Mains Paper 1: History
Prelims level: Uttarakhand Char Dham Devasthanam Management Act
Mains level: Indian Culture and heritage
• Uttarakhand CM Tirath Singh Rawat on Friday, revoked the Trivendra Singh Rawat govt’s ‘Uttarakhand Char Dham Devasthanam Management Act’, freeing 51 temples.
What is the Uttarakhand Char Dham Devasthanam Management Act?
• In 2019, the Trivendra Singh Rawat government had passed the Uttarakhand Char Dham Devasthanam Management Act in the Assembly taking over control of major Hindu religious institutions.
• The Act allowed the government to nominate MPs, MLAs, and representatives as the chairman and members to the temple’s boards for its management.
• The Act was heavily criticised by the Opposition and aggrieved priests who reportedly claim that they were ‘kept in the dark’ regarding the law.
• BJP’s Subramanian Swamy had filed a PIL challenging the constitutional validity claiming that it violates Articles 31 A(1) (b), Article 25 and 26 of the Constitution.
• A myth is trotted out to justify sovereign control of temples: that Hindu temples were supervised and managed by kings, who “habitually employed ministries to supervise temples and charitable bodies”.
• Like many myths the colonials perpetuated, this too must be disabused: there is not a shred of historical source to support this claim.
• On the contrary there are inscriptions, cast in stone, that attest that temples were managed wholly and entirely by local communities.
State in religion:
• The state has assumed the role of religious functionaries to determine who will be heads of Mutts and the authority to conduct poojas.
1. For example, The Shri Jagannath Temple Act, 1954 entrusted the committee appointed by the state with the task of ensuring the performance of seva pooja.
2. When the Act was questioned by the Raja of Puri before the Supreme Court, in Raja Birakishore vs The State Of Orissa, the Court made a revelation: the performance of a puja is in fact a secular act and, therefore, the state is justified in its regulation.
• The exercise of state regulation of secular aspects of religion was taken to extreme lengths when the Court ruled that the state, by appointing temple priests, was exercising a secular function (Seshammal & Ors, Etc. Etc vs State Of Tamil Nadu).
• Whatever style of secularism we subscribe to, surely the Indian state is not to tell the believer how he/she is to offer worship to the deity nor is it to tell the custodian of the deity how she will be appointed.
• Constituent Assembly framed the religious liberty clauses keeping in mind the historical prohibition of entry to certain classes and sections of Hindu society.
• Article 25(2) grants power to the State to enact law on two distinct aspects.
1. Article 25(2)(a) empowers the state to regulate “economic, financial, political or other secular activities which may be associated with religious practice”.
2. Article 25(2)(b) enables the state to enact law to prohibit the exclusion of ‘classes and sections’ of Hindu society to enter into Hindu temples of a public character and also make law for social welfare and reform.
• Thus, the control of secular aspects associated with religion and the power to throw open Hindu temples to all classes and sections of society are distinct.
• The control of secular aspects is not a measure of any social reform.
• Viewed from this standpoint, the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department is not a “tribune for social justice” as argued in the article nor has it ever guaranteed equal access to worship.
• Nowhere does the text of the Constitution permit the state to assume ownership of properties belonging to religious institutions and treat them as state largesse to be siphoned off.
• The only vestige of authority under the Constitution empowering the state to take over property of religious institutions is under Article 31A (b).
• The history of legislative practice of endowment laws reveals the state prerogative in ensuring regulation of only secular activities.
• As a matter of fact, the Shirur Mutt case, while upholding certain provisions of the 1951 Act, struck down a major portion of the Act characterising the provisions as a “disastrous invasion” of religious liberty.
• In 1959, the Legislature ‘cured’ the defects pointed out by the Supreme Court, by inserting verbatim the very provisions that the Supreme Court had stuck down in 1954.
Applicable to charities:
• The Waqf Act justification for the legitimacy of control of Hindu religious endowments is misleading.
• A reading of the Act reveals that it applies to charities and specifically excludes places of worship such as mosques.
• In fact the scheme of the Waqf Act supports the argument that the government should not regulate places of worship.
• The most fundamental criticism against the release of Hindu temples from government control to the society is two-fold.
1. First, it is asked to whom will the temples be handed over to?
2. Second, once restored to the community, will it not perpetuate class hierarchies?
• What is being asserted by the community is the right of representation in the affairs of the management of temples.
1. This right of representation can be effectuated by the creation of boards representative of religious heads, priests and responsible members from the dharmik sampradaya.
2. The logic is simple. Members who profess a particular dharmik sampradaya will have its due interest in mind.
• When the British government realised that a secular government should take no part in the management of religious institutions, it enacted the Religious Endowments Act (Act XX of 1863) repealing the pre-existing Bengal and Madras Regulations.
• Interestingly, in handing over the religious institutions to the society, it created committees in every district to exercise control over temples.
• Section 8 of the Act provided that the members of the committee to be appointed from persons professing the religion, for purposes of which the religious establishment was founded or maintained and in accordance with the general wishes of those who are interested in the maintenance of the institution.
• For this purpose, the local government caused an election.
• In the spirit of equality of all religions, this scheme should be applicable to all religious institutions which would guarantee adequate community representation in the management of their places of worship.