Unhallowed ground

The ban imposed by the Supreme Court on fresh construction of religious places on public land is welcome as it will have a positive impact on the management of public property, maintenance of public order and ensuring the safety of people who use roads and thoroughfares. Every town and city has thousands of illegal shrines of various religions built on busy junctions, by road-sides, on pavements and other inconvenient locations. They pose major traffic hazards and block free movement of pedestrians. The problem is aggravated during religious festivals when large crowds throng these places. Very often they are flashpoints of communal trouble as rival groups easily target them or the religious activities in these places provoke others. Sometimes they are even built to spite other communities, and invite retaliation. They are also constructed to prevent projects of public importance, like road widening, from being undertaken. Civic and development plans are often stuck at these obstacles.

The direction was issued after it was conveyed to the court that all states and the Centre had agreed in principle not to allow fresh construction of religious places on public land. District magistrates have to enforce the order and states have to report compliance to the court. It is not easy to demolish an existing place of worship, however illegal, inconveniently located or otherwise troublesome it is, because of the sensitivities involved and the law and order problems that might arise. But removal of the shrines is not always impossible. The Jabalpur municipal corporation recently relocated 566 such places after consultation with the people, religious groups and political parties. The case in the apex court arose from a drive undertaken by the Gujarat government to demolish illegal shrines. The state high court upheld the government’s decision but the Central government challenged it after a law and order situation arose in Vadodara with the demolition of a masjid.
Unfortunately, political parties are indulgent and civic authorities tolerant when public property is encroached. Real estate interests and anti-social elements are also often involved. Religious sentiments of people are exploited to promote private interests and to create mischief, at the expense of public good. The court’s initiative will hopefully put an end to the menace. It also reaffirms the importance of upholding the secular idea in public space.

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