Apex court delivered that Public control of religious endowments essential

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The Supreme Court has observed in a judgment noticed that Public control of religious endowments is essential to prevent the “diversion” of their assets accumulated through public donation and gifts

A three-judge Bench of Justices U.U. Lalit, S. Ravindra Bhat and Bela M. Trivedi said public control of religious and social charities has been recognised in India for over a century.

The Bench observed that “Any organisation which is self-governed, cannot be subjected to overarching state control. As long as its decisions are well informed, and grounded on relevant considerations, the interests of the trust are those defined by its members. Any measure of public control enacted through express stipulations in law, should not be expanded to such an extent that the right to freedom of association, under Article 19 (1) (c), is reduced to an empty husk, bereft of meaningful exercise of choice”.

Justice Bhat strongly mentioned that “The aim of public control is to ensure that the trust is administered efficiently and smoothly. The state interest is that far, and no more; it cannot mean that the state can dictate what decisions can or cannot be taken”.

The present case and judgement came out regarding the sanction for disposal of the property of a trust, Parsi Zoroastrian Anjuman, Mhow.

“Such regulation does not mean that the state is allowed to appropriate monies which rightly belong to the endowment. In the case of public charities and trusts, slightly different considerations prevail. The aim of public control is to ensure that the trust is administered efficiently and smoothly. The state interest is that far, and no more,” Justice Bhat observed.

Specifically in case of alienation of properties, depending on the nature of the oversight, the state’s interest is to ensure that the valuable assets of public trusts are not frittered away. The state’s role cannot be used to undermine the principle of autonomy and democratic decision-making of a religious or social charity or endowment.

“The role of the designated state official (commissioner, or registrar, etc.) is to ensure that accounts are properly maintained; monies are expended in accordance with the aims and objects of the endowments; the proper rituals are conducted, etc,” Justice Bhat explained.

The judgment is now a significant argument in the debate whether or not the state can have a role in the efficient administration of public trusts, religious or social, and to what extent.

The Bench finally said such regulation does not allow the state to “appropriate” money which belongs to the endowment.