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Karnataka govt wants to ‘free temples’. But from what exactly?

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While it is true that the Muzrai department does regulate a significant number of temples in the state, the funds collected from them are not used for any other purpose, certainly not to fund any minority organisation.

The stage has been set for the latest right-wing project in BJP-ruled Karnataka — the ‘free temples from government control’ campaign. For years now, the right-wing, backed by the BJP has been alleging that money that Hindus donate to temples is being given away to mosques and churches in the state. And riding on this false rhetoric, the BJP government has announced that in the upcoming Budget session of the Assembly, they will bring in a law to remove Hindu temples from state control.

After the anti-conversion Bill, this pet project of Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai is one that has captured the imagination of Hindu believers. But there is one big issue with this Hindu victimisation narrative: it is cloaked in falsehood. While it is true that the Karnataka Hindu Religious Institutions And Charitable Endowments Department, or the Muzrai department, does regulate a significant number of temples in the state, the funds collected from them are not used for any other purpose, certainly not to fund any minority organisation. In fact, the state government gives funds from the state exchequer’s tax money for development and maintenance of Hindu temples. 


Here’s how Karnataka’s temples are currently running

Contrary to the narrative pushed by the right-wing, not all temples in Karnataka are controlled by the state. Karnataka has around 1,80,000 temples, of which only 35,500 temples come under the Muzrai department. These temples are put in three categories based on their annual income. Grade A has 205 temples that earn more than Rs 25 lakh annually; Grade B has 139 temples earning between Rs 5 and Rs 10 lakh per annum; Grade C has 34,219 temples that earn less than Rs 5 lakh per annum. 

Only temples under Grade A and B contribute to the Muzrai department — an amount of 10% and 5% of their annual income respectively. This money goes into a common pool administered by the Commissioner of the Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowments department. Between 2012-13 and 2017-18, a period of six year, a total of Rs 65.24 crore have been collected from these temples according to an RTI reply to India Facts.

TNM has accessed the total income and expenses of the Grade A temples in Karnataka for the last three years. In the year 2018-19, the 139 temples in Grade A cumulatively had an income of Rs 21.33 crore, while their expenses were Rs 13.59 crore, with a total savings of Rs 7.73 crore. In the year 2019-20, the income was Rs 21.7 cr, the expenditure was Rs 14.17 crore,  and the savings were Rs 7.44 crore; and for the year 2020-21, the income was Rs 14.47 crore, expenses were Rs 9.66 crore, and savings Rs 4.81 crore. An amount that is 10% of the earnings is contributed to the Muzrai department’s common pool. That means, in 2020-21, the 205 Grade A temples in Karnataka together would have contributed about Rs 74 lakh to the Muzrai department.

What is the money in the common pool used for? Mainly to pay for the maintenance of the smaller Hindu temples that don’t make enough money. This includes payment of the archakas (priests), payment of electricity and water bills, maintaining the cleanliness of the temple premises, expenses incurred for provisions for pooja like flowers, coconuts etc. Only the temple employees are paid salaries drawn from the temple funds. The salaries of the Muzrai department employees who are involved in activities like audit of temple ledgers, distribution of funds to low-income temples, organising facilities including food and lodging for pilgrims, is paid for by the state government. 

Essentially, ‘Hindu money’ isn’t being used for ‘other communities’ or purposes. Grants for development and maintenance of temples are disbursed from this pool of money, after temple authorities submit a plan and estimate, signed by an executive engineer. This request is sent to the Deputy Commissioner (DC). After scrutiny of the proposal, grants are released. 

For temples where the income is too low to even meet expenditures like the daily pooja, a request for grants is submitted to the DC; and after the proposal is verified, grants are disbursed annually through the local Tehsildar.

The government decides if the request for funds by temples is legitimate and accordingly releases funds. If there are any surplus funds remaining in the common pool after renovation and development works, the savings are deposited in the name of the temples and the department decides what is to be done with the funds. 

The department also has a say in the appointment of archakas (priests) as well as trustees for temples. In case of any dispute between the trustees of a particular temple, or disputes between temples, regarding issues like processional routes, role of each priest (in case of multiple priests in a temple), the department acts as a mediator and a judge to resolve conflicts. 

