The Supreme Court today asked Gujarat to submit a list, if any, of religious structures damaged in the 2002 riots as the state dug in its heels and declared its intention not to pay for the repair of these structures.
A two-judge bench, comprising Justices K.S. Radhakrishnan and Dipak Mishra, adjourned the matter for further hearing on July 30 but not before it declared its intention to examine whether a state could be asked to compensate for such damage.
The court said it would examine the contours of both Article 27, which bars the state from using the exchequer’s money to promote any particular religion, and also whether the high court could have issued such a direction under Article 226.
Gujarat High Court had on February 8 this year rapped the Modi government by saying that the damage had occurred because of its “inaction” or “negligence” and had asked it to compensate for it.
The order came on a PIL filed by the Islamic Relief Committee of Gujarat. The committee claimed that over 500 such structures were damaged in the post-Godhra riots.
The high court had asked the state to either pay for the repair of these structures or, in case they had already been repaired, to compensate those who spent the funds. The state then appealed against this order to the top court.
Today the state, through additional advocate general Tushar Mehta, argued that the state could not be asked to make such payments when it did not have a policy allowing it. The state has a policy of not making such payments, he claimed. The state had not made such payments even in the 2001 Bhuj earthquake, he insisted, prompting the court to wonder if it would not make such payments in case of a tsunami or any other natural calamity.
“Not even in the case of a tsunami,” Mehta declared.
Justice Radhakrishnan observed at this point that “prima facie the state was on slippery ground”, but directed it to submit a list of such damaged properties, if any. “We will examine the issue,” he said.
The state had been asked to submit the list at the last hearing, but expressed its inability today to do so in such a short time. The bench then granted it time till July 30 to submit a list.
Mehta also claimed that some Sikhs had moved the court seeking compensation for gurdwaras damaged in the 1984 riots since the high court passed the order.
Arguing for the committee, counsel Y.H. Muchhale contested this, saying the state gave grants to the Somnath and Ambaji temples every year.
Legal experts also contested Gujarat’s stand. They cited examples of the 2008 Kandhamal riots in which the Odisha government was directed by the apex court to pay damages to churches and complied without a demur.
They said the Constitution did not forbid help to any religious institution. It only forbids the state from compelling any person to pay any tax that would be spent for promotion or maintenance of any particular religion.
It also forbids the state from providing any religious instruction in any institution maintained out of state funds.
By corollary, they said, the Indian state could extend affirmative help to all religious denominations across the board. They cited examples of the Haj subsidy and the grants made to temples all over the country to bolster their arguments.