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Muslim shopkeepers of Srisailam temple complex hail SC order

The Muslim shopkeepers of the Sri Bhramaramba Mallikarjuna Swamy Temple complex in Kurnool district in Andhra Pradesh have hailed the Supreme Court’s order directing that people from other faiths already holding shop licences in the temple premises must not be barred from participating in the auction for shops.

The auctioning process in the premises of this temple — popularly known as the Srisailam temple — had been put off by the state government in August 2019 after some Hindu groups opposed the participation of non-Hindus in it citing the AP Charitable and Hindu Religious Institution and Endowments Act, 1987, which bars non-Hindus from operating near temples.

An apex court bench of Justices DY Chandrachud and BV Nagarathna directed that “none of the tenants/shop holders shall be excluded from participating in the auction or from the grant of leases solely on the ground of their religion”. The direction was given Friday in two petitions—one filed by a group of 21 Muslim shopkeepers of Srisailam, and another, a contempt petition, filed by the owner of a shop outside the Kanaka Durga temple at Vijayawada, who was similarly affected. The bench gave the order by combining both petitions.

In January 2017, the Srisailam temple administration had taken up road widening and beautification of the two main approach roads to the temple. For the road widening, at least 50 shops on both sides of the roads had to be demolished, and the administration had taken written consent from all the shop owners after assuring them that the space to set up new shops would be allocated to them nearby. Among the 50 shop owners are 21 Muslims.

To shift and rehabilitate the shop owners, the temple administration built the sprawling Sri Lalithambika Shopping Complex where shops were to be allocated, according to the Srisailam temple’s legal officer M Raja. However, when the auction for the shops was to be held in August 2019, several Hindu groups led by Bajrang Dal and local BJP member Srikanth Reddy objected to non-Hindus participating in the auction, citing the AP Charitable and Hindu Religious Institution and Endowments Act, 1987.

While the state government halted the auction, Minister for Endowments Vellampalli Srinivasa transferred the temple’s Executive Officer (EO) and within two days again transferred the new EO to cool down tempers.

A group of 21 shopkeepers then moved the Supreme Court where they filed a special leave petition stating that since they had been living at Srisailam for decades their right to life should not be violated. Tadipatri Mohammed Rafi, who owned a shop at Srisailam but was denied to enter into the auction in the new complex and who filed the petition in the apex court on behalf of 20 other Muslim shop owners, said that it was unfair because they are so much a part of the shopping centre outside the temple.

“I am 50 years old and I was born and brought up here. My father came from Atmakur near Anantapur and set up a small shop here 70 years ago. We belong here, this is our home. I have manned our shop as a teenager. We have a right to earn our livelihood. Elbowing us out on the basis of our faith is not fair. We sell `pooja samagri’ just like everybody else,” Rafi told The Indian Express.

“We were forced to go to the SC to earn our right to life,” Rafi said, adding that “We welcome the SC’s order but we are yet to see it.”

The SC bench Friday heard an application that sought contempt action against Endowments Department officials, the Commissioner of Endowments, and the EO of the Srisailam temple, contending that the officials were in breach of a stay order issued by the apex court last year, along with the shopkeepers’ petition that since they were born and brought up at Srisailam and already have shops, they should not be barred from the auction of shops by the Srisailam temple administration.

In January, 2020, hearing a plea by Vijayawada-based Syed Jani Basha who had a shop outside the Kanaka Durga temple and was asked to leave, the SC had stayed a judgment of the Andhra Pradesh High Court that had dismissed a petition challenging the constitutional validity of a government order barring non-Hindus from the auction for shops outside temples.

The government order, issued in 2015, had said “no person professing other than Hinduism as his religion is entitled to obtain lease or license either to tender-cum-public auction of the shops, malls etc coming under the jurisdiction of A.P Charitable and Hindu Religious Institution and Endowments Act, 1987”.

The petitioner had contended that people of other faiths were already running shops in the properties leased out to them and that the government order violated their right to life. Hearing the plea Friday, the SC bench said that pending adjudication of the main appeal, none of the tenants/shop holders shall be excluded from participating in the auction or from the grant of leases solely on the ground of their religion.

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