The Government of Andhra Pradesh issued orders [vide general administration (SC.I) department goms No. 52] on 14 May this year, enhancing financial support to the religious workers in places of worship of two important religious communities of the state: Hindus and Muslims.
In the case of Christians, it is a new scheme. It leaves out three other minorities — Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists — says Organiser.
The state is yet to show any concern towards Hindu archakas rendering their services in temples without any income. On the contrary, the state is meddling with Hindu religious institutions through legislation and administrative actions by arbitrarily fixing the remuneration of Archakas, grading of temples, appointing Executive Officers, interfering in dharmic rituals of temples, disposing off temple assets etc.
The government order cites “ensuring religious harmony” in the state as the main objective of payment of monthly honorarium to religious workers of different religions. The government order says further that the extension of payment to functionaries working in churches is similar to the support being given to the archakas (priests) working in temples and imams or muezzins working in mosques.
However, this is a false comparison as the government order very clearly states that the quantum of payment to archakas is based on the grade of the temple which, in turn, depends on the income generated by the temple. It implies that Hindu temple archakas are not paid out of the public exchequer.
The Scheme for Payment of Honorarium to Imams and Muezzins of Mosques in Andhra Pradesh began in June 2016. The government order says:
The scheme for payment of Honorarium to the selected Imams and Muezzins of the non-income earning Masjids in the State of Andhra Pradesh is intended to support the Andhra Pradesh State Waqf Board since the Board is not in a position to meet the expenditure. The Andhra Pradesh State Waqf Board shall take steps to strengthen the respective Waqf institutions to attain self-sufficiency to meet the expenditure.
The latest Andhra Pradesh government order marks the beginning of state funding of religious workers in the state. Promoting communal harmony was not the objective stated in the order of 2016. The new government order not only increases the quantum of payment for Muslim religious workers but also introduces payment of monthly honorarium for Christian workers.
But by including the enhancement of honorarium for Hindu archakas in this government order, the Andhra Pradesh government appears to create an impression that the state exchequer is fending for them too, which is factually incorrect.
The state is yet to show any concern for Hindu archakas rendering their services in temples without any income. The Andhra Pradesh government is, in fact, meddling with Hindu religious institutions through legislation and administrative actions by arbitrarily fixing the remuneration of Archakas, grading of temples, appointing executive officers, interfering in dharmic rituals of temples, disposing off temple assets etc.,
Can public funds be used for payment to religious workers?
This raises the larger question of whether public money can be used to pay individuals of a particular religion with the purported objective of ensuring communal harmony. In 2012, the Government of West Bengal issued instructions for payment of monthly honorarium to Imams in mosques. The decision was challenged in Calcutta High Court (write petition number 358 of 2012) and the decision of the government was quashed. The highlight of the judgement are:
- The State Government cannot spend any money for the benefit of few individuals of a particular religious community ignoring the identically placed individuals of the other religious communities since the State cannot discriminate on the ground of religion in view of Article 15 (1) of the Constitution of India.
- The State Government by providing funds for making payment of honorarium to the Imams and Muezzins has acted in clear violation of the provisions enshrined under Article 14 and 15 (1) of the Constitution of India.
- No exercise has been made by the Competent Authority of the State Government to ascertain the financial condition of various other members of the Muslim community as well as members of other religious communities before taking the decision for issuing the impugned memorandum.
- The public purpose mentioned in Article 282 cannot be a purpose which offends the provisions of Article 14 and 15 (1) of the Constitution of India.
- Imams and/or Muezzins are few individuals of the Muslim community and attached with the mosques. Decision to provide honorarium to the said individuals cannot serve the general interest of the community as a whole.
- We hold that the impugned memo issued by the State Government is not only discriminatory in nature being violate of Article 14 of the Constitution of India but the same also discriminates on the ground of religion which offends Article 15 (1) of the Constitution of India.
- We are constrained to hold that the grants made by the State Government for providing an honorarium to the Imams and Muezzins were not for the public purpose as mentioned in Article 282 of the Constitution of India
- The Supreme Court in the case of Sri Divi Kodandarama Saram & Ors. Vs. State of A. P. & Ors., reported in 1997 (6) SCC 189 considered the payment of salary to ‘Archaka’ of Hindu Temple. In the aforesaid decision, Hon’ble Supreme Court made it clear that public funds cannot be utilised for the purpose of making payment of Archakas and trust looking after the temple was advised to collect donations from the public to defray the expenses.
