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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Thanjavur Catholic diocese stops residential society from building temple, celebrating Independence day

The Catholic church has stopped residents of a society in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu from building a Ganesh temple on a piece of land allocated for community use. They also managed to get police to issue a notice banning Independence Day celebrations at the disputed site.

This, despite the Hindu residents of Nirmala Nagar having won the legal battle for the community land at different levels of judiciary over the last 26 years – from district court, to TN High Court, to Supreme Court!  

The dispute over the land has been a long standing one. In the 1960s, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Thanjavur sold nearly 19 acres of land owned by it to individual plot owners as part of a residential layout known as Nirmala Nagar, while marking 3 plots of land (A,B and C) as ‘reserved’ property for community purposes like playground, park or other common purposes.

On plot A the diocese built a church, plot B is used as a playground and also houses a community hall and well, while there is a bore well and hand pipe installed by the municipality in plot C of the reserved property. 

The residents of Nirmala Nagar filed a case in 1993 in the subordinate court, Thanjavur, when the church workers tried to put a fence around the ‘reserved’ area to convert it to private property and sell it off. The church argued that the specific land was never intended to be included in the layout and that it was reserved for the use of the diocese – they claim this is proven by the fact that the diocese built a church on plot A.

They also denied the existence of the well in plot B,  and informed the court that they have taken steps to remove the municipal bore well and hand pipe from plot C. They prayed that the suit be dismissed as the layout was not submitted to any authority for approval and the ‘reserved’ property was reserved for the future purpose of the diocese. The case was transferred to District Munsif Court, Thanjavur in 1997. The trial court observed –

i) Thanjavur Municipality passed a resolution on its own accord to start a vegetable market and undertook certain development activities in the layout named Nirmala Nagar in 1989.

ii)Municipality erected the bore well in 1992 and the church filed a suit in 1994 against the municipality to remove it only during the period of pendency of the suit filed by the residents.

iii)Diocese did not take any action to remove the bore well and hand pump after getting permission to do so in the suit against the municipality.

iv)There was a peace meeting in 2000 as this issue had created a law and order problem.

v) In 1993 the Commissioner reported to the court that the property was used as a playground and as the place for convening social meetings; there was also a flag post in plot B and a badminton court and a bore well with a hand pump in plot C

vi)The diocese requested for the appointment of another commissioner who in his report after visiting the property in 2002 noted that shrubs were now growing there, but the bore well and hand pump still existed. The court learnt that there was tension prevailing in the area during these nine long years, and another peace meeting was held to ease the situation.

The trial court decreed the suit property as reserved for community purposes. The church appealed in the Principal District court which confirmed the judgement and decree of the trial court.

The church made a second appeal in the High Court where its counsel argued that since Town Planning Act and Rules were not in force during the time of preparation of the layout, the diocese is not obligated to reserve space for community purpose and so the ‘reserved’ area in the layout could only mean that it was reserved for future use of the diocese.

The court observed –

‘it cannot be contended that in the absence of statutory prescription, there is no requirement on the part of the developer to earmark a fixed percentage of the total area of the lay out for community purpose. Even before the introduction of the Town and Country Planning Act, layouts used to be prepared with open space and various inner roads and the Town and Country Planning Act imposed statutory prescription for compulsory reservation of such open space.

It was only after seeing the lay out which also contained the open space and reserved area meant for community purpose that the purchasers got assignment of the plots – this cannot be brushed aside.

As per Buildings Rules, which had come into force subsequently in the municipal area, 10% of the total area of the lay out has to be earmarked as open space.The total area earmarked by the appellant as per A, B and C would come to 8% of the total area of the lay out and, therefore, the open space earmarked by the appellant as reserved appears to be only for community purpose.

In the area shown as plot A, the appellant had already constructed a Church. The Church is for the benefit of the general public and as such, it cannot be said that by constructing the Church in the reserved area, the appellant had proved that A, B and C were earmarked only for the future use of the appellant. They (plot owners) have got a right to use the property for their community purpose.

By the course of conduct, it is evident that the reserved area was intended only for the benefit of the plot owners. The total area of the lay out is 19 acres 15 cents, which would come to 8,34,174 sq.ft. The area reserved as A, B and C would come to 65,167 sq.ft. which would be about 8% of the total area of the layout.

In the plot marked as A, the appellant (church) had already constructed a Church and, therefore, the reserved area of 8,057 sq.ft. is not available at present and as such, the remaining reserved area would come to 57,110 sq.ft. which would be about 7% of the total area of the layout. As per Buildings Rules, which had come into force subsequently in the municipal area, 10% of the total area of the lay out has to be earmarked as open space.

The total area earmarked by the appellant as per A, B and C would come to 8% of the total area of the lay out and, therefore, the open space earmarked by the appellant as reserved appears to be only for community purpose. In fact, construction of Church, temple, Mosque, etc., are all for the use of the community as a whole. The construction of the Church in one of the reserved areas is also a pointer to show that the reserved plots were meant only for community purposes.

While it is usually evangelist Christians who abuse Article 21 ‘Protection of life and personal liberty: No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law’ when they are confronted over forced/unethical conversions, in this case the court mentioned it to establish the rights of the non-Christian community.

Thus the appeals, review petitions (including one filed in Supreme Court) and special leave petitions filed by the church against the trial court’s ruling were dismissed. After going through all this trouble to retain their right for a common space in the layout, Nirmala Nagar Residents Society decided to build a Karpaga Vinayagar temple in the space allotted for community purposes. Bhumi puja was done and construction materials were brought in April to initiate the construction process.

In June, as digging began for laying the foundation, the diocese filed a police complaint claiming that the land belonged to them, and managed to halt the construction. Hindu Munnani came in support of the residents and staged a protest.

The tehsildar came to the spot and tried to mediate. When he asked for related documents, the residents showed them whatever they had but the diocese people objected to it and said they will bring documents in the evening.

The residents told news outlet Dailythanthi –

“3 plots were allotted as common space. One of those has been used to build a church. We decided to build a temple in a 2,800 square ft plot. A particular community objected to it and said that it belongs to them and filed suits and reviews in the courts. District court, the High Court and even the Supreme Court have ruled in our favour and review petitions were dismissed. Still they are opposing building a temple here. We have proper documents for this property”.

Meanwhile, as the residents association was getting ready to celebrate Independence day like every other year, they were in for a rude shock from the local police inspector. A notice from the Inspector read –

“Due to the existing land dispute between the association and the diocese of Tanjore (Thanjavur) regarding which the case filed in Thanjavur Medical College police station is pending and a writ petition is pending in the Madras High Court and the possibility of law and order problem arising in the area, permission is denied for 73rd independence day celebration.”

Despite all these obstacles, the residents of Nirmala Nagar hoisted the tricolor on August 15.

Then came Vinayaka Chaturthi for which Hindu Munnani placed a murti of Sri Ganesha. It was seized and police stationed to ‘guard’ the property. Hindu Munnani workers were also arrested.

So while the residents of Nirmala Nagar fight for the right to practise their Dharma, the Catholic church uses its influence & resources to subvert the rule of law. 


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