The Devaswom Ordinance and its consequences

via Kummanam Rajashekaran published on May 21, 2007

The Devaswom Ordinance and its consequences
By Kummanam Rajashekaran


The Devaswom Ordinane, signed by the Kerala governor on February 4, has given rise to much protests and controversy. The minister in charge of devaswoms claimed that this ordinance protects the temples and is the most beneficial law for devotees after the Temply Entry Proclamation. The NSS gave its full and hearty support for the ordinance. At the same time, the SNDP called it anti-democratic and dangerous. The Hindu Aikya Vedi called it a temple destroying ordinance.
Though the response to the ordinance was mixed, the majority of Hindu organizations warned about the dangerous consequences of the ordinance and called upon Hindu society to oppose it united. It is an encouraging sign that most Hindu organizations have succeeded in creating an opinion against the ordinance.
The governor signed the ordinance on the morning of February 4 after long discussions and scrutiny. Attempts to change the law on devaswoms had begun a month ago when the devaswom minister wrote a letter containing 15 suggestions to the LDF convener. Among the main suggestions were:


a) end the right of the high court to audit devaswom accounts, b) give the government revision rights, c) make the number of devaswom board members nine and d) give the government the right to dismiss the devaswom board.
Hindu organizations came expressed strong displeasure as soon the contents of the letter were revealed. They submitted petitions to the chief minister, devaswom minister and the LDF convenor. The petition requested that devaswom rules may be amended only after consulting Hindu organizations, that the devaswom board should not lose its power of self-governance and that devaswom board should include representatives of devotees. The council of ministers twice discussed a draft ordinance prepared by the law ministry based on the suggestions of the devaswom minister. They then left it for the LDF’s consideration. The government was perturbed by the strong negative reactions of Hindu organizations.  LDF constituents like RSP and Kerala Congress expressed complete disagreement with the government’s attempt to control the devaswom board. Based on this, the council of ministers again discussed a draft ordinance on January 30. Conditions like submission of the devaswom’s audit report to the legislature, implementation of the government’s suggestions about the audit report by the devaswom board and the requirement that devaswom board members should take their oath of office in front of the chief secretary, were removed from the ordinance. The council of minister approved the amended ordinance and the governor signed it on February 4.
Many faulty and dangerous stipulations remain even in the amended ordinance signed by the governor. Some changes made in the conditions that were severely harmful to the temples and which put them in strict control of the government, are welcome. The most important point about this ordinance is that the government is unwilling to give the right of unconditional self-governance to the devaswom board as a basic right of Hindu society.
The following are the clauses in the ordinance which can harm Hindu society:
Following the ordinance, the governance of the temples under the Cochin-Travancore Devaswom Board was handed over to a government secretary (Section 13A).
From now on, devasom board members must take their oath of office in front of the government secretary (Section 2AA).
The devaswom commissioner must submit a working report on the devaswom board to the government once in three months (Section 29, sub-section 3A).
The devaswom board must submit an annual audit report to the government (Section 32, 8A).
The Public Service Commission will appoint employee of the devaswom board (Section 20, 29A).
The above clauses reduce the devaswom’s board right to self-governance and are harmful to the right of worship and religion of those who believe in our temples. The deveaswom ordinance is therefore anti-Hindu and unconstitutional.
The governor has said this in the preamble to the ordinance: “It has become necessary to take this urgent action, that is why the state governor has signed this ordinance.” This statement is baseless. Nothing has happened that makes a drastic change in the governance of temples necessary. There is no crisis in temple management. There is no rebellion or conflict and no temple has closed down. The ordinance does not clarify what are the circumstances that made it necessary to bring out the ordinance.
It is clear that there was no need to bring out an ordinance just a few days before the legislature was to meet. But there is one thing that the devaswom minister keeps saying again and again – corruption.  He keeps repeating that this ordinance has been brought to save the temples from corrupt temple managements. Even if we assume this to be correct for the sake of argument, the question remains as to why the government has not invoked the provisions of the Devaswom Act until now to take strict action against those it considers to be corrupt.
According to Clause 69 of this act, the High Court can removed members of the devaswom board after receiving a complaint from the advocate-general. According to Clause 124, the government can file a suit against devaswom board members in the district court. Clause 226 gives the high court the right to take strong action the devaswom board. Moreover, since the anti-corruption laws cover the devaswom boards, the government can even prosecute the board on charges of corruption. The government’s evil intentions are clear from the fact that it  dismissed the devaswom board even when such provisions exist for taking strong action against corruption.
If corruption is the reason for dismissal, why was the Cochin Devaswom Board dismissed even though there is no vigilance case against it? The minister says that it was the hurry to appoint a scheduled caste man in a powerful position that the reason for the hasty dismissal of the devaswom board. Was it out of love for the scheduled castes that a devaswom board, which had SC man A.C.Velayudhan as a member, was dismissed?  Was it done because of corruption? Both are not true.

