State says Constitution does not allow government spending for religious bodies

The Supreme Court has declined to stay, at this stage, the Gujarat High Court order directing the State government to pay compensation to more than 500 shrines damaged during the 2002 riots.

Earlier, appearing for the Gujarat government before Justices K.S. Radhakrishnan and Dipak Misra, Additional Advocate-General Tushar Mehta and counsel Hemantika Wahi argued that under the Constitution, there could not be funding of religious bodies by any government.

When counsel sought a stay on the “erroneous” February 8 order, a Bench adjourned the hearing to enable the government to produce documents that might indicate “… which are the religious places affected by the communal riots, for which compensation has been claimed.”

The matter has been listed for further hearing on July 9, when the plea for stay would be considered.

Earlier, appearing for the Gujarat government before Justices K.S. Radhakrishnan and Dipak Misra, Additional Advocate-General Tushar Mehta and counsel Hemantika Wahi argued that under the Constitution, there could not be funding of religious bodies by any government.

The Islamic Relief Committee of Gujarat had filed a writ petition in the High Court for a directive to the government to pay compensation for the damage and destruction caused to religious places. The National Human Rights Commission, it pointed out, had made such a recommendation.

Agreeing with the plea, the High Court pulled up the government for its “inadequacy, inaction and negligence” that resulted in large-scale destruction of religious structures.

“When the State government paid compensation for destruction of houses and commercial establishments, it should pay compensation also for religious structures. If the structures are restored by now, the government should reimburse the amount spent on their restoration.”

The High Court directed the principal judges of all district courts to decide on the applications for compensation and convey their decision to it in six months.

Opposing the plea, the State contended that it would amount to violation of the fundamental right under Article 27, which “restrains the government from imposing tax for promotion of a religion.” Furthermore, it said, there was no policy to facilitate compensation for repairs to, or restoration of, religious places damaged or destroyed during the riots.

But the High Court dubbed “preposterous” the government’s suggestion that it was lawfully entitled to take a policy decision to restore only houses and business establishments, but not religious places, despite its failure to protect the rights under Article 25 and 26.

In its appeal, the State sought quashing of the order and an interim stay on its operation.