Hindu dieties and the law: India

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Temple lands

The Times of India, Nov 22 2015

Dhananjay Mahapatra

Temple deities are minors, can they own land?

The Supreme Court has taken up the challenging task of deciding whether a temple deity , legally recognised as a `minor', is entitled to own land attached to the temple and whether the property can be cultivated on his behalf by `sevaits' (pujari or guardian). For ages, Hindu temple land vests in its principal deity which has been recognised as a legal entity by the courts. Even in the Ayodhya-Ramjanmabhoomi dispute case, the Allahabad high court had recognised 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, cannot cultivate land and hence temple land should vest in the state government. The HC order has hit hard pujaris who have maintained the temples and their families through income from cultivation of such land for generations. The consequence of the HC decision is that all lands of deities would now vest with the state government, which has even issued advertisement for auction of lands. The petitioner said this affected lakhs of small templesdeities.

Mahant Damodar Das and the deity of Shri Thakurji of Sardarshan temple moved the SC alleging that the HC order violated the right to freedom of religion.

The petitioners argued that 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.

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