November 22, 2015

India: Temple statues that are worhiped as gods are minors,can they own land? Supreme Court to decide

The Times of India

Temple deities are minors, can they own land? SC to decide

Dhananjay Mahapatra,TNN | Nov 22, 2015, 03.49 AM IST

Mahant Damodar Das moved the SC alleging that the Rajasthan HC order violated the right to freedom of religion guaranteed under the Constitution.

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NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court has taken up the challenging task of deciding whether a temple deity, legally recognized as a 'minor', is entitled to own land attached to the temple and whether the property could be cultivated on his behalf by 'sevaits' (pujari or guardian).

For ages, Hindu temple land vests in its principal deity which has been recognized as a legal entity by the courts. Even in Ayodhya-Ramjanambhoomi dispute case, the Allahabad high court had recognized the right of Ram Lalla despite granting the minor deity ownership of one-third of the 2.7 acres of disputed site.

But the Rajasthan high court has upturned the norms governing upkeep and administration of temples by ruling that deities being minors could not cultivate land and hence temple land should vest in the state government. The HC order has mainly hit the pujaris hard as they have been for generations maintaining the temples and their families through income from cultivation of temple land.

The consequence of the HC decision is that all lands of deities would now vest with the Rajasthan government, which has even issued advertisement for auction of Deity lands. The petitioner said this ruling affected lakhs of small temples/deities, primarily in the rural areas and small villages.

Crying foul against the judgment and terming it an infringement on their right to religion, Mahant Damodar Das and the deity of Shri Thakurji of Sardarshan temple moved the Supreme Court through advocate Manish Singhvi alleging that the HC order violated the right to freedom of religion guaranteed under the Constitution.

A bench of Justices Dipak Misra and P C Pant on November 16 entertained the petition and issued notice to the Rajasthan government seeking its response.

Singhvi cited nearly 140-year-old rulings of the Privy Council, predecessor of the Supreme Court, which had held that the pujari of a temple is trustee of the land vested in a temple and is not entitled to alienate the property.

The petitioner pujari told the SC that the HC on one hand has correctly laid down the law by saying that the pujaris who were cultivating the land themselves or through hired labour would be protected as registered tenants under the Jagirs Act, 1952. "But on the other hand, the HC also held that any land held by the pujari should be resumed by the state," he said pointing out what he thought was an apparent contradiction.