The Supreme Court on 29th August set aside the Gujarat High Courtorder in connection with the re-building of mosques destroyed during the state’s 2002 riots, triggered after the Godhra incident.
A bench, comprising of Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justice P.C. Pant, allowed the state government’s appeal challenging the High Court verdict that it should reimburse for reconstruction and repair works of religious structures damaged during the 2002 riots.
The apex court was hearing a petition filed by the Gujarat government challenging a 2012 High Court order directing it to compensate for damages caused to religious structures during the 2002 riots for the failure of law and order machinery.
“The said scheme has to be appreciated on the anvil of the directions issued in the Prafull Goradia and Archbishop Raphael Cheenath S.V.D cases (earlier judgements).
“In the first case, the two-judge bench has opined that object of Article 27 is to maintain secularism and the said Article would be violated if the substantial part of entire income tax collected in India, or a substantial part of the entire central excise or the customs duties or sales tax, or a substantial part of any other tax collected in India, were to be utilised for promotion or maintenance of any particular religion or religious denomination…,” says CJI Misra.
The Gujarat government, in its scheme, had proposed to pay ex-gratia assistance of Rs 50,000 for repair of damaged religious structures on the lines of its policy to pay for the houses damaged during riots and put certain conditions like such temples or mosques should not be unauthorised ones.
The policy also said that no ex-gratia assistance would be sanctioned to religious places, located in the middle of the public road or at any unauthorised place, and there should be a prior FIR with regard to the damages caused.
“The person/persons claiming such ex-gratia assistance shall have to satisfy the District Collector of the District in which such religious place is situated about the ownership and/or administration rights of religious places concerned so as to ensure that any person unconnected with a religious place may not claim and receive ex-gratia financial assistance under the Scheme. The decision of the District Collector in this behalf shall be final,” the policy said.
Approving the government’s scheme, the bench said, “we have noticed that the government has fixed the maximum amount under the caption of ex-gratia assistance and also conferred the power on the District Collector of the Districts where religious places are situated to determine about the ownership or administration rights of religious places concerned.
“There are certain conditions precedent for claiming the amount. The terms and conditions which are incorporated in the scheme are quite reasonable. It is also worthy to note that while fixing the maximum limit, the government has equated the same with houses which have been given the assistance…”.
Setting aside the high court verdict, the apex court, in its verdict, asked the claimants to approach the authorities within eight weeks and directed that “the authorities therein within eight weeks and the said authorities shall determine the same within three months from the receipt of the claims. If any party is aggrieved by the denial of the benefit, he can take appropriate steps in accordance with law.”
It referred to Article 27 which said that no person shall be compelled to pay any taxes for “promotion or maintenance of any particular religion or religions denomination” and said that State cannot grant substantial part of tax-payers’ money for such purposes. The court also stated that “the object of Article 27 is to maintain secularism and the said Article would be violated if the substantial part of the entire income tax collected in India, or a substantial part of the entire central excise or the customs duties or sales tax, or a substantial part of any other tax collected in India, were to be utilized for promotion or maintenance of any particular religion or religious denomination. The Court has made a distinction between the relatively small part and the substantial part.”
The State is obliged under the Constitution to “treat persons belonging to all faiths and religions with equality. The individual has his freedom to practice the religion as he desires and it is totally immaterial from the perspective of the State,” it said, adding “the protection of property and places of worship is an essential part of secularism.”
The state government, represented by Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, challenged the high court verdict on various grounds including that the State, being a secular entity, cannot be asked to spend substantial amount of tax payers’ money on repair of religious structures.
The high court, while dealing with the PIL filed by NGO, Islamic Relief Committee of Gujarat, had passed a slew of directions including the order asking the state government “to give compensation in favour of the persons in charge of all the religious places including those of worship, which were damaged during the communal riot of the year 2002 for restoration to the original position, as those existed on the date of destruction.”