In India, Gods, rivers, and animals can pay taxes, hold property, sue, and get sued⁠— and that’s an important factor in the Ayodhya case

  • In March, 2017, the Uttarakhand High Court declared that rivers, Ganga and Yamuna, would be legally treated as “living people,” and enjoy “all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person”.
  • However, in September 2018, Justice Chandrachud of India’s Supreme Court said that while a deity or an idol can own property and have other legal rights, but it cannot granted fundamental rights.
  • So in the case between those who want a temple for Lord Rama in Ayodhya and those who want to restore a demolished mosque, one of the parties to the case is Lord Rama himself⁠.
One of the important questions in front of the Supreme Court’s Constitution Bench led by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi is the following: Is the Ram Janmabhoomi (the birthplace of Lord Rama) a juristic entity, independent of the presence of idols? And if so, is it immune from possession claims as a juristic entity?

A juristic person, as opposed to a “natural person” (that is, a human being), is an entity whom the law vests with a personality.

The practice began under the British administration of India. The British administrators held that the legal owner of a temple’s land and wealth was the deity, with a shebait or manager acting as trustee. Much like a corporation and its directors.

However, one cannot place a deity and bestow it with wealth and property. For a deity to be considered a legal entity only “when it is consecrated and installed at a public place for the public at large,” according to the judgement in the Yogendra Nath Naskar vs Commissioner Of Income-Tax (1969) case. This entails a Hindu ritual called the ‘prana pratishta’ after which the deity is believed to have come alive.

However, a mosque, a church or a gurdwara cannot be considered as juristic entities because these are places where people gather to worship and are not objects of worship themselves, according to a Supreme Court verdict in 2000.

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​Not just Gods, even animals and rivers

​Not just Gods, even animals and rivers

In March, 2017, the Uttarakhand High Court declared that rivers, Ganga and Yamuna, would be legally treated as “living people,” and enjoy “all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person”.

In May 2019, the Punjab and Haryana High Court held that the “entire animal kingdom” has a “distinct legal persona with corresponding rights, duties, and liabilities of a living person”. The verdict was in response to a petition filed by those convicted of unlawfully exporting cows from Haryana. The conviction was upheld.

​No fundamental rights

​No fundamental rights

However, in September 2018, Justice Chandrachud of India’s Supreme Court said that while a deity or an idol can own property and have other legal rights, but it cannot granted fundamental rights or other constitutional rights that human beings enjoy.

This was in a case where appellants were opposing the entry of women into the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, where the presiding deity is believed to be celibate. The appeal was turned down and women were allowed to enter.

​Back to Ayodhya title dispute

​Back to Ayodhya title dispute

So in the case between those who want a temple for Lord Rama in Ayodhya and those who want to restore a demolished mosque, one of the parties to the case is Lord Rama himself⁠— called Ram Lalla Virajman in the particular case.

Representing the deity in the title dispute over the 2.7 acre land in Ayodhya, is Trilok Nath Pandey whose role is called the shebait⁠— the person who can act on behalf of the deity or idol. It’s usually the temple priest or a trust managing the temple.

Interestingly, in the Ayodhya dispute, some of Lord Rama’s devotees are arguing against Him. The Nirmohi Akhara is a math (a monastery) for ascetic devotees of Lord Rama. The Akhara claims to be existence since at least 1400 AD, according to some accounts, and that it has been managing the temple much before the construction of the mosque. With the current appeal at the Supreme Court, the Akhara wants the management and control of the temple back in its hands. For that, the Court has to first agree that a temple can be built there.

The Akhara has argued against Gopal Singh Visharad⁠— an individual who moved the Faizabad court in 1950 demanding his right to worship at the disputed site saying his ancestors had been doing so before the mosque was established.

One part of the clash, therefore, is between the rights of a deity and his birthplace. All eyes will now be on the verdict of the Supreme Court and the precedents it sets for future disputes like this.

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