NEW DELHI: On September 1, the Supreme Court has sought to know proof of mismanagement of temples being controlled and run by the governments. The court's query has come while hearing a PIL filed by Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay.
The petitioner just wanted parity for the Hindus like Muslims and Christians who are allowed to manage their own religious places and properties attached to them.
It is germane to point out that different state governments have passed respective laws to take control over temples of Hindus and thus have become recipient of hundreds of crore worth of offerings annually and owner of thousands of crores of properties including the vacant land, attached to such Hindu establishments.
It is again relevant here to point to the Waqf Act 1995, which has given uncontrolled power to the Waqf Board over the properties, making it third largest holder of lands in the country after Indian Railways and Defence, while religious endowment laws allowed the state authorities to take full control over Hindu and other religious institutions. Many a times, these temples in States of Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu are run and managed by the bureaucrat-administrators who are non-believers. The state administration, having full control over offerings in rich temples in Tirupati, Guruvayoor, Siddhivinayak, Vaishno Devi reportedly failed to keep the records of use of funds collected from them.
Some oral observations made by the Supreme Court on the last date of hearing in the matter are interesting to note:
"Receipts of the temple are from the public and it has to go to the public."
"We have a 150 year old history and these places of worship have catered to larger needs of society and not their own purpose only. Some temples have even given their lands for public purposes. You are asking us to roll back the clock."
"The scale of offering in Tirupati and Shirdi is so colossal... And you suggest that such should be out of any pale of regulation."
"These temples have functioned in a particular way, they have not aggrandised all the wealth or thousands of acres of lands to themselves. There has to be some framework for use of money."
"You are saying nobody will account the wealth and you will be centres of power. The other religions may have their own checks and balances."
These remarks have come after the petitioners claimed that there were gross mismanagement in these temples due to absolute control by the government. They also said even 15,000 temples had to be closed down in Karnataka.
RTI applications were filed on behalf of 'Lawstreet Journal' with the different state governments as well as the Union government to ascertain basic information with regard to the temples money and their allocation.
Much to our utter surprise and shock, not a single authority either of the Centre or the states had any information as to what is the total sum collected from the temples and where those funds were spent.
Some of the questions, we asked, were as following:
(1) What are the statues that govern religious places in the State?
(2) What is the amount of funds collected from religious institutions?
(3) What is the amount distributed to religious institutions through the state fund?
(4) Any other fund collected or distributed for the religious purposes?
Let's see some of the response received from different authorities.
The Union government's Ministry of Home Affairs cited Section 2(f) of the RTI Act. It also said, "since the information does not come under its purview, the requisite information may be treated as nil".
The MHA's Joint Secretary (Administration) also informed, "no such information is available as per the records held by the undersigned".
It also suggested the requisite information may be sought from the PIOs of the respective State governments. The Home Ministry also informed a copy of the RTI application is being transferred to the Ministry of Culture for providing the requisite information, if any held by them.
The Union government's Department of Expenditure under the Ministry of Finance in its response through the Office of Controller General of Accounts said, "the information sought seems to pertain to the public authority of the state government. Hence, your RTI application is being returned with the remarks that you are requested to submit your application to the concerned public authority under the state government".
However, the Ministry of Culture, gave an answer, limited to point number three on amount distributed to religious institutions.
Interestingly, it said, "Ministry of Culture administers a scheme namely "Seva Bhoaj Yojna" under which Central Goods and Services Tax (CGST) and Central Government's share of Integrated Goods and Services Tax (IGST) paid on purchase of specific raw food items by Charitable/Religious Institutions for distributing free food to public is reimbursed as Financial Assistance by the Government of India. Details are available in public domain at Ministry's website i.e. www.indiaculture.nic.in/schemes."
The Union government's Central Board of Direct Taxes under the Department of Revenue, in its reply, said, "the IT- Budget Division of CBDT deals with estimation and allocation of budget target and analysis of statistics only in respect of Budget Targets and Collection of Demands (Arrear and Current both)."
