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Today, when India is approaching the 75th year of its Independence, clear, categorical and influential voices are heard in the public sphere demanding freedom for Hindu temples from the clutches of the government. But if we hark back to the time when the British left India after the apocalyptic devastations they had suffered in World War II, there was an equally passionate voice for bringing Hindu temples under government administration.

It was the voice of Omandur Ramasami Reddiar, known to be one of the ‘apostles’ of Mahatma Gandhi in Tamil Nadu. He was an uncompromising puritan with a profound abhorrence for corruption and dishonesty and had a trenchant tongue that spared no one. Prime Minister Nehru called him a ‘rough cut’ diamond and sometimes tried, though unsuccessfully, to smooth out his angularities. Gandhiji himself once got more than a piece of Omandur’s mind after he wrote in the columns of the ‘Harijan’ in 1947 that temples don’t need wealth and resources (as mentioned in ‘Vivasaaya Mudhal Amaichar’, Omandur’s biography by Somalay).  Omandur, who was then the Premier of the Madras Presidency, took strong objection to this with the Mahatma when he met him at Delhi a few days later. He vehemently protested the statement saying that temples and mutts did need resources and wealth for their activities. He did not go  so far as present-day governments would  on temple resources being used for larger public causes, though that seems to be implied in his assertions that temples must serve the ‘public’ good. The contradiction lay in his being unmindful of the fact that a religious denomination’s primary obligation is to its followers, not to that of the secular politician’s voter clients.

The bill Omandur introduced snowballed for over a decade and finally led to the stranglehold of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department over the finances and fortunes of temples and mutts

There were two overarching constants in the vicissitudes  of Omandur’s life. The first was his loyalty to the Congress party of yore: in his native South Arcot district where his village of birth, Omandur, is located, he had built the party with sweat and sacrifice in the heady decades of the freedom struggle, and no matter what his quarrels with its changing dispensations, he could never bring himself to working against it (A view recorded by T.S.Chokkalingam in his ‘Enadhu Mudhal Sandhippu’).

The second was the pronouncedly devotional streak of his personality. A series of bereavements in his family had left him desolate and turned him towards temples and spirituality, and towards persons who may be called, in the liberal journalistic lingo of latter-day India, as god-men. In fact, when the Premiership of Madras Presidency was offered to him by the Kamaraj-Rajaji combine in its anxiety to keep the rebellious T.Prakasam out for various reasons, Omandur sought the imprimatur of Ramana Maharishi’s blessings before taking up office.

Omandur was deeply conscious of the importance of temples in the life of Hindus as he was of the bad days temple administration had fallen upon. As Premier of the Presidency, he ended one of his declamations to the stakeholders in temples by reminding them of a verse from the Tirumandiram that warns about the disasters that will befall a country if  temples are not administered properly: ‘’When worship in Shiva’s temples hurdles face, A ruler’s troubles will grow apace, Robberies and thefts will fearlessly tread, Prosperity from the realm will surely fled!’’ (From ‘Omandurar Ezhuthum Karuthum’: a book of transcripts of speeches delivered on various occasions).

Omandur firmly  believed that temples needed to be administered by the government to avert such a dismal scenario. Critics of the move like N.S. Varadachari – called ‘No Shirt’ Varadachari as well as ‘shirtless, shoeless and selfless’ because of his devotion to Gandian ideals—and Madurai A. Vaidyanatha Iyer of Temple Entry fame, opposed the government’s temple takeover. But others, including  freedom fighter M.P.Sivagnanam, veteran journalist T.S.Chokkalingam and the Tamil scholar ‘Avvai’ Duraisami Pillai, drummed up  support for the takeover to strengthen  the hands of Omandur.

Omandur Ramasamy Reddiar, premier of Madras Presidency from March 1947 to April 1949

 It was a time in which Mutt heads were stigmatized as being corrupt, inept and even subject to concupiscence in some cases.  There was a very popular film in 1936, ‘Chandrakantha’, in which the consummate actor Kali. N. Ratnam portrayed the sensual sports of a pontiff,  holding those of his ilk to hilarious ridicule. My friend, film historian Arandhai Narayanan has noted that the word ‘Swaamigaal’, used in derision to refer to the deviant pontiff, became a taunting catchword in the whole of the Tamil country (Thamizh Cinemavin Kadhai, Page 98). In such a scenario, coupled with the spirit of democratic socialism that was in the air, the move for a radical step like the government wresting the entire control of temples and mutts to save them from vested interests, seemed a heaven-send.  The bells began to toll for the old system when  Omandur declaimed to the Mutt heads from his pedestal of power, that they should give up the fanfare and trumpetry of their office as well as the day-to-day conduct of temple rituals (the latter to retired IAS officers), and settle down to doing penance and spiritually uplifting the lives of ordinary devotees!

Fortified by his backers,  Omandur  became the knight in shining armour crusading for government administration of temples. The bill he introduced snowballed for over a decade and finally led to the stranglehold of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department over the finances and fortunes of temples and mutts.

In the past three quarters of a century, generations of Hindu devotees have grown so used to the idea of government officials calling all the shots in temple administration, that the hundreds of years in which councils of local trustees ran temples with some overarching supervision of the ruling dispensations has been totally forgotten. But what were the objectives Omandur set out to achieve through government administration of temples? Were they achieved? What have the other repercussions of such control been?  Have the fears of the no changers proved true?

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(The writer is a senior journalist and author)

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