The government claims that scheduled castes and women have been given representation by its ‘revolutionary’ act. That these sections of society have been assured membership of the devaswom board is welcome. No one has opposed it. But leaders of the CPM and Congress must clarify why these sections of society were kept away from positions of power or why a scheduled caste brother was never made the chairman of the devaswom board though existing laws do not prevent it? These leaders must apologize to these sections of society.
It is clear that it is neither opposition to corruption or love for the scheduled castes or women that is the reason for this ordinance. The only objective of dismissing the devaswom board after reducing its tenure was to infiltrate relatives into positions of power. Every one knows that a mere two years is just not enough to administer the Travancore and Cochin devaswom boards  which have 1300 and 400 temples respectively under their control. The political gain of this ordinance to the LDF government is that it can infiltrate its own people into 12 positions of power in the two devaswom boards twice during its tenure of five years.
With this ordinance, nearly 1700 temples in the Cochin and Travancore regions have come under the control of a government secretary. The government will administer the devaswom boards directly until the new boards are constituted.  No ‘secular’ government of Kerala has directly managed the temples in the past for such a long time. When the devaswom boards were dismissed, the government should have handed over the management of temples to the devaswom commissioner. It was to ensure government control over Hindu temples that a government secretary was appointed as the devaswom administrator.  During this period, all activities of temples in Cochin and Travancore will be conducted under the supervision of the government secretary.
For example, for the first time ever, the Shivaratri festival on the banks of the Periyar river in Aluva was conducted under the supervision of a ‘secular’ government. Even the Kumbhamasa pooja at Sabarimala temple was done under the supervision of the Achuthanandan government. That an IAS officer — who draws his salary from the government’s treasury and who functions as a representative of a government – should become the administrator of places of worship of people belonging to a particular religion, is against India’s constitution. In the Guruvayur Devaswom case, the high court had given its verdict that a government officer should not manage temples  (Devaswom Act 2004, 6A).  The ordinance requires the devaswom boards to submit a working report to the government once in three months. The ordinance is silent on what action should be taken if the report is unacceptable to the government. This is intended to create conditions for total government control  over the devaswom boards.
The ordinance compels the devaswom board to submit audit reports to the government. Accounts are to be given final approval by the high court. The court also has the right to seek explanations and take corrective action. That same report is to be submitted to the government. The government is duty-bound to table in the legislature all reports submitted to it. Which means the devaswom reports will be discussed in the legislature. The decisions that follow will surely be binding on the devaswom boards.
The requirement that devaswom board members must take their oath of office in front of a government secretary shows that the board will be under the full control of the government. A government secretary is a representative of the government. If board members take their oath of office in front of the government, the board will be bound to accept the government’s decisions. Till now, board members used to take their oath in front of the devaswom board secretary.
It is clear that the government wants to assert its full control over the devaswom boards because it want the boards to give up their right to appoint their staff to the Public Service Commission. The PSC is a secular institution. The PSC will not able to advertise, conduct examinations and recruit people belong to a particular religion. The ordinance gives a Hindu member of the PSC the right to make appointments. But the ordinance does not say that only Hindus must be appointed. The remark of PSC member P.R. Devadas that a secular institution like the PSC has never conducted a selection process for members of a particular religion, is noteworthy.
If the devaswom boards give up their right to make appointment to the PSC, it is not unlikely that the government will gradually take over all the remaining duties of the boards. It is probable that the government will seek to transfer all construction work at the temples to the PWD giving the excuse of preventing corruption. Will it be wrong for devotees to fear that the government’s finance minister will soon ask the devaswom boards to transfer all the funds and gold in the temples to the treasury on the pretext of ‘transparency’ of financial deals?
The Hindu religious instiutions law that governs the temples of Malabar is a good example of very old social practices. This outdated law will affect the survival of temples. The salaries of temple staff are pitiable indeed.  The governments that have come and gone never cared to improve the conditions. They ignored reports of commissions and court verdicts. The government callously ignored the request of devotees and temple employees. It is important that a devaswom board for Malabar is created and changes made in the management of temples. Creative and urgent steps must be taken to save the temples of Malabar.
Kerala’s temples are in crisis because of the interference and negative approach of the ruling class. All the lands belonging to the temples were made part of government revenue during the time of Colonel Monroe itself. Devotees did not have the strength to react or protest at that time. Not only those lands have not been returned to the temples till now, the temples were not even given adequate compensation for the lands taken over. If Colonel Monroe hindered the development of temples, Minister Sudhakaran is now attempting to concentrate power by capturing the management of temples. What is the difference between the two?
