K Chandrasekhar Rao and his golden gift to Tirupati: Why the government is in the business of faith
This morning, the Chief Minister of Telangana visited Tirupati and donated gold ornaments worth five and a half crores to the temple of Lord Venkateswara Swamy.
Ministers have been visiting temples in India since independence and this has resulted in so many classes of queues for darshans in major temples that they put ticket classifications at the recent Coldplay Concert in Mumbai to shame.
This begged the obvious question, was this really a good use of tax payer money? To donate money to temples like this? Especially when there was this massive drought in the state where the money should ideally be going. Official sources said that the funds for the ornaments were coming from the Common Good Fund of the Endowments Department of the Government of Telangana, a fund earmarked for the renovation of dilapidated temples.
It is doubtful how much the richest temple in the world will need renovation. But the use of this money to fulfil a vow made during a campaign for statehood would not be a proper utilisation of the funds. But using state funds to fulfil personal vows appears to be trend with KCR and his Government.
Now the question that must follow this is: Why is it that state governments have an endowments department that manages certain temples? They also have a wakf boards that administrator to manage certain wakfs (Muslim charitable trusts) that in turn are responsible for the management and administration of mosques and Dargahs. This situation in India today is similar to why the Crown in England owns the properties of the Church of England.
Post-independence and even on the onset of British administration, many of the Temples and Mosques in India that were running under the patronage of the local rulers (both Hindus and Muslims) became Trusts/Charitable Endowments under English Common Law and the British government became responsible for them as those who were taking responsibility earlier were no longer in office. Upon the exit of British administration, the independent Indian government took charge of these responsibilities.
Which is why it is quite interesting, today's donation of gold ornaments will be done to a temple that is managed by an Act of the Legislature of Andhra Pradesh, and the said donation will be made from funds that Telangana has allocated under it's charitable endowments budget for the upkeep of temples. Essentially one temple paid for the gold that is being given to another temple.
But keeping the view in mind that India is a secular state. Should this situation of government interference in the affairs of temples and mosques be one that should be continuing or one that is merely a curiosity of history? On one hand, it offers numerous advantages, such as the ability to legislate social reforms easily at least so far as government managed religious properties are concerned. Temple entry proclamations, social reform of as to which priests who can perform rituals etc can be easily fixed by the government for those religious institutions that fall within it's writ leaving temples of a purely private character to play catch up (similar to Government colleges and private colleges).
On the other hand, it makes the case for India being a purely secular country only that much harder. As instead of seeing a state where no religion is welcome, now state governments must walk the delicate line of showing that all religions get equal benefit of the state governments benevolence — which in the long run will always open the Republic to political risks.
As more than seventy years have passed since independence, wakf and endowment reform is the need of the hour. Ideally, the trusts should be re-incorporated as non-profit organisations or at least as body corporates, not under the management of the government and made functionally independent. The level of oversight should be limited to their funds. Questions as to if they should be taxed or not should be kept open for debate, as this author does not wish to comment on that right now. But, if all the gold in India's temples made it to the RBI's treasury (even as deposits), and all the wakf properties were nationalised, it would be a great boost to India's emerging economy.
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