Is all well at the Hindu Society of Victoria Carrum Downs is a question that needs answering.
Bharat Times (BT) has been contacted by a number of Shiva Vishnu temple devotees with claim of money being stolen from the ‘Undiyal’ – or money box kept on site for donations by devotees.
The Shiva Vishnu temple in Carrum Downs is run by the Hindu Society of Victoria (the HSV).
An individual, who according to the HSV management committee (MC) was a temple volunteer, was reportedly caught on camera stealing money from the money box that was meant to be always kept under lock, with the keys strictly controlled by the management.
According to multiple devotee claims and HSV statement on their website (now removed), the money was stolen during the counting of donations in the money box. That establishes the fact that the theft was committed by someone from within the select group of people authorized by the MC, to have access to the money box. That then, raises the question whether the procedures implemented by the MC, are stringent enough to stand the scrutiny of public accountability.
The aggrieved members and devotees also allege that the “volunteer” was an erstwhile office holder of the HSV in various capacities. If that was the case, then he was a person in a position of trust. That then subjects the MC to the aggrieved members’ concerns of questionable conduct in not instituting a thorough investigation and reporting it to appropriate authorities.
The fact that it was caught on camera throws the following questions for determination:
- Was this the first time the person was involved in counting of the cash?
- Was this the first time the CCTV footage of the counting was reviewed?
- Is it possible money had been lost before?
- Why was the matter – theft of money – a crime – not be reported to the police?
- How could the committee make sure that devotees’ hard-earned donations are put to its proper and appropriate use respecting their sentiment?
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The MC dealt with the incident by putting up a message on its website, which has since been taken off. The message (from a screenshot sent to Bharat Times) titled ‘Misinformation on Social Media’ and reads as below:
There has been circulation of malicious misinformation on social media regarding the temple’s financial issues. The rumours are circulating that the temple has lost thousands of dollars. The Management Committee (MC) can assure the devotees that is absolutely not the case. MC would like to set the record straight on this matter.
Around the middle December 2021, just before the AGM, a suspicious activity by a volunteer was observed during the undial counting. The CCTV coverage was reviewed, and the volunteer was contacted to explain his conduct. The volunteer did agree that he did not meet the standards of norms set by the temple. While the exact amount was not determined, it was relatively small sum as observed from the CCTV footage. The sum was recovered by the temple, when volunteer, on his own volition, decided to deposit the amount in the temple account. As a further risk mitigation measure, the volunteer was banned from volunteering in the temple.
At the time, the Executive Members of the Committee decided, to treat this as a purely operational matter and not to take it to legal authorities, because of the following factors:
- It was a small sum of money, the money was recovered, and the volunteer was banned from volunteering in the temple.
- Our temple is a spiritual community, and we are supposed to uphold the highest standards of ethical behaviour. That is why we take immediate and prompt action when anyone (employee or volunteer) indulges in unethical behaviour, and we do everything to remove those individuals from working or volunteering in the temple.
- We are also compassionate community, and we are extreme sensitive to loss of reputational status. Given the circumstances, we have to balance various factors and decide best course of action.
The MC will continuously strive at all times to do everything to protect the integrity of the temple operations. In order to do this, we have removed the individual for his unethical conduct, continue to undertake new measures to safeguard temple operations and are striving to continue to uphold community values.
HSV Management Committee”
The above statement is self-explanatory.
But devotees who raised the alarm, say the matter was simply brushed under the carpet. Talking to Bharat Times and commenting on the Management Committee’s handling of the issue, they said:
- it outraged their emotions and devotion.
- that banning the individual from volunteering at the temple, was merely a rap on the knuckles.
- that they disagree with the MC’s decision not to report the incident to police.
- that they also question the MC’s conclusion that the stolen money was a “small amount”, without ordering a thorough investigation.
- that they question the seriousness with which the MC took cognizance of the incident and despite being unable to “determine the exact amount”, decided to accept the “volunteer’s choice” of the amount to deposit into the temple account.
- that HSV members have not been informed what amount was actually deposited back into the temple account.
Sending Bharat Times volumes of material, the HSV members and devotees, who requested to remain anonymous, allege their concerns are being brazenly ignored, and the committee is allegedly taking a very “in your face” approach.
Bharat Times contacted the Management Committee in early April 2022. To an email of 7 April requesting a Zoom chat to address the various concerns of devotees, we received a response on 17 April from the HSV Secretary, Mr Tharmalingam Maheswaran saying:
Thanks for inviting us for a Zoom chat.
