The Madras High Court comprising of a bench of Justice SM Subramaniam reiterated that fraudulent or illegal encroachment of temple properties is a crime against the society at large. (K Senthilkumar v. The Principal Secretary to Government of Tamil Nadu, Tourism, Culture and Religious Department and Ors)

The bench at the very outset observed, “Fraudulent and illegal encroachments of temple properties is a crime against the society at large. Misappropriation of the funds of the temple is undoubtedly an offence and all such offences are to be registered and the offenders are liable to be prosecuted by the State as the State is the controller of these temples and the offences are also committed against the State. Temple properties are allowed to be looted by few greedy men and by few professional criminals and land grabbers. Active or passive contribution and collusion by the officials of the HR & CE Department cannot be overruled. These lapses, negligence, dereliction of duty on the part of such public officials are also to be viewed seriously and all appropriate actions in this regard are highly warranted.”

The Court further held that properties of deities, temples and Devaswom Boards must be protected by their trustees, Archaks, Sebaits and other employees. It was also noted that in many instances, people entrusted with the duty of safeguarding temple properties have misappropriated such properties by setting up false claims of ownership or tenancy, or adverse possession.

The Court observed, “This is possible only with the passive or active collusion of the concerned authorities. Such acts of ‘fences eating the crops’ should be dealt with sternly. The Government, members or trustees of Boards/Trusts and devotees should be vigilant to prevent any such usurpation or encroachment. It is also the duty of courts to protect and safeguard the properties of religious and charitable institutions from wrongful claims or misappropriation.”

It was further held that public rights are involved in such matters and therefore Courts must intervene and discharge its constitutional obligations.

The Court opined, “Beyond the private right, a public right is involved in such matters. When a public right is involved and the allegations are far more serious, then the Courts are expected to step in and deal with such matters sternly and in an appropriate manner, failing which, the High Court is failing in its duty to exercise its Constitutional obligations”.

The Court held that no documents had been produced by the petitioner to substantiate his alleged lease rights. Thus, it was concluded that the petitioner as well his family members were encroachers and illegal occupants who had misused the temple property for personal gains.

The Court further expressed strong reservations against the petitioner for sub-letting a super-structure built on the temple property for various commercial purposes such as establishing shops, restrooms, godowns among others.

The Court thus proceeded to reject the petitioner’s plea against eviction proceedings and thus directed the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Department to conduct an elaborate inquiry into the matter taking into consideration the long period of illegal possession of the temple property and the money appropriated by the petitioner. In case, it is found that the HR&CE authorities had also colluded in any manner, the Court ordered that action must be taken against the authorities as well.

The Court added, “Active or passive collusion on the part of the Authorities in dealing with the temple properties in such a manner and initiate appropriate action against all those authorities, who have contributed for the maladministration of the temple properties”.

It was further opined that since the ‘deity’ in a temple is a ‘minor’, the Court must protect the interests of an idol in any litigation. In the event that the trustee or the Executive Officer of the temple fails to protect the interests of the idol, the Court opined that any person interested in respect of such temple or worshiping the deity can certainly be clothed with an ad hoc power of representation to protect its interest.

The Court further observed, “Where the persons in management of a temple failed to protect the interest of the temple diligently, the Court is empowered to take notice of such facts and deal with the issues in an appropriate manner. The Court is bound to take notice of the fact that the Executive Officers appointed in the temples are being changed periodically and in many a case, they do not get fully acquainted with the history or affairs of the temple. If there is lapses, slackness or negligence on the part of the Executive Officer and the trustees of the temple, “it is the duty of the Court to ensure that the ‘Deity’ does not suffer thereby. The Courts should be astute to protect the interests of an idol in any litigation”.

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