It, however, had transferred the application to Department of Economic Affairs, and Department of Expenditure and Ministry of Home Affairs.
Now, let's see how state governments dealt with the RTI application.
The Delhi government's department of revenue simply relied upon Section 2(f) of the RTI Act, saying the "questions are not covered under the definition of information".
Again the Delhi government's Minority Cell under the department of revenue gave a stock reply to all the queries, stating, "no such information is available in this branch. Further, it is informed that the questions are not covered under the definition of "information" as per Section 2(f) of the RTI Act".
With regard to our RTI queries, the Maharashtra government simply named laws and notification which governed religious places in the state, while responding to as "Nil" on substantial questions of funds collected from temples and distributed to religious institutions.
The laws and notifications named are:
(1) The Shree Sai Baba Sansthan Trust (Shirdi) Act 2004.
(2) Shree Siddhi Vinayak Ganapati Temple Trust (Prabhadevi) Act, 1980
(3) Western Maharashtra Devsthan Management Committee (Notification)
(4) Shri Tuljabhavani Mandir, Tuljapur, Dist Osmanabad (Notification)
(5) The Pandharpur Temples Act, 1973
Among others, the Punjab government also invoked Section 2 (f) of the RTI Act to state the queries were not covered under the definition of information.
Shockingly, none of other states and authorities, including those from South India, bothered to even file a response to the RTI’s filed by LawStreet Journal.
There are 18 states which controlled over four lakh temples in the country. The list of States which passed laws to take over the temples are, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Delhi, Haryana, Jammu And Kashmir, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Manipur, Pondicherry, Punjab, Rajasthan, Sikkim, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and West Bengal.
There are about 30 laws which controlled those temples. Here is the list:
(1) Religious Endowments Act, 1863
(2) Charitable Endowments Act, 1890
(3) Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925
(4) Bodh Gaya Temple Act, 1949
(5) Travancore -Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, 1950
(6) Bihar Hindu Religious Trusts Act, 1950
(7) Madras Hindu Religious Act and Charitable Endowment Act, 1951
(8) Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act, 1959
(9) Pondicherry Hindu Religious Institutions Act, 1972
(10) Shri Govindaji Temple Act, 1972
(11) Lainingthou Sanmahi Temple, Act, 1976
(12) Guruvayoor Devaswom Act, 1978
(13) Shree Siddhi Vinayak Ganpati Temple Trust (Prabhadevi) Act, 1980
(14) Telangana Charitable and Hindu Religious Institutions and Endowments Act, 1987
(15) Andhra Pradesh Charitable & Religious Institutions & Endowments Act, 1987
(16) Jammu & Kashmir Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Act,1988
(17) Shri Mata Mansa Devi Shrine Act, 1991
(18) Jammu and Kashmir Shri Amarnath Ji Shrine Act, 2000
(19) Madhya Pradesh Maa Sharda Devi Mandir Adhiniyam, 2002
(20) Shree Sai Baba Sansthan Trust (Shirdi) Act, 2004
(21) Koodalmanikyam Devaswom Act, 2005
(22) Jammu and Kashmir Shri Shiv Khori Shrine Act, 2008. (Act No. Iv Of 2008)
(23) Karnataka Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowments Act, 2011
(24) Jammu and Kashmir Shri Mata Sukhrala Devi Ji Shrine Act, 2013
(25) Sikkim Places of Pilgrimage Management Act, 2014
(26) Baba Baidyanath Dham - Basukinath Shrine Area Development Act, 2015
(27) Devasthan Trust (Shingnapur) Act, 2018
(28) Shree Karveer Niwasini Mahalaxmi Mandir (Kolhapur) Act, 2018
(29) Shree Shanaishwar Devasthan Trust (Shingnapur) Act, 2018
(30) Trimbakeshwar Devasthan Trust Act 2018.