Supreme Court Decodes | Pujari who performs puja and maintains temple property, will he be treated as Bhumiswami? Who will be the owner of temple property?  

Supreme Court: Bench of Hemant Gupta and A.S. Bopanna, JJ., while addressing the matter pertaining to rights of the priest, observed that:

“Pujari is only to perform puja and to maintain the properties of the deity.”

“…name of the Collector as manager cannot be recorded in respect of property vested in the deity as the Collector cannot be a manager of all temples unless it is a temple vested with the State.”

Subject matter of challenge in the present matter was an order passed by the Division Bench of Madhya Pradesh High Court at the instance of Madhya Pradesh.

In the said order, writ petition filed by the Association of Priests registered under the M.P. Society Registrikaran Adhiniyam 1973 was allowed by the Madhya Pradesh High Court.

Crux of the matter was to quash the circulars whereby the names of Pujari were ordered to be deleted from the revenue record.

Single Bench held that circulars dated 12-11-1992 and 21-03-1994 were already quashed by the High Court in the year 1995 and 1999 respectively and therefore there was no justification on the part of the State Government to issue circular dated 7-06-2008 directing the Revenue Commissioner to follow the circular dated 21-03-1994.

In the intra-court appeal against the Single Bench decision, the High Court held that Pujaris had no right to alienate the properties of the temple. They have rights only with respect to either cultivate the land or get it cultivated through servants. The High Court further held that if the temple was managed by the Pujari, then keeping in view the law laid down from time to time, his name was required to be mentioned as Pujari along with the name of the deity.

Analysis, Law and Decision

Supreme Court found that there is a lack of clarity in the High Court in regard to legal jurisprudence.

Different judgments have been referred to in respect of rights of the priests as to whether they can be treated as Bhumiswami or if they only hold the temple land for the purpose of management of the property of the temple, which actually vests with the deity.

 Bench noted that one of earlier judgments on the right of a priest was rendered by the Division Bench of Madhya Pradesh High Court, reported as Pancham Singh v. Ramkishandas Guru Ramdas,1971 SCC OnLine MP 26.

In the above-cited decision, it was held that Section 13 of the Qawaid Muafidaran Jujve Araji, Samwat 19916 was examined as to the remedy of ejectment of a pujari who claimed status of Mourushi Kashtakar as under Section 248 (1) of the Code or by way of a civil suit. It was held that a Pujari is not a Kashtkar Mourushi, i.e., tenant in cultivation or a government lessee or an ordinary tenant of the Maufi lands but holds such land on behalf of the Aukaf Department for the purpose of management.

In Kanchaniya v. Shiv Ram, 1992 Supp (2) SCC 250 Supreme Court considered the Gwalior Act as well as theM.P. Land Revenue Code, 1959. The decision of Pancham Singh v. Ramkishandas Guru Ramdas, 1971 SCC OnLine MP 26 was approved.

Circular dated 12-11-1992 was issued wherein the name of the Collector was directed to be recorded as a manager whereas the name of the Pujari of the concerned Devasthan was to be recorded in Column No. 12. The said circular was under consideration before the Division Bench in Ghanshyamdas II. It was held that the Pujaris have no right to alienate the properties of the temple. They have to cultivate the land or to get the land cultivated through their servants for the maintenance of the temple and also perform the daily rituals. They do not acquire any right to alienate the property of the temple.

As per the Circular dated 21-03-1994, it was directed that the name of the Pujari should not be recorded in any of the column of the Panchama (revenue record). The Collector was directed to maintain a separate register for maintaining the records of the priest.

In the present matter the question to be considered was:

  • Whether a priest can be treated as Bhumiswami under the Madhya Bharat Land Revenue and Tenancy Act, Samvat 2007 and as a consequence under the Code?

The said question has already been considered in Pancham Singh v. Ramkishandas Guru Ramdas, 1971 SCC OnLine MP 26., which was further affirmed by Kanchaniya.

Bench stated that the law is clear on the distinction that the Pujari is not a Kashtkar Mourushi, i.e., tenant in cultivation or government lessee or an ordinary tenant of the maufi lands but holds such land on behalf of the Aukaf Department for the purpose of management. The Pujari is only a grantee to manage the property of the deity and such grant can be reassumed if the Pujari fails to do the task assigned to him, i.e., to offer prayers and manage the land. He cannot be thus treated as a Bhumiswami.

Further, the decision of Kanchaniya clarified that the Pujari does not have any right in the land and his status is only that of a manager. Rights of pujari do not stand on the same footing as that of Kashtkar Mourushi in the ordinary sense who are entitled to all rights including the right to sell or mortgage.

Pujari is elevated to the status of Kahstkar Mourushi?

Supreme Court while taking in consideration the past precedents, and the fact that under the Gwalior Act, Pujari had been given right to manage the property of the temple, it was clear that, that does not elevate him to the status of Kashtkar Mourushi (tenant in cultivation).

Ancillary Question

  • Whether the priest is Inamdar or Maufidar within the meaning of Section 158(1)(b) of the M.P. Land Revenue Code, 1959 ?

The said provision contemplates that the rights of every person in respect of land held by him in the Madhya Bharat region i.e. area of erstwhile Gwalior and Holkar as a Pakka tenant or as a Muafidar, Inamdar or Concessional holder shall be protected as Bhumiswami.

It was observed that the priest does not fall in any of the clauses as mentioned in Section158(1)(b) of the Code. The maufi was granted to the property of temples from payment of land revenue. Such maufi was not granted to a manager. Even Inam granted by the Jagirdar or the ruler to a priest is only to manage the property of the temple and not confer ownership right on the priest.

Priest cannot be treated to be either a Muafidar or Inamdar in terms of Madhya Bharat Land Revenue and Tenancy Act, Samvat 2007 or in terms of Gwalior Act. Since the priest cannot be treated to be Bhumiswami, they have no right which could be protected under any of the provisions of the Code.

  •  Whether the State Government by way of executive instructions can order the deletion of name of Pujari from the revenue record and/or insert the name of a Collector as manager of the temple?

Court found no mandate in any of the judgments to hold that the name of Pujari or manager is required to be mentioned in the revenue record.

Further, the Bench opined that the name of the manager or that of the priest is not required to be mentioned in the column of the occupier.

“…the name of the Pujari cannot be mandated to be recorded either in the column of ownership or occupancy but may be recorded in the remark’s column.”

Elaborating further, Supreme Court observed that

No rule has been brought to the notice that the name of the manager has to be recorded in the land records. In the absence of any prohibition either in the statute or in the rules, the executive instruction can be issued to supplement the statute and the rules farmed thereunder.

Though the name of the Collector as a manager cannot be recorded in respect of property vested in the deity as the Collector cannot be a manager of all temples unless it is a temple vested with the State, Court stated that the decision of Deoki Nandan v. Murlidhar, AIR 1957 SC 133 had drawn the distinction between a public and a private temple.

Such circulars of the State Government shall be applicable to the public temples and not to the private temples 

The said circulars do not make out the distinction. However, a temple in a house or which is not open to the public cannot be treated to be a public temple. However, it will be a question in each case whether it is a public or private temple that can be decided in the appropriate proceedings.

In the present proceedings, the circular was applicable to all temples unless a particular temple was able to satisfy the competent forum of it being a private temple.

Hence, the Madhya Pradesh High Court’s decision cannot be sustained and the circulars as mentioned were not illegal.

Petition was dismissed in view of the above discussion. [State of Madhya Pradesh v. Pujari Utthan Avam Kalyan Samiti, 2021 SCC OnLine SC 667, decided on 6-09-2021]

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