Temples often take up a great deal of an Indian politicianís energies. Ms J. Jayalalithaa is now, in her own way, into the politics of devotion. After the rather unpleasant surprise of her ordinance banning religious conversion, she has now taken on the entire issue of the Arunachaleswarar temple at Tiruvannamalai. Here again, there are strong elements of populism and the signs of a slow inclination towards the Bharatiya Janata Party by making the right Hindu gestures. The Archaeological Survey of India wants to take over the repair and upkeep of this temple after declaring it a ďmonument of national importanceĒ. But it was being looked after by Tamil Naduís ministry of Hindu religious and charitable endowments, which does not now wish to relinquish its charge of this important temple. This has now become a public and politicized confrontation not only between the ASI and the Tamil Nadu HR & CE department, but also between the state and the Centre, with the latterís tourism and culture minister assuring the chief minister that this is no takeover but purely a matter of maintenance. There has even been a bandh and protesters with black badges in Tiruvannamalai. Ms Jayalalithaa is firmly on their side, threatening to move court to oppose the ASIís initial moves.
The chief ministerís intervention and litigious threats are likely to turn this whole affair into yet another gratuitously complicated political issue. This could mean the involvement of collective passions that ought to have very little to do with the stateís governance and administration. The very existence of a minister in charge of Hindu religious and charitable endowments as part of a secular state apparatus is questionable. The ASI looking after the repair and upkeep of the temple should have no effect at all on the worship and rituals in it. The regular devotees should be able to take the ASIís words of assurance on trust. The intervention of a Union minister on behalf of the ASI could qualify this impression. In fact, the entire conflict, although couched in the language of hurt feelings on the part of the locals, seems to be about the control of funds and accountability regarding this aspect of the templeís running. The Tamil Nadu governmentís populist and proprietorial stance is certainly in excess of the legitimate demands of religious sentiments. In any case, the chief minister and her colleagues should be staying away from the ASIís decision, which, one hopes, was made on purely archaeological considerations.