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Sure, clean up Sai Trust, but govt has no business beyond it

The Andhra Pradesh government is said to be eyeing a takeover of the Sathya Sai Central Trust after the police seized Rs 35.5 lakh from a van belonging to the Trust. Earlier, some devotees had expressed doubts about the Trust's ability to run a clean show after the passing away of Shri Sai Baba on 24 April.

Lots of cash, gold, jewellery, and silver articles were found at Yajur Mandir, the residential quarters of the Sai Baba at Prashanti Nilayam in Puttaparthi. This hoard -cash of Rs 11.56 crore, 98 kg of gold and gold jewellery and 307 kg of silver-has since been deposited with the State Bank of India.

 Sure, clean up Sai Trust, but govt has no business beyond it

Who is the boss? God or government. Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Faced with public calls by some vested interests to take over the Trust, the Andhra Pradesh government is trying to muscle in, posing as the honest broker. "In the last four decades, the government has not interfered in the affairs of the trust. But now we are compelled to intervene in the wake of serious allegations of embezzlement of funds in Prashanti Nilayam," the State's Endowments Minister Ponnala Lakshmaiah said a few weeks ago.

While there can be no two opinions that the administration of temple and religious trust funds should be subject to public scrutiny, and especially by trustees and accountants acceptable to the vast majority of devotees, the fact is government involvement can at best be short-term. They should enter the picture to set things right-if they are wrong-and exit quickly.

But, unfortunately, India's flawed secularism has meant that temples and Hindu trusts are progressively being taken over by the government, or being legislated into various forms of government control, on the plea that they are being badly run. This is facilitated by the rapacity of politicians, who want to control temple resources for their own vested interests.

The Tirumala-Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD), India's richest temple complex, is administered by a separate government legislation, but it has been witnessing scam after scam in recent years. Government takeover clearly is not the solution to scams. Mumbai's Siddhivinayak Temple was taken over in the 1980s, but it continues to face allegations of corruption and political interference.

If governments were that good at running institutions, we would not have seen our public sector telecom and airline companies go to seed so quickly. If the Marans, Rajas, Praful Patels and Murli Deoras can't run the companies under their charge well, why should they be given control of temples, which are vastly more complex organisations, to run?

The crux of the problem is this: the same kind of hanky-panky plagues church and mosque trusts, too, but they are protected from excessive government interference by the mere fact that they are minority institutions. The government simply can't touch them. (Read more on these scams here and here.)

Control of church and mosque funds by the Christian and Muslim communities has enabled both to develop educational and healthcare institutions of great merit (the former more than the latter, because church institutions had a free run when the British were running the country).

But Hindu religious institutions are unable to muster up the same kind of institution building capabilities because in the name of secularism politicians are able to grab control of these institutions. And it's not about secular politicians ruining Hindu institutions. Hindutva politicians have done no better.

This is a complete perversion of the secular logic of our Constitution. The protection given to minority institutions has saved them from the dead hand of government control; left with only Hindu institutions to loot, political rapacity has been unleashed on them in full force. Not satisfied with the temples it is already running, the Maharashtra government's appetite has only grown.

It is not that government must never meddle, but its interventions need to be short, and restricted to righting what is wrong. The objective must be to probe, clean up and hand back control to the community.

Consider the case of corporations. When Satyam went belly-up due to promoter looting, the government set up a new board, which cleaned up the company's accounts and sold it to the Mahindras. But the TTDs and Siddhivinayak temples never leave government hands.

In all the southern states, there are entire ministries or departments running temples. In some states, surplus temple funds are actually mixed up with the state's exchequer, and used for other purposes. This is simply robbing Hindu devotees' cash for use in secular areas - and a clear breach of trust.

When a devotee deposits cash in the hundi, the money is meant for the temple and its administration. It is not meant for use in general purposes defined by politicians. So while governments can accuse Hindu trusts of bad governance, government entry has resulted in an even greater breach of trust with devotees.

If temples are left outside community control, they essentially stop being the glue that binds the community to build values and institutions for the long term. One example is the TTD, which controls the Tirupati temple and the associated educational and social institutions. These have been under government control for decades.

Unfortunately, even government trustees have been found to be misusing funds (they wanted to goldplate the temple, and failed to account for much of the money). The TTD trusts are significant, because they once ran some of the best educational institutions in south India. Today, these educational institutions are administered by the Andhra Pradesh government, and the use of funds is controlled by political imperatives rather than community needs and religious purposes.

Ever wonder why the best educational institutions in the country are Christian, Parsee or Aga Khani? This is because there is a very close linkage between community values, religious institutions and community welfare. Insulated from government interference, Christians, Parsees and the Aga Khani and Bohri Muslims have gone on to create CMC Vellore, St Stephens, St Xavier's, the Aga Khani Schools, Saifee Trusts, and the JB Petit Schools, which are among the best in the country.

The Sathya Sai educational institutions are also among the best, but if the government intervenes, one can kiss goodbye to another Hindu trust that would have been capable of creating world-class institutions.

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Updated Date: Dec 20, 2014 03:56:59 IST