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Monday, June 5, 2023

Karnataka’s Temple Protection Bill- What is in store?

The Karnataka government after receiving flak for demolishing an ancient temple in Mysuru, has now proposed to bring a law to “protect religious structures.” The Karnataka Religious Structures (Protection) Bill, 2021 has received both support and opposition from Hindus, as the bill proposes to protect all religious structures while it was mostly temples that were demolished earlier. On the other hand, the possibility that the bill could regularise illegally built churches and masjids has also been a point of concern.

The demolition of the 600-800 year old Mahadevamma temple in Nanjangud, Mysuru drew severe criticism from Hindus. After Mysuru MP Pratap Simha took it up with the CM, the demolition drive was put on hold and the government said that they were working on issuing new guidelines after studying the Supreme Court order thoroughly.

Now, reports have emerged that a new bill is being tabled in the Karnataka assembly to “protect religious structures” built illegally on government land and public places. The Karnataka Religious Structures (Protection) Bill, 2021 has been designed so as to circumvent any judgements and other legal obstacles against protecting “illegal religious structures”. 

The bill says,“Notwithstanding anything contained in any law for the time being in force or any judgment, decree or order of any court, tribunal or authority from the date of commencement of this Act, subject to the provisions of this Act, or the rules made there under the Government shall protect the religious structures existing on the date of commencement of this Act, in such manner subject to such conditions as may be prescribed.”

However it will not apply to religious structures “if any case relating to the removal is pending in any court of law”. It also bars the construction of new religious structures in a public place after the date on which the law comes into effect. While this bold move to bring legislation to “protect temples” has been welcomed by some Hindus, it has also received flak for regularising mushrooming churches and masjids built encroaching public places and government land.

In fact, it was BJP MP Pratap Simha who pointed out that the district administration was partial towards Hindu temples. In his own words he told the officials in a meeting, “You had no problem in demolishing a temple near Hullahalli. But the same officials are dithering on the matter of demolishing the wall of a mosque for the expansion of Irwin Road,”. He also questioned them, “Why the district administration is blind to tens of mosques and Dargahs that have mushroomed in N R Mohalla and Shaktinagar”.

So when the legislation proposes to save and protect all those mushroomed structures after demolishing hundreds of temples, some ancient ones at that, the motive behind the move becomes suspicious. While the Places of Worship Act, 1991 prevents Hindus from reclaiming temples that were overtaken by invaders, this proposed legislation also makes it difficult for Hindus to evict recent encroachment of temples and temple lands. 

For example Hanumagiri Beta, a hillock believed to be a part of Sanjivani Parvatam that fell out of Shri Hanuman’s hand, has been encroached by missionaries. They had planted a cross on the top of the hillock which houses 3 ancient temples including one for Hanuman. Even though Hindus had left them be, not minding their nuisance, attempts have been consistently made to rename the hillock as Annamma Betta and Yesu Betta.

If the new legislation comes into place it would give credence to such encroachments as it aims to “protect all religious structures”. As per the information available in news reports, only those structures that came after the 2009 date set by the Supreme Court will be protected under this law. Hanumagiri Betta incidence is given just as an example.

While it is laudable that the Karnataka government wants to save the remaining Hindu temples, it could have interpreted the SC order in the correct way to begin with, or could have rebuilt the demolished temples and relocated the existing ones with deities intact. Instead the government has chosen a rather roundabout way to save them. It remains to be seen whether the move will do right by Hindus.

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