News Brief

TN Government’s Idea To Reward Temple Land To Squatters May Run Into Trouble With The Madras High Court

The Madras High Court
Snapshot
  • Finally, the High Court is proving to be the protector and saviour of temple lands in Tamil Nadu.

On Monday (18 November), the Madras High Court reserved its judgment on a petition challenging the Tamil Nadu government’s order to regularise “non-objectionable encroachments” by those who had encroached temple lands in the state.

While reserving its judgment, the two-judge bench of the court, comprising Justices M Sathyanarayanan and M Seshasayee, made no effort to hide its disappointment over the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government order on temple lands.

In his petition filed in the court, A Radhakrishnan of Salem has challenged the government order issued on 30 August this year. The judges said they would first pass the order on miscellaneous petitions seeking a stay and then deal with the main petition challenging the order.

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One of the major issues raised by the judges while hearing this petition was how the state government would implement its order without having any details on the encroachments of the 44,000-odd temple lands in Tamil Nadu.

The temples are under the administration of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) department, which is itself being questioned for the way it has been managing the temples.

Interestingly, another petition seeking to end the HR&CE department’s control of temples, filed in 2012 by late Swami Dayanand Saraswati, is also being heard by the Supreme Court currently.

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During the hearing in the Madras HC, the judges wondered if the AIADMK government would fix a price for all the temple lands that it plans to acquire before it hands them over to the encroachers — as per the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013.

The Act lays down clear guidelines, procedures and rules for providing compensation, rehabilitation, and resettlement for government-acquired lands.

The judges had pulled up the state government even when it had admitted the petition to stay the order in September, asking what sort of signal such an order was sending to the squatters on temple lands.

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The Edappadi K Palaniswami government has tried to wriggle out of this tight corner by saying that their order is not a blanket order and the allocation would be done on a case-by-case basis. It said its order was aimed at providing lands for ‘eligible’ poor families that were residing on temple lands.

The judges’ concern over the government order looks to be in sync with what the court’s Madurai Bench had declared in June last year: that not even an inch of temple land or property would be allowed to be encroached.

The Madurai Bench was hearing a batch of petitions seeking the removal of encroachment of temple lands in the Ramanathapuram district.

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The Madras High Court has also previously issued at least a couple of directives to the HR&CE department to set things right with regard to temple administration. However, the department has been dragging its feet.

On 31 October 2017, the High Court had ordered the department to upload on its website details of those who had defaulted in paying rent for the temple properties that they had taken on lease.

The court gave the department three months' time but it took longer than that for the department to comply with the order. This was because the department’s commissioner took at least five weeks just to give instructions to his subordinates to provide details.

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In October last year, the High Court asked the HR&CE department to furnish details of those lands that are currently missing in documents and records. And it gave the state government six months' time to retrieve these lands.

The state government got back to the High Court saying that it had recovered hardly 1,000 grounds and some 3,000 sq ft of land.

According to T R Jawahar, an editor with News Today, temples in Tamil Nadu own close to six lakh acres and three lakh square feet of property. An incalculable part of these lands has been grabbed, and the temples are left with just the land within their walls.

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In the last five years, at least 50,000 acres have been swallowed by encroachers. Besides their lands and properties, temples in Tamil Nadu have also been stripped of their valuable idols. The Madras High Court has now taken over the supervision of idol theft and smuggling cases in the state.

The state government and the HR&CE department, in particular, are playing truant with the High Court orders.

The grievance of temple devotees and worshippers is that ever since the Dravidian parties — Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and AIADMK — came to power, temples have been targeted for their loot. Temples in Tamil Nadu have the capacity to earn at least Rs 7,000 crore.

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The DMK on its part has not only kept quiet over the High Court orders but has also led a protest against the action taken by the Tamil Nadu idol-wing police and courts on the HR&CE department officials.

Interestingly, the DMK in its 2016 election manifesto had also promised to hand over temple lands to the squatters.

Finally, the High Court is proving to be the protector and saviour of temple lands in Tamil Nadu.

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