Dr G Shreekumar Menon
One of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution of India is the right to Freedom of Religion. Right to freedom of religion is described in Articles 25, 26, 27 and 28 of the Indian Constitution.
The world community is continuously kept informed by the democratically elected governments that India is one of the few countries in the world where its citizens enjoy unrestricted freedom of worship. But what is the sordid reality?
According to the 2011 Census of India, 966.3 million people have been identified as Hindu. They represent 79.8% of the country’s population. Yet, this huge segment of India’s population is denied its fundamental right to administer their Temples and use ancient Sanskrit language in prayers. The Hindus are also denied permission to teach their Scriptures inside Temples, and most shockingly – they have to pay to just offer prayers in many important Temples.
On paper, the Indian Constitution does not permit the State to run religious institutions. However, over 15 State Governments in India, control religious institutions of only the Hindus – more specifically Temples. For this brazen violation of the Constitution, State Governments have enacted draconian Acts like “The Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HRCE) Act 1951”, empowering them to take over temples and maintain complete control over them and their properties, right from the appointment of administrators to mandatory collection of 13-18% service charge. Stiff tariff is collected from the pilgrims under several guises, ranging from entry fees to exorbitant rates for performing various kinds of rituals.
Pilgrims who do not have the ability to pay the entry fees are forced to wait for periods beyond 24 hours, just to get a glimpse of their Lord. This may sound strange and absolutely obnoxious to people around the world but this is the sordid reality in India – a country that pontificates to the whole world about freedom of worship. More than 400, 000 Temples are under the unwarranted custody of State Governments, and India has the audacity to pretend to be a champion of religious freedom.
Despite the United Nations enunciating the UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination based on Religion or Belief of 1981 (the ‘Declaration on Religion or Belief’), it has failed to notice the blatant discrimination faced by 966.3 million Hindus in India. While the Hindus living in the USA and other European countries, enjoy the fullest freedom in running their Temples, their Hindu counterpart in India have to put up with innumerable restrictions including that of language. While Hindu Scriptures are in Sanskrit language, many politicians, who by virtue of their political affiliations have secured important positions in various Temple administration bodies, bully the hapless and timid priests not to use Sanskrit. Devotees are denied their basic fundamental right to express their prayers in their language of choice. This is like asking a Muslim not to use Arabic language for his prayers or a Roman Catholic not to use Latin. This is the worst sort of religious discrimination and language discrimination that any citizen can be subjected to. Nowhere in the world will devotees be suffering as the Hindus of India.
The Office of International Religious Freedom of U.S. Department of State, which promotes universal respect for freedom of religion or belief for all as a core objective of U.S. foreign policy, is yet to take cognizance of these human rights violations happening continuously in India. Though this institution is set up to monitor religiously motivated abuses, harassment, and discrimination worldwide, and recommend, develop, and implement policies and programs to address these concerns, nothing has been done to alleviate the misery of Hindus in India.
The Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief that is an independent expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, to identify existing and emerging obstacles to the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief and present recommendations on ways and means to overcome such obstacles, has not taken note of the restrictions placed on 966.3 million Hindus in India.
India, which is seeking permanent membership of the UN Security Council, needs to be told to address the plight of its Hindu worshippers. When India’s eighth term as a non-Permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, commenced, India’s Permanent Representative boasted that from “Kashmir to Kanyakumari”, India stood united by democracy, pluralism and commitment to fundamental rights. Somebody ought to have pointed out to him that 966.3 million Hindus of India have their right to worship, which is fully shackled. First set your house in order before preaching to the world shoulld have been the message.
The recent incident on Wednesday 13 October, at Kannur in Kerala, where the Malabar Devasom Board officials accompanied by a posse of Police, stormed into the Mattannur Mahadeva Temple, by breaking the locked gate and door, is a standing testimony of the brutal harassment that Hindu devotees have to face routinely. The storming into the Temple, accompanied by local Marxists, was done without any prior notice. Such uncivilized and forceful takeover of a religious place of worship happens only in India and only the Hindu Temples are routinely targeted.
Devotees who protested were beaten up, arrested, and harassed for resisting the illegal takeover. As is common, the Marxist party members will soon get appointed in various capacities in the Temple administration, impose stiff tariff for performing rituals and ceremonies, instal Hundis (money collection boxes) throughout the Temple. As there is no proper auditing by any reputed auditing firm, much of the funds collected are prone to misappropriation and unauthorised diversion. This is happening in every State in India and under every political dispensation, hence politicians of all hues, colours and titles keep quiet and connive at the discriminatory treatment meted out to Hindus exclusively. While the same politicians act with alacrity when it comes to the protection of places of worship of other communities, and vociferously defend their right to worship without interference by the State, around 966.3 million Hindus, routinely see their places of worship defiled and desecrated by State government officials and Police, in the name of ‘takeover’. Getting timely justice is a very rare phenomenon in India, hence Hindus despite approaching courts, are unable to liberate their places of worship from unauthorised and illegal control of State Governments.
While India is prompt in pointing fingers at other nations and accuse them of religious discrimination and other associated offences, they cleverly hide the takeover of Hindu Temples, which affects the religious freedom of 966.3 million Hindus. Nowhere else in the world are Hindu Temples taken over by any government, it happens only in India, why?
The most obnoxious imposition by the State governments is the imposition of a stiff levy just to pray. This is effected by herding devotees into special enclosures and deliberately creating a crowd of several hundreds. An arrangement is made, whereby, by paying a stiff fee, the crowd can be bypassed and priority worship is assured. This kind of obnoxious imposition has no parallel anywhere else in the world, and is known in euphemistic terms as ‘Special Darshan’, ‘Quick Darshan’, ‘VIP Darshan’. In simple terms it means ‘Pay to Pray’. This mortification is faced only by Hindu devotees in India. It is surprising that no nation has questioned this religious discrimination happening in India, no world organization has brought this to the notice of the United Nations Human Rights Commission for taking action.
The flimsy reasoning given by State governments in India for levying this ‘pay to pray’ imposition is that the rush of devotees is unmanageable. But this is a specious plea when we take into account that the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca attracts the world’s largest human gathering of almost 2.5 million worshippers. The Saudi government has no scheme like in India of ‘pay to pray’.
The United Nations Commission on Human Rights appointed Special Rapporteur on religious intolerance has the following as its mandate:
- To identify existing and emerging obstacles to the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief and present recommendations on ways and means to overcome such obstacles;
- To continue her/his efforts to examine incidents and governmental actions that are incompatible with the provisions of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief and to recommend remedial measures as appropriate.
The prevalence in India of the obnoxious exploitation of Hindu devotees directing them to ‘pay to pray’ definitely attracts the above clauses and warrants interference by the United Nations as the right to freedom of belief of 966.3 million Hindu devotees is at stake. That such a massive infraction of human rights and religious rights has not engaged the attention of the United Nations till date is a serious matter. It is hoped that the United Nations will deliberate on the need to protect the religious interests of 966.3 million Hindus, liberate their places of worship from State control and iniquitous impositions of levies and taxes. It will certainly be a landmark in the history of human struggle for religious freedom and right to worship.
While temple lands are shrinking or they are being encraoched with impunity, it has also been reported that the plan is to melt a couple of thousand kgs of temple gold. The seriousness of the matter can be gauged from the fact that the Tamil Nadu Government after coming under attack over the melting of temple gold into bars for being deposited in banks told the Madras High Court on Tuesday 12 October 2021 that such a gold monetisation scheme has continued for more than 4 decades.
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: Public Administration, Maxwell School of Public Administration, Syracuse University, U.S.A; andAOTS Scholar, Japan – www.shreekumarmenon.com