By Annan Boodram
A number of videos on goings-on at the Bhuveneshwar Mandir have been making the rounds on social media and eliciting a range of responses from critical to humorous. The bottom line however, is that all mandirs are broadly painted when such occurrences take place. And fingers are then pointed at mandirs and mandir administrators in general.
After viewing the videos, one gets the impression that the conflict relates to the constitution, elections and control of the mandir operations. And those who have been following the saga of mandirs, not only know that these are the issues that have dodged mandir after mandir over time, but also are aware that these kinds of conflicts have split many mandirs and led to a proliferation of mandirs in New York City (60 plus), the vast majority of which operates minimally. Given this reality, one has to ask: is it not time for a mechanism to be set up to address conflicts in mandirs and bring about fair and just solutions?
Just over two years ago, at that Caribbean Hindu Conference dubbed ‘historic,’ one resolution that was passed sought to ensure that all mandir administrations be provided requisite training to provide them with a desired degree of professionalism. Sadly, while the conference provided a springboard for a smorgasbord of great ideas, implementation has been still born.
Now, one suggestion to tackle this issue is that a conflict resolution body (panchayat) of independent and credentialed individuals be established. In fact this mechanism is currently attracting the attention of some community leaders who are hopeful that it will soon become a reality. But a panchayat raises a number of issues that are critical to its viability:
- All mandirs must be registered NGOs and non-profit entities. Registrations must never be in the name of one person, but rather a board of trustees or a board of directors, which must be separate and distinct from the executive. A board oversees the mandir and ensures accountability and transparency. Executives take decisions which must be ratified by the general membership before implementation and this is the only manner in which the decision making process should operate. And care must be taken in order to ensure no conflict of interests with respect to board members and members of the executive.
- All mandirs must have constitutions that govern their operations. Regardless of who creates the constitution, it must be in keeping with the non-profit requirements and must be must be discussed and adopted by a majority of members.
- All constitutions must have provisions for regular periodic elections through a process that is fair and transparent and presided over by an independent, reputable individual or body. And voters should only be financial members with at least one year standing. This would avoid vote padding, which is often a huge issue and would certainly prevent election manipulation through an influx of last minute membership just prior to an election.
- All financial transactions must be recorded, ongoing statements kept and presented for accountability at all meetings. Such statements must then be presented to the board for ratification. Financial statements must also be audited at least one annually.
- Buildings housing mandirs, if not owned by the registered organization, must be leased (even if for free) to the organization. At no time should a single individual own a mandir. Usually the board for the organization holds ownerships so that no individual name has permanency on the ownership document or any other official documentation.
- No pandits should be either on the executive or board of any mandir. Pandits should only act in advisory capacities and should be spiritual preceptors.
At the end of the day, administration or overseeing the operations of a mandir is neither about power or personal enrichment but about service and a desire to make a difference. And regardless of how much money an individual may possess, donate or lend to a mandir, such money cannot translate into a greater say for that individual, the granting of any special favors or any side deals.
Also, those who attend and participate in mandirs must learn to coexist amidst differences of opinions. Additionally, mandirs, like other social organizations, operate on the principle of majority decision-making and all who are members of such an organization must abide by that principal. In effect, a few should not be able to manipulate and run amok because the majority remains silent. Most importantly, conflicts and problems, which would always crop up in any social organization, must be dealt with in a principled manner through a just and fair mechanism, such as the proposed panchayat. Those who create problems are not usually in the best position to resolve such problems by themselves.
Tolerance should be displayed for ethical behavior, principles, honesty and integrity, not for wrongs, immorality and divisive behavior. Imagine, for example, a certain pandit is alleged to have demanded a pension from a certain mandir. And allegations of fraudulent conversion of monetary abound. In fact, even allegations of sexual impropriety have reared its head from time to time. In fact, in the vast majority of instances, mandirs could easily be closed down if the state ever got wind of behavior and practices that violate the non-profit provisions, and that sometimes border on the criminal.
Currently there are at least half a dozen mandirs dealing with conflicts. One has been closed down and many others operate on the basis of autocracy – dominance by a handful. Thus while those who manage mandirs and ensure that they remain open and functioning are doing yeoman’s service to the religion, such service must, by necessity, be voluntary, without expectation of any financial or other rewards or perks and without any behavior that smacks of autocracy or heavy handedness or that brings disrepute to the mandir. These expectations go with the territory and unless one is willing and able to meet them, one should not aspire to the territory.