Do not expect graphs or charts in this article: it covers the Indian government’s spending on religion and related infrastructure, a topic that has long been a closely guarded secret, even within the halls of Parliament. Pertinent information only leaks out when some smart member of the national or state legislature strikes it lucky. One such incident took place last year in the Rajya Sabha, when Minister of State for Human Resource Development D Purandeswari, in a written reply to Andhra Pradesh representative C Ramachandraiah, stated: “The state government of Andhra Pradesh has submitted a proposal for financial assistance of Rs 243.27 lakhs for modernization of madarsas.” This was meant without any irony, even though newspapers were simultaneously reporting a Lok Sabha answer that the union government was seriously considering the enactment of new legislation to check the receipt and utilisation of foreign funds by madrassas and other organisations.
Religion is a touchy subject in India, and the interface of government and religion even more so. Most political parties, including the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), often come dangerously close to being disqualified from parliamentary politics by the vigilant Election Commission for dabbling in the spiritual with an eye on the electorate and the next elections. To be fair, the Constitution does force on the government an entirely Western concept of the secular state, with religion completely divorced from governance and the instruments of state. Yet tradition and culture nonetheless compel the state players to devise radically new definitions of secularism – from the Nehruvian ‘Equal distance from every religion’, to the BJP’s ‘Equal respect for every religion’. But in this, Hinduism still remains the native, the ‘default’, form. The ‘non-Indic’ – a new term evolved by academics loyal to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – faiths are ultimately tolerated only as minority panths, or denominations, rather than as separate religions.
The New Delhi government has been challenged repeatedly to state its attitude towards religion – or worse, to take sides in religious wars in the name of communal violence. The controversy surrounding the Babri Masjid is just one such dispute. The latest is the Ram Sethu controversy, where the government’s maritime dream to have a sea channel linking the Bombay and Cochin ports with Madras through Adam’s Bridge, thereby cutting 30 hours out of the shipping time, has long been stymied by Hindu devotees. Top scientists have been dragged into the fray, and by mid-September, the government found itself in the unenviable position of having to tell the Supreme Court that there has been no evidence of Ram, the bridge or Ravan. But roadblocks in various cities, and accusations levelled at Sonia Gandhi’s United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government for “insulting Hindu sentiment”, had the UPA do a quick about-face, and state that “the existence of Ram cannot be doubted”.
Not that other religions have not similarly charged the government with bias. Christians are angry that New Delhi has given Hindu Dalits privileges denied to Christians converted from the same caste. Sikhs, meanwhile, are still nursing wounds from their last encounter with the Indian state, in 1984. Buddhists are fighting for an identity, and Jains are struggling just to establish that they exist separate from Hinduism. Such is life, but it is made more complicated by various maverick judges. For instance, Justice K Srivastava of the Allahabad High Court, on 10 September, just days before his retirement, ruled that Muslims were not to be treated as a minority with special rights, and that the Bhagwad Gita should be regarded as the national holy book.
If the relationship between religion and state is a shrouded issue in India today, the formal financing of all things religious from the national coffers remains even more out of reach for information seekers. The one time that a bit of light can be shed on the matter is when the issue is raised regarding government subsidies for two items: Haj and madrassas. Indeed, the Indian spotlight remains on Islam, and that light is focused mainly by members of the Hindutva Parivar – in Parliament, in the courts, in academia and in the public discourse.
As D Purandeswari indicated in the Rajya Sabha questioning, the central government does pay for the upkeep of madrassas in most states, and Islamic teachers are paid out of public funds. In addition, there is a sizable subsidy (though the amount is not publicly known) for the propagation of the Urdu language. Most states have also made provisions for financing madrassas, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala.
Again, these figures are kept well shrouded, and exact amounts are almost impossible to come by. Data given in provisional budget speeches is in round figures, and most is said to remain unspent. As such, it is all but impossible to estimate exactly how much is spent each year by the central and state governments on madrassas and related scholarship, teachers’ salaries, books and Urdu-language promotion. Even if this figure runs into the billions of rupees, as charged by the Sangh Parivar, it could easily be explained as legitimate expenses for ‘human-resource development’.
