Lucknow: The Constitution of India not only guarantees freedom of religion – every individual has the right to freely profess, practice and propagate their religion – but also bars the state from levying any tax or collecting funds in the name of any religion.
But in Uttar Pradesh, which is often jokingly referred to as ‘Ulta Pradesh’, the authorities have turned the provisions of the constitution on their head.
The state’s Public Works Department (PWD) has blatantly gone about opening a bank account to collect funds for the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. On January 19, 2021, the PWD’s engineer-in-chief, Raj Pal Singh, wrote a letter to the MG Road branch of HDFC bank in Lucknow on official letterhead directing them to open an account in the name of “PWD Ram Mandir Welfare”. And no sooner than this letter reached the branch, a new banking account with the number 50100365009830 was opened.
Significantly, the letter to the bank also explicitly states that the new account is meant for depositing the proceeds of one-day’s salary from all PWD employees as their contribution towards construction of the “Shri Ram temple”. The letter mentions that this contribution would be ‘voluntary’.
Article 27 of the constitution states, “No person shall be compelled to pay any taxes, the proceeds of which are specifically appropriated in payment of expenses for the promotion or maintenance of any particular religion or religious denomination.”
While the ‘voluntary’ donation by PWD employees may not legally be considered a ‘tax’, there can be no doubt that the use of official machinery to collect this money amounts to a coercive levy for the promotion of a particular religion.
It is not clear whether this fund collection exercise was the chief engineer’s own initiative – presumably to establish his ‘more loyal than the king’ credentials – or he was following some kind of instructions, written or unwritten, from above. The Wire was not able to reach Raj Pal Singh despite repeated attempts and the story will be updated when he responds.
The PWD happens to fall under the domain of deputy chief minister Keshav Prasad Maurya, who had his roots in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). The late VHP president Ashok Singhal was not only Maurya’s mentor, but also one of those Sangh parivar leaders who for decades had spearheaded the movement to replace the Babri Masjid with a temple for Ram.
Maurya’s ascendance in the inner politics of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was attributable to this background which also got him the mantle of UP BJP president until the 2017 state elections. As an OBC leader, he also remained a strong contender for the chief minister’s position. The coveted post eventually went to Yogi Adityanath, while Maurya had to remain content with the deputy’s job.
Speculation is therefore rife that using government machinery to mobilise funds for the Ayodhya temple could be another way of scoring a point over the chief minister who had shelled out only a small contribution of Rs. 2 lakhs for the construction of Ram temple. Significantly, Yogi Adityanath continues to remain head of the Gorakhpur based Gorakhnath temple – known to be overflowing with huge funds, out of which generous donations to the Ram temple could be made.
Whatever be the case, it is quite unlikely that a chief minister whose own politics is hardline Hindutva will step in to stall this unconstitutional exercise. It should be obvious that it is highly improper for a government department to urge employees to give away one-day’s salary towards the temple and to use official resources to set up a bank account to facilitate this process. Yet, at the end of the day, it looks like a win-win situation for Maurya – if he is indeed the person behind the exercise undertaken by the engineer-in-chief.
In any case, the move could well be opposed by many departmental employees who may not like to join the donation drive. Even though the donations are officially stated to be “voluntary” , everyone knows that a refusal to follow the donation diktat would brand them as “anti-temple”, which could have serious consequences for them.