Andhra Pradesh High Court sets aside the removal of TDP leader Pusapati Ashok Gajapathi Raju as chairman/Founder Family Member of three temple trust boards

Published : January 29, 2021 16:42 IST

P. Ashok Gajapathi Raju, a 2017 picture. Photo: C.V. Subrahmanyam

In yet another legal blow to the Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy government, the Andhra High Court has set aside the removal of senior Telugu Desam Party (TDP) leader Pusapati Ashok Gajapathi Raju from the post of chairman/Founder Family Member (FFM) of trust boards of three temples, including the famous Sri Rama Swamy Devasthanam at Ramateertham in Vizianagaram district.

The Andhra Pradesh government had on January 2, via a memo, expelled Ashok Gajapathi Raju, the senior opposition leader and former Union Minister for Civil Aviation, from the chairmanship of the temple trust boards for allegedly failing to take steps that might have prevented the vandalism of the idol (Hindu god Rama) at the Ramatheertham temple. The acts of vandalism at the temple had occurred on December 29, a day before surveillance cameras were to be installed at the temple. Invoking Section 28 of the Andhra Pradesh Charitable and Hindu Religious Institutions and Endowments Act 30/ 87, the State Endowments Department’s memo (as an alternative to a government order, G.O.) stated that Gajapathi Raju as the chairman/FFM had failed to discharge his professional duties and had not meaningfully addressed points associated with the security of the temples.

Ashok Gajapathi Raju approached the court, filing a petition challenging the Government Order on January 21. The TDP leader’s contention was that the government order was illegal in law and it had not followed due procedures. He requested the court to set aside the government order. Gajapathi Raju’s contention was that his removal from the post of FFM/trust board chairman of Ramateertham temple and Sri Pyditalli Ammavari Devasthanam in Vizianagaram district and Sri Mandeswara Swamy temple in East Godavari was executed by way of a memo rather than a government order, in blatant violation of Sec.28 (2) of the AP Charitable and Hindu Religious Institutions and Endowments Act, 1987.

Hearing the petition, Justice D.V. S. S. Somayajulu agreed with Ashok Gajapathi Raju’s argument that due procedures were not followed by the government’s Endowments Department in removing the founder trustee, and it set aside the order. However, the judge in his ruling said that the Endowments Department could initiate action against the petitioner after following rules and procedures. An elated Ashok Gajapathi Raju tweeted after the High Court order: “The order removing me as the hereditary trustee/chairman of Ramatheerdhalu has been set aside by the High Court today. I saw in the news that it is the Prathista at Ramatheertham today. Lord Rama blessed me on this auspicious day to continue in his service.”

Ongoing controversy

The Ashok Gajapathi Raju episode is partly a fallout of the ongoing controversy in Andhra Pradesh wherein, since March of last year, several Hindu idols in temples around the State have been vandalised and desecrated by unknown miscreants, the issue erupting into a huge political battle among leaders and activists of Andhra Pradesh’s three main political rivals, the TDP, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the ruling Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress (YSRC). The unabated acts of vandalism have prompted the government to increase security at temples. The installation of 37,673 surveillance cameras at 11,295 places of worship in the State is a part of this initiative.

Reliable sources told Frontline that the removal of Ashok Gajapathi Raju from the trust boards was also part of a larger campaign by the Andhra Pradesh government, read YSRC, who want to cut into the former’s political clout in the Vizianagaram region. Sources disclosed that besides this political gamesmanship, there is also the control of around 14,800 acres of prime land, worth more than Rs 50,000 crore, in north coastal Andhra Pradesh, mostly in Visakhapatnam and Vizianagaram districts, that is technically controlled by a family trust of Ashok Gajapathi Raju, which is at stake.

It all began last March when the Andhra Pradesh government, in a surprising move, via G.O. 74, appointed Ashok Gajapathi Raju’s niece Pusapati Sanchaita Gajapathi—the daughter of his late elder brother Pusapati Anand Gajapathi Raju from his first wife Uma—as the chairperson of the Simhachalam Varahalakshmi Narasimha Swamy Devasthanam Trust and the family-run Maharaja Alak Narayana Society of Arts and Sciences (MANSAS). While the chairperson, as the hereditary trustee of the Simhachalam Varahalakshmi Narasimha Swamy Devasthanam Trust, controls prime lands of 108 temples, including the legendary Simhachalam temple and 12 reputed educational institutions, the MANSAS Trust technically controls the around 14,800 acres of valuable real estate.

Until 1995, control of the Trust and MANSAS was under Pusapati Vijayrama Gajapathi Raju, the 15th and last Maharaja of Vizianagaram. On his demise, control passed on to his elder son Anand Gajapathi Raju, who remained in charge until his death in 2016, when his younger brother Pusapati Ashok Gajapathi Raju took over. However, Sanchaita Gajapathi’s appointment threw the cat among the pigeons. Her contention is that she is the legitimate heir despite the divorce of her parents and has questioned the “male heir” rule. For his part, Ashok Gajapathi Raju contends that the rules of the trust cannot be glossed over for they were drafted as per the wishes of his father, who was also the founder trustee of MANAS. He has buttressed his right by pointing out that traditionally, since 1713, only males in the family have been  appointed as hereditary trustees and chairpersons of the Simhachalam Varahalakshmi Narasimha Swamy Devasthanam Trust and that the rules under the Indian Trust Act, 1982, cannot be ignored.

Challenging the “male heir” rule, Sanchaita Gajapathi, who has political ambitions, contends that occupying the chairperson’s office is her right. And in this she has the backing of the Andhra Pradesh government, and the connivance of the YSRC. She has, among other things, accused her uncle Ashok Gajapathi Raju of irregularities in land allotment.