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Unholy bills - India Today

M.G. Radhakrishnan ()
January 26, 1998

Title: Unholy bills
Author: M.G. Radhakrishnan
Publication: India Today
Date: January 26, 1998

To the audience at the Kumaraswami Hall in Thiruvananthapuram the
scene was as dramatic as it was unfamiliar. A tough-looking
sanyasi thundered in Sanskrit-laden Hindustani: "Hey, nastik
Nayanar, kholo tere nayan and see for yourself that the Himalayas
have come down to the Indian Ocean! When it happened last time,
the asura king Ravana and his evil empire were destroyed.
Imagine your feeble party and Government's plight if the mighty
Himalayas opens its fiery eyes again."

The speaker holding centrestage was Swami Chinmayananda, head of
Hardwar's Paramarthaniketan Mutt and a trustee of the VHP-
Controlled Margdarshak Mandal, who was inaugurating a sanyasis
meeting in the state capital on January 1 2. And the object of
his ire was Kerala Chief Minister E.K. Nayanar who in his
inimitable style had recently passed caustic remarks about
sanyasis indulging in politics. When Swami Prakashananda, head
of the Sivagiri Mutt, headquarters of the powerful backward-caste
Ezhavas, went on an indefinite fast in front of the state
secretariat against the Left Democratic Front (LDF) Government's
takeover of the mutt last October, Nayanar could not but help
comment: "Why should sanyasis fast in front of the secretariat?
They should do it in the Himalayas".

Chinmayananda, a former MP from Hardwar, was in the city to lead
a dharma yudh (religious battle) against the Government. The VHP
decided to initiate action after two bills distressed Hindu
organisations in the state. The first, called the Sivagirl
Takeover Bill which was passed last month, legitimised the
Government takeover of the Sivagiri Mutt near Varkala outside the
state capital, following a squabble between two factions of
sanyasis. But even as the controlling faction launched a
statewide agitation against the takeover, the Government,
surprisingly, piloted another bill aimed at bringing under its
control the state's temples and mutts.

The bills unified Hindu organisations for the first time in the
state cutting across caste differences. The sanyasis of
Sivagiri, for instance, had always distanced themselves from the
Hindutva line propounded by the BJP and the RSS. However, the
current agitation has led to a strong alliance between these
groups, enabling the Sangh Parivar to score its first major
success in the state in its social engineering agenda. Its
significance was evident on December 26 when BJP President L.K.
Advani stopped in the city to pay respects to the fasting Swami
Prakashananda en route to nearby Kollam where he flagged off the
party's election campaign in south India. "We are grateful to the
BJP and RSS for coming to our aid as no other party showed
interest, " says Prakashananda.

The Hindu forces have been to the fore since the second bill,
called the Kerala Hindu Religious and Charitable Institutions
Endowment Bill, was piloted by the Government in December. State
BJP President C.K. Padmanabhan has dubbed the bills as "anti
Hindu and black". However, the party has preferred to maintain a
low-profile on the issue so as not to drive away anti-BJP groups
like the Ezhavas' social organisation Sanathana Dharma Paripalana
Yogam, which too has come out strongly against the second bill.

The Hindu groups are particularly irked by the provisions in the
latest bill which seeks a government-appointed apex board to
administer all the temples in the state and will permit the
Government to "take over the direct administration of any
religious institution". Besides, each temple will have to
contribute a percentage of its revenue to the state Government
and submit accounts to the board. "The bill seeks to take over
only Hindu religious institutions. Why don't they dare touch
Christian or Muslim institutions?" asks Swami Sathyananda
Saraswathi, head of the hawkish Sree Ramadasa Mission,
Thiruvananthapuram.

The Government argues that it is only following the 1992
directive of the Kerala High Court to form a single Devaswom
Board to coordinate the administration of the 5,000-odd temples
in the state, now functioning under three different boards. "Most
of the temples lack funds and are run by the money generated at
the Sabarimala temple," says V.G.K. Menon, the CPI(M)-appointed
president of the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), which controls
all the temples in south Kerala. But critics feel that apart
>from the Rs 46.5 lakh earmarked in the bill to be paid by the
state Government to the apex board annually, there is no
provision to improve the state of temples but only to extort an
amount from them. "The corrupt TDB has already messed up the
administration of temples in south Kerala. Now they want to
appropriate the remaining few," says Kummanam Rajashekharan of
the RSS-backed Kerala Temples Protection Committee.

In the face of the protests, the Government has gone on the
defensive. Chief Minister E.K. Nayanar says the bill's based on
the report of a committee constituted by the previous Congress-
led UDF government. "The bill will be passed if it is approved by
the public and the legislature's subject and select committee,"
says Nayanar. The state CPI admits the bill contains anomalies
and was not discussed at LDF meetings. "It shouldn't be passed in
the present form as it seeks to meddle in religious affairs, "
says state party secretary P.K. Vasudevan Nair.

The opposition UDF has not made its views known on the latest
bill but former chief ministers K. Karunakaran and A.K. Antony
are opposed to it. Antony denies Nayanar's claim that the bill
was based on a report submitted while he was the chief minister.
"It was never accepted by our government," he says. "If it is
Hindu institutions this time, it could be Christian and Muslim
institutions next time. This black bill should be withdrawn."

What has embarrassed the Government more is the opposition to the
bill by some of its own supporters. T. Chandrasekhara Menon, a
former Kerala High Court judge and Marxist backer, is leading a
campaign against the bill: "It will only strengthen the Hindu
fundamentalists in the stale," he says. The Government move also
came in for sharp criticism from delegates who attended the
CPI(M)'s 16th state conference in Palakkad early this month.

With opposition mounting, the Government will have to take a
decision on the bills quickly. The septuagenarian Prakashananda,
who was arrested and forcibly shifted to the Thiruvananthapuram
Medical College Hospital by the police on December 31, is
continuing his fast even in the intensive care unit. On January
14, a statewide hartal was observed to protest against the
Government's "apathy" to the ailing sanyasi. "If something
happens to Swami, we will not allow a single Marxist to walk on
the streets," warns Chinmayananda. With the Marxists precariously
perched on the power throne, these could be ominous words for
them in an election year.


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