The furore and outrage surrounding the decision of the Tirupati Tirumala Devasthanams (TTD) trust to auction and dispose of 23 of its immovable land-assets located in neighbouring Tamil Nadu is neither new nor surprising. It is but another chapter in the long history of loot, misappropriation and attempts to desecrate one of the most sacred kshetras of Southern India. The board headed by YV Subba Reddy, uncle of Chief Minister YS Jaganmohan Reddy defended the decision, calling the lands “unviable and unmaintainable” and that the board was only doing it to prevent encroachment. He also added that this is not something new but has been happening since 1974 — the last part of the statement is absolutely correct. Temple wealth has been fair game for most governments irrespective of their hue or ideology.
About a week before the TTD notification on sale of land-assets, a report that appeared in the Deccan Herald talked about how the Tirupati temple authorities were considering the liquidation of land-assets and buildings donated by devotees to Lord Venkateswara to help tide over what the management called “COVID-19 related financial crisis” and an inability to pay staff salaries — how a temple/kshetra that earned on an average Rs. 3.18 crores per day could have run out of funds so quickly is a moot point and should be the subject of a separate investigation. All it took was a 45-day lockdown for the richest temple in the world to become so cash-starved that they decided to sell their assets.
In January 2020, just a few months after assuming office, the YS Jaganmohan Reddy government hiked the annual contribution of the TTD to the government exchequer to Rs 50 crore per annum. This is over and above the frequent demands for funds that are made by the government to the TTD for “financial assistance” for various projects/programs of the state government.
Even as the TTD’s finances were being burdened and bled, the same government was enhancing the “financial assistance” to Christian pilgrims visiting Jerusalem in Israel and other Biblical places from Rs 40,000 to Rs 60,000 (for those with annual income up to Rs 3 lakh), and from Rs 20,000 to Rs 30,000 (for those with annual income over Rs 3 lakh). Why should this not be seen as a case of burdening the exchequer by increasing assistance to Christian pilgrims and subsidising this burden by asking the Hindu temple to pay for it?
The loot of Hindu temples and more specifically of the riches of the TTD is not something that is new and has been an ongoing affair under supposedly “secular” governments, like for example the case of the priest who mortgaged Lord Balaji’s jewels or the fact that a vigilance enquiry in 2008 led to the suspension of several officials. That there has been no audit of the inventory of ornaments since 2005 for fear of unearthing a major scam is in itself a major indictment of all governments — present and past.
Take, for example, the case of 300 five-gram gold coins that went missing in 2006 valued at 15 lakhs then, from one of the most fortified places within the Tirupati temple complex — the temple treasury! That case was quietly buried in 2017 when the Andhra Pradesh government issued a Government Order (GO) dropping all disciplinary action against the retired officials who were allegedly involved in the scam. Then there was the case of the gold appraiser (1990) who earned a meagre Rs. 700 per month but owned 4 buildings, a large plot, a goldsmith’s shop, a silversmith’s shop, and a pawnbroker shop, all under different names — this well-organized racket of stealing from the “Hundi” during counting had been running for several years! There was also the case of 1,381 kg of gold worth over 400 crores belonging to the temple being transported without proper authorisation or security and was subsequently seized in Tiruvallur near Chennai.
So what is new and why the outrage and ruckus across social media and opposition parties in Andhra Pradesh? Beyond the obvious political compulsion of opposition parties to oppose anything that a government does and the opportunity to milk a scandal for what it is worth, the fact remains however that the fear of an increase in the pace and scope of loot and desecration of the kshetra under the incumbent government is a real and present danger.
The YSR family has a long, chequered, and controversial connection to Tirumala. The late Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy a Christian by faith was a frequent visitor to Tirumala and maintained that he was a devotee of Balaji but his tenure as CM saw some of the most brazen attacks on the kshetra — an attempt to reduce the jurisdiction of the Tirupati temple/Lord Balaji from seven to two hills, permitting evangelical activity in and around the kshetra and the gold coins scam referred to earlier in this article.
The rampant evangelical and conversion activity in and around the Tirumala kshetra where Tirupati is situated had reached a crescendo during YSRs regime. This led to a backlash from Hindus and Hindu religious groups which forced the then government to issue an ordinance declaring the entire Tirumala kshetra exclusively for Hindus. That has however not stopped the encircling of the kshetra by a modus that is euphemistically referred to as ‘church planting’. A simple google maps search of churches in and around the kshetra reveals the extent of the danger (see snapshot below) — a semicircle of churches and prayer halls situated along the periphery of the kshetra highlights the imminent danger and the unfolding of the ‘church planting’ plan.
The scale of the conversion problem became clear when a minister in the present state government openly admitted on TV that large scale conversions have been happening and continue to happen in AP. He further added that Christian missionaries were pumping in funds from abroad to fuel these conversions. He also alleged that the actual number of Christians in Andhra Pradesh were way over the official census numbers. This is in line with the suspicion that converts are advised to hide their faith in order to ensure that conversions can continue to proceed by stealth and through subterfuge.
Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests a massive conversion wave that is changing the demographics of Andhra Pradesh, particularly the coastal belt and the pace is only expected to rise with a favourable government in power.
The Tirupati Tirumala Devasthanam is a pivotal and symbolic landmark of Hindu Dharma. It is not only the most popular temple on earth but is also the earthly location of Vishnu who resides here as Venkateshwara in the age of Kali — the Bhuloka Vaikuntam. Any attack on the Tirumala kshetra is a direct attack on the Dharma. It is, therefore, no surprise that Tirumala has been and will continue to be in the crosshairs of those who want to see the end of the Dharma.
The only way this kshetra and all other kshetras can be protected is to free it from government control and hand it over to the Hindu community. A secular state should have no business in deciding how the resources, assets, and wealth of a religious place should be used. The assets anyway belong to the deity. Everyone else is only a trustee and a trustee’s fiduciary duty is of loyalty solely to the beneficiaries — in this case, the Hindu community. Just as secularism has no place for religion in it, so also a religion (or the Hindu dharma in this case) has no place for secularism — it is impossible for a place of worship to be secular — that is an oxymoron: विमुक्त क्षेत्रान् [Vimukta Kshetrān (Free the Temples)].