But those pushing for ‘freeing of temples’ have been, for long, claiming that the money collected from temples are used to fund other government activities as well as to fund activities related to other religions. Here’s another fact to consider: the Hindu Religious Endowments Law currently in place clearly prohibits this. Chapter IV, Section 19(2) clearly states that the funds collected cannot be used for another purpose: “(ii) contribution and donation made to institution, or institution of any religious denomination or any section thereof shall be utilised for the benefit of that particular class or denomination or section only.” 


Why does government give grants to Hindu institutions

The state government earmarks funds in the annual budgets to be given to Hindu temples and other religious institutions like mutts. These funds are used for development/renovation of religious institutions, grants for pilgrimage and Tasdik grants. 

Tasdik is the compensation the state government gives in return for the lands taken over by the state government, after the Karnataka Inam Abolition Act 1955 section 21. In lieu of the state government taking over the land that was given to the temples, the state government gives an annual, fixed compensation. Like this compensation is given to temples, the state government also provides tasdik to mosques where land has been taken over by the government. But the funds for this do not come from the temple coffers but are a separate allocation in the annual budget, a senior official of the endowments department confirmed to TNM. 

The state government also provides financial assistance of Rs 20,000 per person to pilgrims who complete the Chardham Yatra (Badrinath, Dwarka, Puri and Rameswaram) and Rs 30,000 to pilgrims who travel on the Manasa Sarovara Yatra. 

In addition to this, special grants to religious mutts and temples, too, are budgeted by the state government. 

According to a reply given by the office of the Muzrai Minister Shashikala Jolle, during the period of 2020-21, the state government allotted Rs 465 crore for Hindu temples and religious institutions. The previous year, in 2019-20, the then government led by BS Yediyurappa had granted Rs 294 crore. Under the coalition government led by HD Kumaraswamy, in the year 2018-19, the government had granted Rs 248 crore. Under Siddaramaiah’s government, in 2017-18, the state government had allotted Rs 447 crore. 

What the government plans to do

A source in BJP confirms to TNM that the push for the Bill in Karnataka has come after a ‘spiritual guru’ based in Tamil Nadu convinced certain RSS leaders that in Karnataka, where the BJP is in power, temples should have complete autonomy. He used two prominent BJP leaders, both with links in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, to do his bidding.

While grand announcements have been made on ‘freeing temples’, the Karnataka government currently is still clueless about how to frame the Bill. CM Bommai has declared that his government will table the Bill in the upcoming Assembly session but the meetings are still in preliminary stages and the Minister for Muzrai in Karnataka, Shashikala Jolle, tells TNM that discussions have just started on who the temples should be handed over to. 

“This will be a long process and there will be multiple consultations with stakeholders, temple authorities, as well as legal experts,” Jolle says. “The idea is to make it similar to how other religious organisations are functioning independently. We are discussing guidelines with the CM. There was a representation to the CM that pointed out that religious organisations of other faiths are functioning well, so why only regulate temples,” she adds. 

BJP National General Secretary CT Ravi, who has been vocal in support of ‘freeing temples’ from the state government, says that the BJP government plans to give the temples ‘back to the society’. “Each temple will be handed over to a self-governed committee, and then handed over to the society. A government representative may or may not be there in the committee, but there will be no government interference in how temples will be governed,” CT Ravi tells TNM. Will the government continue to give funds to temples though, without any administrative control? CT Ravi says this will have to be figured out in the coming days. 

“There is always a small possibility of misadministration because of this, but we cannot say the system is bad. Much like how we cannot say democracy is bad because there are corrupt politicians,” CT Ravi says. 

Asked on how the smaller temples with insufficient income will function, Ravi says that bigger, wealthier temples can be tied-up with the smaller ones. “Once the temples go to the society, there are many ways of funding. Companies have CSR funds that can be given to temples, they can adopt temples and run them too. Why should temples ask money from the government to even light lamps? People now feel that temples are not theirs, but the government’s. If we give it back, there will be a sense of ownership and belongingness. There are many temples which are outside the jurisdiction of the government department. Are they not functioning well?” Ravi asks. 

After conversations with half a dozen people in the government, it becomes apparent that as of now, the government is grappling with framing guidelines on a monitoring mechanism for temples in case of misappropriation of funds or in the event of misconduct by temple committee members. 

