The politics over autonomy of temple trusts in Karnataka

Sri Krishna Mutt, Karnataka temple, Udupi temple
The BJP government, during its previous tenure a decade ago had de-notified two temples from the list of temples under the Endowment (Muzrai) department | iStock

(Following the Supreme Court’s landmark Ayodhya verdict, the government is busy figuring out the contours of the Trust that will build the Ram temple. In this context, The Federal in the fourth part of the series looks at how temples are managed in Karnataka)

Temple management has always been a contentious issue in Karnataka. While the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been demanding the temple trusts to have a free hand, the Congress and other parties were up for greater control by the government.

Ahead of the 2018 Assembly elections in Karnataka, the BJP had promised in its manifesto that it will free temples from government interference and appoint only Hindus in the administration of the temples.

In contrast, the Congress government led by then chief minister Siddaramaiah wanted the government to have more control over the administration of temples. It had even proposed the Hindu Temples Regulations Act and include even private temples and mutts under its purview. However, Siddaramaiah withdrew the proposal after it became a poll issue.

Read Part I: Allegations of mismanagement taint governing of Kerala temples

The BJP in its manifesto said, besides giving autonomy, it will ensure that temple revenues are used only for religious affairs. It also promised to set up a ₹500 crore fund for restoration and renovation of temples and mutts in the state, and not take money from rich temples to maintain the poor ones.

Three of the richest temples in Karnataka — Kukke Shree Subramanya Temple in Dakshina Kannada, Kollur Mookambika Temple in Udupi and Male Mahadeshwara Temple in Chamarajanagar in south Karnataka — comes under the purview of the Muzrai department.

Lok Sabha MP and state BJP chief Nalin Kumar Kateel had said the party always opposed the idea of government interference in temples. “The government should govern, empower, and regulate if need be. Hindu temples belong to Hindus and the community has enough influence and manpower to run its own shrines,” he had said.

Read Part II: Tirumala, India’s highest-earning shrine, autonomous only on paper

Currently, the temples in the state are governed as per the Karnataka Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowments (Amended) Act, 2011, and fall under the ambit of Endowment (Muzrai) department of the state government. These are classified into three categories based on the revenue the temples generate.

There are about 34,559 temples under the department. Of these, about 190 temples are categorised as Class A (those generate an annual revenue above ₹25 lakh), 163 as Class B (annual income between ₹5 lakh and ₹25 lakh) and 34,206 Class C temples (annual income less than ₹5 lakh). Besides, there are a large number of temples run by private trusts across the state. There are religious committees formed at the district and taluk level to monitor these temples.

The Act stipulates terms for the appointment of temple priests to utilisation of funds and to set aside money for a common pool of funds out of the surplus funds to be used at the discretion of the State. Besides, it also has provisions to protect the hereditary rights of the trustees, prohibit share in temple hundis and other incomes to the temple servants, and prohibits the collection of funds illegally in the name of temple works.

Despite government control, mismanagement galore

From diversion of funds for non-religious purposes to political appointees in temple committees and frauds in purchases of pooja materials and in the usage of temple lands, there have been several cases of complaints against government officials in the Muzrai department.

In 2016, the state police unearthed a scam wherein the staff at the Kollur Mookambika Temple were accused of amassing the gold and silver offered by the devotees to the temple administration.

Read Part III: The unholy management of temples in Tamil Nadu

“Every temple which generates surplus funds, contribute about 10% of the revenue to the common pool. The government should use these funds for the welfare of temple and its activities. But many times they are used for non-religious purposes,” Kollur Mookambika Temple managing committee president, Harish Kumar Shetty alleged.

For instance, the state government headed by then chief minister HD Kumaraswamy had in 2018 ordered 81 temples under the Muzrai department to divert ₹12.3 crore to the chief minister’s Flood Relief Fund. However, many in the religious institutions were averse to the diversion of funds for non-religious purposes.

And recently, after receiving complaints from the public, the Muzrai department found that were adulteration in the vermillion procured by the temples and ordered an inquiry.

Why government control?

In 1975, the state government had passed an order making Hazrath Dada Hayath Meer Khalendar Sree Guru Dattatreya Baba Buden Swamy’s Dargah at Chikkamagaluru (considered as Ayodhya of Karnataka in view of the religious dispute) a Wakf property.

Later it was challenged in the Supreme Court, which in 2018 had pronounced that the shrine was revered equally by the Hindus and the Muslims, and ordered that status quo be maintained in the case. However, the Karnataka cabinet decided to bring it under the purview of the Muzrai department.

The Hindu and Muslim communities have been fighting for their rights over the land for the past three decades. The BJP wants the temple trusts to have a freehand so that it can go for an out-of-court settlement in the ages-old case.

Also read: Tirumala temple board packed with industrialists, politicians

The BJP government, during its previous tenure a decade ago had de-notified two temples, the Gokarna Temple managed by Ramachandrapura Mutt and Udupi Sri Krishna Temple managed by Astha Mutt, from the list of temples under the Endowment (Muzrai) department.

But Siddaramaiah and other leaders belonging to backward classes opposed it tooth and nail on the ground that discriminatory practices were followed at the temples, often in favour of the upper caste. Thus it argued, the government must take over the control of the temples to end such practices.

The BJP took to the streets opposing it. The Pejawar seer Vishwesha Theertha Swami had even threatened to leave the temple if the government takes over the temple. Currently, both the Udupi Krishna temple and Gokarna Mahabaleshwara Temple are kept out of the purview of the Endowment Department.