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As Nitish govt recirculates 70-year-old temple tax provision, BJP questions why only temples

Last week, Bihar board reminded temples to be registered under it & pay it 4% tax on annual income. State govt also announced 30,000 acres of temple land will be made public property.

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Patna: Days after the Bihar State Board of Religious Trust recirculated an existing notice for all temples in the state to be registered under it and pay the Board four per cent tax on their annual income, BJP members in the state are questioning why mosques and madrasas too shouldn’t be taxed. The notice — which is based on the provisions of the Bihar Hindu Religious Trusts Act, 1950, as amended in 2007 — was recirculated last week. The Board cited the low percentage of temples abiding by the taxation law as reason for the recirculation.

The Bihar government had also announced last week that ownership of lands belonging to temples and monasteries registered under the Board will lie with the deity and that 30,000 acres of such land will be made into public property.

The announcement by the Bihar government was greeted by stiff opposition by an association of priests in the state. The priests had threatened to take to the streets in protest unless the announcement was withdrawn, and demanded that temple land be owned by priests.

The issue of government control over temples in Bihar follows intense protest by priests over the constitution of the Char Dham Devasthanam Management Board — an umbrella organisation to regulate shrines and temples — in Uttarakhand. Last month, the state government announced the repealing of the Char Dham Devasthanam Management Act.

The recirculation of the taxation notice in Bihar has meanwhile, generated social media debate.

And while party in opposition, RJD, has largely remained silent on the subject, leaders in the BJP — a senior partner in the NDA government in Bihar led by Nitish Kumar of JD(U) — have not only criticisied government interference in temple matters, but also asked why only temples were being taxed.

The issue was, however, not raised in the winter session of the Bihar assembly which concluded Friday, and a BJP MLA told ThePrint that the party’s central leadership had asked the BJP in Bihar to endorse steps taken by the state government.

Also read: Give justice to minister, cries Opposition in Bihar as bureaucracy ‘insults’ ruling BJP MLA

‘Recirculating an old law

“We have only recycled an old rule,” said Bihar State Board of Religious Trusts Chairman Akhilesh Jain, referring to the provisions of the Bihar Hindu Religious Trusts Act of 1950.

He added: “There are around 4,600 temples registered under the Board. Unfortunately the number of Temples paying the tax will number less than 300. The money received as tax is also used to renovate crumbling temples.”

Referring to the 2007 amendment to the Act, former chairman of the Board, Acharya Kishor Kunal, told ThePrint that “in 2007 I increased the administrative cost of the temple from 12.5 per cent to 20 per cent. Since this is non-taxable, so for every Rs 100 given to a temple, only Rs 80 became taxable.”

Highlighting that the extent of property owned by temples varied, Kunal claimed that that while there are temples which are financially incapable of paying the tax, there were many that received huge donations, and yet do not pay the four per cent tax.

Bihar law minister Pramod Kumar, secretary of Patna’s Mahavir Mandir, which runs several charitable hospitals in the city, said the temple also pays Rs 75 lakh as tax to the Board every year.

Referring to the Bihar government’s announcement on ownership of temple land, Kumar had told the media last week that, “There are more than 36,000 acres of land owned by temples in Bihar. There are many cases of this land being sold to gullible buyers.” The law minister had added that that temple land has to be made accountable and safeguarded from illegal transactions.

According to informed sources in the Bihar government, the state has already written to all district magistrates to identify land owned by temples and maths and get them registered under the Board.

Also read: Outrage as police search bridal rooms at Patna wedding venues for liquor, Nitish defends action

‘Opposed to government interference’

Speaking on the taxation notice, former Union Minister and BJP MLC Sanjay Paswan told ThePrint, “I am totally opposed to any interference by the government on the running of temples. Secondly, why are only Hindu temples being taxed. Also tax organisations of other religions.”

His views were echoed by BJP colleague and MLA Pawan Kumar Jaiwal, who asked “Why should temples be taxed? Temples are run on charity and donations. I will raise the issue in the next session of the assembly.”

Some BJP leaders who did not wish to be named also claimed that there was a perception within the party that the notice was a way for the state government to get its hands on the money and assets owned by temples for its own use.

BJP spokesperson Prem Ranjan Patel meanwhile, tried to take the middle ground and said, “The financial status of the Board is so bad that it does not have the money to repair its office. The Board also uses this money to repair temples.” The leader added, however that “At the same time madrasas and mosques should also be registered and controlled by the government.”

Interestingly, however, the winter session of the assembly concluded just yesterday (Friday) and neither leaders, nor anyone else had raised it in either house of the Bihar assembly.

Explaining the silence over the issue, a BJP MLA who did not wish to be named said, “We have been told by the central leadership to accept and endorse steps taken by the Nitish (Bihar CM Nitish Kumar)  government”.

BJP MLA Haribhushan Thakur, who is also a member of Board too tried to play down the notice and said “It’s an old rule which has been reasserted. There is nothing new in the notification”.

Opposition RJD’s response to the issue is more muted. “Individually, I do not see anything wrong in it. Why should the money gained by temples be used by priests and trustees? Let the funds be used for social work,” remarked RJD national general secretary Shyam Rajak.

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

Also read: After policemen attack Bihar judge in office, furious Patna HC asks DGP to file report


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