The subsidy for Haj is a more complicated matter entirely. There is no equivalent of Haj in any other religion: the Hindu teeraths do not come close, and Christianity has nothing remotely similar. Even in Islam, Haj is obligatory only for those who are in sound health and can afford it. They cannot perform the pilgrimage on borrowed money, nor on the charity of others. There is likewise no mention of help from the state, other than facilitation.
Last year, one B N Shukla went to court against the Haj subsidy, demanding it be withdrawn. His plaint pointed out that the Constitution provides equal status to all Indians, while also restricting the government from giving benefits to one faith at the cost of others. Shukla did not site any official record, but alleged that every year the government spends more than INR 3 billion on more than 100,000 Hajjis. Special flights are run on the national carrier, Air India; air-conditioned Haj houses have been built across the country; and pilgrims are provided free food and lodging during the course of their trip. Even Islamic countries do not give subsidies for Haj, Shukla’s application noted. A notice was subsequently sent to the government, the official response to which was reiterated in its response to a question in Parliament.
The Haj subsidy was formally raised in the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs during P V Narasimha Rao’s government, following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992. All parties were represented in the Committee, and the recommendation to reduce and eventually abolish the subsidy was unanimous. Fourteen years later, in 2006, the government reported that 83,000 pilgrims performed the Haj during the previous year, out of which the government subsidised around INR 1.8 billion. For good measure, Parliament was told that 529 Hindu pilgrims performed the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra that same year, at a public cost of INR 17.2 million. Minister of State for External Affairs Anand Sharma, who reported these figures, also said that 8179 people visited Sikh gurudwaras and Hindu temples in Pakistan the previous year. Both groups were given free medical assistance, security and various escorts.
For the RSS, the Haj-related data came at an opportune time. It reported a 500 percent increase in just seven years, which the RSS described as an “alarming, non-secular appeasement of one religious community when one considers that the Indian government is so desperate to reduce food grains and fertiliser subsidy to the large and poor farming community.”
Muslims and secular scholars alike point out that the Haj subsidy began during the early 1970s, after the oil crisis had caused Haj-related transportation prices to skyrocket. It was introduced as something of a stopgap measure – and the charge of official ‘appeasement’ of minorities has lingered ever since. The Haj charter fare was first fixed at INR 6000, before being eventually doubled. Of the 120,000 Indian Muslims who undertook the Mecca pilgrimage this year, some 70,000 went by air, and were able to avail themselves of a subsidy of more than INR 20,000 per person. (There is no subsidy for the 50,000 others who went by ship.) But former Member of Parliament Syed Shahabuddin points out that many Indian Muslim pilgrims come from rural areas, and are not even aware of the government subsidy. As such, much of this money is simply going to an elite group of Muslims, who would, one would assume, least need the taxpayer’s subsidy.
Islam in India further benefits from the public exchequer in the larger mosques, which receive government doles for salaries, annual upkeep and additional expenses. As elsewhere, however, very little information on these headings is public.
The situation with regards to Hinduism is even murkier. Despite the significant attention paid to the interface between the government and Islam, rarely are questions raised regarding government subsidies to Hindu and Sikh pilgrimages, in temple upkeep, in paying for the salaries of Hindu priests, and in maintaining public spaces during such events as the Maha and Ardha kumbhs. (Christians, meanwhile, claim that there is next to no money spent on them, other than by the Archaeological Survey of India on heritage buildings in Goa, or by the British government on graves for soldiers.)
As noted, Hindus do receive government subsidies for pilgrimages to Mount Kailash, and from a variety of sources. First, the Ministry of External Affairs routes INR 3250 to each Kailash yatri. The Uttar Pradesh state government then adds INR 5000 per pilgrim. The Delhi state government adds another INR 5000 for any pilgrim from Delhi. Likewise, the Gujarat government gives a kit worth INR 2500 to every yatri from that state. This kind of subsidy may well be given by other states as well, although such information is not publicly available.
