On Monday, an interview with Tamil Nadu’s new finance minister PTR Palanivel Thiaga Rajan in The Hindu caused a stir. A long-time critic of Jaggi Vasudev, Thiagarajan described the yogi and author as a “commercial operator” who uses religion and spirituality to make money. In particular, he hit out at the campaign by Vasudev’s Isha Foundation demanding that the Tamil Nadu government release Hindu temples in the state from its control.

“In the case of Jaggi, he is a publicity hound who is trying to find another angle to make more money,” the minister said in the interview. He also took to Twitter to warn that Vasudev was “a violator of the law” and would face the consequences for this.

To those who have been following Thiaga Rajan’s statements, his remarks about Vasudev did not come as a surprise. For months, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam member had been alleging that the Isha Foundation’s campaign urging the state to relinquish control of temples in Tamil Nadu was just an attempt to make more money.

Since Thiaga Rajan’s party won the state elections earlier this month and he was given an important cabinet portfolio, his comments have assumed greater weight.

However, this is more than just a war of words between a minister and the Isha Foundation. Given the important role temples play in the lives of many Tamil Hindus, the debate has great significance for Tamil society.

The campaign

When Isha Foundation’s campaign to “free temples” was launched in March, it received wide media coverage. Vasudev himself gave interviews to popular television anchors and wrote op-eds explaining his position on the temples.

In an article written on Firstpost on March 25, Vasudev claimed that it was Tamil Nadu that had the largest number of temples under state management. It was the state with the “most draconian” law for control, he claimed. “If we can set an example here [Tamil Nadu], the movement will naturally take off everywhere else,” he said.

Vasudev’s argument was primarily based on an affidavit the Tamil Nadu government filed before the Madras High Court in July. In a public interest litigation that sought financial assistance for labourers dependent on temples during the pandemic, the government said that 11,999 temples under its management do not have the means to conduct rituals even once a day.

According to the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments department’s policy note for 2020-2021, it has 38,655 temples under its direct control. Of these, 34,102 temples – 88.22% – generate revenues of less than Rs 10,000 a year. As per the department’s court submissions, only 1,000 temples had surplus funds at their disposal after dealing with their expenses.

Vasudev claimed that most Tamil Nadu temples will vanish in the next 100 years if they remain under state management. He says that control of the temples to be vested in the community and the devotees.

This demand is not new.

For decades, Sangh Parivar organisations have made the same demand. The Bharatiya Janata Party has consistently put this demand in its election manifestos. Its leaders have also claimed that temple lands is being grabbed and encroached on by criminal elements with the government turning a blind eye. Some leaders have even gone to the extent of claiming that thousands of temples have disappeared as they have been demolished to make way for commercial buildings.

The history

Government control of temples has a long history in Tamil Nadu, leading back to the British era.

When Scroll.in spoke to Thiaga Rajan on April 18 when he was still in the Opposition, he said the laws had been enacted to manage temple endowments in order to put an end to abuse by local “mafias and vested interests”. These people were exploiting the resources of shrines since the administrative transition from the rule of local kings and chieftains to the British had not been smooth.

In 1817, the British East India Company passed the Madras Regulation VII. Through this regulation, the management of religious endowments in the Madras Presidency was brought under British control through the Board of Revenues. There was great opposition to this regulation and it fell into disuse by 1840.

The 1817 regulation was replaced by the 1863 Religious Endowments Act. The law went through further changes in 1890 and 1920, when the Justice Party formed the government in the Madras Presidency.

The Justice Party government enacted the Hindu Religious Endowments Act of 1926 that also underwent several changes well into the 1940s.

Post-Independence, the state government passed the Madras Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act. After considering elements of the judgement by the Supreme Court in the Shirur Mutt case in 1954, which had challenged some of the provisions of the 1926 Act when it was in force, the Tamil Nadu government in 1959 brought in the new Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act. It is this law that is currently in force in the state.

Thiaga Rajan had told Scroll.in that the British had formed a six-member committee of Brahmin men as far back as the 1890s to assess the administrative model that was prevalent then and provide inputs. “The committee came back and said there were widespread abuses in temple management and a legal remedy was necessary,” Thiyagarajan added.

Coincidentally, Thiaga Rajan’s grandfather PT Rajan, a former chief minister of Tamil Nadu, had been part of the Justice Party that was instrumental in passing the Madras Hindu Religious Endowments Act.

“Unlike what is being peddled, the laws put the control of the temples back in the people’s hands as in a representative democracy it is the government that represents the people,” Thiaga Rajan said.

Temple management

In Tamil Nadu today, some temples have hereditary trustees who have been in the management for generations while other temples have government-appointed non-hereditary trustees.

Given that most of the hereditary trustees come from the community, are such temples managed better?

That isn’t necessarily the case, said lawyer AK Sriram, who has represented hundreds of temples in the courts over the last 25 years and is recognised as an expert on the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act.

Sriram said that there are hundreds of recorded instances where the hereditary trustees have sold off temple properties. In all these cases, it is government officials who have questioned these transactions. “In fact, I would say the recorded instances of such sale of temple property is found only in temples with hereditary trustees,” he said.

The lawyer gave the example of a famous shrine where the alleged trustees illegally sold temple land. “A trust with the exact name of the temple was registered in 2008 by some devotees,” he said. “A month later, permission was sought in the district court claiming 1.76 acres of the temple land actually belonged to this new trust. Permission was surprisingly granted by the court and the land was transferred.”

Three years later, the executive officer of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department identified this illegality. The matter was then taken to the Madras High Court, which set aside the district court’s order.

In fact, Sriram went to the extent of stating that there are hundreds of “recorded instances” of trustees siphoning off funds from temples but hardly any by officers of the department.

So what is the problem with the officers?

Sriram said they sometimes use temple funds for purposes that are not strictly related to the temple. In most cases, though, “it is non-utilisation of funds”, he said, emphasising that he has not come across instances of the money going outside the system. “In some cases, funds belonging to the temple are being used for purposes other than religious or charitable purposes. These instances are being highlighted by some activists.”

The lawyer said that over the decade, there had been about 18 lakh audit objections across temples under government control. But the majority of these are extremely minor and bureaucratic.

He also said giving the temples back to the community will raise its own problems, given the factionalism that exists in most of these temples. “I have personally come across hundreds of cases where factions of devotees within a temple fight for control of the temple, its assets and finances,” Sriram said.

Thiaga Rajan made the same observation. “If the government doesn’t manage, who do we give the temple to?” he asked. “What will be the mode of management? Who will appoint these people? And who will watch over what is happening?” he asked.

Isha’s response

A statement issued by Isha Foundation followers on Monday as a response to Thiaga Rajan’s comments said that they regret the deterioration of culture and standards of public discourse. “This is certainly unbecoming of an elected representative and an honorable member of the state’s cabinet,”the open letter said. “It is deeply unfortunate that a person holding high public office should resort to name-calling of a highly respected public figure.This unseemly attack trivialises the efforts and dedication of millions of Isha volunteers worldwide who are working tirelessly in service of humanity.”

Citing several initiatives by the foundation to help the people of Tamil Nadu, the letter claimed that the organisation has been working closely with elected governments in the spirit of cooperation.