Hindu Society of Victoria (HSV) has already issued a message to our devotees via emails on this matter. Also, we plan to issue a notice to our members via Panchavati – Newsletter of HSV in the near future on this matter.
I don’t believe that we will have any more to add via a Zoom meeting.
Thanks again for your interest.
On 7 May, another email was sent to Mr Maheswaran, once again inviting him/the MC to address the issues raised by many HSV members –
“…We have received further documentation and statements from some more devotees suggestive of rampant and widespread problems …to help the wider HSV community, you and/or the committee should address the issues being raised”.
While we waited to hear from the MC, we continued to receive further material supporting their alleged concerns, from the devotees.
Having received no response for more than 3 weeks, on June 1, we put all the HSV members and devotees’ concerns and allegations in writing to Mr Maheswaran.
Among other things, it was put to Mr Maheswaran that some HSV members and devotees allege that a priest had been earlier caught on camera allegedly stealing money.
We invited the MC to address and comment on the veracity of the allegations. We believe if the incident had occurred, it was essential for the MC, to keep the Hindu community’s faith in it’s (committee) operations, to make it known; of how the MC dealt with the above incident and what procedures were followed.
In the other incident, if the “volunteer” caught on camera was in fact, an erstwhile HSV office holder, allegedly in charge of handling large sums of money during his tenure; there is an added onus on the MC to evidently assure the community that any monies stolen, large or small, have been recovered. The MC has not provided any evidence of any financial forensic investigation having been instituted.
It is notably, an extremely aggravating factor that an erstwhile HSV office holder (if that was the case), would have been ordinarily aware of the CCTV cameras operating, and yet was brazen enough to commit the theft.
The community also needs to know with what regularity was the CCTV footage of counting of money box offerings, being scrutinised; and by who.
Some other questions put to Mr Maheswaran were as follows:
- Is it true that the HSV Management Committee had put up a message (reproduced above) on the society’s website in relation to the theft of money calling it ‘malicious misinformation’?
- Why was the message removed from the website?
- What steps if any, do you think the MC should take to win back the confidence of concerned members/ devotees and volunteers?
Giving more than 3 weeks to respond, we requested HSV to email their responses by Friday, June 24. Bharat Times did not hear back from the MC, until publishing of the story – (July 8). Thus, concerns raised by the aggrieved members remain unaddressed.
BT believes that it is not only imperative, rather incumbent upon the HSV’s management committee, to allay any community concerns of financial misappropriation in its operations.
In the meantime, we understand that the MC resolved to expel the person who allegedly committed the theft of money. The alleged person however, resigned soon after, from HSV membership and “hence no further action is required to expel the member”, according to a statement by the MC in their newsletter Panchvati“.
The AGM to elect the new committee has been called for August 28. The deadline for postal votes is – 19 August. To avail the postal vote, you must apply for it before 15 July.
From the documents BT has sighted, the Management Committee’s AGM related expenditure for the period 1 July 2021 to 31 March 2022 (9 months) is $40, 824. The documentation to call the election is dated May 25. Thus the amount may substantially increase adding the June quarter expenses.
Some HSV members allege the elections are allegedly tightly controlled by a group of HSV members behind the scenes. BT could not test the allegations because of the MC’s decision not to talk to us. These broad concerns are thus, matters purely for the members of the HSV.
BT has been sent a list of membership, suggesting that to be the Hindu Society of Victoria members’ list; it has more than 2200+ members. It is being alleged that only a small percentage of people actually participate in the elections. BT is not able to verify those claims.
The Hindu Society of Victoria and its operations are a community asset. It is everyone’s duty to save it for posterity, particularly the HSV members. Therefore, all members – whether active or not, must act now, get in touch with the management and work to bring about the changes that you would like to see eventuate.
As a last-minute addition, in an unverified claim, BT has also learnt that a small group of devotees/members is requesting that the election be postponed to allow the committee time to deal with various issues being raised.
Moral of the story is: if you are a devotee, member of the Hindu Society of Victoria, get active, use your vote and voice now. If you think changes are required, talk to the management and be part of it.
Do it for community’s sake.
– with inputs by DM
Just a note to readers: For us to know firsthand, BT wrote to many devotees – sending questions for them to answer. For brevity reasons, those voluminous Q&A will be presented to the audience separately.