On Wednesday, The Madras High Court directed the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Department to issue a public notification calling upon encroachers of temple properties spread across the state to voluntarily surrender the lands within a given time frame failing which criminal proceedings and detention would be initiated against them, under the Goondas Act. The court also ordered constitution of a special cell to retrieve the encroached temple properties.
On a plea moved by the head trustee of Sri Audikesava Perumal Peyalvar Devasthanam temple, N C Sridhar, the court passed the orders. His plea was earlier suspended only to enable a transparent inquiry into the allegations of irregularities in the management of the temple and its properties. The state has further initiated action against all such complaints of irregularities.
“The committees have scrutinised 15,256 properties and have identified 20,776 encroachments. Already actions have been initiated against 8,188 encroachers covering an extent of 4,118 acres of land. Actions are about to be taken against 10,930 encroachers covering an extent of 3,526 acres of lands.” a report filed by the Advocate General said.
According to the judge, fraudulent, illegal encroachment of temple properties and mishandling of temple funds are offences that must be registered against the offenders, following prosecution by the state. “Temple properties are looted by greedy men and few professional criminals or land grabbers. Active or passive contribution/collusion by HR&CE Department officials cannot be overruled,” The Judge added.
“These lapses, negligence and 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… Instances are many where persons entrusted with the duty of managing and safeguarding the properties of temples, deities and Devaswom Boards have usurped and misappropriated such properties by setting up false claims of ownership or tenancy, or adverse possession. Such acts of ‘fences eating the crops’ should also be dealt with sternly,” the court stated.
Moreover, the judge directed the government to constitute a special cell consisting of a team of officials with ‘integrity and devotion’ for the duty of monitoring the actions initiated for the retrieval of temple properties, funds, jewellery etc. The cell in the Headquarters would have separate phones and mobile numbers and they must be displayed in all the shrines and in the offices of the HR&CE department to report and facilitate the general public/devotees to register their complaints.
The judge also added that the DGP is supposed to provide all necessary protection to the government officials and those engaged by the HR&CE department to perform the work, as and when required.
The Madras High Court’s remarkable step to impose the Goonda Act to free temple properties from encroachers is well appreciated and acknowledged. Fraudulent and illegal encroachment and mishandling funds is a punishable offence and must be tackled seriously to avoid similar offences in the future.