Eyeing Kerala's temple jackpot: But whose money is it anyway?

The riches found in the vaults of Thiruvananthapuram's centuries-old Padmanabhaswamy temple have suddenly become the focus of envy and covetous glances all around. Since such riches are rare in any community or group, people are already debating what should be done with it.

Nobody has stopped to think about who has the right to talk about the money or its use. We may all have our opinions on how our neighbours should spend their money, but should we be telling that till we are asked?

 Eyeing Keralas temple jackpot: But whose money is it anyway?

Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram. PTI

The situation is best illustrated in this joke. A Left propagandist targeting potential recruits among the poor makes a passionate speech against private property and calls for a redistribution of wealth. At the end of it, he asks people in the audience rhetorical questions to drive home the point that wealth should be shared.

"If you have 10 cows will you not share it with your fellow human beings?" he asks.

"We will," came the roar.

"If you have two houses won't you give one to your neighbor who is shivering in the rain?

"Yes, yes," came the still-enthusiastic answer.

Having prepared the crowd to think sharing, the propagandist points to one villager and asks him:

"If, Sir, you have two shirts, won't you give one to this man?" he asks, pointing to a shirtless person sitting nearby.

A deathly silence ensued. After a while, the man answered, "No."

Flummoxed by this turn of events, the propagandist asks, "But why? He is a poor man..."

To which the man replies simply. "I have two shirts."

The moral of the story is this. It is easy to talk about sharing things that are not yours.

Coming back to the temple's riches, which are being estimated to be in excess of Rs 1,00,000 crore, one can make three points. First, whose money is it anyway? Second, who has the right to talk about how it should be used? And third, is the value actually that huge that everyone should covet it? The Tirupati temple's riches and jewels are insured for Rs 52,000 crore. So Padmanabhaswamy's riches are only twice as much. Bigger, but not earth-shatteringly so.

For contrast, let's note that the UPA government garnered over Rs 1,06,000 crore in the 3G (third generation) spectrum auction last year. The entire money was blown up in oil subsidies in less than a year. So much for using public resources well. Do we want huge resources in the hands of a spendthrift and wasteful state?

In further contrast, let's also note that A Raja caused a loss in excess of Rs 1,76,000 crore by selling spectrum at throwaway prices, according to the Comptroller and Auditor General. So what's so huge about Rs 1,00,000 crore found in a temple vault? Compared to the size of the Hindu population or even Kerala's population, the money is minuscule. With Rs 1,00,000 crore, we can finance NREGA for two years, or give all Indians an one-time gift cheque of Rs 830. NREGA already gives every rural Indian the option of earning Rs 9,000 every year. So what are we fighting about?

But while no one has stopped to ponder over these points, everybody is busy distributing what doesn't belong to them - especially the secular Lefties.

KN Panicker, Left historian, wants the money to be treated as the legacy of the state. "The assets accumulated over centuries were the offerings made by kings and devotees. The kings from elsewhere had also contributed. It is a state property with a lot of public contributions," Panicker told The Indian Express.

Note the sweep of the claims. First, it is state property. The implication is that it can be expropriated. Second, the contribution of kings is emphasised to make it sound anti-people. So, once again, he is trying to suggest that the people (i.e. the wastrel state government) can take it away. Third, there is a minor concession that devotees may also have contributed to the riches. While kings do contribute, isn't it more likely that most of the money may have come from devotees - which is the case even today at temples and mosques? If the latter is true, how can the state lay claim to all the money?

Judge CS Rajan (retired), who is part of the panel appointed by the Supreme Court to inventory the temple's assets, also says that the money came largely from kings. "What we have found in the temple are offerings made by successive kings of the Travancore princely state." How does he know that? According to him kings had the habit of dropping a gold coin in whenever they visited the temple.

Now, here again, there is an attempt to obfuscate issues. If kings drop gold coins every day, they did so as devotees, not as part of the state. Just as the rich today make huge personal donations to temples, the king as the wealthiest individual in the state did so, too. So this is no way to claim these are state funds.

Former Supreme Court justice VR Krishna Iyer, quoted by India Today, is clear that the money should be used in public interest. "The treasure should be handed over to a national trust and spent for the welfare of the poor."

P Mohanan PIllai, professor at Kerala's Centre for Development Studies, is somewhere in the middle of this debate: "Only the palace records can say whether all that was tax money or a combination of temple offerings and public money," he told The Economic Times.

If the money was purely from taxes, it belongs to the state. Several counter-arguments are possible.

Which state? The state of Kerala, which came into being after independence, or the former Travancore state, which is not exactly co-terminus with modern-day Kerala?

Moreover, if the argument is that the money belongs to the state, howsoever defined, we are essentially saying that any state property found with religious institutions belong to the state. The riches are now with the temple because either the kings or the devotees gifted it. Can a king's gifts be taken away just like that? Unless it can be proved that he used the temple as a substitute for the state treasury.

In any case, if state gifts belong to the people, why not confiscate all the temple, church and mosque properties and lands in the country. After all, all these were gifted by the state for religious purposes. The Brits, for example gifted huge chunks of now expensive land in cities to the Anglican Church because they wanted the church to play a supporting role among the people to legitimise their rule. Why not get all these back?

If the argument is that costly assets should be put to better use-like feeding the poor - why not do the same with the land given to all religious institutions (church, mosque or temple) for almost all of them sit on costly urban real estate? Religious institutions should move to cheaper locations, which is where the poor are anyway.

The other presumption is that temple wealth salted away is a kind of useless activity. This is like saying the Taj Mahal is a useless building since no one lives in it. Even for an agnostic I can tell you that every major temple complex supports a huge micro-economy where not only priests, but traders, tourist operators, restaurants, lodges and hawkers build their livelihoods. The very existence of a temple or a mosque means economic activity is enhanced. Even if all the wealth of the Padmanabhaswamy temple were merely housed in a museum, they would earn crores, generating further economic activity. So this argument that the money should be used for the poor is flawed. The poor are building a livelihood around it.

Another line of argument is even plainer: the state can take the riches anyway by its legislative power. If the poor can be asked to give up their land for building roads and Special Economic Zones, why can't temple funds be used to run NREGA?

I would buy this argument if it is applied uniformly to the riches residing with all communities. This is where our secular credentials are wishy-washy. Ask yourself: if the wealth had been found not at the Padmanabhaswamy temple but in a church or a mosque, would we be debating how the money should be used by the state?

The answer to this question should decide how we should discuss the wealth of the Kerala temple.

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Updated Date: Dec 20, 2014 03:59:13 IST