The present government has the evil intention of laying its hands on the incomes of the Shabarimal and Guruvayur temples after tightening its grip over the devaswom boards. The Shabarimala temple’s annual income comes to about Rs200 crore. The Guruvayur temple has fixed deposits of about Rs350 crore.  Besides that, 2500 kilograms of gold and assets worth crores.  It is possible that the government, facing a cash crunch, may compel these temple funds to be deposited in the treasury. Despite not having this authority, governments have twice in the past attempted to get temple funds deposited in the treasury.
No one buys a milchcow to give it a bath and decorate it. You can extract milk from it and, when that is no longer possible, it can be killed for meat. This is the mentality of the buyer of a milchcow. No seller of cow meat has ever been known to have revered the cow as mother or done anything to protect her. The government is interfering in the management of temples only with an eye on temple funds. The minister’s claim that the changes in the laws are being made for the benefit of the devotees, is unbelievable. If the interests of the devotees are to be protected, the devotees must be given representation in the management of temples. The new rules deny the devotees even the right to approach the court for redressing grievances. All existing devaswom rules are outdated and need amendments. The Kuttikrishna Menon Commission appointed by the government in 1965 had studied devaswom rules and had given clear recommendations. The commission said devotees who drop money into boxes in temples must have decisive influence in the management of temples. Following the meeting of leaders of Hindu organizations led by the late H.H. Swami Chinmayananda in 1982 with the then chief miniser K. Karunakaran, a commission to reform devaswom rules was created under K.P. Shankaran Nair. He recommended that temple committees where devotees are represented and devaswom boads free of politics must be created.
Shankaran Nair submitted his 400-page report to the government after visit several temples in Kerala and collecting evidence from several representatives of devotees.
Neither the Kerala legislature nor the council of ministers is known to have discussed the reports of both the commissions. No action has been taken. In 1986, the government of Chief Minister E.K.Nayanar appointed Jacob Thambi as a member the Guruvayur temple management committee. There were widespread protests against this following which Jacob resigned. The agitation transformed into a temple liberation movement. There were dharnas, picketing, public meetings and demonstrations all over the state. The then devaswom minister Vishwanatha Menon gave the assurance that representation of devotees  in the management of temples will be considered. The agitation was temporarily halted.   Later, Hindu organizations filed a case in the high court seeking the same rights. The court gave its verdict in 1994 and 1996 that devaswom boards free of political influence must be created. That a Malabar devaswom board must be created was also recommended.
Despite commission reports and court verdicts in favour of devotees, the Nayanar government in 1998 and the Antony government in 2002 introduced bills in the legislature to amend devaswom rules. The government could not turn the bill into law following strong opposition by the Hindu public. The matter was left to select committees.  The Achuthanandan government has brought forward, in the form of an ordinance, the same devaswom amendment bills that had been kept in abeyance by previous governments following strong protests by Hindu society. The previous two bills gave the government the right to take over temples, ashram and other Hindu institutions without any advance notice. The temple liberation ‘yathra’ in January 1999. led by Prakashananda,  head of the Varkala Sivagiri Mutt, was a historic event.
Who should manage temples? A  secular government or devotee who comes to temples for worship? This is a basic question that has been raised by Kerala’s Hindu society. It is ridiculous that political parties belong to the left and the right, that talk day in and day out about decentralization of power and people’s participation, forget these principles when it comes to management of Hindu temples? On the one hand, power is being transferred to the people through programmes like ‘janakeeyasuthranam.’ People’s participation is ensured both in planning and implementation of programmes. It is regrettable that the government is trying to concentrate the power to manage temples in its hands at a time of decentralization of power. If this government believes in democratization and decentralization of power, it should transfer the right to manage temples to the devotees.
The Shankaran Nair Commission reports gives clear suggestions on how to find representatives of devotees. Today, committees of devotes are able to conduct festivals and yagnas in temples very well. Such people can undoubtedly manage  temples efficiently. Today, temple committees temple protection committees and advisory committees are functioning robustly  with the participation of devotees.
What will happen to temples when politicians and the government leave the management of temples? Does Hindu society have the ability to manage their places of worship? To whom must management be handed over? Kerala’s Hindu brothers and sisters will no longer be shaken by such questions. They will not shy away from their duties. Devotees are not people who do not have the ability to manage temples. Temples in which they have participation are progressing step by step. This is an occasion when Hindu society must join hands to protect their temples.
Hindu society must be able to set aside their caste differences, political rivalries and regional problems to join hands for the benefit of society to liberate their temples from the grip of the government and protect the interests of the temples and devotees. All sections of Hindu society unite to draw up programmes to achieve this.
In 1924, Hindus agitated for the right to walk on the road near the Vaikkom temple. In 1931, a historic agitation for temple entry took place in Guruvayur following which the temple entry proclamation was made in 1936.
In the year 2006-2007, which is the platinum jubilee year of the Guruvayur agitation and the 70th anniversary of the temple entry proclamation, may Kerala launch a great agitation by Hindu devotees for  ENTRY INTO TEMPLE MANAGEMENT.
Yes, one more proclamation is need, this time for entry into temple management

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