Gujarat presents a particularly interesting case of state money being funnelled towards Hindu causes. The BJP government in 2001 announced that it would begin paying monthly salaries to Hindu priests in the state. During the first phase, each priest of the 354 government-controlled devasthans, or temples, would be entitled to a monthly salary of about INR 1200. The late Haren Pandya, at that time Minister of State for Home Affairs with the additional charge of “pilgrimage development and cow protection”, told the media that priests of other religions were paid from either the Waqf Board or trusts managing the place of worship. The new payments were “to give justice to the feelings of the Hindu society that salaries are being paid to them”, Pandya explained.
There is some information available on the tab for massive Hindu fairs, although much of this spending is merely labelled as ‘infrastructure development’. The grounds of the gargantuan 12-yearly Allahabad Maha Kumbh, for instance, are spread over 1500 hectares. During the last Kumbh Mela, in 2001, the site boasted 12,000 taps, capable of supplying 50.4 million litres of water; 450 kilometres of electric lines and 15,000 streetlights in place; 70,000 toilets; and 7100 sweepers to clean up the mess generated by an estimated five million devotees. There were also 11 post offices and 3000 temporary phone connections, while 4000 buses and five trains were also requisitioned for the mela period. At its peak, the mela administration had more than 80 officials working full time. The budget for all of this was INR 1.2 billion – INR 800 million from the state government, and INR 400 million from the Centre. This did not include the costs of deploying around 11,000 policemen, as well as 40 companies of the Provincial Armed Constabulary and other paramilitary forces.
The case of the Ujjain Ardha Kumbh, in Madhya Pradesh in April 2004, was no different. At that time, Chief Minister Uma Bharati promised that she would do all she could for the festival, which at the time was expecting millions of pilgrims. Bharati ultimately received additional funds from the Centre to the tune of INR 10 billion. Melas and pilgrimages aside, the government does not reveal how much it costs to broadcast the gurubani from the Golden Temple in Amritsar, nor explain why some temples and church groups receive tax exemptions on commercial activities such as medical colleges, charging hundreds of thousands of rupees in capitation or admission charges.
Hopefully, right-to-information exercises will soon help the public assess the full extent of direct, indirect and tertiary financing of the faith in India. Or will it? The courts are themselves not insulated from dabbling or intervening in matters of faith. This is not merely to do with the photographs of Hindu deities in the reception rooms of the Supreme Court in New Delhi. Nor is it only to do with judges like Justice Srivastava and their obviously religious biases. Rather, this is a problem of systemic lack of separation between religion and the judiciary, as well as the other arms of the state, which only public vigilance can expose. Yet keeping track of government and private funding of religion in India requires apparatus that even the Right to Information Bill seems incapable of offering – at least in its current avatar, in which government reasoning and official notes remain out of the public domain.
It was during the Emergency, in 1976, that Indira Gandhi brought forward the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA). This was to keep an eye on – and, if possible, to prevent – the flow of alleged West European funds to the Gandhi Peace Foundation, as well as other organisations that supported the popular agitation led by Jayprakash Narayan. The FCRA has been used largely to scrutinise Christians priests and nuns, a few Muslim groups and secular NGOs who receive funding through official channels. Meanwhile, hawala dealers are able to evade FCRA checks with the same felicity that they avoid Home Ministry surveillance. Recent unofficial research has found that the foreign money coming to large Hindutva and Islamic groups by way of personal donations and hawala transactions runs into the tens of billions of dollars.
The indication of monies received comes only through the visible evidence of where the money has gone. There is a rash of temple-school complexes in about around 100,000 villages in central India and Gujarat that have not been financed through documented means. Meanwhile, the growth of mosques in the Tarai belt along the Nepali border is a visible red rag to Hindu activists. Exactly who pays for the massive rallies sponsored in pursuit of politico-religious agendas remains a question no one wants to answer. The lack of transparency contributes to the increase in fundamentalist activities of all hues, funded by money that enters the country through dubious means.
The question of whether a secular state should be allowed to finance religious activities at all is a part of the extensive debate as to how exactly to define ‘secularism’ in the Indian context. But that politicians in power are potentially able to utilise state funds to further the religious agendas espoused by their parties should surely be a matter of concern for democratic-rights activists and secular citizens alike.
~ John Dayal is a journalist and president of the All India Catholic Union.