CAN AN INDIAN DEITY BE TREATED AS A JURISTIC PERSON?

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This article is written by Bhavya Verma of JEMTEC, School of law and curated by Anjeeta Rani of Chanakya National Law University.

A juristic entity or individual is one in which rights or duties are granted by law in its name. Unlike a “natural person” (that is, a human being), a legal person is an entity that the law vests with a personality.

In the case of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee vs Som Nath Dass and Others the honorable Supreme Court held that Juristic Persons are not an individual natural person but an artificially formed person to be accepted as such in law. Gods, corporations, rivers, and animals were also regarded by the courts as juristic persons. The very term Juristic Person connotes that an entity is regarded as someone in law a person otherwise is not. A company is a juristic person who, in his name, can hold or deal with property, said Senior Advocate Sanjay Hegde. “While God as an abstract concept is not a juristic entity, deities have been conferred personhood in Hindu law as capable of being granted land, or leading it out or suing to take possession of it again”, further he quoted.

Under British rule the classification of deities as juristic persons started. Temples owned large land and resources, and British administrators believed that the lord was the legitimate owner of the property, with a shebait or manager serving as trustee.

The shebait is usually the priest of the temple or the trust or individuals who run the temple. Justice D V Sharma had said in the 2010 Allahabad HC judgment in the Ayodhya title suit: “As in the case of a minor, a guardian is appointed, so in the case of an idol, a Shebait or manager is appointed to act on its behalf.”

In the case of Dakor Temple, in 1887, the Bombay High Court held that Hindu idol is a juridical subject and the pious idea it represents is granted the status of a legal person. In the case of Vidya Varuthi Thirtha vs Balusami Ayyar, the court held that According to Hindu law, the image of a deity is a ‘juristic person’ with the capacity to accept gifts and to hold land.

In Bishwanath And Anr vs Shri Thakur Radhaballabhji & Ors, in a case where the shebait was found to “alienate the property of the idol” the Supreme Court allowed a “case filed by the idol represented by a worshipper”. The court held that if a shebait does not properly discharge his duties, a devotee may move court as a “friend of the deity.”

Juristic persons have following rights to own the property, pay taxes, to sue and to be sued.

Lord Ram himself, Ramlalla Virajman was represented by His “next friend,” the late Deoki Nandan Agrawal, a former Allahabad High Court judge, is among the parties in the Ayodhya title suit appeals heard by the Supreme Court.

In the case of Sabarimala (Indian Young Lawyers Association & Ors. vs The State of Kerala & Ors, one of the arguments put forward against allowing women of menstruating age to enter the temple was that this would violate Lord Ayyappa’s right to privacy, who is eternally celibate.

A lawyer working on the Sabarimala case said: “Deities have property rights, but not fundamental rights or other constitutional rights.” This was confirmed in the Sabarimala judgment by Justice D Y Chandrachud: “Simply because a deity has been given restricted rights as juristic persons under statute law does not mean that the deity automatically has constitutional rights.”

However, not all deities are legal persons. Only after its public consecration, or pran pratishtha, an idol is granted this status. In Yogendra Nath Naskar vs. Income-Tax Commissioner, the Supreme Court ruled: “Not all idols would qualify as ‘juristic person’ but only when they are consecrated and placed in a public place for the general public.”

A mosque has never been held as a juristic person, for it is a place where people come together to worship; it is not an object of worship itself. Neither does have a church is considered as a juristic person.

The Court in the case of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee vs Som Nath Dass and Others held that “Every Guru Granth Sahib shall not be juristic person unless he takes on a juristic role through his installation in a gurudwara or in any other public place as is recognized.”

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