In one of the most important judgments of modern history of India, on November 9, 2019, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court granted 2.77 acres of land to Ram Lalla Virajman, a deity and party to the 90-year-old dispute. The other two parties were Sunni Waqf Board and the Nirmohi Akhara. But how the deity came to be treated as a legal entity and who is a shebait were still shrouded in mystery, because God fighting a case in a secular democracy engenders a lot of curiosity. The Nirmohi Akhara was the shebait in this case.
After this dispute, many cases have reached the courts, where either a litigant or the defendant is a deity or a religious space. In Mathura, Lord Krishna is going to have a rendezvous with the law. In Varanasi, the debate over the Places of Worship Act, 1991, enacted while Babri Masjid dispute was on the boil, is on over rights of Hindus to worship inside the Gyanvapi mosque complex. The act keeps India’s Independence Day, August 15, 1947, as one bar after which any change in the religious character of a place is illegal. Section 4(2) of this act prohibits “any suit or appeals or proceedings” of a place.
In the Ayodhya dispute, the deity Himself became a party, though not for the first time. It all started in 1989, when retired Allahabad high court judge Deoki Nandan Agrawal filed a suit to become sakha of the deity. Earlier in 1985, Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas was created with an aim to construct Ram temple at the birthplace of Lord Ram. After the death of Agrawal, T.P. Verma, a professor of history, assumed the role of sakha and on his “retirement” it was Triloki Nath Pandey.
Former vice-chancellor and professor of National Academy of Legal Studies and Research Faizan Mustafa says, “What happened in 1989 in the Ayodhya dispute is that certain people entered in court to fight the case on behalf of Ram Lalla, while Nirmohi Akhara was already fighting this case for over a century.” The main objection to accepting Ram Lalla as a party was due to the fact that God entering in a court of law would change the entire complexion of the litigation as “many of us believe in God”. Legal experts that Outlook spoke with believe that when one party is God, it cannot be said that both parties are at the same level, because with God, religious sentiments of people are involved.
The entry of Ram Lalla in court was an acceptance that Nirmohi Akhara was not doing enough. “Because only when somebody who is already doing the litigation is not putting up a good defense that you will permit the deity to intervene in the litigation,” says Mustafa, who teaches constitutional law. But in his personal opinion, Nirmohi Akhara was doing enough, as it was fighting the case since the beginning. In the final judgment, the Supreme Court, while accepting Ram Lalla as a juridical person, gave the entire property to Him and the Nirmohi Akhara did not get anything.
The principle of res judicata says if the issue is the same and has been decided between the same parties, it cannot be reopened. In the Ayodhya dispute, there were already three judgments on Ram Chabutra, though not on the central dome. Now, when Ram Lalla becomes a party, this law cannot apply.
A legal or juristic person is someone to whom law attributes personality. Broadly, there can be two types of legal persons. One who is a natural person recognised as a physical person and enjoys legal right by birth. Second, juristic persons, companies, institutions, idols and even abstract concepts like Gods have also been given rights like a legal person. Supreme Court lawyer Jose Abraham says, “Courts have defined juridical persons on various occasions.”
Making a deity a legal entity is as old as the British law in India and began in 1846 with Mutty Lal Mullick, a wealthy businessman of Calcutta. He had a temple in which he consecrated an idol. Though the idol was referred to as one Thakur, there were two others, Thakurani–the consort of Thakur—and a sacred stone, sangram sila. The idol was an object of worship for him and his family. When he died, leaving behind his widow Ranganmoui and an adopted son, he also left a will dated August 1846. The will stated that his wife will be attorney or proprietor until his adopted son Jadulal, who was then two year old, attained the age of 20.
In this case the high court recognised the Hindu idol as a “juristic entity”. Lord Shaw, one of the judges in the case, observed, “It has a juridical status with the power of suing and being sued. Its interests are attended to by the person who has the deity in his charge and who is in law its manager, with all the powers which would in such circumstances, on analogy, be given to the manager of the estate of an infant heir.”
In Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee vs. Som Nath Dass and Others, the Supreme Court held that an idol consecrated in a temple can be equated with the Guru Granth Sahib placed in a gurdwara, as idol worship is contrary to Sikhism. The apex court observed, “As a concept or a visionary for obeisance, the two religions are different. Yet, for its legal recognition as a juristic person, the followers of all the religions give them respectively the same reverential value. Thus, Granth Sahib has all the qualities of being recognised as such. Holding otherwise would mean giving too restrictive a meaning of a ‘juristic person’ and that would erase the very jurisprudence that gave birth to it.”
Mustafa observes, “The law is settled on this that an idol is a juristic person, because a property is dedicated to him. There is no doubt about it. Even the privy councils had accepted that.” He believes that whenever there is a case about religious sentiments, we should look for solutions. “If there is a contention between mosque and temple, ideally we should see both are preserved,” he says. It will ensure no one feels sense of victory or defeat. “In constitutional jurisprudence, we call it harmonious construction which means, if there is a conflict between two parts of the Constitution, then efforts should be made to give effect to both.” For harmonious relationships between communities, “we should not try the litigation model, which we have already tried, but the arbitration or mediation model, because, in a secular democracy, Gods fighting a case in court is not a good picture to see”.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Deity as Legal Entity")