On April 29, OpIndia (archive link) published an article with the headline — ‘5,450 tonnes of free rice to 2,985 mosques, 47 temples have to pay rupees ₹10 crores: Tamil Nadu government order,’ giving the impression that temples in Tamil Nadu were directed to pay for free rice to be supplied to mosques. The phrase ‘Tamil Nadu government order’ suggests that a single order was issued in the matter.
OpIndia’s article talks about two different circulars sent by the Tamil Nadu government’s Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department (HRCE) to 47 temples on April 22. These controversial circulars essentially instructed the temples to donate ₹10 crores towards the Chief Minister’s Public Relief Fund (CMPRF) to aid those suffering from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. The circulars do not mention anything about free rice to mosques. In its article, OpIndia also claims that “unlike Muslims, Hindus don’t get anything in festivals”.
On April 30, Priti Gandhi, head of social media for BJP Mahila Morcha, also tweeted about free rice to mosques and temples instructed to donate ₹10 crores. YouTuber Anshul Saxena posted a tweet with similar sentiments. Cumulatively their tweets were retweeted over 12,000 times.
On May 2, right-wing propaganda website The Frustrated Indian (archive link) published an article that said, “This effectively means that the Tamil Nadu government, of which the BJP is an ally, is snatching funds from Hindu temples in order to cover-up their costs of appeasing the Muslims.”
The circulars issued by Tamil Nadu government
On April 22, the HRCE sent two circulars — circular 1 and circular 2 — to at least 47 of the largest temples in Tamil Nadu. The first circular invited the temples to donate “any amount according to their capacity” to the CMPRF. On the other hand, the second circular specified the expected donation from each temple in lakhs.
A Chennai-based senior news editor on the condition of anonymity told Alt News, “At first glance, the HRCE circulars seem like an invitation to donate towards CMPRF. However, the fact that the commissioner specified exactly how much each temple should contribute makes it look more like a directive than an invitation.”
On May 4, RR Gopaljee, associate editor at Dinamalar and member of Vishva Hindu Parishad, filed a petition at Madras High Court to quash the circulars sent by the HRCE.
On May 5, The Hindu reported that the HRCE withdrew both the circulars. It is pertinent to note that on May 3, Alt News spoke with Phanindra Reddy, principal secretary/commissioner at the HRCE. Reddy specified that as of that day no temple had donated to CMPRF.
Cost to donate rice to 2,927 mosques is borne by the government exchequer
Since Reddy confirmed that no temples donated towards the CMPRF, their money could not have been utilised for free rice distribution to mosques.
The annual initiative to offer free rice to mosques during Ramzan was introduced by late Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa in her 2001 term, as per a report by The Outlook.
In order to estimate the cost of 5,450 tonnes of free rice given to mosques during Ramzan, Alt News looked up the Cooperation Food and Consumer Protection Department (CFCPD) 2020-2021 policy note.
The policy states, “During “Ramzan” month, the Government gives special allotment of raw rice to mosques for preparing ‘Nonbu Kanji’. For the year 2019, 5,450.384 MT of raw rice was distributed to nearly about 2,927 mosques for Ramzan at the rate of Rs.1/- per kg across the State that cost Rs.15.52 Crore to Government exchequer.”
The 2020-21 policy note specifies the cost of rice incurred in 2019.
Free gifts are distributed by the government during Hindu festivals as well
Since the 2020-21 policy note specifies the cost of rice distribution during Ramzan in 2019, Alt News has compared it with last year’s cost of gift distribution during the Hindu festival Pongal — which is celebrated in January.
As per the 2019-20 policy note, the government exchequer spent Rs 2,246.60 crores for gifts during Pongal last year. In contrast, free rice distribution during Ramzan had cost the government exchequer close to Rs 15.52 crores.
The 2020-2021 policy note mentions that this year in addition to ‘special Pongal gift hamper,’ Rs 1000 cash was also offered. As per the document, “A total number of 1,98,41,149 Special Pongal gift hamper with cash assistance of Rs.1,000/-were distributed to PDS beneficiaries through the fair price shops.” The government had sanctioned a total amount of Rs 2363.13 crore.
On April 25, the Tiruchirappalli government issued a press release stating that raw rice can be donated to beneficiaries via mosques during Ramzan. Subsequently, Hindutva organisation Hindu Munnani raised a petition against the TN government’s decision to donate raw rice to mosques during the holy month of Ramzan. However, Hindu Munnani’s prayer was overruled by the Madras High Court, reported Live Law on April 27.
As per the Madras High Court, the petitioner’s prayer had proceeded on ‘religious lines’. The court ruled out discrimination. The bench consisting of Justice M. Sathyanarayanan and Justice M. Nirmal Kumar relied on Supreme Court’s verdict on Prafull Goradia v. Union of India, (2011) — “As per the counter-affidavit, the Government was not averse to the idea of granting support to a pilgrimage conducted by any community as for example when the Government incurs some expenditure for the Kumbh or for facilitating Indian Citizens going on pilgrimage to Mansarovar, or visit temples and gurdwaras in Pakistan. Thus there is no discrimination.”
Several right-wing websites published articles linking two unrelated matters — Tamil Nadu government’s donation of rice to 2,927 mosques during Ramzan and the HRCE’s controversial circular demanding ₹10 crores donation from temples to CMPRF. Temples were not directed to fund rice distribution during Ramzan. Furthermore, gifts are distributed during Hindu festivals as well. The misleading reports communalised the issue and eventually fueled the social media trend #LootTemplesGiftMinorities in the first week of May.
Several tweeter users systemically spread misinformation that money from temples is used to fund mosques. Ramesh Shinde, the national spokesperson of right-wing news website Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, tweeted two images and claimed that temples are being looted. The second image posted by Shinde claimed that Tamil Nadu government ordered temples have to pay ₹10 crores for 5,450 tonnes of free rice to 2,985 mosques. This was retweeted over 1500 times (archive link). This tweet was quote-tweeted by @RituRathaur who has over one-lakh followers (archive link).
Sankrant Sanu, IIT graduate and the founder of the right-wing publishing house Garuda, quote-tweeted a tweet that claimed Tamil Nadu government is taking money from temples to funds gifts to mosques. Sanu’s tweet was retweeted over 600 times. (archive link)
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