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Can HR & CE Departments be secular?

No, they cannot. On the recent decision of the Karnataka High Court to dismiss two petitions challenging the appointment of two non-Hindus in the Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments Department.

The Karnataka High Court recently dismissed two petitions challenging the appointment of Non-Hindus in the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department of Karnataka.

The first petition sought to restrain a Deputy Commissioner A.B. Ibrahim from entering the Mahalingeshwara Temple in Puttur, while the second one objected to the appointment of Mohamad Deshav Alikhan as a Superintendent in the HR & CE Department. The court dismissed both petitions out of hand on the basis that the Hindu religion was not “narrow” and that “heavens will not fall” (paraphrasing) if the non- Hindu Deputy Commissioner enters the temple. It orally observed that Non-Hindu officers had assisted in the conduct of Hindu festivals all across the country and that the petition would ‘take the country a 100 years back’. With regards to the position of Superintendent position held by a non-Hindu, it read Section 7 of the Karnataka Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable & Endowments Act as only requiring those directly concerned with the activities of the department as needing to be Hindu.

The court also orally observed:

“Judicial notice will have to be taken of the fact that government officers, police officers, irrespective of their religious faith and beliefs effectively assist all religions in celebrating their respective religious festivals. In fact that is part of the Constitutional philosophy and of Secularism.”

The court seems to have a warped sense of what it means for government to run religious institutions and its connected departments in a country that hosts multiple faiths. The Indian State and Society does not host a monoculture. In a multicultural, multireligious society, the administration would draw from all sections of society. This cannot however be the case in the HR & CE department that is directly concerned with the control and administration of Temples.

It is with this purpose that Section 7 of the Karnataka Act exists:

The Commissioner and every Deputy Commissioner or Assistant Commissioner and every other Officer or servant, appointed to carry out the purposes of this Act by whomsoever appointed, shall be a person professing Hindu Religion, and shall cease to hold office as such when he ceases to profess that religion.

The Court read “to carry out the purpose of the Act” in a strictly narrow sense when that is not the case. The HR & CE Department is unlike other departments of the State Government: its purpose is asecular in a secular framework. The role of any person, that be the superintendent or the Group D employee to clean the Commissioners office is in fact made in order to further the purpose of the Act. The court had stated that this is not the case. However, considering that the HR &CE functions in administering Asecular activities, which in turn funds it. How can it then function under a secular framework? It cannot.

There is an inherent tension in the way that Hindu Temples and Religious Institutions are administered under the current framework.

The Sabarimala Sree Dharma Sastha Temple: The Kerala Government had amended an Act that controls Hindu religious institutions such as Sabarimala, removing the requirement that the Commissioner be Hindu. Who was “Hindu” in itself was a back and forth game in the State.

In a similar instance, the Kerala Government removed the requirement that the Commissioner appointed under the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, 1950 be Hindu. The Kerala Government later submitted an affidavit to the Kerala High Court that only a Hindu would be appointed to the position on a petition filed by the then BJP State president, P.S. Sreedharan Pillai. 

The issue raised by the A.B. Ibrahim reference though similar, has a different issue. The issue relates to the 2016 printing of the then Deputy Commissioner/ District Magistrate/District Collector A.B. Ibrahim in the invitation card of a festival in Puttur Mahalingeshwara Temple. The issue seems to have been amicably settled with the interference of the Karnataka High Court — the collector’s role was directed to be covered by the District Panchayat Executive Officer, who was a Hindu.

This issue illustrates an important issue: the temples administrative or in some cases religious structure either require or presuppose that the state and/or its administrative and important officials are Hindu. That the administration and participation in temple activities by the Monarch was considered prestigious as well as important for the monarch’s appeal to the people need not be illustrated. The temples prospered and functioned under the patronage of the State in varying degrees, sizes, shapes and forms. It is this role, that of a Hindu Maharaja or Raja that a ‘secular’ state is replacing. Easy work arounds such as deputizing the senior most official who is a Hindu in the region for a given event is mere practical and common sense.

This brings up another point: that of the Supreme Courts’ decision in the question of the administration of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram. The court, while upholding the rights of the Travancore Royal Family, also formulated an supervisory committee headed by the Thiruvananthapuram District Judge. Certain genius lawyers from Kerala snidely argued that the court had reserved the position for Hindus in effect. (The problems with Judge made law is made clear here, I believe.) The Court later allowed the committee to be headed by a Hindu additional judge in case the District Judge is not Hindu.

The quagmire of having temple administrations run by the State Governments and its officers are not easily solved. I had pointed out this and similar issues, including the inclusion of communists as Hindus under the HR & CE Act in an article for Swarajya.

The Indian State’s administrative mechanism ought to be and is multi-religious. This means that we require interim and structural solutions to the issue. Shreyas Bhardwaj has proposed a solution that I think is imminently possible in Swarajya Magazine: a model based on the Somnath Temple Administration.

Temples and Temple Administrations should be run by Hindus. The Imposition of a secular administration in a self-proclaimed secular state in itself is wrong. That the system wishes to make temple administration secular in itself is a damning indictment.

Hopefully the petitioners will approach the Supreme Court in the Karnataka HC petition and lead to a different result.

Swami Sharanam! 

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