Land grabbers have encroached over 25,000 acres of Temple land, worth nearly Rs. 10,000 crores in Tamil Nadu as per state government records. However, Temple activists say that the figures could be more than 50,000 acres belonging to Hindu temples across the state. In a shocking revelation with long-lasting ramifications on the interests of the Hindu Temples in Tamil Nadu, it has come to notice that nearly 25,868 acres of temple lands have been encroached by land grabbers. These lands that have been illegally transferred to various other owners are worth a whopping Rs. 10,000 crores!
Encroachment of temple lands is not new, and in 2018 it was reported that 9000 acres of Temple lands had been encroached illegally by various people. But now, after the state government started the scheme to digitise all land records of temples under the control of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) department across Tamil Nadu, it has been found that at least 25,868 acres of land worth around Rs 10,000 crore belonging to various temples are under encroachment, reports TOI.
The TOI in its report also states that digitisation of land records of more than 38,000 temples and mutts, which began a few years ago, has been completed, and officials — including two district revenue officers have been appointed to reconcile the land details with revenue records under the updating registry scheme (URS).
Properties of Temple in Tamil Nadu have been neglected for decades ever since the Dravidian parties came to rule to roost. For these parties, which profess atheism, ironically raking in the moolah for the government schemes and projects from Hindu temples is not an anathema. While these ruling parties abuse and mock Hindu deities, their governments are not averse to collect funds from the temples of these very same deities. Likewise, the properties of Temple Lands have been encroached by politicians or real estate mafia close to the ruling parties. In July this year, A. Radhakrishnan, founder and president of Thiruthondargal Sabai, had claimed that as much as 70% of lands belonging to temples across the State has encroached.
In March 2019, Organiser had reported that 76 acres of land belonging to the ancient Murugan Temple of Thiruporur in Kanchipuram was encroached and turned into a housing complex. The land was worth over Rs 750 crore. The investigation had revealed that construction of buildings and other structures had taken place at more than 10 locations, which have the properties belonging to the Temple. Most of these lands were donated by the kinds, zamindars and devotees to the temples over the centuries. Now, they are under attack by the land mafia as the government has neglected to safeguard them.
Modus Operandi of encroachment
During the verification process, officials found out that in several places, temple properties have been illegally registered in the names of individuals who, surprisingly, bore the names of the temples or their presiding deities. For instance, a piece of land belonging to the Kapaleeswarar temple in Mylapore in Chennai was grabbed by Kapali. A person called himself Parthasarathy encroached on a plot of land owned by the Parthasarathy temple. There are also a few Mariammals who have grabbed land of Mariamman temples elsewhere in the state.
Statistics reveal that temple properties have reduced from 5.25 lakh acres to 4.78 acres in the last five years in Tamil Nadu. Out of these, nearly 50,000 acres are lying with encroachers and land grabbers. For example, as per the Patta documents, the Sanga Rameswaram temple in Tuticorin Sthala Purana had 2,500 acres of land, which has now been reduced to nearly 71 acres.
In July this year, a 70-year-old temple priest and his son were hacked to death by a gang for opposing encroachment of the lake bed in their village. The lake fed water to the temple, and the land mafia had encroached a large part of the lake bed for their activities. Other than land grabbers, the other major threat is from the Christian Evangelists. A 1500-year-old Pasupatheeswarar Siva temple atop the hill, Vajaragiri on Chennai-Trichy National Highway, is now inaccessible to Hindu devotees. The Christians had encroached the hill by putting it across and had taken control of the entire area. Even the steps to the temple have been now blocked. They constructed an arch saying the way to a Mazhai Malai Madha Arul sthalam besides installing cement statues depicting bible stories.
In Tiruparangundram Lord Murugan Temple in Madurai, one of the six abodes of Lord Muruga is situated. In Sannadhi Street, in the land belonging to the temple, a Christian convent is being run. One of the temple trustees was forced to convert to Christianity, and through him, they grabbed the land belonging to the temple. In February 2018, Justice R Mahadevan of Madras HC had ordered that public notices be issued forthwith informing land grabbers across the State to surrender the encroached temple properties voluntarily to avoid penal action. Governments have failed to follow up diligently.
Recovery goes on at a snail’s pace
Governments have not shown the will to recover the land despite the proof available and several judgments by the High Court. Officials have informed media that a total of 674.40 acres of land belonging to 156 temples have been recovered. This is a small fraction of the land that has been encroached. A total of 6,847.26 acres belonging to 1,466 temples will be reclaimed, claim the revenue officials.
In February 2018, Justice R Mahadevan ordered public notices be issued forthwith informing land grabbers across the State to surrender the properties voluntarily to avoid penal action under Section 79B of the HR&CE Act of 1959. Failure to do so should be followed up with prosecution against them. The HR&CE Commissioner was directed to prepare and file a report to the Revenue Secretary specifying the details of temple lands for which ‘patta’ had been issued favouring encroachers/third parties. This came in the wake of the Madras High Court seeking answers from the government about the way the assets of temples were being managed. Though the officials submitted to the court that temple lands are being retrieved, the intent and speed are not to be seen.
In Tirupur, Tahsildar (Tirupur North) S. Murugadoss and HR and CE Assistant Commissioner S. V. Harshini had informed that they had retrieved 6.72 acres belonging to Bhagawati Amman Temple at Mannarai in Tirupur. However, records suggest that more than 100 acres belonging to the temple have encroached. Unless the officials work diligently, it will become difficult to recover the temple lands as days go by.
In the case of Roman Catholic Mission vs the State of Madras and another, a five-member Constitution bench of SC observed that over 50 acres of land belonging to Sri Meenakshi Sundareswarar Amman Temple was declared to be the land of Temple on January 14, 1966.
Even after the order, the land is yet to be recovered from the Catholic mission. In Tirunelveli, Christian fundamentalists and evangelical organisations are building a cemetery right in front of the Manimoortheeswaram Uchishta Ganapathy temple, on the land that belonged to the temple. It is over 1000 years old. In 1985 the temple lands were given illegally by VAO (Village Administrative Officer) & Revenue Inspector to Christian Missionaries. Though the land records are available, the land is yet to be recovered.
The threats to Hindu temple lands all across the country are manifold, with land grabbers, Christian missionaries and Islamic zealots eyeing for a piece of the temple property. Many temples have reported a loss of traditional jewellery and ornaments from their custody. So-called ‘secular’ government willful blindness to temple woes are only emboldening the culprits. Unless the governments wake up soon and arrest the tide, Hindu temples might lose all their properties and lands within the next few decades.