The Madras High Court on Thursday lashed out at the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Department of the Tamil Nadu government for its failure to act on the increasing complaints filed in the court about the misappropriation of temple properties. The court also warned the department that it might have to come down hard if the Department did not act on its own to recover encroached temple lands.
The observations were made by Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy while hearing a contempt of court petition filed against top government officials for having failed to recover the encroached lands of the Agatheshwarar Temple at Nungambakkam.
“We note that in most cases pertaining to temples under the HR&CE Department, the officials concerned have been negligent in resuming temple properties that had been transferred to others unauthorisedly. Unless immediate measures are taken by the Department, more drastic measures may be called for,” the court warned.
Details of the case
As per petitioner J. Mohanraj, the HR&CE officials under the Tamil Nadu government had failed to recover the lands of the temple that were sold illegally by the erstwhile trustees, despite a court order passed on February 19, 2019.
Putting forth the facts, counsel for the petitioner P.T. Perumal, brought to the court’s notice a souvenir brought by the temple in 1988 that had mentioned that the temple was in possession of 340 grounds of land then.
Going by the information obtained under the Right to Information Act, 2005, the temple was in possession of 307 grounds. However, in a status report filed before the court, the HR&CE Department stated that the temple was only in possession of 93 grounds.
The report also mentioned that 107 grounds had been sold by the erstwhile trustees but yet the figures differed in comparison to the records presented.
The counsel thus insisted that the HR&CE Commissioner be directed to explain the steps taken to recover large tracts of land that were sold illegally.
Agreeing with the arguments placed, the judges have ordered the Department to file a status report within three weeks.
Madras High Court issues direction
This is not the first time that the Tamil Nadu government and the HR&CE Department came under fire for their negligence. In a 224-page judgment, the Madras High Court in June had issued a set of 75 directions to the Tamil Nadu government for the maintenance and protection of historical monuments and ancient temples.
The Court had remarked, “the custodians of grand and antique temples and ancient monuments are least bothered and the conservation of our valuable heritage is deteriorating not due to any natural calamity or catastrophe, but due to reckless administration and maintenance under the guise of renovation.”
It also ruled, “The State Government or the Commissioner of the HR&CE department, who are the Trustee/administrator of the temple lands, shall not alienate or give away the lands contrary to the wish of the donor. The lands shall always remain with the temples. The ‘public purpose theory’ shall not be invoked in cases of temple lands over which the interest of the community people of the religious denomination generally rests.”