Temples under dictatorship: Stigma on indian democracy

Dr G Shreekumar Menon

Despite 70 years of Independence, Hindu Temples continue to languish under complete government control. Nowhere else in the world is a place of worship under government control, India is the only country having the dubious distinction of having the Hindu Temples throttled by the government. Special organizations have been set up like Devasthanam, Devasom, Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments Department, Muzrai Department, only  to implement and oversee all Temple appointments, supervise the diversion of funds collected in Hundis, impose language restrictions for use in Temple chantings and incantations, levy entry fees of all kinds just to pray to the Almighty, fix tariff for offerings and Prasadams, even levy fixed rates for keeping footwear, and parking of motor vehicles of devotees. Toll is fixed for entry into Temple Towns, bus routes are monopolized and exorbitant charges levied on pilgrims, commercial rates levied for electricity, and water used in the Temples.

Even the Jizya imposed by Muslim rulers’ pales into insignificance when we see the financial torment that Hindus have to undergo in independent India just to pray to their Gods and Goddesses. Which other community in the world is subjected to multiple financial burdens just to pray? Which other community in the world has the mortification to pray from a distance, while VVIP’s, VIP’s and those who are compelled to cough up hefty fees for different types of ‘Darshan’, can go nearer to the sanctum sanctorum and pray? Temple funds are utilized for construction of VIP guest houses and given free to visiting politicians, bureaucrats and other administrators. Temple funds are invested to buy fancy high-end cars for use by the Chairman and Trustees of the Temple Boards, free fuel, driver and other staff. From Vaishno Devi Temple in Kashmir to Devi Kanyakumari Temple in the extreme South, from Siddhi Vinayak Temple in the West to Kamakhya Temple in the East, it is the same story of absolute government control in the form of highly politicized Temple Boards, manned by political appointees who are Chairman, Trustees, Administrators, Executive Officers and so on and whose only agenda is extracting money from the devotees in as many ways as possible, for ultimate diversion for non-Temple uses. For the past seventy years, ever since Independence, Hindu Temples are strangulated by political parties of all hues and ideologies.  Yet we advertise to the whole world that the citizens of India enjoy right to equality, enjoy religious freedom, and zero discrimination.

In the past seventy years many Hindu Temples have been forcibly taken over by various State Governments using brute police force.

 For purposes of take-over, fake allegations of corruption are levelled against the Temple authorities, allegations of mismanagement by Trustees are levelled and a complete take-over is engineered. Temple lands and property are alienated, and even atheists and non-Hindus get appointed to various posts for Temple administration.

While every other religious community in India gets unrestricted liberty and freedom to administer their places of worship, Hindus are denied this privilege. Even Hindus are compelled to pay GST on the Prasadams while no other religious community has to face such insulting mortification.

The sordid saga of Government control over Temples began with the British government introducing the Madras Regulation VII of 1817, with multiple hidden agendas of looting Temple wealth, and proselytization. However, Temples were restored back to the Trustees in 1840. Thereafter, The Religious Endowments Act 1863, was enacted which enabled handing over temple administration to the trustees from the British government. This arrangement continued till the British introduced The Madras Religious and Charitable Endowments Act 1925. When Muslims and Christians protested, the British capitulated and redrafted the provisions, and excluded them, and made it applicable to Hindus only and renamed the new enactment as the Madras Hindu Religious and Endowments Act 1927. Another draconian enactment was made by way of Act XII of 1935, through which temples could be notified by the government and their administration taken over. This way the Hindu Religious Endowment Board assumed powers to take over and administer temples, as the political masters willed. Over the years and even after Independence, governments in all States have throttled Temples in every possible way, while fully exempting every other religious community from this obnoxious treatment.

In 2025, just another four years away, the nation will be observing 100 years of completion of the Madras Religious and Charitable Endowments Act 1925, the parent Act that brought many Hindu Temples under British control, which many Indian State Governments are assiduously and rigorously implementing to keep Hindu Temples constrained and suppressed and reducing many Temples to penury.

