Priests can’t be owners of temple deity’s land, says Supreme Court
To stop the fence from eating the grass, the Supreme Court has ruled that priests, who perform daily rituals in a temple, cannot become owners of the land vested in deities and also stopped the government from becoming owners of the said assets by substituting the name of priests with that of area collector.
This ruling was given by a bench of Justices Hemant Gupta and A S Bopanna while allowing an appeal filed by Madhya Pradesh government which had struck down a state government notification deleting the names of priests from revenue records as owners of temple land vested in deities.
Appearing for the state, advocate Saurabh Mishra argued that the executive instructions were issued to delete the names of ‘Pujari’ (priest) from the revenue record so as to protect the temple properties from unauthorised sale by them. Appearing for the association of priests, advocate Divyakant Lahoti submitted that the ‘pujaris’ have been conferred ‘Bhumiswami (ownership)’ rights, a right which cannot be taken away by executive instructions.
Writing the judgment for the bench and taking into consideration various decisions of the SC in similar issues, Justice Gupta said, “Taking into consideration the past precedents, and the fact that under the Gwalior Act, Pujari had been given right to manage the property of the temple, it is clear that it does not elevate him to the status of tenant in cultivation... Since the priest cannot be treated to be Bhumiswami, they have no right which could be protected under any of the provisions of the Code.”
The SC said in the ownership column, the name of the deity alone is required to be mentioned, as the deity being a juristic person is the owner of the land. “The occupation of the land is also by the deity which is carried out by the servant or the managers on behalf of the deity. Therefore, the name of the manager or that of the priest is not required to be mentioned in the column of occupier as well,” it ruled and said that the state government did not commit any mistake in issuing executive instructions to delete priests as owners of lands belonging to deities.
At the same time, the Supreme Court did not approve of the state's decision to substitute names of priests with collectors as owners of the temple land vested in deities. “We find that the name of the Collector as manager cannot be recorded in respect of property vested in the deity as the Collector cannot be a manager of all temples unless it is a temple vested with the state,” it said.