The Uttarakhand High Court has dismissed a PIL filed by BJP leader Dr. Subramanian Swamy challenging the constitutional validity of Uttarakhand Char Dham Devasthanam Management Act,2019.
"Except to the limited extent that the words "shall devolve" in Section 22 must be read as "devolve on the Char Dham and shall be maintained by the Board", and the words "may further acquire land", in the proviso thereto, 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 bench comprising of the Chief Justice Ramesh Ranganathan and Justice R.C. Khulbe said while dismissing the PIL.
Uttarakhand Char Dham Devasthanam Management Act,2019.
The Act entrusted management of Char Dham temples to a Board whose Chairman and members are, by and large, nominated by the State Government. Two of the Chardham temples in Uttarakhand, Shri Badrinath and Shri Kedarnath temples, were, prior to the 2019 Act coming into force, under the control and management of a managing committee constituted under the U.P. Shri Badrinath and Shri Kedarnath Temples Act, 1939. This 1939 Act was repealed by the 2019 Act. The 2019 Act brings within its ambit the Gangotri and Yamunotri Dhams also.
Dr, Swamy had challenged the validity of the Act, on the ground that it violates Articles 14, 25, 26 and 31-A of the Constitution of India. Along with Dr. Swamy, the society of Gangotri Dham had also filed a writ petition questioning the validity of the Act. Today's judgment dismissed both these writ petitions.
Locus Standi of Dr. Swamy
The state had objected to the Writ Petition filed by Dr. Swamy terming it a Political Interest Litigation as both Dr. Subramanian Swamy and the ruling dispensation in the State of Uttarakhand belong to the same political party. However, the court refuses to non-suit Dr. Swamy on this ground of 'locus standi'.
The object of classifying these temples, and in bringing them within the ambit of the 2019 Act for its rejuvenation and its effective management by the Devasthanam Management Board, is undoubtedly reasonable. It cannot, therefore, be said to suffer from manifest arbitrariness violating Article 14 of the Constitution of India.
Article 14 Challenge
Rejecting the challenge on this ground, the bench observed that the object of classifying these temples, and in bringing them within the ambit of the 2019 Act for its rejuvenation and its effective management by the Devasthanam Management Board, is undoubtedly reasonable. It cannot, therefore, be said to suffer from manifest arbitrariness violating Article 14 of the Constitution of India, the bench added.
"The object of the 2019 Act is to provide for rejuvenation of the Char Dham and various other temples located in Uttarakhand, and to manage the Devasthanam Management Board. "Rejuvenation" is the act or process of making an organization or system more effective by introducing new methods, ideas, or people. The object of the 2019 Act is to make the management of the Char Dhams, and other temples covered by the said Act, more effective by constituting the Devasthanam Management Board under whose overall supervision various amenities are to be provided, and the secular activities of these temples regulated."
Article 26 Challenge
The court also observed that as long as the law does not totally divest the administration of a religious institution or endowment, by a religious denomination, the State has the general right to regulate the right of administration of a religious or charitable institution or endowment; and such a law may choose to impose such restrictions the need for which is felt the most, and to provide a remedy therefor.
In this context, the court noted that the pleadings are also silent regarding the religious denomination whose Article 26 rights have, allegedly, been taken away by the 2019 Act. The Court observed that it is no even the case of Dr.Swamy that any of the Chaar Dhaam temples have been established by a religious denomination. Consequently no right is available, under clauses (a), (c) and (d) of Article 26, to manage the Char Dham temples as they are not established by a religious denomination, the bench said.
Section 22 Read Down
Section 22 of the 2019 Act stipulates that all properties belonging to Char Dham Devasthanams to which the Act applies, on the date of commencement of the Act, that are in the possession or under the superintendence of the Government, Zila Panchayat, Zila Parishad, Municipality, property in the Board or any other local authority or in the possession or superintendence of any company, society, organisation, institutions or other person or any committee, superintendent appointed by the Government, shall, on the date on which the Board is or is deemed to have been constituted, or members are or are deemed to have been appointed under the Act, stand transferred to the Board and all assets vesting in the Government, local authority or person aforesaid and all liabilities subsisting against such movement, local authority or person on the said date shall devolve on the Board. Under the proviso thereto, the Board may further acquire land in or around the vicinity of the religious devasthanam and other places as it would deem proper for its better development.
Dr. Swamy had alleged that the 2019 Act divests ownership of its properties from the temple, and vests it in the Board which is evident from Section 22 of the Act; and that the properties of the temples is now sought to be taken away, and to be vested in a Board,
Taking note of this provision, the bench observed:
If Section 22 is construed as vesting the properties of the "Char Dham" in the Char Dham Devasthanam Board, then such a provision, whereby the properties of the Char Dham are read as having been taken over by the Board without payment of any compensation, much less just compensation, would fail the test of reasonableness, and fall foul of Article 14 read with Article 300-A of the Constitution of India.
The court said that this particular provision has to be read down:
The words "shall devolve" in Section 22 shall be read as "devolve on the Char Dham and shall be maintained by the Board". Likewise the words "may further acquire land", in the proviso thereto, shall be read as "may further acquire land on behalf of the Char Dham". When so read, the legislative intent that the properties of the Char Dham temples shall continue to vest in it, as declared in Section 4(2) of the 2019 Act, would be given effect to; and the power of the Board would thereby be confined only to the administration and management of the properties of the Char Dham Devasthanam. When so read, Section 22 and its proviso would be saved from being struck down as ultra vires the provisions of the Constitution