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Section 22 of the 2019 Act was read down to mean that the Board constituted under the Act would only be administering the properties on behalf of the temples, which would continue to own the property.
The Uttarakhand High Court today upheld the constitutionality of the Uttarakhand Char Dham Devasthanam Management Act, 2019, dismissing a challenge moved by Subramanian Swamy and the 5 Mandir Samiti Gangotri Dham (Sri 5 Mandir Samiti Gangotri Dham and another v. State of Uttarakhand and ors).
However, the Court read down Section 22 of the Act in order to save the legislation from unconstitutionality.
The verdict rendered by the Bench of Chief Justice Ramesh Ranganathan and Justice RC Khulbe of reads,
The 2019 Act had entrusted the management of various Hindu temples in Uttarakhand to a Board whose Chairman and members are, by and large, nominated by the state government.
It replaced a 1939 Act, which had related only to the Badrinath and Kerdarnath temples. Apart from these temples, the 2019 Act also applied to the Gangotri and Yamunotri Dhams in Uttarakhand.
Apart from contending that the 2019 Act violates Articles, 14, 25, 26 and 31-A of the Constitution, Swamy had been submitted that ideally, a Central legislation ought to have been introduced after consulting the heads of the religious denominations concerned.
The petitioners had contended that the Act violated Article 14 since it did not apply to Waqfs governed by the Waqf Act (1995) and the Sikh Gurudwaras Act (1925). The Bench rejected this submission stating that it is "not necessary that the legislature should make a law uniformly applicable to all religious or charitable or public institutions and endowments established or maintained by people professing all religions."
The judgment reads,
Another ground of challenge was hinged on Article 26, which deals with the rights of a religious domination to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes, to manage its own affairs in matters of religion, to own and acquire movable and immovable property, and to administer such property in accordance with law.
The Court, however, found that no evidence was adduced to show that the temples under the 2019 Act belonged to any religious denomination.
As far as the Badrinath and Kedarnath temples are concerned, the Court said that no religious denomination can claim to manage these temples at least from the year 1939 as "both the Badrinath and Kedarnath temples were brought within the ambit of the U.P. Shri Badrinath and Shri Kedarnath Temples Act, 1939."
As far as the Gangotri Dham is concerned, the Court held that there was no material on record to show that the Semwal Brahmins, who earlier managed the temple, "constitute a religious denomination, or that they established the temple, or even that they exercised control over the management of the Gangotri temple at any stage prior to 2002".
Thus, it was held that their claim for protection under Article 26(d) of the Constitution necessitates rejection. The Court added,
"Even otherwise, ever since 1939 when the Rules were framed, it is the temple committee which was managing the affairs of the temple, and not the Semwal Brahmin community."
The Court proceeded to reject the challenge grounded on an alleged Article 25 violation stating that,
"The 2019 Act does not interfere with the religious activities of the priests who have the freedom to perform daily or periodical rituals and ceremonies as are in vogue."
The legislative endeavour to rejuvenate the Char Dham Temples does not amount to an interference in its religious affairs, the Court held.
While the 2019 Act as a whole was upheld, the Court read down Section 22 of the Act which had stated that the temple properties under the Act would stand trasferred to the Board constituted under the Act.
The Court noted that "the legislative intent of Section 22 is not to vest the properties of the “Char Dham” on the Char Dham Devasthanam Board, but only to entrust its administration and management to the Board."
As such, the Court held that Section 22 would have been interpreted to mean that the Board would only be administering the properties on behalf of the Temple. The Bench reasoned,
Dr. Subramanian Swamy appeared party-in-person along with Advocate Manisha Bhandari. Senior Counsel Rajendra Dobhal, assisted by Advocate Devang Dobhal, appeared for Sri 5 Mandir Samiti Gangotri Dham.
Advocate General SN Babulkar, assisted by Chief Standing Counsel Paresh Tripathi, appeared for the State of Uttarakhand.
Standing Counsel DCS Rawat appeared for the Union of India. Advocate Ravi Babulkar appeared for another respondent. Dr Kartikey Hari Gupta appeared for Intervener Rural Litigation Entitlement Kendra.