Rajasthan HC dismisses petition against circular mandating non-use of public space for religious purposes

THE Rajasthan High Court recently dismissed a petition by one Pooja Gurnani, challenging a circular by the Additional Director General of Police (Police Housing), A. Ponnuchami, to all district police stations to ensure strict compliance with the Rajasthan Religious Building and Places Act, 1954.  The circular prohibits construction of shrines inside police stations and police offices.

The circular had not gone down well, with members of the Bharatiya Janata Party terming the move as anti-Hindu and demanding a revocation of the order.

The petition asserted that the Constitution of India does not define “religion”, which makes it a matter of faith, which may not necessarily be theistic. Alleging that the circular’s use of the term “poojasthal” singles out one community, violating their fundamental rights and hurting religious sentiments and thereby creating disharmony, the petitioner asserted that the Act only defines religion and not the term “poojasthal”, making the circular beyond the jurisdiction of the law. The petition prayed that the circular be declared unconstitutional. It also sought directions from the Court to the state government to include government institutions and state bodies under the definition of  ‘public places‘ in the Act.

The Act describes its purpose as meant “to regulate the construction of public religious buildings and to restrict the use of public places for religious purposes,” so as “to avoid a breach of public peace and tranquillity likely to arise from disputes between different sections of people.” In pursuance of the same, it defines the usage of the term “public” as a being attributable to building or place that is not the private and personal property of a person, and is open to the use and enjoyment of the public, even if it has been acquired, constructed or maintained by or at the expense of some specified person.

Any conversion into a religious space can only be done after obtaining the permission of the Collector. The Collector also has the power to remove an unauthorised work that converts a public or private place for public religious purposes.

The temporary use of a building or place on occasions of festivals are not deemed to be conversions thereof into a public religious building.

The bench, composed of Chief Justice Akil Kureshi and Justice Rekha Borana, upheld the right of the state to maintain public places as secular places in accordance with the mandate of the Rajasthan Religious Building and Places Act, 1995, passed with the objective of restricting the use of public places for religious purposes. It observed that the language in the circular has no other intention but to address certain ongoing activities that had come to the notice of the administration, and should not be misconstrued as an attack on any one religion. The Court further reiterated that it was not in its powers to direct the legislature to frame the law in a particular manner.  As the petitioner did not challenge the constitutionality of any of the provisions of the law, the petition stood dismissed, the bench held.

A press note by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties has stated that the intent of the petition challenging the constitutionality of the circular could only be to question the power of the state to ensure that its organs and instrumentalities, including the police, functioned under secular values. The note states, “the  insidious agenda of the petitioner was to legitimize and promote the conversion of  public places like police stations into places which offer worship to deities from one religion alone, thereby making a mockery of the promise of non-discrimination on grounds of religion. This would have been a direct  affront to the idea of India as a secular democracy which is  founded on the values of the  Constitution.