The Congress has been opposing this move and has accused the BJP of destroying the social fabric of Karnataka with this proposed Bill. In addition, the Congress says this will lead to rampant corruption in temple administration and financial transactions. 

 Speaking to TNM, Congress leader VS Ugrappa asks what guarantee the government can give that the temple money will be safeguarded from corruption. “Now the temples have to show their accounts to the Muzrai department. If you remove these checks and balances, then how do you know if just the head of a temple or mutt will not siphon away the funds?” Ugrappa asks.

“This is a move to privatise Hindu temples. Just like airports are being privatised by the BJP, so are temples. And they will be handed over to the brahmanical class that constitutes just around 3.8% of our population,” Ugrappa alleges.


Similar demands elsewhere in India

The ‘free temples from government control’ narrative and demand is not new but in the recent past, has gotten traction in neighbouring Tamil Nadu after Jaggi Vasudev who runs Isha Foundation has been vocally campaigning for Tamil Nadu’s temples to be freed from state control. 

The argument was made by BJP leaders, supporters and other right-wing leaders even when the Supreme Court had allowed entry of women into the Sabarimala temple in 2019. BJP MP Subramanian Swamy had also moved the SC asking for several prominent temples in Andhra Pradesh including the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD) to be taken away from state control. 

In April 2021, the Uttarakhand government removed 51 temples and shrines including Badrinath, Kedarnath and Gangotri from the state government’s control.


Political gains for BJP

Though Basavaraj Bommai is not seen as a mass leader, he was Yediyurappa’s go-to man for floor management in the Assembly. But the fact that he could not get the Karnataka Right to Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021 passed in the Legislative Council came as a huge loss of face for him. 

The announcement of a law in Karnataka to ‘free temples’ came close on the heels of this loss. In a bid to gain the political ground he lost, Bommai is believed to have made the announcement, even before it was discussed with his Cabinet. He has repeatedly been speaking about it to distract attention from his inability to get the Anti-Conversion Bill passed, despite all the grandstanding.

While Karnataka would not have been the first state in the country to frame laws against conversion, in the case of the ‘free temples’ campaign, Karnataka, under Bommai would be the first state to remove all temples from the Muzrai department. “The CM hopes to capture the imagination of the rest of the country with this law. It is the first time in the country that such a move has been made and Bommai will get brownie points for that, both within the party and the sangh. And make national headlines too,” a source close to CM Bommai tells TNM. 

And the Congress leaders opposing the move will only help the BJP further paint the Opposition as anti-Hindu, the source adds. 

For the BJP in Karnataka, reducing the dependence the state unit has on BS Yediyurappa is key for electoral success in the future and this will be a significant project in that direction, say insiders.

Congress leader Ugrappa says that with this Bill, the BJP government hopes to hand over some temples to the RSS or their affiliates to financially strengthen them. “More importantly, this will also serve as a distraction tactic to divert the attention of the common man from the failures of the state and Union government,” Ugrappa says. 


History of state administration of temples in south India 

State administration of temples dates back to the period of colonial rule with the Madras Regulation VII of 1817, under which temples were brought under government control. With this, the state took over administration of not just the temples but even the land attached to them. But in 1840, this was reversed. The Board of Revenue was created to supervise the administration of large, wealthy temples. 

The Religious Endowments Act 1863 was passed where the colonial government completely divested itself from administration or management of Religious Endowments and handed control to trustees. Section 22 of the law said, “Government not to hold charge henceforth of property for support of any mosque, temple, etc to undertake or resume the superintendence of any land or other property granted for the support of, or otherwise belonging to, any mosque, temple or other religious establishment, or to take any part in the management or appropriation of any endowment made for the maintenance of any such mosque, temple or other establishment, or to nominate or appoint any trustee, manager or superintendent thereof, or to be in any way concerned therewith.”

Under the Madras Religious and Charitable Endowments Act 1925, the British colonial government, once again sought to gain control over all religious institutions in the country but faced stiff resistance from Muslims and Christians. After widespread protests, the law dropped mosques and churches from its ambit and only included Hindu temples as well as religious education institutes under state control. In 1935, the Hindu Religious Endowment Board was created to take control over all Hindu religious activities. 

This has since formed the foundation of states, particularly in south India regulating temples. 




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