The legal war

Print edition : October 23, 2009

The towers of the Nataraja temple.-

THOSE who know the history of the Nataraja temple would discount the theory that an attempt to streamline its administration through government intervention is a new phenomenon. The Dikshitars have moved different courts to stall initiatives taken by different governments, right from the days of British rule. The Madras High Court, in its order on February 2, 2009, referred to the long and chequered history of the legal battles over the temple.

According to informed sources, the first legal salvo was fired by the Dikshitars in 1885. The question raised through a suit was whether the temple was a public institution or a private one. Justices Muthuswamy Aiyar and Shephard observed in their judgment of March 17, 1890, that there was no denying the fact that the institution had been used as a place of public worship from time immemorial and that there was no particle of evidence in support of the assertion that the Nataraja temple was the private property of the Dikshitars.

Close on the heels of the Scheme of Administration introduced by the Hindu Religious and Endowment Board in 1932 under the Tamil Nadu Act-II of 1927, the Dikshitars again moved the District Court, Cuddalore, opposing the action. Rejecting their claim that the temple was a private property, the court passed a decree modifying the scheme. On an appeal filed by the Dikshitars in the High Court in 1936, the scheme was confirmed with some modifications. The High Court judgment was reported in 1939 II MLJ (Madras Law Journal) 11 (Ponnuman Dikshitar and another vs The Board of Commissioners for the Hindu Religious Endowments, Madras and others).

The State governments order, issued on August 28, 1951, notifying the temple under Chapter VI (A) of the Tamil Nadu Act-II, 1927, was also challenged by the Dikshitars through a writ petition. The notification was quashed by the High Court and the government filed a writ petition before the Supreme Court, challenging the order. Meanwhile, the State government cancelled the notification.

Another occasion for the Dikshitars to go to court came 31 years later when the State government issued a notice to them, on July 20, 1982, pointing out several irregularities in the administration of the temple and its properties, besides informing them about the proposal to appoint an executive officer. That order was challenged by the Dikshitars secretary through a writ petition. The High Court, in its verdict on August 9, 1983, directed that the governments notice would be treated as a show-cause notice and not as a decision and that it was open to the Dikshitars to put forth their objections.

In the inquiry held by the HR&CE Commissioner, the Dikshitars contended that the appointment of the executive officer would interfere with their rights guaranteed under Article 26 of the Constitution. However, the Commissioner passed an order on July 31, 1987, observing that the officer would only look after the administration of the temple and the management of the properties. The executive officer assumed charge on August 10, 1987.

The Dikshitars again moved the High Court challenging the appointment. Without staying the appointment, the court stayed only Rule 3 of the HR&CE Act, 1959, relating to the powers and duties of the executive officer. The writ petition was dismissed on February 11, 1997. The Dikshitars filed a revision petition before the government under Section 114 of the Act and the petition was rejected by the HR&CE Department on May 9, 2006. They challenged the governments decision through a writ petition, which was dismissed on February 2.

The Dikshitars submitted that as per the decision, as reported in 1952 (1) MLJ 557, the temple is a denominational temple and the writ petitioneris entitled to the protection under Article 26 of the Constitution. In view of Section 107 of HR and CE Act, its provisions are not to affect rights of the religious denomination. Appointment of Executive Officer is an interference with religious affairs and the same is violative of Article 26 of the Constitution.

It was also argued that since the government had not challenged the findings in the judgment in Shirur Mutt vs The Commissioner, Hindu Religious Endowments Board, Madras that the Dikshitars were a religious denomination, the decision had become final and would operate as res-judicata.

It was argued on behalf of the government that the Dikshitars did not have separate faith or religious tenets other than that of the Hindu faith and, therefore, they were not a religious denomination. The appointment of the executive officer was aimed at ensuring better and efficient management of the temple. It was held nowhere in 1952 (1) MLJ 557 that the Chidambaram temple fell under the denomination category, the government argued. After appointment of the executive officer, his powers and duties are demarcated and Podhu Dikshitars are not completely obliterated from the administration of the temple, it was pointed out.

Both in the judgment of the single judge and that of the Division Bench, reference has been made to the litmus test for calling any sect a religious denomination. The conditions are (1) collection of religious faith a system of belief which is conducive to the spiritual well-being; (2) common organisation; and (3) designation by a distinctive name. Apart from this, since the Chidambaram temple has been dedicated to Siva and Vishnu, it cannot be held that it is meant for only one sect. In view of these facts, the judges could not accept that the temple was a denomination institution, the court said.

The judges also upheld the appointment of the executive officer to carry out the tasks relating to the administration of the temple, besides asking the Dikshitars to extend all cooperation to the officer.

The Dikshitars are planning to file a special leave petition before the Supreme Court on the issue.

S. Dorairaj

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