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October 1 2009

Law above all

By ruling that religious places of worship will no longer be allowed to come up on public land, the Supreme Court has set to rest a problem which has been an urban scourge for some years now. No city is immune to these impromptu shrines that come up on the street and soon enough become permanent fixtures. This particular case came up after the Gujarat government ordered the demolition of all illegal shrines in 2006, which was subsequently upheld by the Gujarat high court. The Union government felt that this decision would create some religious turmoil and the matter reached the Supreme Court.

While there are no studies to show how much public land has been encroached upon by such shrines, by empirical evidence we know that they can be found all over. In most cases they are a nuisance because of the huge crowds they attract. Because they are usually in the middle of the road, traffic is also affected. There is also the general principal of hijacking government or civic owned property. A kind of mutually beneficial racket flourishes that enriches not only the custodians of these shrines but also local officials. The authorities have so far been slow or reluctant to take action against them as anything religious in India comes with the potential for unpleasant explosions.
The apex court however has put public good before public sentiment which is commendable. The ruling says that not only will shrines no longer be allowed on public land but state governments can also decide what to do with existing shrines. This opens the door for clearing up of public land. Most often, these shrines start small — a stone under a tree — and then before anyone even realises it, a massive structure takes over. By applying the order to shrines of all religions, the apex court has also pre-empted all arguments on discrimination. All faiths will be treated equally — a fine sign, it could be said, of secularism, but more than that, the rule of law at work.

It may appear a little odd that such a matter even had to reach the Supreme Court. The argument over illegal structures on public land should begin and end at the municipal level. It is the inefficiency and often the complicity of the local authorities that allows these shrines to come up and then to flourish. The Gujarat government did well to defend its decision and the apex court has done the executive's work once again.


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