Is one century of Temple subjugation not sufficient? Nowhere else in the world has any community’s places of worship been kept subjugated, continuously for nearly a century. Lakhs of Hindu Temples across the country continue to be brazenly subjugated by various State Governments through puppet bodies and their political appointees, and they have the brazen audacity and shameless hypocrisy to pontificate to the world about religious freedom, equality and non-discrimination.  The United Nations turns a Nelson’s eye when it comes to the plight of Hindus, while proclaiming that Freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) is a human right, recognized by the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion. Hindus constitute roughly 79.8% of the total population, and the total subjugation of lakhs of Temples is not condemned by the United Nations, U.S. Department of State – Office of International Religious Freedom, EU-India Human Rights Dialogue. The United Nations Human Rights declares that Freedom of religion or belief is guaranteed by article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. Does not subjugation of lakhs of Hindu Temples only by the government for nearly a century, constitute religious discrimination? The international community which is very aggressive in denouncing any kind of governmental intrusion that takes place in the places of worship of other communities, maintains a studied silence, when it comes to the discrimination faced by Hindus.

Temples are there even in Islamic countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and many Western countries, with absolutely zero interference by the governments.  Why only in India the Hindus have to be discriminated and their religious rights trampled upon? In the USA, which is also a democracy like India, there are innumerable Hindu Temples, they all function with absolutely zero interference by the government. What is applicable in democratic USA, why can’t it be applicable in democratic India?    

If one visits any Hindu Temple in India, which is controlled by the Government, the most conspicuous feature is the sight of Hundis in every prominent place, as also in every nook and corner. Most Temples can boast of more Hundis than the Temple Deities! The aim is to fleece the pilgrims to the maximum extent possible. The gullible Hindus keep stuffing the Hundis with coins and currency notes, that in many famous Temples, the Hundis need to be replaced with fresh replacement within a span of a few hours. Very rich devotees offer gold ornaments, silver, precious stones, and these get advertised prominently in the media in order to influence devotees to make similar donations. Very often reports appear in newspapers of jewellery being stolen, missing, or replaced with fake gold. Hundis being ransacked is a common happening. Still, the gullible Hindus keep dumping cash and valuables in Temples, brazenly defying the Lord’s words in the Bhagavad Gita 9.26. “If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit or water, I will accept it.”

In no other country in the world does the government knock off the offerings given by devotees in places of worship, such daylight robbery happens only in India and that too only Hindu Temples are targeted. We should hang our heads in shame for fooling the whole world that we do not discriminate on grounds of race, religion, language. In fact, we need to rename our country as the only Discriminating Democracy in the whole world!

Many State Governments have compelled the Temple priests not to use Sanskrit language for prayers, incantations and mantras, instead use only local language. If other communities are permitted to use the language of their scriptures, why are Hindus being discriminated? Article 29 of the Constitution of India mandates that no discrimination would be done on the ground of religion, race, caste, language or any of them. But then, why in many Hindu Temples, in many States, Mantras are not permitted to be said in Sanskrit? Our Constitution guarantees so many rights and privileges but when it comes to Temples, every right becomes infructuous for the Hindus of India. If the Hindu in USA can get a Mantra recited for his benefit in Sanskrit in a Temple, why in India such a right is denied? The U.S. government does not compel the Hindu priest to tell prayers in English, even Islamic countries like Malaysia and Indonesia never compel any Hindu Temples to use their language. There is absolute freedom of worship to use any language. And we have the audacity to hypocritically announce to the world that there is no discrimination in India on the ground of language.

Government is also auctioning the gold and silver offerings given by devotees for in the name of ‘monetization’. Why should Temple assets and ornaments be sold? Does any other government anywhere else in this world auction the moveable and immoveable properties of any community’s place of worship in the name of monetization? In USA or elsewhere no government is lifting the moveable and immoveable properties of any community’s place of worship for ‘monetization’? Why is such high handedness happening in India and that too targeted only on Hindu Temples? Why are we trying to hoodwink the whole world about non-existent Constitutional Rights and specific discriminations targeting only the Hindu community?

