Land in Chennai was leased to CSITA: Defence Estates Office

The decades-old dispute between the Church of South India Trust Association (CSITA) and St. Andrew's Church (The Kirk) over possession of 9.47 acres of land in Chennai took a new turn with the Defence Estates Office rejecting the claim made by the Kirk that the “land at Vepery village absolutely belongs to it.”

The Defence Estates Office, Madras Circle, in its communication on July 16, 2010, has informed the secretary of the Kirk Session that the land along with the building comprising the Church belonged to the Ministry of Defence and that it had been leased out in favour of CSITA.

The communication also stated that it had reasons to believe that the Kirk Session was planning to construct a shopping complex on the defence leased site and stressed that the lessee of the property could use it only for church purposes.

Unanimous move

According to V. Devasahayam, Bishop, Madras Diocese, St. Andrew's Church, established by the Church of Scotland, joined the union of CSI in 1959, on the basis of a unanimous resolution. It was approved by the general assembly of the Church of Scotland and the properties of the Church stood transferred to CSITA.

The CSI was formed by integrating Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, and the Congregational churches in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh, the Union Territory of Puducherry, and the north and east of Sri Lanka. CSITA was formed in 1947 as a legal body to hold moveable and immoveable properties of the CSI.

The Bishop also furnished several documents supporting CSITA's rights over the land. In February 1988, the Ministry of Defence conveyed to the then Bishop, Sundar Clarke, that the government had taken a decision to recognise the transfer of St. Andrews Church from the Church of Scotland Colonial Chaplaincy Board to the CSI and transfer land and properties of the Church to CSITA.

Even in 2008, P. Chidambaram, Union Home Minister, who then held the portfolio of Finance, wrote to Defence Minister A.K. Antony asking him to consider the request of CSITA and issue appropriate orders.

On the other hand, the Kirk Session has been maintaining that St. Andrew's Church has not joined the CSI and continued to remain an autonomous entity, acting under the terms of an Act of the general assembly of the Church of Scotland of 1899.

But the Bishop, citing a letter from Dr. Finlay A.J. Macdonald, Principal Clerk, The Church of Scotland, pointed out that the legislation was revised many times, most recently in 2003, and the 1899 legislation “has no current force.” “The congregation today comes entirely within the jurisdiction of the CSI and cannot claim that its affairs are regulated in any way by the Church of Scotland,” the letter from Mr. Macdonald stated.

Bishop Devasahayam remarked that “the St. Andrew's Church arguments are inconsistent.” He explained: “In its earlier communications, including its letter in 1993, to the Director General, Defence Estates, the Kirk only wanted the lease of the property in its favour, but it subsequently started claiming that it was the owner of the land. Earlier the Kirk maintained that it does not want to secede from the CSI, but only wanted to make provision in the lease to meet the eventuality, however remote it may be. Now the Kirk claims that it is not part of the CSI.”

A legal notice sent by the Kirk, in April 7, 2010, said a chance discovery of an extract in “A” register during examination of archives had proved that the property belonged to the St. Andrew's Church. Asked about this claim, Bishop Devasahayam, said the argument does not hold water since the extract of the so-called “A” register has not been produced to anyone for the last couple of years.

“Even if one accepts the version of St. Andrew's Church for the sake of argument, it goes to establish that the property forms part of the property of the Church of Scotland and it had recognised CSITA as its legal successor. It also transferred all the 146 properties to CSITA,” he explained.

As regards the property occupied by St. Andrews Church, he said, since the property belonged to the government of India, it took some time to recognise the change of congregation of St. Andrew's Church before transferring the properties to CSITA.

“Unfortunately some vested interests in the St Andrew's Church are attempting to dilute the authority of the CSI/CSITA for reasons best known to them,” the Bishop observed. “There is an attempt to grab the Defence land. The question now is whether the Ministry of Defence will encourage an attempt of land grabbing or will it execute the agreement for the already sanctioned lease with CSITA and defend the Defence Land.”