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Temple Management Case: Indic Collective takes Indic issues out of the op-eds and into the court room

The Supreme Court of India on 5th July 2018 sat for the third time to hear the Lord Jagannath Temple petition case in which it had earlier on 8th June 2018 directed the Puri district judge, among other things, to submit an interim report on difficulties faced by temple visitors, exploitative practices or lacunas in the management, if any. It had directed the district judge to submit an interim report to the court.

On 4th of July 2018, lawyer J Sai Deepak, on behalf of Indic Collective sought permission to file an impleadment application. The bench comprising of Justices Sri Adarsh Kumar Goyal and Sri Abdul Nazeer assured Sai that he would be heard on 5th July and accordingly, he was.

The Impleadment Application filed by Indic Collective 

J Sai Deepak made many interesting submissions to the court. He, first and foremost, pointed out to the court that the order of June 8th itself does not limit the scope of the Courts direction to only the Jagannath temple and in fact, it does not limit itself only to Hindu religious institutions. The interesting aspect of this submission is that Indic Collective put the ball squarely with the Court. The discussion surrounding discrimination against Hindu shrines and that of judicial over-reach has been gathering steam recently. For most, Hindus wonder why the Court feels it is within its right to interfere with Hindu faith, and on several occasions develops cold feet when it comes to the Muslim or Christian community.

What Sai did by arguing that the order pertaining to this case or any Hindu shrine applied to all religious institutions, is he, in essence, said that if the Court deems interference in Hindu shrines fit, it must also do so with Muslim shrines and Christian shrines. If it deems interference with Muslim and Christian institutions as Judicial overreach, it should assume the same for Hindu institutions.

The application by Indic Collective went on to talk about the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment Legislation. He argued that there was too much power with the state in case of Hindu temples and argued that Hindus should be consulted before decisions pertaining to Hindu shrines are taken. He mentioned the state of Maharashtra specifically as an example where the state’s interference is disturbingly growing. He pleaded in his application that firstly, the Law Commission should be roped in to present a report as to how the HRCE Legislation can be rationalised and also suggested that ‘Community Management Structures’ should be developed.

In conversation with OpIndia, Sai explained that the Gurudwara Act, for example, makes provision for ‘Community Management Structures”. Such structures mean that the community itself elects representatives to sit on the Gurudwara Board so their interests are better represented.

Another extremely important point that he raised was that of the State controlling the “Secular activities of a religious place”. Indic Collective’s petition argued that the line between ‘Secular activities’ of a religious place and ‘religious activities’ of a shrine are extremely blurred. The state essentially considers asset management of the temple as a ‘secular activity’ related to the temple. Which is to say, the State says that it is well within its right to manage temple funds. Indic Collective argued that the lines between secular and religious activities are thin. Money of the temple, for example, can be considered a part of the religious activity as, without the temple fund, the institution wouldn’t have the money to carry out religious activities.

Indic Collective argued that the state should limit itself to monitoring malpractice, if any, within the temple and its management, and divorce itself from other activities.

It pleaded that countrywide, and state by state consultation should be undertaken with all stakeholders to arrive at a report by the Law Commission.

J Sai Deepak argued that a Model Central Legislation should be introduced. Since this issue comes in the concurrent list, the states would be free to adopt the model legislation according to the specific needs of the state. However, when an issue is in the concurrent list, while the state is free to make changes, the state is not allowed to contravene the spirit of the central legislation. If it chooses to do so, the state legislation is liable to be struck down by a constitutional court.

Essentially, the aim of Indic Collective was to ensure that the states are not free to contravene the spirit of the central legislation which should be formulated after discussion with all stakeholders, which in this case, would be Hindus. This could eliminate the chance of individual states indulging in discriminative practices against Hindus.

The Impleadment application also argued that preservation of cultural rights is enshrined in the constitution under article 29. While the state often uses these provisions to protect the religious minorities, nowhere in the article does it mention that the protection should be limited to religious minorities. This would essentially mean that all faiths, including denominations within the Hindu fold, are free to protect their cultural practices if they can establish the importance of the practice to the preservation of their culture.

With this argument, Indic Collective ensured that if the court hesitates to strike down the cultural practices of the Muslims and Christians, it should apply the same standards to the Hindu community and not indulge in Judicial overreach.

The Supreme Court Order 

The Supreme Court order created quite the flutter among many, including the Media and the Hindu community. The one aspect of the order that was misinterpreted over and over again, was the part where the court says ‘people of all faiths must be allowed to enter the temple’. In our conversation with J Sai Deepak, he explained that first and foremost, this suggestion only pertained to the Jagannath temple and no other Hindu religious shrine. Secondly, he clarified, that this was a mere suggestion by the Bench. If the Judge had pronounced it as a direction or recommendation, the central government would be bound to follow it while drafting the legislation. However, this was neither. This was a suggestion which the central government, stakeholders and the shrine are free to reject. Further, Sai confirmed that the Indic Collective intends to submit its objection to the said suggestion.

The Supreme Court ordered that the Amicus Curiae must engage all stakeholders while coming up with his suggestions. The Supreme Court directed the Central Government to form a committee within two weeks and deliver its report by the 31st August. In this case, the Amicus Curiae would come up with an independent report that would act as suggestions to the Court. The central government, along with inputs from the Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Law and Justice would draft its own set of suggestions. The Orissa Government would draft suggestions pertaining only to the Jagannath temple and other parties, including the Indic Collective would be able to make its submissions as well. In the order, however, the Court did not take cognizance of Indic Collective’s submission to involve the Law Commission since it had already directed the formation of a committee by the central government to look into the management of religious institutions of all faiths.

There are two extremely relevant takeaways from the Supreme Court’s order.

1. In Paragraph 13 of the order, the court mentions a host of Hindu shrines that should be looked into. In that list, it also includes the Dargah Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, Ajmer, which the mainstream media has conveniently ignored. This was a direct result of Indic Collective vehemently reiterating that if the state and the Court deems interference in Hindu shrines fit, they must extend that to shrines of all faiths otherwise, it would be discriminatory and/or judicial overreach.

2. As a result of the intervention, the central government and the ministry of culture has been roped into the issue. Sai Deepak said, the government “ought to take a proactive interest in addressing the grievances of stakeholders with respect to Temple management”.

The Puri district judge’s recommendations have not been very well received by the people at large including the Indic Collective. Various recommendations have been made with respect to abolition of hereditary sevaks/appointment of sevaks; prohibition to collect money for Annadan Atika by sevaks, ban on placing thali and pitches by sevaks to receive offerings; temple management to take control of rosaghar and chullas; proposed amendments in Sri Jagannath Temple Act, 1954, and so on.

Sai Deepak clarified while speaking to OpIndia, “The District Judge’s report was made available online only after the hearing of the July 5th and hence, we didn’t have the opportunity to respond or object to the recommendations during the hearing. Indic Collective will respond to each and every point of the report in detail and will submit its recommendations to the committee that is to be formed by the central government and to the Amicus as well.”

With the next date of hearing marked for 5th September 2018, Sai Deepak and Indic Collective seem to be gearing up to oppose the controversial recommendations of the district judge, point for point and also submit its recommendations to the committee that is to be formed by the central government and Amicus Curiae.

Importantly, the IC also intends to submit its objections with respect to the Court suggestion to allow entry of Non-Hindus into the Jagannath temple. Therefore, the impression among Indics that the order of the court is final is far from the truth.

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Nupur J Sharma
Editor, OpIndia.com since October 2017

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