Roadside Religious Shrines to be the Next Target of Eviction Drives in Guwahati
• Hindu religions shrines grabs land at public areas
• SC passed interim order in 2009 to evict unauthorised construction at public places, including religious establishments
• Past constructions are to be reviewed in a case to case basis
• High Court raises concern on the issue
• DC Kamrup (M) takes responsibility; says such issues to be bought to his notice
• Eviction drives of such establishments likely to be undertaken soon
With the massive clean-up that is being undertaken in Guwahati by the authorities under the directive of Gauhati High Court, illegal shrines that dot the city are set to be demolished soon.
For the last few weeks, Guwahati civil authorities (includes municipality, police, administration etc) have been conducting various eviction drives across the city in attempts to clear out roads and pavements to ease traffic congestion.
Vendors from different localities have been deprived of their livelihoods in these sudden eviction drives that are being conducted under the directives of the Gauhati High Court; the same are however being conducted without any prior notice to even the legal vendors.
However, a major entity that has been encroaching upon the pavements and other public places in the city are the religious shrines. Such encroachments, often thinly disguised cases of land grabbing, obstruct not just the road traffic but also footpaths.
So a natural question arises as to who is responsible for clearing the public places that are being encroached by “God” himself!
The High Court of Gujarat at Ahmedabad, in a suo moto case (SCA No.9686 of 2006) had ordered that religious shrines and other unauthorised constructions are to be banned from public places.
The Supreme Court bench comprising Justices Dalveer Bhandari and Dr Justice Mukundakam Sharma had passed an interim order in 2009 stating:
• No unauthorized construction of any religious institution namely, temple, church, mosque or gurudwara, etc shall be permitted on public street/public space.
• In respect of unauthorized constructions of any religious nature which has taken place in the past, the state governments would review the same on a case by case basis and take appropriate steps. This will be done expeditiously as possible.
In 2013 the a Supreme Court bench presided over by Justices RM Lodha and SJ Mukhopadhaya, further upholding the previous judgment, banned fresh encroachment of roads, pavements and sideways by construction of religious structures or installation of statues of public figures.
The order was passed on an application challenging the Kerala government's permission to a private society to install the statue of a public figure on a traffic island on a national highway. As such vehicles had to crawl because of the existing encroachments at the busy intersection.
After the 2009 directives, many such religious shrines were demolished across Guwahati by the municipal authorities.
Pulak Mahanta, Joint Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC), speaking to G Plus said, “During my tenure as a circle officer of Guwahati, we had demolished many such shrines. The issue is of great concern but also highly sensitive as it often hurts religious sentiments.”
Most Guwahatians are of the view that although they are concerned about the same they are not aware as to which authority should they be approaching on the matter.
Pachim Guwahati Nagarik Sajagata Mancha had raised the issue in 2011 and has also helped authorities in demolishing many unauthorized temples in the Bharalumukh-Machkhowa area.
A member of the organisation said, “When we raised concern on such temples that have popped up on the streets, we had to approach multiple authorities. However, everyone denied taking responsibilities on the same.”
“Finally the GMC officials took up the issue and demolished many such temples with the help of the traffic police,” he further added.
As per the SC order, civil authorities were supposed to review every such case. “While the shrines constructed on unauthorized government land were to be demolished or were to be allotted proper land, the ones on donated or ‘patta’ land were not to be disturbed,” informed GMC officials.
However, after the initial drives that were undertaken, no such operation had been conducted in recent years.
Concerned citizens have pointed out that many new temples have been constructed and the older ones have repeatedly been enlarged in the name of restoration.
Sources have also pointed out that religious shrines in public places are mostly Shiv Mandirs or Shani Mandirs - all Hindu temples. To cite an example, in the Athgoan tri-section near Marwari Maternity Hospital, there is a Shiv temple right in the middle of the crowded tri-section. Locals said, “There used to be just a round shed around the banyan tree where labourers and rickshaw pullers used to rest. But that shed has now been converted into a full-fledged temple. Recently, beggars are also seen sitting around the temple which has added to the traffic congestion.”
This is just one of the many examples in the city.
It has to be mentioned that although the government has been broadening roads and pavements for the benefit of public, many have taken the opportunity to enlarge the already existing shrines.
Another major complaint has been raised by women pavement dwellers. While replying to queries by G Plus one woman said, “I mostly find it difficult to walk on the footpaths during my periods. Temples or other small religious establishments, be it just a statue or a banyan tree that is worshipped, are present at random places. As we believe in the tradition of not entering or even going near temples while menstruating it becomes very difficult when the footpath you are walking on is suddenly blocked by a temple. What do you do?”
A source at the office of Deputy Commissioner, Kamrup (M) informed, “The Gauhati High Court has issued orders to demolish these shrines and operations on the same would be undertaken soon.”
While GMC officials said that lists of all the shrines demolished earlier and the ones that are permitted to stay are officially recorded in the Guwahati Revenue Circle Office, the authority for land permits, the latter could not produce records on the same.
Instead they shifted the responsibility on the municipal authorities.
Senior Advocate Bijan Mahajan, speaking to G Plus said, “Idol worship is a tradition of Hinduism and so are temples. However, judgments passed by the Supreme Court of India are to be respected by all concerned. Its every order has to be respected and carried out in totality.”
Further, a source at the Gauhati High Court informed that the court is likely to take up the issue on a future hearing of the PIL 72/2016 that had been filed against the issue of traffic congestion and is currently being heard on a weekly basis.
Many people have pointed out that religious shrines of such illegal and encroaching nature are usually Hindu shrines. “You never find a Muslim or Christian shrine in the middle of the road,” said a senior citizen.
To this, an intellectual explained, “There’s a difference in the religious practices of Hindus and other religions, especially ours. Hinduism follows idol worship and Hindus also worships nature, like rocks and trees. So, many devotees worship wherever a banyan or ‘bel’ tree is found or even at rock carvings. With time more devotees join in and gradually the site is turned into a temple. But for Muslims, they need a proper donated or allotted land to make a mosque or a ‘mazaar’ where community prayers could take place. So is the case with Christians and Sikhs as well. As such one doesn’t find a ‘masjid’, church or gurudwara on the footpath or at any road trisection.”
Biswajit Pegu, Deputy Commissioner, Kamrup (M) said, “The issue falls under our authority. Any such issue or complaint by concerned citizens can be brought to us, the Circle Office or even the municipalities and traffic police. All civil authorities are to work on the matter together.”