The 2001 Census of India threw up the astonishing statistic that there were 2.4 million places of worship in the country (exceeding the number of schools, at 2.1 million). What it did not divulge of course was that a large number of them were unauthorised, built by encroaching on public land. On the face of it, the Supreme Court’s interim order banning the construction of any temple, church, gurudwara, or mosque on any roadside or other public space may seem like a mere reiteration of the law. But it must be seen in a larger context. It comes in the wake of a controversy over a sensitive issue that has resulted in a recent consensus between the Centre and the States that there would be no fresh construction of places of worship in public spaces. A directive by the Gujarat High Court in 2006 that all illegal structures, including places of worship, should be demolished resulted in violence following the demolition of a dargah in Vadodara. The approach of the Supreme Court, which stayed this directive following an appeal by the Centre, seems to strike a balance between opposing illegal religious structures and being responsive to the law and order problems that could result from their demolition.
Banning fresh construction of unauthorised places of worship is the easy part. The real challenge is to deal with existing illegal places of worship, of which there are an estimated more than 60,000 in Delhi alone. With respect to religious structures obstructing roads and public places, the court has adopted a cautious view — asking State governments and Union Territories to review them on a “case by case” basis and take appropriate steps expeditiously. These places of worship have been constructed through land grabbing in the name of God, usually by anti-social elements out to make a quick buck by exploiting the religious sentiments of the people. The mushrooming of these structures, encouraged by collusive politicians, has taken place under the nose of governmental authorities. They have often chosen to turn a blind eye to the encroachments, which in many places cause traffic snarls and occupy pavement space. The motive behind the defiance of law in such cases is no different from the rampant illegal construction of residential and office spaces; and the enabling factor, weak-kneed law enforcement, is more or less the same. In the case of illegal places of worship, the court is being asked to do what successive governments have failed to do over the years. One hopes that judicial resolve will jolt governments into intervening, without fear or favour, to prevent further construction of illegal religious structures and to find a way of tackling the problem of those that exist.