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Unutilised land, the State and Religious Institutions

Inderjit Singh*

The state government gives funds and concessions to religious bodies. Such favours are extended with a view to gaining votes in subsequent elections. The more than 200 acres sold to one such sect in Mohali for the unbelievably neglible price of Rs 2 lakh per acre (by the government’s own admission as stated in response to an RTI query.) shows the extent to which the state’s resources are misutilised. This is only one institution. One wonders how many others have been obliged.

It must be borne in mind that the 200 acres on the outskirts of Mohali had been productive fields that provided livelihood to hundreds of farmers. The land as of today lies idle. Only a tiny portion of it is utilized to hold satsangs once a week. No farmer should be dispossessed unless it can be amply demonstrated that his land can be used for another purpose that is much more productive and beneficial to all of society than growing crops and supporting a family. A farmer should not be forcibly divested of his land so that real estate developers and speculators can profit.

It must also be said that the sect’s 200 acres on the outskirts of Mohali was lying completely unutilized until late 2008 when it came to public notice through a petition under the Right to Information Act.

At current market rate, the worth of the 200 acres allotted to the sect in Mohali is worth Rs 6,000 per square yard and comes to approximately Rs 5000-6000 crore. It would be fair to all if all such unutilized properties were resumed on payment to the allotee at the rate of purchase plus interest and resold to the farmers at the rate of the original compensation plus interest. Rational land use is essential at a time when the government is searching for land that can be utilized for SEZs and similar productive purposes.

A similar issue came up under the previous Congress State government. At that time, (Sept 2002) the Punjab government was seeking Rs 50 crore from the Central government to develop the Khalsa Heritage Complex at Anandpur Sahib.

At that time, we questioned the move on the grounds that if government funds can be sought for the Khalsa complex, why should they not be sought for projects related to other religions? If Rs 50 crore can be lavished on the Khalsa complex, why not spend something on subsidizing Haj pilgrims, why not renovate historic Hindu or Jain temples, why not help Christians? If such projects are accepted, how does the state decide how much money to allocate to the various religions? And would atheists have no claim to assistance? Providing such funds can only engender suspicion and ill-will.

All religious activity must be insulated from state power and manipulation. The case of the SGPC is glaring. Election to the SGPC and its office-bearers can be and is manipulated by the state. Gurcharan Singh Tohra was supposedly a hardliner but, except for a brief interlude, he was kept as the SGPC president by either postponing the elections or managing the elections during the period of Sikh militancy. But on the other hand, Akali governments were kept out of power and in 1991 even the elections were countermanded after the election campaigns had ceased. This indicates the level of control by the government over the SGPC elections.

It is for that reason we demand that Sikhs accept no government money for the construction of a monument to their religion and culture. In any case, the entire gold-and-marble based concept is flawed and counter to the spirit of Sikhism. The best embodiment of the Khalsa is the Khalsa, that is, the believers themselves.

In 1985 the Akal Takht was rebuilt with government funds. The Sikhs promptly tore it down and rebuilt it with money donated by the sangat. This was an absolutely correct course of action. The same sentiment should have governed construction of the Khalsa complex at Anandpur Sahib. It seems that the Punjab government and Central governments have come to believe that there is nothing wrong with state fingers meddling in religious matters. In the name of “clean management”, establishment of government-ruled shrine boards has become common.

Likewise the government declares that it has the sole right to conduct elections to the SGPC. This is wrong. If shrines are mismanaged, let the devotees either stay away from these shrines or exert themselves to rectify the shortcomings. If the SGPC cannot be trusted to conduct honest and peaceful polls on its own, then let the Sikhs themselves withdraw authority and legitimacy from that body. If the government is to concern itself with Hindu or Sikh shrines and the personnel who administer them, why should it not stand over the Christians when they select their bishops, or the Muslims when they appoint or remove mullahs from their mosques?

Such interference endangers public amity, as was recently demonstrated in the case of the Amarnath Shrine Board land allotment controversy in J&K.

The Constitution of India declares ‘The Union of India to be a sovereign, democratic republic, assuring its citizens of justice, equality, and liberty; the words ‘socialist’ and ‘secular’ were added to the definition in 1976 by constitutional amendment. The Constitution not only spells out right to freedom of religion (Article 25: Particulars of Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion, Article 26: freedom to manage religious affairs, Article 27: freedom from payment of taxes for promotion of any particular religion, Article 28: Freedom as to attendance at religious instruction or religious worship in certain education institutions. Also the Constitution specifies Cultural and Educational rights. (Article 29: Protection of interests of minorities, and Article 30: Right of minorities to establish and administer educational institutions.)

Parties and politicians avowing religious principles are not a rarity anywhere in the world: the Shiv Sena and the Akalis fight elections in India, the Christian Democrats fight elections in Germany, the Jamaat-i-Islami fights elections in Pakistan. MASR has no quarrel with those who say that religious values should guide the actions of individual politicians or even political parties, but we very much oppose any religion imposing public policy on the citizens or the state involving itself in the affairs of any religion.



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