We have received some great news about Indian economy lately, but progress could be jeopardized if resentments related to government interference in religion are not addressed. In particular, there is long-simmering discontent about the policy of government takeover of temples and it is quite likely that this will become the next unmanageable problem for the country.
The state governments have based their policy on the recommendation of the Hindu Religious Endowments Commission headed by C P Ramaswamy Aiyer in 1960 that Hindu temples and maths be considered as belonging to the public. In ill-advised judgments, the courts have upheld government regulation of the financial aspects of an endowment, as if financial control has no bearing on the management of religious affairs.
The government entered into the religious sphere when the Indian government was very aggressively pushing state control over all aspects of Indian life. Socialist ideas had very little challenge amongst intellectuals or in the media at that time. The HRE Commission made its case based on accounts of corruption and mismanagement in the temple management boards.
Even assuming that the corruption charges were true, it did not require government take-over to fix things. A legal framework guaranteeing autonomy with checks and balances to ensure good management could have easily been devised. Such a system would have had the capacity to been proactive with reforms. One could have even hoped for a declaration that all jatis are equal, and aptitude and training, not birth, is the sole criterion for priesthood.
It would have been easier for the government to achieve such a result by not becoming a part of the system. As things stand, the government temple departments have been timid in the matter of social reform, often perpetuating vested interests. Neither have they done an effective job at producing texts, doing heritage research, or training priests. Critics charge that the level of corruption is now much greater than it was during self-management.
Some Hindus supported this process of consolidation in the hope that this will provide a legal framework for the management of temples (many of which had only traditional authority and no clear legal charter) and eventually they would be separated from the control of the State.
Having 'nationalized' temples, governments in several states run full-fledged ministries for their administration. For example, the Andhra Pradesh government runs 33,000 temples and endowments with a staff of 77,000 employees to 'ensure the proper performance of pujas.' The numbers in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala are equally mind-boggling. Many north Indian states have also established similar ministries.
Last time I checked, India's Constitution had an explicit declaration about its 'secular' character, but who cares. Meanwhile, the power-grab is great for the politicians:
1. Temple lands are often in prime localities. The politicians can sell parcels to the land mafia. The property need not be sold legally; one merely looks the other way as the mafia builds on it. Once the structure is up, India's system, which allows squatters to become lawful owners if they have occupied a property for more than twelve year, makes it virtually impossible to reclaim the land. (The squatter's law is also a reason for many communal riots when frustrations about land-grab by criminals take on religious overtones.
2. Most of the donations to the temples are made in the collection box (hundi). There are no accounting standards and the hundi can becomes a source for cash to the management.
3. It grants prestige.
4. Temple funds can be used in a variety of (non-temple) projects to help the government's popularity.
There might exist local pressure on the government to take over the function and upkeep of rural temples in return for the salary of the priest, using the income from the successful temples to subsidize the poor ones. But providing government jobs to a few priests can hardly be made the basis of public policy.
Whatever legitimate reasons one can think of, related either to good-management or temple tourism, can be taken care of by autonomous temple boards. The monolithic state-wide temple administration system, when it eventually becomes free of government control, would be a source of political infighting as seen in the case of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee in recent years. The policy of the nationalization of temples is leading to the very danger of politicization of religion that we must avoid at all costs.
Furthermore, it is doing untold damage to the principle of separation of government and religion. It is corrupting the bureaucracy and subverting the integrity of the political system. There is also resentment because the government has only taken over Hindu temples and not Christian churches or Muslim mosques.
The fact that such a policy has continued for years shows the bankruptcy of ideas in the bureaucracy. The government must define its mission with clarity. In matters outside of security, it should take care not to turn into sarkar (do-all) or hukumat (dictatorship) but rather shasan (regulator).
The longer the government continues with its temple administration, the greater the damage done to the national polity. It is a poison that the country can do without. Can't we leave the temples to the religious folks and move on with the challenges of making India a great and successful power?