- No provision has, however, been made in the Constitution authorising the State Government to make payment of the honorarium to few individuals of a particular religious community. As a matter of fact, Government cannot spend any money for the benefit of few individuals of a particular religious community to the exclusion of the members of the other religious communities in view of a specific provision of Article 15 (1) of the Constitution.
- The concerned Executives of the State Government have squandered public money by releasing funds to the Wakf Board for the purpose of making payment of monthly honorarium to the Muezzins even in absence of any government order under Article 166 of the Constitution of India. We take strong exception for spending money even in absence of appropriate government order under Article 166 of the Constitution of India.
It is clear that payment to religious workers from public funds has been held to be “squandering of public money”. The objective cited in the Govt. of AP G.O. i.e., “communal harmony” also fails to stand judicial scrutiny in view of observation (5) cited in the judgment above. The judges have clearly held that payment to a few individuals of a certain community does not serve the interests of all members of that community, leave alone serving the promotion of inter-faith communal harmony.
The judgement also referred to a judgement of the Supreme Court in the matter of payment of honorarium to Imams. The court clarified that the scheme formulated by the SC was for payment of a uniform scale of salary to imams from the income of the respective state Wakf Boards and not public funds.
The Supreme Court in the aforementioned decision never directed the state government or the union government to take the responsibility for making payment to the imams who are admittedly performing the duty of leading the community prayer in the mosques.
Kerala High Court, June
The Kerala High Court had on 31 August asked the state government why it was financing a religious activity while considering a petition against the former’s decision to provide pension to madrasa teachers in the state. The order was issued on a petition filed seeking to quash the Kerala Madrasa Teachers’ Welfare Fund Act, 2019, which is passed for disbursing pension and other benefits to madrasa teachers.
This is an ongoing case but courts have consistently upheld the view that governments cannot finance any religious activity and such actions are unconstitutional. Article 46 of the Directive Principles of State Policy enshrined in the constitution call upon the state to “promote with special care the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people”.
Anomalies observed in recent payment of honorarium to religious workers in Andhra Pradesh:
In May 2020, the Government of Andhra Pradesh made a one-time payment to religious workers who are facing hardship and distress of various religious institutions, as a measure of relief arising out of break out of Covid-19 Pandemic. A sum of Rs.33.92 crores was sanctioned out of Disaster Relief funds. The ratio of religious workers to the population of that religion as per 2011 was highly irrational. While Christians constituted 1.39 % of the population of AP, Christian religious workers received 43.99 % of the total amount paid out. Every 24th Christian in the state is a religious worker if we go by the 2011 census figures for the state of AP.
Andhra Pradesh – One-time payment from disaster relief funds to religious service renderers – religion-wise figures of beneficiaries VIS-À-VIS state population
This lead to a peculiar situation wherein, in some areas, the number of Christian religious workers was more than the actual number of Christians in the area. Sample figures from Prakasam district:
In addition, data obtained through RTI queries on the details of Christian religious workers who were paid honorarium showed that 60 % of Christian pastors in the sample were holding Hindu community certificates. This raised many questions and exposed a lack of strict scrutiny in the processing of applications for sanction of honorarium to religious workers.
Religious composition of Christian pastors who received one-time honorarium from govt of AP
The present government order has laid out three eligibility criteria that have to be fulfilled by the applicants to be considered under the scheme.
(a) Church should be registered under the Societies Act;
(b) Land should be registered in the name of Church;
(c) The institution should not have any other source of income.
This is in addition to the existing conditions of the Christian religious worker holding a Christian community certificate and being a qualified Christian worker. However, the additional eligibility criteria have not gone down well with the Christians. In videos and social media posts, they have been pointing out that most of the churches are not registered as societies and they have been functioning from premises owned or taken on rent by the religious worker on an individual basis.
In some cases, the churches are functioning from structures raised on public land. Christian community elders expressed the opinion that not more than 1,000 Christian religious workers will meet the criteria and thus be eligible to receive a monthly honorarium. Well established churches, popularly known as mainline churches pay monthly salaries, have regular postings/transfers and promotions. Religious workers from such churches will be out of the purview of the present scheme.
Thus it will be interesting to see whether the present scheme, as outlined above, will stand judicial scrutiny if and when challenged in a court of law. It will be keenly observed whether the government will heed to the concerns raised by Christian community and relax existing eligibility criteria.