The separation of temple and state. A comparative study of religious freedom and traditional institutions in India and the west

Start - End 
2019 - 2024 (ongoing)



This project focuses on a conceptual and historical analysis of one of the most controversial issues in contemporary India: the tensions between religious freedom and government intervention in Hindu temples and traditions. Since the Independence of 1947, state-level governments in India have taken over the management of tens of thousands of temples. Today, it has become almost self-evident that government officials have the authority to supervise all temples classified as 'public’. This supervision not only pertains to the everyday administration of temples, but often also extends to the organization of rituals and festivals. This state of affairs has led to a series of enduring legal disputes and societal conflicts in India. Most recently, violent protests erupted after the Supreme Court took a decision to ban a traditional practice of the Sabarimala temple in the South-Indian state of Kerala.

Still, the Indian Constitution recognizes the right to individual religious freedom (Art. 25) and the right of religious denominations to manage their own affairs in matters of religion (Art. 26). But when practitioners challenge the current situation in the name of these constitutional rights, Indian courts repeat a set of standard claims: the practical organization of temples and their rituals is not ‘religious practice’ but ‘secular activity’; the practices regulated by the state are not ‘essential to Hindu religion’; therefore, the state legislation and policies about temples do not violate the right to freedom of religion. The government is then free to take control of all domains of traditional practice judged as ‘secular’ activity and ‘non-essential’ parts of religion. Along the way, judges regularly tell people that their practices are backward and based on irrational and discriminatory beliefs. They take up the task of teaching the Hindus about the true tenets of Hinduism and of deciding what is essential to this religion.
Today, the body of systematic scholarship on the tensions between the freedom of religion and the government control of temples in India is very limited. The project aims to fill this void by examining the issue from a comparative perspective: it will contrast the Indian policy-making, legislation, and court decisions about temples to the legal and political treatment of religious institutions in the EU and the USA. More specifically, the research aims to offer systematic analyses of:
(1) the framework of Indian constitutional law with regard to religious freedom and state intervention in traditional institutions and practices;
(2) the policies and laws that established the system of government control of temples and popular reactions to these policies and laws;
(3) a series of Supreme Court and High Court cases and decisions, which are illustrative of the legal interventions in Hindu temples and traditional practices;
(4) the colonial foundations of state interference into traditional institutions and practices in British India;
(5) comparisons and contrasts between the Indian situation and the way in which western states have dealt with religious freedom and traditional institutions such as churches, mosques and synagogues.