The Supreme Court and religion in India: A blinkered perspective?

The Supreme Court appears to have made the right sounds when it announced that temples could not be taken over by governments in perpetuity. The apex court sent out a similar message when it forbade the government from taking charge of the gold that was found in the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple. It stated that the gold belonged to the temple and the community, and not to the government. Currently, the gold is being looked after by a special committee constituted by the apex court.

The apex court did the same thing when it passed an order nullifying the diktat of the Tamil Nadu government regarding the takeover of the Chidambaram Trust.

But there are times when the Court has unwittingly allowed some of the most retrograde decisions to be taken.

A good case in point is the way in which the Supreme Court allowed the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) to reserve an area of 150 km radius around the Niyamgiri hills which was considered sacred by the local population.

To be fair the Supreme Court only ordered the government to respect the decision of the local panchayat in September 2013. The 12 gram panchayats (village councils) in turn, prodded by the MOEF passed a resolution stating that there should be no mining within a 150 km radius from the hilltop of Niyam Raja, the presiding deity of the tribals in that region. The panchayats claimed that “the entire Niyamgiri hill range is sacred for us and the source of our livelihood”.

What the Court did not take into account was that a 150-km radius translates into 70,000 square km. Compare this with the geographical spread of some of the most sacred places in the world.

Vatican City, for instance, accounts for barely 0.4 sq km. And do bear in mind that Christianity is the world’s biggest religion if one goes by the number of followers it has.

The holiest of shrines for Muslims, the second most populous faith, Masjid al-Haram, which contains the venerated Kaaba, is spread over just 0.4 sq km. Unlike most religions, this is where Muslims from all over the world congregate at a fixed time of the year. Yet, it has not seen any reason to claim rights over more space.

Tirupati city, not just the temple, accounts for 24 sq km. And this includes the schools, the colleges and the temples that exist within this area. And this despite the fact that Tirupati has a higher density of population than many of the countries in which the above religious centres exist.

So what makes Niyamgiri more important than the rest of the world? Was the MoEF stark raving mad when it decided to support such a resolution? Or does it have something to do with the alleged “Jayanthi tax” that many believed was the guiding principle for granting environmental clearances for projects?

Consider the implications of such a move. What would happen if a tribe settled along the banks of the Ganges or the Yamuna were to claim that “the entire river is sacred for us and the source of our livelihood and hence should not be exploited for development”?

So, should one ban cities along the banks of the rivers? Should one scrap the Ganga and Yamuna expressways? What if another tribe that dwells near the Himalayas echoes similar views and claims that the “entire mountain range is sacred for us and the source of our livelihood”? No sane government would buy such an argument.

That is why the apex court needs to be more careful before granting rights to tribals that nobody in the entire world has. If the tribals have rights, so do industrialists. So do people who want development. Having a blinkered perspective on religious rights can be both vexatious and pernicious.