A Rajasthan High Court judgment has held that if temple lands are transferred to a tenant for cultivation, they cannot be immune from acquisition by the state. It has been challenged in the apex court.
In Mahant Damodar Dass vs State of Rajasthan, the Supreme Court is set to hear an interesting question of law—can a temple deity, legally recognized as a “minor”, be entitled to own land attached to the temple and can the property be cultivated on his behalf by “sevaits” (pujaris or guardians)?
The Rajasthan High Court had given a nuanced verdict in the case in July and the appellant in the Supreme Court, a pujari, has challenged the correctness of that decision as it has gone against his interests.
In Rajasthan, prior to abolition of jagirs by the Jagirs Act of 1952, there were two categories of land—lands held by the ex-rulers, known as “khalsa lands” and those held by jagirdars as “jagir lands”. The essential features of a jagir are that it was held under a grant from the ruler, and that grant is the land revenue. The word “jagir” connotes state grants, which conferred on the grantees the rights in respect of land revenue.
The Jagirs Act of 1952 was found to fall within the ambit of Article 31A of the constitution, by which the jagirs were abolished. The Jagirs Act of 1952 is a legislation which aimed at acquisition of property, whereas Section 20 of the Act exempted properties which were dedicated for religious services.
The Supreme Court had held that when property is given absolutely for the worship of an idol, it vests in the idol itself as a juristic person. The idol is capable of holding property in the same way as a natural person.
The Supreme Court had held that when property is given absolutely for the worship of an idol, it vests in the idol itself as a juristic person. This view has been consistently accepted in a long series of judicial decisions. The idol is capable of holding property in the same way as a natural person.
The Supreme Court had held that the deity has a juridical status with the power of suing and being sued. Its interests are attended to by the person who has the deity in his charge and who is in law its manager with all the powers which would, in such circumstances, be given to the manager of the estate of an infant heir.
The question before the High Court, however, was whether the idol is capable of cultivating the land personally. It was argued before it that a person who is subject to any physical or mental disability shall be deemed to cultivate the land personally if it is cultivated by the servants or by hired laborer. In other words, an idol or a Sansthan that would fall within the meaning of the word “person” can well be regarded to be subject to a physical or mental disability and land can be cultivated on its behalf by servants or hired laborers. Thus, it was urged that the idol would be in the same position as a minor and it can certainly cultivate the land personally.
The High Court rejected this contention by holding that the dominating idea of anything done personally or in person is that the thing must be done by the person himself and not by or through someone else. Relying on a Supreme Court judgment, it held that in order to claim a certain cultivation as a personal cultivation, there must be a direct nexus between the person who makes such a claim and the agricultural processes or activities carried on the land. In other words, all the agricultural operations, though allowed to be done through hired labor or workers, must be under the direct supervision, control, or management of the landlord. It is in this sense that the words “personal supervision” must be understood.
The High Court held that the legal requirement of personal supervision under the category of personal cultivation does not admit of an intermediary between the landlord and the laborer, who can act as agent of the landlord for supervising the operations of the agricultural worker. It makes no difference whether the landlord is a juristic person or a natural person, the High Court reasoned. In other words, the cultivation of the land concerned must be by natural persons and not by legal persons, the High Court observed.
In another case, the Supreme Court held that the idol would be in the same position as a minor and it can certainly cultivate the land personally. It was held that in case the idol is treated to have cultivated the land, it should be personal cultivation in which a direct nexus should be established between the person who makes such a claim (Hindu idol) and the agricultural processes or activities carried on the land. It was held that all the agricultural operations, though allowed to be done through hired labor or workers must be under the direct supervision, control or management of the landlord, without any intermediary. The concept of juristic person, the Supreme Court held, has to be understood in the sense that such juristic person must cultivate the land and have direct nexus with the cultivation.
The Supreme Court also held in that case that it is the deity/idol or the Sansthan which owns and holds the properties. It is only the possession and the management which vests in the manager.
Relying on the Supreme Court’s previous judgment, the High Court held that the deity could only hold such lands in jagir, where the sevait/pujari was cultivating for such deity. They could have direct nexus with agricultural operations either themselves or through hired labor engaged by them as to claim to be khudkasht (personal cultivation) and to be protected from resumption/acquisition under the Jagirs Act of 1952.
The High Court further held that if the land was given for cultivation to a tenant, or was cultivated through a tenant, such land became khatedari of (entered a state of being occupied by) the tenant. According to the High Court, the Jagirs Act of 1952 took away all the rights of the jagirdars, including Hindu idols, as dolidar or muafidar on the land cultivated by the tenants. They ceased to have any right on such land. The sevait/pujari could not have any independent status to have claimed any right over such land cultivated by tenants. Such tenancy could also not be regarded as sub-tenant of Hindu idol to confer any right on it, the High Court held.
The High Court thus decided the issue in favor of the state and against the sevait/pujari claiming the land to be saved by the Jagirs Act of 1952. It held that the land held in jagir by Hindu idol as dolidar or muafidar cultivated by a person other than the sevait/pujari personally or by hired labor as a tenant of the deity, shall vest in the state, after the Jagirs Act of 1952. The Hindu idol, even if it is treated to be a perpetual minor, cannot continue to hold such land, the High Court explained. A tenant of such land and cultivating it, acquired the rights of khatedar (tenant/renter of agricultural land) of the state. The name of Hindu idol from such land had to be expunged from the revenue records with sevait/pujari having no right to claim the land as khatedar. Consequently, they had no right to transfer such lands, and all such transfers have to be treated as null and void in contravention of the Jagirs Act 1952, and be resumed by the state.
The High Court, citing the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, 1956, held that immovable property of minor cannot be sold without the permission of the court, and hence the deity lands cannot be alienated except for legal necessity, after obtaining the permission of the court.
The appellant in the Supreme Court, a pujari, told the court that that the High Court had correctly laid down the law by saying that the pujaris who were cultivating the land themselves or through hired labor would be protected as registered tenants under the Jagirs Act, 1952. The appellant’s counsel in the Supreme Court conceded that a pujari of a temple is trustee of the land vested in a temple and is not entitled to alienate the property.
The appellant, however, appears to be aggrieved with the result of the High Court’s decision, which is that all lands of deities would now vest with the Rajasthan government, which has even issued an advertisement for auction of deity lands. The appellant said this ruling affected lakhs of small temples/deities, primarily in rural areas and small villages. The likely economic loss to be suffered as a result was thus interpreted by the appellant to be an unreasonable restriction on the freedom of religion itself. The appellant has therefore challenged the High Court’s judgment in the Supreme Court mainly on the ground of infringing his right to profess and practice religion—a ground which the High Court did not consider in its judgment.
As the court is set to hear further arguments in the case on January 4 next year, it cannot help revisiting the issue of secularism, which is one of the basic features of the constitution.