A Hindu organisation has taken the Penang Hindu Endowments Board to task for acting beyond its jurisdiction and becoming a political tool of the MIC and Gerakan.
The United Hindu Religious Council (UHRC) president S Mugunthan alleged that the board's nine commissioners were appointed yearly based on their political affiliation rather than their knowledge on Hinduism and administrative skills.
He said that the political-based appointment for the board's commissioner position had become a norm since the 1980's.
"It is obvious that the present commissioners were appointed due to their political allegiance with certain parties or leaders notably the MIC and Gerakan,” he said.
Sources close to the endowments board told Malaysiakini that MIC president and Works Minister S Samy Vellu and Gerakan president and Penang Chief Minister Dr Koh Tsu Koon were the most powerful influence behind the appointment of the commissioners.
The source revealed that MIC and Gerakan had been using the commissioners’ position as a political gift to their local leaders.
The present chairman of the endowments board is the state MIC deputy chairperson and executive councillor PK Subbaiyah.
Over the past 20 years or so, many commissioners were appointed from political ranks of MIC and Gerakan.
"This is unwarranted," added Mugunthan.
The statutory powers
Under the Section 3(1) of the Hindu Endowment Ordinance 1906, the state governor on the advice of the state executive council shall appoint a board of commissioners, in which one of whom shall be a government officer.
Under Section 6 of the HEO, the board of commissioners shall appoint an endowment management committee consisting members of public professing the religion applicable to the endowment.
UHRC deputy president K Suppayah, who was appointed as assistant secretary to the commissioner board for more than 20 years (1970-1993), said there was no provision under the ordinance that empowered the board to appoint the management committees to manage any Hindu temples, organise Hindu religious festivals, govern tanneer panthals (refreshment sheds), collect donations and charge devotees with prayer fees of any form.
"The board is only a trustee of Hindu endowments of five temples," he said, while stressing that he had clarified the matter with the Attorney-General Chambers.
At present Hindu endowments belonging to the Waterfall hilltop Sri Balathandayuthabani Kovil , Sri Ramar Kovil in Dhoby Ghaut, Sri Kunj Bihari Krishan Mandir, Lebuh Queen's Sri Maha Mariamman Kovil and Butterworth Sri Maha Mariamman Kovil come under the jurisdiction of the endowments board.
Although it's merely a board of trustees to safeguard and manage the endowments of the five Hindu temples, the statutory body has, however transformed itself into a religious authority to appoint, control and dictate the management committees of the five temples, religious festivals and tanneer panthals (refreshment sheds).
"This clearly contravenes Article 11 of the Federal Constitution which was unambiguous that the government shall not handle religious affairs pertaining to religions other than Islam.
"Since the board is a statutory body, it shall not encroach into Hindu religious affairs," said Suppayah, while adding that the management of the five temples should be left to Hindu public, especially Hindu organisations.
Legal action possible
If the letter of law were to be enforced strictly, the board had no powers to manage temples, interfere in organising of the Thaipusam or Chitra Paruvam festivals and tanneer panthals.
As such, the board would have no authority to stop tanneer panthals from playing their own music during the Thaipusam festival and install a 3km-long single public address system between the Waterfall hilltop temple in Jalan Air Terjun and the Jalan Brown – Jalan Utama.
It also cannot impose charges on devotees for prayers of any form at the five temples.
Technically and ideally, said Suppayah, either existing Hindu organisations shall be allowed or new independent organisations shall be registered to manage each of the temples and organise religious festivals and functions associated with the temples.
"However, the board has now usurped a non-existent power by directly interfering with Hindu religious," he said.
Mugunthan said his council would carry out awareness campaign on the real position and powers of the endowments board since many Hindus were either ignorant and naive about the whole issue.
He did not rule out legal redress on the issue to stop the board from overstepping its judicial boundary thus committing unlawful acts.
"We have to take court action to right the wrong then we will do it," he said.