In 2019, Ram Lalla Virajman won the protracted Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid land dispute. He, however, is not the only deity involved in legal battles in India. At present, the Hindu deity Krishna is also in the eye of a legal battle over the removal of a mosque in Mathura, built on the land Hindus believe to be the birthplace of the deity. In Varanasi, while no deities have become involved yet, a legal battle for the right for Hindus to worship inside the Gyanvapi mosque has led to debates over the validity of the 1991 Places of Worship Act. And the emergence of what the Hindu side believes is a Shiv Linga inside the mosque premises has complicated matters further with the spotlight once again on deities and courts.
Over the years, several cases have reached courts wherein either the litigant or the defendant has been a deity or a religious space like a temple. That’s because, in India, deities and certain religious places enjoy legal rights just like human beings who are bound by the law of the land.
Who is a ‘Legal Person’?
In jurisprudence, a ‘legal person’ is a person or a thing or entity that enjoys the same legal rights as a natural person. A legal person has the right to sue or file cases in legal courts of law, defend themselves against such suits, enter into contracts and exert all legal rights that are accorded to people bound by the law of a certain land.
There are two types of legal persons — natural persons and juridical or juristic persons or personalities.
Natural persons include all human beings, sometimes also known as physical persons. In this case, the person acquires legal rights naturally by being born. In some countries and jurisdictions, natural persons have legal rights even before they are born (meaning are in a pre-natal state).
Juridical persons or personalities include groups or entities such as corporations and organisations and inanimate objects or geographic features such as idols, rivers and more. Even abstract concepts like Gods and deities can have juridical person status, as is the case in India. These entities have been given the right to exercise legal rights just like a natural person.
The concept of juridical personality is an important one in India where deities enjoy the right to file and fight court cases. In fact, one of the most long-standing and influential legal disputes in India - the Ran Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid land dispute - was fought and won by Ram Lalla Virajman - the minor form of Lord Ram.
Juridical Personality in Indian Law
In its 2019 Ayodhya judgement, the Supreme Court had ruled that “God or ‘Supreme Being’ may be omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent. But he is not a juristic personality. But an idol, worshipped by believers as a physical incarnation of the God can be considered a juridical personality.
“Divinity in Hindu philosophy is seamless, universal and infinite. Divinity pervades every aspect of the universe. The attributes of divinity defy description and furnish the fundamental basis for not defining it with reference to boundaries — physical or legal. For this reason that it is omnipresent, it would be impossible to distinguish where one legal entity ends and the next begins,” the bench led by former CJI Ranjan Gogoi that delivered the Ram Janmabhoomi verdict said.
As opposed to God, which is an abstract concept, idols of deities — which are the physical manifestations of the deity, can attain juridical personality in India. “The idea of a legal person is premised on the need to ‘identify the subjects’ of the legal system. An omnipresent (God or Supreme Being) being is incapable of being identified or delineated in any manner meaningful to the law and no identifiable legal subject could emerge,” the Ayodhya verdict read.
The bench further explained the legal difficulty in conferring legal personality on God as “the narrow confines of the law is ill-suited to engage in such an exercise (delineating boundaries of a God who is omnipresent) and it is for this reason that the law has steered clear from adopting the approach”.
Gods in Court
The practice of conferring legal person status to temples and idols in India was started by the British during the Privy Council era in colonial times. Deities and idols are treated as juristic persons as many devotees donate land and other possessions to deities and their shrines. The deity’s possessions are usually handled by a devotee or member of the shrine or temple’s managing committee. This means even if you have to sue a temple, while you may be suing the trust, the person who is answering in court is the deity through the trust.
British administrators would typically accept the Hindu versions of Hindu law and Muslim versions of Muslim law as valid. This resulted in multiple judgements in the context of endowment-related litigations with respect to temples where the very legal proceeding has been initiated by or against the deity from the colonial era. In Pramatha Nath Mullick v. Pradyuma Kumar Mullick, the Privy Council held that the term personality has a far wider connotation in law and includes gods, angels, idols etc. although they are not human beings.
“Think of a deity as a company. Companies have fundamental rights under Article 21 and Article 14 because both these articles speak of legal persons,” says advocate J Sai Deepak, who had argued the Sabarimala case on behalf of Lord Ayyappa.
The person representing the deity in worldly matters is known informally as the ‘friend’ of God. In the case of Ram Lalla, for instance, Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Triloki Nath Pandey was the “next friend” of the infant deity in 2019.
Ram Lalla was first represented by a next friend in 1989, when an Allahabad High Court judge Devki Nandan Agarwal, filed a petition in the Faizabad district court, seeking to become a ‘sakha’ or friend of the deity and the birthplace. He was followed by TP Varma who took his place after his death. Pandey became the next friend in 2008 and remained until the end of the case.
After the key verdict, Pandey had told the media that making Ram Lalla the litigant helped them win the case as the Hindu’s side title suit led by the Nirmohi Akhada before that was not as strong.
J Sai Deepak, however, says, “Even if the Akhada had not made the Deity a party, its entire case would still rest on and be on behalf of the Deity. So it's not something out of the ordinary. That is the correct course of legal action
While the apex court agreed that Ram Lalla was a legal entity, it refused to agree with the Hindu plea seeking recognition of the temple land (or Ram Janmabhoomi) itself as a legal person. While the Hindu side claimed that the land was a manifestation of Lord Ram too, the court held that the religious significance of a place was not enough to accord to juristic person status.
