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SC takes up task of supervising yet another temple clean-up, now it’s Jagannath temple

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Court appoints as amicus curiae Gopal Subramanium, who is already assisting the SC in the Padmanabhaswamy Temple and BCCI cases.

New Delhi: The Supreme Court has decided to wade into the management of yet another major temple, this time the Jagannath temple in Puri, Odisha. The apex court has already pretty much taken over the management of the important and rich Padmanabhaswamy temple in Kerala. It had also issued directions on how to manage the Mahakaleshwar Temple in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh.

These interventions have been widely contested by conservative Hindu organisations.

The court has been agreeing to reform the management of one temple after another, even as a larger case against state control of Hindu temples is pending.

In 2012, the late Dayananda Saraswati had moved the Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the government controlling Hindu shrines while other religions are free to maintain their own institutions. The case has been listed for final arguments for over a year now.

Last week, concerned by the alleged exploitation of devotees in the 12th century Jagannath temple in Puri, the apex court issued a slew of directions to the government on temple management. It also appointed top lawyer Gopal Subramanium as the amicus curiae to assist the court. Subramanium is the amicus in the Padmanabhaswamy temple case as well.

He is also assisting the court in the on-going cricket case in which the Supreme Court has mandated an administrative clean-up of the Board of Control for Cricket (BCCI) in India.

Both the Padmanabhaswamy temple and the BCCI cases are still works in progress. In both, court orders are yet to be implemented despite the amicus’s active role. Another “coincidence” is that the same retired civil servant has been appointed by the court to oversee both cases. It is former CAG Vinod Rai.

Appointment of amicus curiae

A lawyer appearing for the Centre also clarified that Subramanium’s name was brought up by the court itself and was not proposed by the parties to the case. Subramanium was not consulted before he was named. Usually, the court orally asks the amicus for consent before naming him in an order.

“The court must have considered his past experience in another temple case and appointed him. The parties did not bring up the issue of appointing an amicus or his name in particular,” advocate R. Bala Subramanium, appearing for the Centre, said.

The fresh appointment, however, came as a surprise to many in the legal circles since Subramanium has in the past sought to delay hearings in the Kerala temple case citing his busy schedule.

In April, The Indic Collective, a Chennai-based non-profit had moved the court seeking a stay on demolition of heritage structures within the Padmanabhaswamy temple complex. Subramanium’s office opposed the urgent hearing and asked the court to list the case after vacations when he would be available.

“While there is no reason to doubt that the amicus was genuinely unavailable, the issue was pressing and certainly more important than the availability or otherwise of the amicus,” said J. Sai Deepak, a lawyer for Indic Collective.

Flouting own observation

The apex court’s decision to review functioning of temples flies in the face of its own observations. In the Padmanabhaswamy case, which has seen more than 50 hearings in the last seven years, the court has remarked on several occasions that it cannot allocate time to temple management.

“There are hundreds of beautiful temples and it is not our job to administer them. It (the case) cannot go on indefinitely, you must understand,” then CJI J.S. Khehar had observed in 2017.

In the same hearing, the court had appointed former Supreme Court judge K.S. Radhakrishnan to allot contracts for carrying out repair work of Sreekovil (sanctum sanctorum) at the Padmanabhaswamy Temple.

Apex court’s directions

The Supreme Court issued six specific directions to the Puri district collector, the Odisha state government and the central government in the Jagannath Temple case.

While the district collector has been asked to evaluate difficulties faced by the devotees, the state government has been directed to study the management schemes in other important shrines such as the Vaishno Devi, Somnath Temple, Golden Temple, Amritsar, Tirupati Temple, Dharamsthala (Karnataka) Temple and suggest ways to improve the Puri temple.

Since temple management issues are common across India, Justices Adarsh Kumar Goel and Ashok Bhushan directed the Centre to constitute a committee and collect information with regard to other shrines so that they can be reviewed too.

“These centres are of undoubted religious, social historical and architectural importance, representing the cultural heritage of our country. Millions of people visit these centres not only for tourism but also for seeking inspiration for righteous values and for their well-being. They also make huge offerings and donations for the advancement of such values,” the court said.

“The court’s order to formulate a management scheme for all other major Hindu shrines in the country is a matter of concern. This gives an impression that the issue of mismanagement is peculiar or unique to Hindu shrines, which would be unfair to the community. The court has the power to look into management of shrines of all faiths, so this direction must be apply to all major shrines of all faiths in the country,” Sai Deepak said.

Case in high court

The Odisha High Court is also hearing a similar case on the management of the Jagannath temple.

Two weeks ago, a 16-member team, including three experts of the Archaeological Survey of India inspected the treasury (Ratna Bhandar) to see if any restoration works are to be undertaken. The case is listed for hearing on 14 June.

Incidentally, the PIL was brought before the apex court just a week after the Naveen Patnaik government ordered a judicial inquiry into the ‘missing’ key to the treasury that is stocked with 128 kg of gold ornaments, according to the state government.

The court, however, did not bar other courts and tribunals from hearing similar cases related to the Jagannath temple.

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