The Karnataka High Court on Wednesday dismissed a public interest litigation (PIL) petition questioning the legality of anointing a 16-year-old minor as the Matadhipathi (chief pontiff) of the Udupi Shiroor Mutt community.
A Bench of Acting Chief Justice Satish Chandra Sharma and Justice Sachin Shankar Magadum passed the judgement on a plea moved by the managing trust of Sri Shiroor Mutt Bhaktha Samithi, Udupi, represented by P Lathavya Acharya and others.
"The Division Bench of Madhya Pradhesh High Court in the case of Akash Mar Seva Trust and another vs State of Madhya Pradesh has dealt with essential religious practises.....In light of the aforesaid judgement in which the division Bench declined to interfere in an essential religious practise which was continuing since time immemorial, the question of interference of this Court in an essential religious practice which is continuing for the last 800 years does not arise. The petition is dismissed," the Court said pronouncing its judgment.
Further, the Court opined that in cases dealing with religious disputes/ issues, the Court is under an obligation to follow religious text or practices provided the same do not violate any Constitutional rights of an individual.
"In the considered opinion of this Court, the Courts are certainly not meant to write religious text, however, they are under an obligation to follow religious text in the matter of cases dealing with religious dispute and to follow old practices which are prevalent in the religion so long as they do not violate constitutional rights of an individual," the judgment said.
Pertinently, the Court ruled that Shiroor Mutt is a religious denomination and its essential religious practice is protected.
"In the present case, Shirur Mutt is a religious denomination and as per the essential religious pratices, Respondent 7 has become a sanyasi and he has been appointed as the Matathipathi/Chief Pontiff. Therefore, by no stretch of imagination, it can be presumed that the essential religious practise of the mutt, is violative of the constitutional rights guaranteed to the citizens of India."
The Court also held that petitioner was not able to point out any violation to the provision of law or violation of any constitutional rights guaranteed to the respondent 7.
"The petition has not been able to make out any violation to the provision of law or violation of any constitutional rights guaranteed to Respondent 7. The essential religious practise is continuing for the last 800 years and the appointment of a pontiff is a practise which is in existence for the last 800 years keeping in view philosophy and teachings of Shriman Madhavan Acharya."
The Court also relied on the submission of the Amicus Curiae that Hindu religion permits a person to become a sanyasi before the age of 18 years. In view of the same, Shirur Mutt is certainly empowered to appoint respondent 7 as Peetathipadthi of the Mutt, said the Court.
Both the State government and Amicus Curiae SS Naganand had argued during the hearing of the case, that there are no legal restrictions against minor being anointed pontiff.
The petition before the Court said that there were a number of press reports as per which the Peetadhipathi/Matadhipathi of the Sodhe mutt had announced that a 16-year-old boy would be anointed as the next Peetadhipathi of the Shiroor Mutt by conferment of Sanyasa.
According to the plea, the reports further said that the devotees of the Shiroor Mutt had raised their objections to the same.
Interestingly, the petition also said that the minor is not a disciple of Shiroor Mutt.
Advocate R Ravishankar appearing for the petitioner, had contended that anointing a minor as chief pontiff amounts to imposing material abandonment on the child, which is in violation of Article 21 of the Constitution.
The counsel appearing for the State government, in turn, questioned the maintainability of the plea.
The counsel appearing for Sri Sode Vadiraja Mutt and Sri Vishwavallabha Teertha Swamiji (respondents 6 and 7) contended that the appointment of Peedathipathi of Shiroor Mutt is also well within the policies formulated by the Central government from time to time including the National Policy for Children, 2013.
"As Peedathipathi of the Shri Shiroor Matha, he is not denied or deprived of any of his rights flowing to him under the above mentioned laws or policies. The Peedathipathi pursues his education by learning the Vedas, Upanishads, philosophy of Shriman Madhwacharya to do which he had always shown keen interest, profound love and desire. He is not abused or forced to do any avocations unsuited to his age or strength nor is he forced to carry out the duties attached to the post of a Peedathipathi owing to any economic necessity or need. In Shri Shiroor Matha, he has all the opportunity and facilities for a wholesome development of his person and personality in conducive environment," it was submitted.
Amicus Curiae Naganand submitted that the age of majority is reckoned as 18 years only for purposes of entering into a binding contract and to undertake responsibilities as majors. This is the purpose for which the Majority Act, 1875 was enacted.
However, while prescribing the age of majority as 18 years for this purpose, a specific exception has been carved out in Section 2 of the Act which says that nothing contained in the Act shall affect the religion or religious rites and usages of any class of citizens of India, he said.
Therefore, for purposes of religion or religious rites and usages that have the protection of the Constitution as also international treaties, a person cannot be presumed to be a minor only for the reason that he is less than 18 years of age.
It would therefore, be inappropriate to generalise that the initiation into Sanyasa of any person below the age of 18 years is a violation of the rights of the minor, he had argued.
The matter was reserved for judgement last week.
Note: Certain submissions made by on behalf of Sri Sode Vadiraja Mutt and Sri Vishwavallabha Teertha Swamiji were wrongly attributed to the State government. Error regretted.