The Union Urban Development Minister Kamal Nath has declared that giving ‘legal sanction’ to all religious structures in Delhi is ‘part of our community service’. Temples, mosques, gurdwaras and other places of worship built prior to 2007 and are on land that is unauthorized or partly unauthorized will be given legal sanction. The minister said a policy was being framed to work out the details of the proposal that will, among other things, ensure that ‘they [religious structures] have parking space.’

 

Ah. That’s coming to (one of) the point(s). Parking space. That little casualty that happens when a place of worship is situated along a road, cramped between a flower-selling shop and a fruit vendor’s permanent cart. People have cars and they will park it somewhere. The road is a two-lane one and sees regular traffic. Conflict, chaos and indignation are inevitable. Faced with mind-bending problems, people will come up with mind-bending solutions (that work mainly at the individual level).  

 

In March 2011, amid major protests, Coimbatore Corporation special squad personnel demolished a temple on Kamarajapuram Road to widen the road

 

But whatever the fallout, ‘we cannot raze religious structures,’ as the minister asserted. Taking recourse to the tested-through-time trick of replying to a question with a question, he had asked, ‘How do you demolish a temple?’

 

The question asked of the minister was whether the government’s flexibility in granting regularization to unauthorized constructions was encouraging squatting and encroachment.

 

It isn’t as if there is a shortage of places where people can conduct their special ceremonies before their particular gods, but who would dare to tell off the devotee. Who would say ‘hey, can you not find a place of worship that is logically located?’

  

The chain of events to follow is predictable enough. One politically incorrect statement you make, and you will be charged of ‘hurting the people’s religious sentiments’. What will perhaps start out as a very local protest will soon be buttressed with political slogans and vote bank-friendly assertions by the local political boss. (Recently, when Bhopal Municipal Corporation and district administration officials went to demolish part of the illegally built Shani temple complex in front of Palash Hotel, Bajrang Dal activists had a scuffle with the cops and protested against the move. As expected, the authorities had to stop their drive midway.) In a country where rhetoric sells and people are often too easily persuaded, it is relatively easy to assemble ‘popular’ protests.

 

In February this year, the Delhi High Court had told the government to formulate guidelines to deal with encroachment and illegal construction in the form of religious structures while adjudicating one such case. So, has the government done a classic cop-out by proposing a blanket regularization of all religious structures built prior to 2007?

 

In February 2010, the Supreme Court had asked the states and union territories to formulate, within eight weeks, a comprehensive policy on removal, relocation and regularization of unauthorized religious constructions. A Bench of Justices Dalveer Bhandari and KS Radhakrishnan pointed out that in its 7 December 2009 order, the states were asked to prevent unauthorized construction of temples, churches, mosques or gurdwaras in streets, parks or other public places. While the states filed affidavits stating that steps had been taken to prevent any future unauthorized construction, in respect of formulation of a policy for the existing unauthorized structures, most of them had not framed guidelines.

 


A corporation bulldozer razes the dargah of Rashiduddin Chisti in Vadodara

 

Among the states that did identify unauthorized religious structures were Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Orissa, Tripura, Himachal Pradesh, Goa and Delhi. In its response, Tamil Nadu – which had the most number of unauthorized religious structures in public places, at 77,453 – said it had evolved a strategy for removing such unauthorized structures ‘without hurting people’s sentiments’. This included the process of identification to relocate the said structures.

 

Andhra Pradesh said that as per a preliminary survey ‘there are about 647 religious structures on footpaths and road margins in the area of Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation; 25 temporary structures which have recently come up and have low potential of creating a law-and-order problem and can be removed; 55 structures that can be removed by convincing the managements and local people; and 496 structures which are old, permanent and have a high potential of creating a law-and-order problem.’

 

Seen in this context, it is rather strange that minister Nath did not find it pragmatic to first classify Delhi’s unauthorized religious structures by certain parameters – for instance, in terms of free movement of the public and vehicular traffic; maintenance of public order; and use of land for public purposes.