In July, a single judge of the Madras High Court ordered that Thalaivetti Muniyappan temple in Salem district in Tamil Nadu be removed from the control of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment Department and given to the state’s archaeological department.

An archaeological survey of the shrine ordered by the court in 2017 had concluded that an idol in the temple considered to be that of the Hindu god Thalaivetti Muniappan was actually a figure of the Buddha. Maintaining that “the mistaken identity cannot be allowed to continue”, the court ordered that the “original status” of the idol be restored.

It said that permitting the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment Department to treat the idol as a Hindu god would go against the tenets of Buddhism.

The court also asked the archaeological department to put up a board inside the property saying that the statue is that of the Buddha. While the temple would still be open to everyone, the court asked that “no poojas or other ceremonies” be allowed to be performed at the figure of the Buddha.

Given the similarity of the case to pending mosque-temple disputes such as the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi and the Shahi-Idgah mosque in Mathura, many have asked whether this judgment will impact these cases.

However, legal experts believe that the case before the Madras High Court was erroneously decided. It does not deal with the law on converting religious places – the Places of Worship Act, 1991 – and, so may not hold precedential value for future cases.

Police deployed at the Gyanvapi mosque after a survey the Hindu side claimed that a shivling of Hindu god Shiva was found inside the mosque. Credit: PTI

The petitioner’s claim

The case had been brought before the Madras High Court in 2011 by P Ranganathan, the Salem district organiser of the Buddhist Society of India. The elements of the statue in the Thalaivetti Muniyappan temple, such as its ear lobes and posture, indicated it was Buddha’s statue. He claimed that the “statue had been converted into a Hindu deity, suppressing its real identity”. The land records of the village showed that temple land had earlier belonged to a Buddha trust, he said.

Ranganathan claimed that there were people with “vested interests” trying to “install other Hindu deities in the said temple” and also attempting to move the “statue of Lord Buddha”.

He asked for the statue’s true nature to be ascertained by the state’s archaeological department and that the entire place should be handed over to a Buddhist trust.

The Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment Department submitted that it had controlled the temple for “more than 70 years” and that Hindus have been worshipping the deity for “more than 100 years”. It asked the court to dismiss the case with exemplary costs, claiming that it had been filed to undermine communal harmony.

The archaeological report

The High Court in November 2017 ordered the state’s archaeological department to inspect the site and file a report. After the inspection was conducted in July 2021, officials said that the idol “depicts several mahalakshanas [great traits] of the Buddha”. The statue’s head had features associated with the Buddha, such as curly hair and elongated earlobes. It also noted that the head of the statue was “severed from the torso” and had been improperly glued together “a few years ago”.

Based on the archaeological report, the court rejected the respondent’s arguments and took the control of the temple away from the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment Department.

The judgment has angered Hindutva supporters

Implications of the case

The contours of the case reflect other disputes involving claims that sites on which mosques stand had once been occupied by Hindu temples. In several of these cases, there have been demands for an archaeological survey to ascertain the true nature of the site and that the place of worship be given to the “original worshippers”.

But legal experts say that this Madras High Court verdict cannot be invoked in the other disputes because it lacks adequate reasoning and application of the law. Former Allahabad High Court Chief Justice Govind Mathur said that the Madras High Court failed to examine several issues that it should have. “Therefore, it is apparently erroneous on the face of it,” he said.

He said that this case should have been decided by a civil court, as there were evidence-related claims on whether the nature of the religious place had been changed. “Even assuming that there were exceptional circumstances [and the High Court looked into the matter], the court should have invited objections to the [archaeological] committee’s report,” he said. “But from the order, it does not seem like they invited objections.”

Subsequently, the court decided the case solely on the basis of the archaeological department’s report without giving reasons. “It is a non-speaking judgment, without any analysis or application of the law,” he said.

As a consequence, he said, it would not apply to future cases. “These judgments where the law and reasons are not discussed do not have a precedential value,” Mathur said. “These are called ‘per incuriam’ which means running against law.”

The Places of Worship Act was enacted against the backdrop of the Babri Masjid demolition movement to ensure that similar religious disputes do not flare up in the future. Credit: Douglas E.Curran/AFP

Places of Worship Act

In addition to these larger questions, there is a specific reason why the judgment may not apply to pending religious places disputes: the judgment does not discuss the Places of Worship Act, 1991, at all. This law was enacted against the backdrop of the Babri Masjid demolition movement to ensure that similar religious disputes do not flare up in the future.

Section 4 of the law says that the “religious character of a place of worship” that existed on August 15, 1947, will “continue to be the same”. It also bars legal proceedings initiated to change the religious nature of a place as it existed at Independence.

Proceedings in the Gyanvapi mosque and Shahi Idgah mosque cases have been challenged based on this statute.

However, lawyers from both sides in the Salem dispute told that they had not brought up the Places of Worship Act, 1991. Even the judge did not raise questions about the law. The judgment and the documents filed by both parties, which were reviewed by, also do not mention this law.

A photo of the Krishna temple in Mathura and Shahi Idgah the mosque next to it. Credit: Shri Krishna Jamna Sthan/Facebook

Legal experts said this was surprising. “This case was ultimately to determine the religious nature of a place and if it can be restored,” Delhi-based senior advocate Nitya Ramakrishnan said. “The only applicable law was the Places of Worship Act, both at the time of filing the petition and when the decision was given.”

Even if the parties had not mentioned this law, “the judge should have asked the parties what is the applicable law in this case”, she said.

Further, Mathur contended that “the court needed to examine the dates of when the change in the religious nature took place”. This was critical, he said, since the date of conversion was crucial: the plea would be maintainable only if this had happened after 1947.

Since the court did not deal with a point of law that is critical in similar disputes, “it would have no precedential value in those cases”, Ramakrishnan said.

The future course of the case remains undecided. “Maybe in appeal, the department may file grounds, wherein other aspects [such as the Places of Worship Act] will be considered,” said S Yashwant, the advocate representing the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment Department. However, he had not received instructions on whether the department will challenge the judgment.

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