Chardham Board Verdict
#GS2 #Judiciary #GS1 #Culture #Religion
In a major setback to the arguments on the state’s control of Hindu temples, the Uttarakhand High Court has recently upheld the constitutionality of the Uttarakhand Char Dham Devasthanam Management Board Act, 2019 that was enacted by the Uttarakhand government.
What is the controversy?
- The Uttarakhand law allegedly takes control of four of the most sacred places in the State including Kedarnath and Badrinath, which was challenged by MP and former Minister Subramanian Swamy.
- Such laws are in place for a number of temples such as Jagannath Puri (1955), Vaishno Devi (1988), Shrinathji at Nathdwara (1959), Mahakal at Ujjain (1982), Kashi Vishwanath (1983), and Tirupati Balaji temple (1987).
- Interestingly even Manu’s code provided that priests do not have the absolute right in temple management; instead, kings (state) in ancient India had a vital say in temple management. Even Kedarnath and Badrinath were under state management as prescribed by the Shri Badrinath and Kedamath Temples Act, 1939. The newly enacted law merely replaced this Act.
- The Chief Justice of the Uttarakhand High Court-led Bench examined all issues connected with the violation of religious rights of Hindus in temple management.
Observations by the Court
- The Chief Justice held that though offerings (of money, fruits, flowers or any other thing) are given to the deity, religious practice ends with these offerings, and that collection and distribution of these offerings for the maintenance and upkeep of temple are secular activities.
- The Supreme Court in Nar Hari Sastri And Others vs Shri Badrinath Temple Committee (1952) had already held Badrinath to be a public temple of Hindus and not confined to any family or denomination, and that secular activities of these temples can be regulated by the state. The Court explicitly said that legislature is not bound to demonstrate mismanagement of temples while enacting such laws.
- In the latest judgment, Chief Justice observed that it is not necessary that the legislature should make a law uniformly applicable to all religious or charitable institutions or endowments. Acknowledging the diversities of our society, he went to say in paragraph 34 that ‘enactment of a uniform law in one go, though desirable, may perhaps be counter-productive’. Thus, the concept of one nation, one law was impliedly rejected.
- Moreover the right to management under Article 26 (Freedom to manage religious affairs) can only be claimed after the fact of establishment has been proved. The petitioner could not prove ‘who established the Badrinath temple after Hindu temples were destroyed by Buddhists’ and who has been deprived of right to management. The judgment thus acknowledges that the history of temple destruction in India certainly pre-dates Muslim invasion.
- Relying on earlier decisions, the court clarified that ‘in matters of religion’, right to management is a guaranteed fundamental right under Article 26(b) but in respect of properties, the right to administer properties under Article 26(c) is to be exercised in ‘accordance with law’. Thus, the state is entitled to regulate administration of religious or temple properties by means of validly enacted law. But a law that completely and permanently takes away the right to management will clearly be violative of Article 26(c).
As a denominational sect
- The ruling also saw the rejection by the High Court of recognising Sanatan Dharma as a Hindu denominational sect. In paragraph 83, the court observed that the “Hindu dharma is said to be ‘Sanatana’, i.e. one which has eternal values: one which is neither time bound nor space bound.”
- Since all Hindus by and large have faith in Sanatan Dharma, they cannot be equated to any religious denomination, for the chord of a common faith and spiritual organisation which unites the adherents together, is absent.
- The court observed that Hindu believers including those of the Shaivite and Vaishnavite forms of worship, are not denominational worshippers. No caste or sub-caste or sect of the Hindu religion, who worship mainly a particular deity or god, can be termed as a religious denomination.
- Finally, the plea based on Article 31-A (saving of laws providing acquisition of estates) was also rejected though the 2019 Actindeed vested the administration of these temples in the Char Dham board in ‘perpetuity’ rather than for the limited duration as is permissible under Article 31A(b) because properties of these temples will continue to be owned by the deities and mere possession will be vested with the board.