Agastheeswarar Temple Case: HRCE Department Drags Its Feet After High Court Strikes Down Temple Land Sale For Mosque

by M R Subramani - Dec 10, 2018 11:04 AM +05:30 IST
Agastheeswarar Temple Case:  HRCE Department Drags Its Feet After High Court Strikes Down Temple Land Sale For Mosque  Agastheeswarar Temple in Nungambakkam, Chennai.
  • Land belonging to the Arulmigu Agastheeswarar Temple in Chennai has changed hands for decades, eventually reaching a point where a mosque was to be built on it.

    However, a Madras High Court ruling prevented the construction of the mosque and ordered eviction of the tenant from the land.

    This has, however, failed to materialise.

The Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HRCE) Department never fails to shock you. We have come across various cases, including the theft of temple idols, in which the department has been found wanting.

The latest is the curious case of the sale of land belonging to the Arulmigu Agastheeswarar Temple in uptown Nungambakkam area in the heart of Chennai. A report by Tamil daily Dinamalar said the temple had been bought by 19 people. But there is more to the case.

The issue came to light after J Mohanraj, who took voluntary retirement from Tamil Nadu police, filed a writ petition in the Madras High Court seeking legal opinion on the illegally sold properties of the Agastheeswarar Temple.

The temple has been locked in controversies over its properties since 1971. It all began when the Arulmigu Agastheeswarar Prasanna Venkatesa Perumal Devasthanam, which was in charge of the temple affairs, asked a tenant to vacate its premises, filing an ejection suit.

The tenant, who had put up a superstructure on the leased land, appealed against the suit and resorted to “right of purchase”. “Right to purchase” has been embedded in clause nine of the Madras City Tenants’ Protection Act, 1921, and allows such a claimant to pay the land cost in three years’ time. The tenant succeeded in his appeal, but failed to pay the cost within the stipulated three-year deadline.

In 1980, the tenant filed a petition to condone the delay in making his payment. The petition was allowed, but without hearing the devasthanam. The tenant was, however, asked to pay a 6 per cent per annum interest for the delayed period.

The tenant wouldn’t budge. He moved the Small Causes Court in Chennai, to appeal against his ejection from the temple premises. But the appeal was dismissed with costs.

The tenant, then, filed a petition for executing the sale of the temple land without giving a notice to the devasthanam. The lower court allowed the petition and the sale of the land was executed through a deed by the registrar, Small Causes Court, Chennai.

Once the temple authorities came to know that the Small Causes Court had not given them an opportunity to defend themselves, they issued a legal notice to the sub-registrar in T Nagar. By this time, the tenant, alerted over the temple authorities challenging the sale, sold it off to The Nungambakkam Muslim Welfare Association on 16 April 1981 without the knowledge of the devasthanam.

The organisation, after buying the temple land, began work to build a mosque. The temple authorities, then, made the association, the Chennai Corporation Commissioner, and the Madras Metropolitan Development Authority chairman as respondents. The authorities argued that construction of the mosque in an area where Hindus were predominant was illegal.

The temple authorities petitioned the lower court to rule the sale of its land null and void while seeking a permanent injunction on the construction of the mosque. It also sought another injunction for the removal of the superstructure constructed by the tenant.

The tenant, who was the first respondent in the case filed by the devasthanam in the lower court, argued that the temple authorities cannot find fault with the sale as the devasthanam had taken part in his ejection appeal. The temple authorities should have challenged the order on the ejection appeal while filing a separate case against the sale of land.

The trial court examined the case from various angles and declared that the execution of the sale deed by the Small Causes Court was null and void as it did not have any jurisdiction on the issue. The court also asked the tenant as well as the association that bought the land for constructing the mosque to vacate it.

The tenant and the Nungambakkam Muslim Welfare Association appealed against the trial court order in a higher court, but it was dismissed. Unhappy over the dismissal of its petition, the association filed another appeal in the Madras High Court.

The devasthanam told the Madras High Court that the value of the land was fixed by the Small Causes Court at Rs 10,325, and the tenant was asked to pay the amount in equal instalments of Rs 344. He did not even pay the first instalment due on 26 February 1972. Even if one instalment is not paid, the tenant’s purchase falls through, it said.

Justice G Jayachandran, ruling on the appeal, said the trial and appeal courts were right in ruling the “fraudulent” sale deed null and void. The judge also refused to provide for any compensation to the association, saying it had been at its own cost and risk.

The ruling, made on 5 January last year, gave six months’ time to the tenant and the organisation to vacate the land. The association went in appeal to the Supreme Court, which upheld the high court ruling. The tenants are yet to vacate the land and the Tamil Nadu HRCE Department has failed to act.

In Mohanraj’s petition, the Tamil Nadu HRCE Department has pleaded with the high court that it would revert with the legal status of the sale. Besides, the HRCE Department has said it does not have the documents for the sale of the land under the Madras City Tenants’ Protection Act.

The case will now come up for hearing on 11 January 2019. Mohanraj says he would wait for the response of the HRCE Department at the next hearing.

The department has already been asked by the high court to list on its website illegal occupants of temple lands and properties and defaulters of lease rentals of their properties. Come January end, we will know what the HRCE Department does.

M.R. Subramani is Executive Editor, Swarajya. He tweets @mrsubramani

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