An announcement recently made by Andhra Pradesh Chief Secretary LV Subrahmanyam that non-Hindu employees working in the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD) will be sacked has raised eyebrows in the state. The TTD manages affairs at the Sri Venkateswara temple atop Tirumala, which is one of the richest Hindu temples in the world.
"If people have converted while working here, that is fine. They are free to change their religion and no one will oppose it. However, they can't continue with the job and will not be given an important post because it will hurt the sentiments of Hindus," Subrahmanyam told reporters, after meeting with TTD Executive Officer (EO) Anil Kumar Singhal.
"They can practice their faith at home but they should leave the TTD. We will even conduct surprise inspections at the residences of those working in Tirumala if needed," he added.
Already, officials seem to have begun work with reports suggesting that the vigilance wing of the TTD has begun an exercise to identify non-Hindu employees. Though the top bureaucrat mentioned only TTD, the move has had other repercussions as well. The Executive Officer at the popular Mallikarjuna temple in Srisailam has reportedly prepared a list of non-Hindus working with their trust board, and sent it to the Endowments Commissioner demanding action.
Subrahmanyam's announcement is being seen by observers as damage control by the state government after a controversy last week, when an unusual advertisement of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem was found on the back of an Andhra Pradesh Road Transport Corporation (APSTRC) bus ticket, which was plying from Tirumala to Tirupati.
The move had upset several devotees, and the BJP jumped in, labelling the Jagan government as 'anti-Hindu'.
Speaking to TNM on Subrahmanyam's announcement, former TTD Executive Officer and ex-Chief Secretary IYR Krishna Rao said, "It is a desirable move and they will find support on the ground. Everything is paid for by the devotees and the government money is not flowing in there. It should be a prerequisite."
"It has been a long-standing demand. If there is any ordinance that prevents them from doing so, it must be amended," Krishna Rao, who is now with the BJP, added.
Will non-Hindu employees move court?
The issue however, is far from new. Last year, a video of TTD Deputy Executive Officer Sneha Latha surfaced, and she was accused of visiting the church every Sunday in the official car belonging to the board.
Outrage followed and at the time, 44 non-Hindu employees who had been appointed were identified. Showcause notices were issued to the employees, most of whom were appointed in non-religious posts like drivers, gardeners, sanitary staff, mechanics, nurses etc.
Stating that they had been working at the TTD for decades, the employees moved court and said that they had not hidden their religion when they were hired and dubbed the move discriminatory.
The TTD had cited Government Order 1060 dated October 24, 1989, and contended that it was a violation of the guidelines. They also cited provisions of the Hindu Religious Institutions and Endowments Act, and stated that they wanted to shift the non-Hindu employees to other departments in Andhra Pradesh.
Following this, the employees managed to get a stay from the High Court in February 2018. The TTD then made the staff take an oath not to indulge in non-Hindu practices at the temple, before the issue abated.
"The stay order is still in place. The TTD is free to hire whoever it wants for 'religious' posts but as far as jobs that are unrelated to religious affairs are concerned, discrimination on the grounds of religion could be construed as unconstitutional," Sudheer Jonnalagadda, the counsel for the petitioners in the case, tells TNM.
With the issue coming up for debate again, it is likely to end up in court.