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Keeping the space

india Updated: Sep 30, 2009 22:41 IST

For as long as we can remember, both the Centre and states have been ambivalent on the issue of illegally constructed places of worship on public land. While on the one hand, no one accepts that such encroachments be permitted, on the other, the issue of communal sensitivity in demolishing such structures has been raised. The Supreme Court seems to have put paid to this by ruling that no fresh construction of places of worship will be allowed on public land while saying that a review of the existing ones will be taken by both Centre and the states. The issue of sensitivities cannot be taken lightly. The Centre itself had appealed a Gujarat High Court ruling ordering the Narendra Modi government to remove encroaching religious structures. But the resultant turmoil saw the court ordering a stay on the High Court ruling. Mr Modi, who complied with the High Court, found himself under severe attack from self-styled Hindutva organisations.

The question must also be asked as to how these structures are allowed to come up with no permissions in the first place.

In almost all cities and small towns, land grabbers have found that the easiest way to seize valuable real estate is to proclaim that the site is a place of worship. Delhi alone has 60,000 illegal structures that should have been nipped in the bud. Under guise of religion, people’s right to public space is obstructed. Recently, Eid prayers held up traffic on a busy inter-state highway with the police unable to act for fear of offending religious sentiments. Religion, in a secular state, should be a private affair that causes no discomfort to fellow citizens who may or may not be spiritually inclined. This concept of ‘in-your-face’ religiosity is the cause of communal disharmony.

True, encroachments must be removed in a sensitive manner but such actions cannot be allowed to become a law and order problem. The states and Centre must engage the clergy of all faiths on this issue. It is most certainly without their sanction that these structures have been put up more with an eye on profit than genuine spirituality. This way, those masquerading as keepers of the faith would be derailed. The real challenge will come when the move to demolish existing structures begins. But this cannot be swept under the carpet if we are to preserve long-term
communal harmony and civic order.