple in Kerala.

It is not that the judiciary has not been involved in the cases relating to Hindu temples earlier in various parts of the country. In fact, such cases have been many at the levels of the High Courts of the country. not long ago the Odisha High Court had to intervene to enforce the decision of the Jagadguru Shanakaracharya of Gobardhan Peeth at Puri and the Gajapati Maharaja of Puri, the chief “Sevak” of the temple, not to allow devotees to climb the chariots of the chariots of three presiding deities of the Jagannath temple – Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra – during the annual car festivals (Rath Yatra).

In my considered view, it is a legitimate debate whether the judiciary should get entangled in matters pertaining to religious beliefs. The judges are brilliant masters of laws, but religions or religious practices are different from laws. They are based on faith, customs and traditions. But then, the problem arises when religious practices come in conflict with fundamental rights and social reforms as guaranteed under our constitution. The court intervenes when activists knock at its door, alleging the violations of these rights and reforms.

Though   Article 25 in the Constitution of  India guarantees “ Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion”, this is subject to “ public order, morality and health and to the other provisions”;  the right of the State(in effect the government of the day) to make laws “ regulating or restricting any economic, financial, political or other secular activity which may be associated with religious practice”; and(this is very important) “ providing for social welfare and reform or the throwing open of Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all classes and sections of Hindus”.

But then, there are, in my opinion, two grey areas as far as the judicial (or for that matter the legislative) power is concerned pertaining to the temples. First, Article 25, cited above, gives equality in “practising” any religion. But what the Court (and the government in many states) does is that  it dictates or directs Hindu temples to amend Hindu rituals or practices. Has the constitution given the state or the courts to change religious beliefs or customs? Secondly, why is it that the state and court interfere always in matters pertaining to Hindus alone? Why is it that such interference never happens in religions other than Hinduism?

I had pointed out once in this column how in a farewell party to his Indian friends and colleagues, a Western diplomat had pointed out that his three-year posting in India made him realise that here, a country where the Hindus constitute nearly 80 per cent of the total population, politicians, intellectuals, bureaucrats, lawyers and judges were more vocal about the interests of Islam and Christianity than about the protection of Hinduism.  On the contrary, what surprised him the most was that sharpest attacks on Hinduism came invariably from the Hindu elites? Hinduism for them is the most absurd, unscientific and cruel religion of the world that perpetuated casteism, inequality and exploitation.

These Hindu-bashers are not convinced that every great religion or civilisation has its pluses and minuses and as times pass by, the minuses get corrected. After all, it is under Hinduism that people worship women as goddesses whereas the women are not equal to men under Islam; even till recently the women did not have voting rights in many developed Christian countries. Caste, as a concept, was highly scientific – since it espoused the principle of division of labour, a principle that ensured that every section of society is “wanted”. True, the concept got corrupted when one’s place in life depended not on one’s ability but on ones’ birth. There is thus need to de-corrupt the principle; but it does not mean that one should throw Hinduism in the Indian Ocean for good. In fact, unlike any other religion the world, Hinduism promoted pluralism in the forms of pluralities of Gods and Goddesses. There is   no compulsion on Hindus to worship a particular God or Goddess, nor does it compel one to worship his or her God in a particular way or method; Hinduism even respects those who do not want to worship at all. As a faith, Hinduism is inclusive, and inner-directed. It does not impose itself on its own adherents. So no question of its imposing itself on others arises.

It may be noted that most of the Hindu-haters in India are great apostles of the Congress and Communist parties and their hero happens to be Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first prime minister. Incidentally, in 1949, Nehru had said that ‘to talk of Hindu culture would injure India’s interests’. He had admitted more than once that by education he was an Englishman, by views an internationalist, by culture a Muslim, and a Hindu only by accidental birth. In 1953, Nehru had written to Kailash Nath Katju: “In practice the individual Hindu is more intolerant and more narrow-minded than almost any person in any other country.”

In fact, it is not wrong to say that Nehru had total contempt for Hindu religion, for Hindu culture, for Hindu society and for the average Hindu. Nehru codified the Hindu personnel laws (concerning Hindus’ diverse customs, rituals and practices) in 1956, but he backtracked on doing so towards Muslim personal law. No wonder why J B Kriplani, a veteran socialist, opposed the Hindu Code Bill on the ground that the Nehru government was “communal”. Kriplani had told Nehru, “If you want to have a divorce for Hindu community, have it; but have it for Catholic community also. I tell you this is the democratic way; the other is the communal way. It is not the Mahasabhites who alone are communal, it is the government also that is communal, whatever it may say. I charge you with communalism because you are bringing forward a law about monogamy only for the Hindu community. You must bring it to the Muslim community. Take it from me that the Muslim community is prepared to have it but you are not brave enough to do it.”

It is under Nehruvian secularism that the Government appoints trustees to manage Hindu temples (and mathas) of Viswanath, Tirupati, Puri, Nathdwara and Guruvayur. In Kerala, ministers are busy finding out the wealth of Sabarimala temple. But the same government considers it “communal” to do likewise in the case of masjids, churches and gurudwaras. Secularism of the Nehruvian variety says that it is “progressive” to denounce a Hindu Swami for trying to influence his or her followers, but it is “communal” to raise finger at those who issue fatwas and hukamnamas.

I think Parliamentarian and former Union Minster Subramanian Swamy makes enormous sense when he points out how various governments in Tamil Nadu have systematically taken over the administration of the temples in the state (this is true in other state-managed temples cited above) and abuse the considerable revenues generated out of these temples. He has listed how these temples give crores of rupees as tax to the government.  And what is bizarre is that government officials take crores of rupees as their salaries for administering the temples. Worse still, many large temples maintain a fleet of luxury vehicles for the use of government-officers managing the temple and their VVIP friends in politics and bureaucracy.

My last point is whether it is the job of the State (judiciary is a part it) or government to manage and administer Hindu temples, or any other religious institutions. It can, provided it owns them or spends money on them to manage from the public exchequer.  But that is not exactly the case. These temples, strictly speaking, are, thus, not “public institutions” where everybody, irrespective of one’s faith or region, can have equal rights. Why should the money collected by the government from Hindu shrines be the State’s revenue to be spent for general purposes, benefiting the non-Hindus?

By Prakash Nanda


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