Rights of Deities
As juridical persons, deities in India enjoy three types of rights - fundamental, constitutional and legal. A nine-judge-bench has previously held in a 6-3 majority that juristic persons also have fundamental rights. For instance, the right to privacy does not just extend to an individual but may also extend to the data that a company collects. Because that belongs to the company’s private rights. This was one of the aspects in the Puttuswamy case under the Supreme Court. This is why, when a company sues a third party for breach or loss of data, it is effectively crystalising its right to privacy under Article 21 and asserting its rights as a legal person.
In the Sabarimala case (Indian Young Lawyers Association & Ors. vs The State of Kerala & Ors, 2018), one of the arguments presented against allowing women of menstruating age entry into the temple was that this would violate the right to privacy of Lord Ayyappa, who is eternally celibate.
In Yogendra Nath Naskar v. Commissioner of Income Tax, the Supreme Court held that an idol is a juristic person capable of holding property and of being taxed through its shebaits entrusted with the possession and management of its properties.
Are mosques considered juridical persons?
Legal opinions have varied on this. The Punjab Chief Court in Jindu Ram v. Hussain Baksh held that the muttawalli of a mosque was "competent to claim pre-emption on behalf of and for the benefit of a mosque". While courts have given varying judgements on mosques being recognised as juristic persons and the right of the Muttawalli of the mosque to claim pre-emption, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council had left the question open-ended in the oft-quoted case of Shahidganj Mosque.
According to Deepak, this is because legally mosques are not considered places of worship but places of congregational prayer.
“The SC recognised that the mosque is a place of congregation and not worship whereas temple is a place of worship. This is because it only recognises those places as places of worship which have an act of consecration, such as the practice of ‘Pranapratishtha’ in Hinduism. Pranapratishtha effectively means inviting divine energy to sanctify the place with its presence,” says Sai.
Acts of consecration are followed in churches and Jain temples as well but not in mosques or Buddhist monasteries.
In legal cases, mosques are represented by the Muttawallis. All mosques and charitable endowments connected to mosques are effectively governed by the Waqf Act. Waqf effectively is an endowment made in name of the Ummat community through the institution of the mosque. The Muttawalli is the chief trusty of the Waqf, so to speak. They represent the mosque.
From Ayodhya to Mathura to Kashi
In Ayodhya, Ram Lalla was deemed juristic personality. In Mathura, one of the petitioners has requested the court to demolish the Idgah declaring it illegal and hand over the entire land to the de-facto owner—Lord Shri Krishna Virajman of the Katra Keshav Dev Temple. At present, the latest petition, filed by a lawyer, has sought authorization to bring a suit as a representative and to prohibit Muslim pilgrims from worshiping at the Idgah near Shri Krishna Janmabhoomi. The litigant, Lucknow-based Ranjana Agnihotri, has filed the “next friend” of the infant Lord Krishna.
In such cases, the court has two issues in front of it - does the deity have juristic character? Does the religious place, or the Kshtra itself have a religious character?
Be it the Ram Lalla or Kashi or Mathura, Hindu petitioners seeking rights over mosque premises usually need to to establish three things — one that there was indeed a temple. That’s why excavation is needed.
Second, one has to establish that the temple was not wound up. This means that there was no Shastric ritual of temple closing, such as when a deity is submerged under water by the priest, then effectively that is the act of closing the temple. It’s an act of deconsecration, not desecration.
But if the deconsecration does not take place, the belief is that any amount of desecration by third party does not take away the original spiritual energy of the place.
The third question, and significant one, is whether the community continued to object to another person or entity or religion’s presence there. That's where the principles of property possession and title possession kick in.
In the Ram Janmabhoomi case, the question was of adverse possession - which is to say, did the Muslim side possess the disputed structure which they called Babri Masjid without any interference from the Hindu side and if the Hindu side has constantly objected to their presence? If not, then there is no relinquishment or abandonment of the claim of the Hindu side on the property. Therefore, ultimately it will boil down to a matter of adverse possession.
If that is established, coupled with the archaeological proof of the temple underneath and the Hindu law kicks in where desecration without deconsecration does not take away the religious energy of the place (once a deity always a deity, once a kshetra always a kshetra), then the Hindu litigants only have to establish rules of title ownership under English law.
So, in the Ram Janambhoomi's case, there was not sufficient evidence to establish that there was a temple there. That alone wouldn’t have settled the case. They had to go on to prove that they had never allowed the Muslims to enjoy the place peacefully. This is why, the court had to record instances over centuries of Hindus and Nihang Sikhs making life miserable for the Muslims to enjoy their place of prayer. Because they continued to believe it was theirs, which is why the judgement records that every Ram Navami there used to be clashes here.
The case is the same for Kashi and Mathura temple disputes where people have kept fighting against Muslim occupation of Hindu religious spaces in the 16th and 17th century. But due to the Places of Worship Act (which held Babri as an exception), pleas for reclaiming the temple property have not been permissible in court.
While the Places of Worship Act applies to places of worship, in Section 4 of the Act, the words used are ‘place’ and ‘place of worship’. The focus here is not on whether it’s a place of worship or a place of prayer. The focus needs to be on the religious character of the place. The ontology or the theology may change, but the religious character of a place or place of worship, even if it is imposed, is still legally the religious character of that place.