Misinformation, communal narratives mar amendments to Religious Endowments Bill by Karnataka government

Muzrai Commissioner Basavarajendra H urged those opposing the amendments to carefully review and comprehend the changes before questioning.

ByBellie Thomas

Published Feb 22, 2024 | 7:30 PMUpdatedFeb 22, 2024 | 7:35 PM

Hazara Rama Temple in Hampi. (Creative Commons)

An amendment made by the Karnataka government to the Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowment (Muzrai) Bill in the Assembly on Wednesday, 21 February, has led to a storm of misinformation around the Congress’ intent.

Alleging that the new amendment has introduced a “temple tax”, pro-Hindu organisations are accusing the Siddaramaiah-led government of “looting funds from temples and redirecting them to non-Hindu religious institutions”. The amendment, however, while increasing the existing cap on rich temples, makes it categorical that a common pool fund from temples with higher income will be used for C category institutions that have low income or are needy.

According to the revisions in the Bill, temples with an income exceeding ₹1 crore are mandated to allocate 10 percent of their earnings to the Common Pool Fund (CPF). Temples with an income ranging from ₹10 lakh to ₹1 crore are required to contribute 5 percent of their earnings to the CPF. The previous version of the act had set the mandate for 10 percent contributions on temples with revenue exceeding ₹10 lakh and 5 percent contribution on temples with revenue over ₹10 lakh.

In response to the allegations, a statement was issued by the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO). It read, “The allegations regarding the Karnataka government’s amendments to the Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowment Bill appear to be misrepresented for political gain.”

It further clarified, “The common pool is administered solely for religious purposes connected with the Hindu religion. The Common Pool Fund has been utilized only for the religious purposes of Hindu institutions since the Act came into force in 2003, and it will continue to be used for the same purposes in the future.”

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Pro-Hindu outfits protest

Despite assurances, certain pro-Hindu organisations view these amendments as a systematic conspiracy to undermine and dismantle Hindu traditions and culture, while also depleting temple wealth.

Mohan Gowda, the state spokesperson for the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS), highlighted to South First the removal of the term “Hindu” from the Common Pool Fund usage sections, suggesting potential allocation to other non-Hindu institutions.

The amendment to the Bill, however, suggests that the new amendment mandates that the common pool funds will be utilised only for notified C category institutions under the Endowments department that have low incomes or are needy. There is neither addition nor deletion of the word “Hindu” in it.

Mohan Gowda also expressed concerns about the composition of the management committees — one district level and another state level — where Hindus would typically head these committees. However, now with this amendment, one member from the Archeological Survey of India (ASI), one from the Tourism Department, one from the Revenue Department, one from the District Commissioner’s office, one from the Forest Department, an Archak, and a Temple Executive Member.

He argued that if these members from the governmental departments are from other religions, it means that they could become members of the management committee, which is unacceptable. “It is a conspiracy to destroy the Hindu religious temples and loot its wealth. Why should ‘other religious members’ come into the committee? This is a systematic conspiracy to break and destroy Hindu traditions and culture,” Gowda asserted.

The amendment to the Bill, however, mandates that one of the members has to be skilled in Hindu Vishwakarma temple architecture.

Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) activist and advocate Girish Bharadwaj asserted to South First that two sections of the amended Bill are “anti-Hindu”, Section 19 (A), where Common Pool Fund money can be utilised for any “poor and needy organisation”, and Section 25, where both Hindu and other religions may be appointed to the management committee.

Bharadwaj clarified that he does not solely blame the Congress government, as the previous BJP government also failed to free the 34,500 temples from governmental control.

Bharadwaj had previously raised the same concern in 2017-18 during the tenure of Congress MLA Rudrappa Lamani as the Religious Endowments Minister. At that time, he asserted that the government was neglecting non-Hindu religious institutions. In an effort to scrutinise the situation, Bharadwaj utilised the Right To Information (RTI) Act to inquire whether the Endowments Department was supporting Christian or Muslim minority institutions.

“Surprisingly, the Endowments Department replied that they were indeed assisting minority institutions through a scheme called Aradhana Yojane, utilising funds pooled from the temples. Salaries of many maulvis were being paid using money from the Endowments Department, a practice that was halted during the previous BJP government’s rule, Bharadwaj told South First.

Bharadwaj further questioned the rationale behind increasing the collection of funds from temples to 10 percent and 5 percent for prosperous temples, channelling them into a Common Pool Fund. He pointed to Section 25, which stipulates that composite institutions where Hindus and Muslims coexist, such as Datta Peeta, are subject to ongoing legal proceedings.

Citing a Karnataka High Court declaration that the entire Endowments Act is discriminatory and unconstitutional, Bharadwaj reiterated the imperative to strike it down, asserting its violation of the fundamental rights of Hindus.