The increasing intrusive restrictions and monetary controls being perpetrated only on Hindu Temples, has still not attracted the attention of international human rights associations. The United Nations is obsessed only with religious freedoms of minorities. India is the only country in the world where the Hindu majority is dispossessed of its Temples, their moveable and immoveable assets, and subjected to language restrictions. The United Nations Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) which has recommended putting India on a list of CPCs or Countries of Particular Concern for the second year in a row due to the violations of religious freedoms in the year 2020, is not concerned about the iniquities perpetrated on the Hindus. The International Religious Freedom Report 2021 focuses on two groups of countries, namely, Countries of Particular Concern and Special Watch List Countries. It also focusses on the Entities of Particular Concern, but these do not take into consideration the circumscribing of Hindu religious establishments, practices and freedom.  

Though, Articles 25-28 of the Indian Constitution grants religious freedom in India, the State imposed obstacles, to freedom of worship for Hindus is strictly enforced. Though the Constitution proclaims all kinds of freedoms like:

Article 25: Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion.

Article 26: Freedom to manage religious affairs.

Article 27: Freedom as to payment of taxes for promotion of any particular religion.

Article 28: Freedom as to attendance at religious instruction or religious worship in certain educational institutions.

Article 29: Any citizen/section of citizens having a distinct language, script or culture have the right to conserve the same. No discrimination would be done on the ground of religion, race, caste, or language.

Article 30: All minorities, whether based on religion or language, shall have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice.

However, none of the above are made applicable to   approximately 80% of the population comprising Hindus. In reality, Hindu Temples are annexed with impunity by most State Governments, their properties both moveable and immoveable usurped and alienated illegally, language restrictions imposed in violation of Constitutional guarantees. Though the religious freedom of nearly 960 million Hindus is at stake, and various Courts are seized of the matter for the last several decades, justice for the Hindu community, is not readily forthcoming.

If the extraordinary plight of the Hindus of India is taken note of by international agencies, including United Nations, our world ranking for religious freedom would be at rock bottom among the comity of nations. India would be competing with the Chinese which has imposed multi-layered system of controls over Tibetan Buddhism.

India’s vast network of centuries old Temples, Ashrams and Mutts have been a central component of economic, social, political, and religious life of the Hindus. The unique religious traditions of the Hindus, their religious texts, dances, tantric practices, Temple arts and sciences, and philosophical debates typically involves making offerings at temples, reciting prayers, maintaining a home shrine, celebrating annual festivals, and completing pilgrimages to sacred sites. All these are regulated and controlled by specially set-up government institutions like Devasthanams and various Shrine Boards, which are all politically dominated by the ruling party in power. They are actively involved in instituting anti-Hindu measures or turning a blind eye to many infractions that occur routinely, which hurt the sentiments of lakhs of believers.

All this has been made possible by the parent enactment instituted by the British, known as The Madras Religious and Charitable Endowments Act 1925 and the various amendments that have later come into existence for the sole purpose of controlling Hindu Temples, with an eye on their moveable and immoveable assets. The international community needs to take cognizance of the nearly century old control only over Hindu Temples in India, and help in liberating them from the clutches of political parties.

Writer can be contacted at shreemenon48@gmail.com

The author Dr G Shreekumar Menon, IRS (Rtd) Ph. D (Narcotics), is Former Director General National Academy of Customs Indirect Taxes and Narcotics, & Multi-Disciplinary School of Economic Intelligence India,

Fellow, James Martin Centre for Non-Proliferation Studies, USA. Fellow, Centre for International Trade & Security, University of Georgia, USA 

Fellow Public Administration, Maxwell School of Public Administration, Syracuse University, U.S.A.

AOTS Scholar, Japan

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