In a big blow to the ongoing “Free Temples from Govt. Control” movement, Uttarakhand High Court on July 21 ratified the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ruled the State Government’s takeover of 51 temples including Kedarnath and Badrinath temples. Upholding the controversial Char Dham Devasthanam Management Act, Chief Justice Ramesh Ranganathan, and Justice R C Khulbe, dismissed the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by BJP leader Subramanian Swamy and Gangotri Mandir Samiti, challenging the constitutional validity of the Act passed by BJP Government in September 2019. However, the Judges “read down” the Sec 22 of the Act regarding the provisions of the land acquisition by the newly constituted body.
The court ruled that the ownership of the temple properties would vest in Char Dham shrines and power of the Board would be confined only to the administration and management of the properties. The High Court order (Conclusion of the 129 page Order) stated: “Except to the limited extent that the words ‘shall devolve’ (regarding ownership of temple properties) in Section 22 (of Char Dham Devasthanam Management Board Act, 2019) must be read as ‘devolve on the Char Dham and shall be maintained by the Board’, and the words ‘may further acquire land’… shall be read as ‘may further acquire land on behalf of the Char Dham’, the challenge to the validity of the 2019 Act, on the ground that it violates Articles 14, 25, 26, and 31-A of the Constitution of India, must fail … the properties of the Char Dham temples shall continue to vest in it, as declared in Section 4(2) of the 2019 Act … and the power of the Board would thereby be confined only to the administration and management of the properties of the Char Dham Devasthanam…”.
With these observations, the High Court dismissed both the writ petitions, one filed by Subramanian Swamy and the other by Sri Five Mandir Samiti Gangotri Dham.
During the hearing, Swamy submitted that the 2019 Act is blatantly unconstitutional, it is palpably flawed and suffers from grave legal infirmities.
He also sought to draw a distinction between the Somnath, Shirdi Sai Baba and Vaishno Devi temples on the one hand, and the temples brought within the ambit of the 2019 Act on the other, contending that, while the former are individual temples, the latter covers a large number of temples.
It was contended on behalf of the respondents that under Section 4(2) of the 2019 Act all the properties of the temple vest in the temple itself and the ownership rights have not been divested from it or vested in the board.
"Section 22 merely confers a right on the board regarding matters which were hitherto being exercised by the State Government, local bodies and others," the respondents had submitted.
Dr. Subramanian Swamy appeared party-in-person along with Advocate Manisha Bhandari. Senior Counsel Rajendra Dobhal, assisted by Advocate Devang Dobhal, appeared for Sri 5 Mandir Samiti Gangotri Dham.
Advocate General SN Babulkar, assisted by Chief Standing Counsel Paresh Tripathi, appeared for the State of Uttarakhand.
Standing Counsel DCS Rawat appeared for the Union of India. Advocate Ravi Babulkar appeared for another respondent. Dr. Kartikey Hari Gupta appeared for Intervener Rural Litigation Entitlement Kendra.
The two pleas had challenged the constitutional validity of the Uttarakhand Char Dham Devasthanam Management Act, 2019, which allows the state government to take over the management of the Char Dhams and 51 other temples in the hill state.