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Sunday, June 23, 2024

Only a Hindu Will be Appointed as Devaswom Commissioner- Kerala Govt. Forced to Clarify to HC

Government of Kerala recently passed an order to amend the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, 1950 in such a way that it seemed even non-Hindus could be appointed as commissioner of the Devaswom Department which lies under supervision of the Government controlled Devaswom Boards that manage most Hindu temples in the state.

Out of four Devaswoms in Kerala, the Cochin Devaswom Board and the Travancore Devaswom Board are governed under the said act. There are many temples that are administered under these boards. Sabarimala Sree Ayyappa Swami temple comes under the management of Travancore Devaswom board.

With state governments already exercise debilitating control over most Hindu temples, it was at least hoped that only practicing Hindus would be appointed in the managing committees of such government run Hindu temple boards.

Gradual amendements

The original Section 29 sub section 2 of the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, 1950 says –

“The Devaswom Department shall, subject to the supervision, direction and control of the Board, be under the Devaswom Commissioner who shall be appointed by the Board. He shall be a person professing the Hindu religion.”

This section was amended in 1994,

“……….  for the words, “person professing the Hindu religion” the word “Hindu” shall be substituted. “

This change in 1994 meant that a nominal Hindu, and not one who is professing/practising Hindu Dharma, could be appointed as the commissioner of Dewaswom Department.

Then recently in the notification of amendment dated 6th July, 2018, even the condition of being a nominal ‘Hindu’ for the post of commissioner of the Devaswom Department has been deleted.

This last amendment led to the obvious suspicion that it opened a door for appointment of a non-Hindu as the Devaswom commissioner. It is to be noticed that Devaswom department maintains the temple, its accounts and all the funds that devotees donate to the temple.

Another impact of this amendment is that as per earlier law, the commissioner was to be appointed by the Board. Now the words ‘who shall be appointed by the Board’ have been deleted. Which was interpreted by many devotees as indicating that anyone, whether or not appointed by the Board, could potentially be appointed as commissioner of the Devaswom Department. So, in future, even if the Board is against appointment of a non-Hindu for this post, legally, it may not be able to oppose the same. This was perceived as another step forward to take control of temples completely away from practising Hindu devotees who are the actual stakeholders of the temples.

Amendment is challenged in courts

BJP state president P S Sreedharan Pillai and the Akhila Kerala Thanthri Mandalam had filed a petition in the court challenging the amendments to the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, 1950, which “enabled the appointment of a non-Hindu as Devaswom Commissioner.”

“….The newly-inserted Section 13 in the case of the Travancore Devaswom Board and Section 74A in the case of the Cochin Devaswom Board provide an additional secretary to the government can be appointed as the Devaswom Commissioner, without prescribing the qualification that the person ought to be a Hindu,” Pillai’s petition said, reports Indian Express.

Times of India reports that that the petition also stated that Devaswom commissioner is the chief executive officer of Hindu religious endowments and controls the Devaswom Department. He is vested with powers for administering and controlling the funds and Hindu religious endowments. The role of the Devaswom commissioner is pivotal to the functioning of the Devaswom boards. The secular and religious functions of the Devaswom board cannot be properly performed if the Devaswom commissioner is not a Hindu. If a person of such post is a non-Hindu, it would violate the existing customs, practices and usages.

After this petition came up for hearing, Kerala High Court (HC) issued a notice to the state government. The CPM-led Kerala state government had to clarify and inform the HC that only a Hindu will be appointed to the commissioner posts of the Travancore and Cochin Devaswom Boards. Advocate General C P Sudhakara Prasad told the court the government had no ‘intention’ to appoint a non-Hindu as Devaswom Commissioner and that the petition was intended to ‘stoke communal hatred’. The HC bench asked the government to file an affidavit in this regard.

The Hindu reports that the State government through its affidavit pointed out that the allegation that the amendments would facilitate appointments of non-Hindus to the posts was wrong. As per Section 29(1) of the Travancore Cochin Hindu Religions Institutions Act, 1950, the Devaswom Department would only consist of such number of Hindu officers and other servants as may be determined by the Devawom boards from time time. That meant that the Devaswom Department shall consist only of Hindu officers and other Hindu servants, the government claimed.

The new amendments only stipulated that the Devaswom Commissioners were to be appointed either by way of promotion from among eligible deputy commissioners or, in their absence, by deputation of officers below the rank of Additional Secretary to the State government. Thus, the new amendments enabled the government to select the Devaswom Commissioners through two modes of appointment; they did not say that non-Hindus should be appointed to these posts. Section 29(1) of the Act made it very clear that Hindus should be appointed to all the posts under the boards. Based on the Government’s affidavit, the Kerala High Court disposed of the writ petition.

But what is still not clear is why Section 29(2) of the Act was amended to remove the explicit requirement that only a Hindu be appointed as Devaswom Commissioner, if the government merely wanted to add a new mode of appointment? One suspects that this is not the last we have heard of this matter. Legal assaults on Hindu institutions in the name of secularism and reform often play out over generations, as Hindu autonomy is chipped away one brick at a time.

And its not just Kerala where this game of placing non-Hindus in government bodies controlling Hindu  temples is being played. Such attempts are underway in Karnataka and Telangana as well.

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