The VHP activist posted on X, “The Karnataka Government has introduced Hindu Religious Endowments Amendment Act in Karnataka Assembly today and passed the Bill.” He further listed four amendments that he deemed “anti-Hindu”.

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Taking to X to air his concerns with the amended Bill, Vijayapura BJP MLA Basanagouda R Patil said, “Karnataka government pushed through the Hindu Religious Endowments amendment act in the Assembly, introducing points that are not just anti-Hindu but also devoid of logic and understanding. This move reaffirms that Congress, through such regressive measures, positions itself as anti-Hindu.”

In another tweet, he said, “The decision to appoint Non-Hindu members in composite institutions is perplexing and lacks rationale. Committee members without an understanding of our culture, rituals, and practices should not be involved.”

He added, “This appears to be a state-sponsored systematic infiltration of management committees, potentially leading to influences from outside traditions and undermining Hindu principles.”

The photo of the Bill shared by Patil, as well as a host of BJP leaders including BY Vijayendra, and Amit Malviya to “prove” their claim, incidentally is only an annexe part of the amendment Bill that cites the previous version of the Bill for reference. The contents are not the proposed amendments to the Act.

Reacting sharply on X, Deputy Leader of Opposition in the Karnataka Legislative Assembly, Arvind Bellad said, “Karnataka’s new Hindu Religious Endowments Amendment Bill is a blatant attempt by Siddaramaiah government to hijack Hindu temple funds. Mandating diversion to a ‘common pool’ for unspecified ‘poor and needy organisations’ reeks of religious discrimination and fund mismanagement.”

Even national BJP leaders took the opportunity to publicly chastise the Congress-led state government. BJP’s National Information & Technology Department In-charge Amit Malviya said on X, “In a shocking move, Congress Govt in Karnataka has amended the Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowment Bill, allowing, among other things to appoint non-Hindus to Temple trusts. What kind of nonsense is this? Are Hindus incapable of managing the affairs of the community?”

“If this doesn’t wake up the Hindus to the reality that Congress is the new Muslim League, nothing else will,” he further charged.

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Ruling state government responds

In an attempt to provide clarity, the CMO’s statement said, “There has always been a mandate to create a common pool since the enactment of the Act in 1997. Before the recent amendment, the contributions to the fund came from (i) 10 percent of the net income of institutions whose gross annual income exceeds ₹10 lakh; (ii) five percent of the net income of institutions whose gross annual income exceeds ₹5 lakh but does not exceed ₹10 lakh; and (iii) grants received from the state government.”

Assuring that the recent amendment was made solely to enhance the amount to the Common Pool Fund, the statement said, “After the amendment, the contributions to the fund will come from (i) 1o percent of the net income of institutions whose gross annual income exceeds ₹1 crore; (ii) five percent of the net income of institutions whose gross annual income exceeds ₹10 lakh but does not exceed ₹1 crore; and (iii) grants received from the state government.”

“The baseless allegations by BJP leaders are aimed only at misleading the public and polarising people along communal lines for political leverage. BJP leaders should be ashamed of their unethical practices. Their disservice to the people of Karnataka will never be forgiven. By misleading the public, BJP leaders want the youth of the country to abandon their jobs and fight an imaginary war, solely to benefit the BJP politically,” the CMO statement added.

Muzrai Commissioner Basavarajendra H urged those opposing the amendments to the Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowment Bill to carefully review and comprehend the changes before questioning the commissioner or the lawmakers. “We have made positive amendments, and the Common Pool Funds will exclusively benefit C-Muzrai temples and their priests. It will not be allocated to anyone else,” Basavarajendra told South First.

Responding to a question about the rationale behind the increased percentage for high-revenue temples, the Commissioner clarified that with the amended Bill, the 10 percent of net income has been transformed into gross income. This adjustment is anticipated to yield around ₹60 crore.

“Now, what do we do with that? We have approximately 40,000 Archakas in the state who lack health insurance, benefits, or compensation in the event of their deaths. They are not covered by ESI or PF. With a paltry amount of ₹5,000 per month from the government for managing the temples and supporting themselves and their families, we intend to devise welfare schemes for them,” he explained.

He further acknowledged that whenever the budget increases, temples tend to report inflated expenditures and to address this issue, the percentage allocated to CPF was raised.

In response to what they deemed as propaganda from the BJP and pro-Hindu organisations, AICC spokesperson Lavanya Ballal Jain denounced the claims as fake news. She posted on X, “The amendment has only increased the ceiling from already existing ₹10 lakh to ₹1 crore. It isn’t a new temple tax as being claimed by these fake news peddlers of the BJP. The amendment has made it clear that the Common Pool Fund will be used only for notified Category C needy and low income temples under the Endowments Department.”