India temple row flares over billion dollar assets
Hindus cry foul after trustees accused of mismanagement
India's Supreme Court on Thursday assigned a civil committee to administer the vast wealth of a temple in southern Kerala state, sparking opposition from Hindu groups.
The court entrusted the administration of the eighth century Padmanabhaswamy temple, in the state capital Thiruvanathapuram, to a five-member committee headed by a district judge.
The committee also includes a temple priest and official. A government auditor is to assess the temple properties, assets and accounts.
The move comes as the court hears a case in which the previous administrators stand accused of poorly managing the temple assets, worth an estimated US$20 billion in gems, coins, gold ornaments and antiques unearthed in secret vaults two years ago.
The trustees were descendants of the Travancore royal family, the former ruling dynasty, who deny any mismanagement.
However, an advisor appointed by the court earlier in the case to help the court suggest ways and means to safeguard the temple’s treasures, was critical of the way the royal family was managing the temple’s vast wealth.
Much of it had been stashed away behind thick, stone walls by successive maharajas over centuries.
In a report submitted to the court on April 15, the advisor Gopal Subramaniam alleged the royal family had smuggled out 17 kilograms of gold ornaments and that coins were sold.
The report prompted the appointment of the five-member committee.
Hindu organizations, including the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) immediately objected, saying administration should be left with the descendants of the royal family.
State BJP president, V. Muraleedharan, said the party will oppose any move to take over the temple’s management because it would result in "corrupt politicians looting” it.
“The assets are believers' donations to the temple. So true Hindu believers should play a role in its administration,” Muraleedharan said.
Many Hindus say they believe the court is showing a degree of religious bias.
“The court seems to be only after Hindu temples and not Christian churches or mosques," said Sudhakaran Balan, a Hindu.
He noted that boards nominated by state government administer Kerala temples.
"Christians decide the affairs of their churches, and Hindus have no role in the affairs of their temples. It is not fair,” he said.
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