The Maharashtra government told the Bombay High Court that it enacted the Pandharpur Temples Act to safeguard the interests of the Vitthal and Rukmini temples due to “special circumstances” and to “relieve devotees from the rapacity of the priestly classes”.
An affidavit was filed by the government last week contending that the Act was enacted following complaints of mismanagement of the temples by the priestly classes.
The affidavit was in reply to the PIL filed by BJP leader Subramanian Swamy challenging the provisions of the Act alleging that it was violative of the fundamental rights of devotees.
Pandharpur town in Solapur district of Maharashtra houses the temples of Lord Vitthal and Goddess Rukmini. Lakhs of devotees undertake an annual pilgrimage on foot to Pandharpur, which culminates on the day of Ashadhi Ekadashi.
"There were special circumstances prevailing in relation to the Pandharpur temples, which occupy a unique position in the state, necessitating action on the part of the government to safeguard the interests of the temples, its properties and endowment, and the multitude of pilgrims so as to relieve them from the rapacity of the priestly classes," the affidavit said.
Objective of the Act was to provide for better administration and governance of the temples
Denying allegations that the state has arbitrarily taken over the Pandharpur temples, the government claimed that the avowed objective of the Act was to provide for better administration and governance of the temples.
It said the Act does not in any manner impair or curtail the rights of devotees or pilgrims to profess, practice or propagate their religion but was legitimately introduced in the interest of the general public.
In the 1960s, the Maharashtra government received several complaints regarding the mismanagement and malpractices at the Pandharpur temples and regarding harassment and exploitation of devotees or people visiting the temples for worship.
A Commission of Inquiry was set up which submitted a report in 1970 recommending certain changes for better management of the temples.
"The Commission recommended the government abolish all hereditary rights and privileges of ministrants and priestly classes functioning in the temples, acquisition of such rights and privileges and for a legislation that would provide for an effective administration," the affidavit said.
Finally, the Act was passed for abolition of all hereditary rights, privileges of ministrants and priestly classes functioning in the Pandharpur temples and acquisition of such rights and privileges.
"The Act was introduced in the interest of the general public and intended to bring about changes in economic, financial, political or other secular activities as well as providing for social welfare and reform associated with religious practice," the government said.
Act did not affect any protected religious rights guaranteed to any pilgrim or devotee
It added that the Act did not affect any protected religious rights guaranteed to any pilgrim or devotee and safeguarded the performance of religious rites and observance of religious practices in accordance with the prevailing traditional usage and custom.
The government said the Act was in the past, the trial courts, appellate court, high court and the Supreme Court has upheld the provisions of the Act.