The Kerala High Court on Friday directed the State government to issue necessary orders to close down if any religious place or prayer hall is functioning without necessary permission, observing that the people of the southern State were “exhausted with religious places and prayer halls.”
The court directed the government to issue a separate circular/order prohibiting change of category of a building to a religious place/prayer hall except in inevitable circumstances and in the rarest of rare cases, and that also only after getting a report from the police and the Intelligence ascertaining the ground realities of that particular place.
“The Chief Secretary of State of Kerala and the State Police Chief shall issue necessary orders/circulars directing all the officers concerned to see that there is no illegal functioning of any religious places and prayer halls without obtaining permission from the competent authorities as per the Manual of Guidelines and if any such religious place or prayer hall is functioning without necessary permission, to take necessary steps to close down the same forthwith”, Justice P V Kunhikrishnan said in the order.
The court issued the order while disposing of a plea filed by a Society called Noorul Islam Samskarika Sangam seeking to convert a commercial building at Amarambalam Grama Panchayat to a Muslim place of worship at a village near Nilambur in the Malappuram district.
It directed the State chief secretary to issue necessary orders/circulars directing the competent authority as per the Manual of Guidelines to consider each application to start religious places and prayer halls strictly and the approval can be granted only in appropriate cases.
In the order/circular, it should be clearly mentioned that the distance to the nearest similar religious place /prayer hall is one of the criteria while considering the application for religious places and prayer halls, it said.
“Because of the peculiar geographical location of Kerala, it is known as ‘God’s own country’. But we are exhausted with religious places and prayer halls and we are not in a position to allow any new religious places and prayer halls except in the rarest of rare cases,” the High Court said.
The court observed that the Society sought to change the commercial building into a Muslim place of worship at a place where there are about 36 mosques within a 5-km radius of this building and “then why another prayer hall for the petitioner is a million dollar question.” The petitioner moved the court after the district authorities rejected its demand.
“Even then the petitioner wants another place of worship for the reason that ‘five times prayer’ is necessary for a Muslim and therefore, a prayer hall is necessary within the vicinity of every Muslim. If this is allowed then in every nook and corner of the State, place of worship and prayer halls would be necessary”, the court said while doing a detailed consideration of the matter.
In its order, the court, referring to the 2011 census report, said there are a sufficient number of religious places and prayer halls in all the communities in the State.
The court said the government and the local bodies should be vigilant while granting permission for religious places and prayer halls in future.
“It should be done strictly in accordance with the Manual of Guidelines. Moreover, the change of occupancy of existing buildings from one category to the category of religious places shall not be allowed in normal cases. Rejection of approval should be the rule and the approval should be only in the rarest of rare case,” it said.
The court said if there is any inevitable situation, the competent authorities as per the Manual of Guidelines, before taking decisions should go deep into such requests after getting an intelligence report and police report about the ground realities.
As far as the change of occupancy to religious purpose is concerned, normally it should not be approved because the purpose of the construction is for the category in which the permit is issued, it said.
Observing that the construction of a commercial building and construction of a religious place is entirely different, the court said in a state like Kerala, the category change from one category to a religious place is not necessary unless there are sufficient reasons for the same.
“If any building is used for religious purposes when the building is constructed for some other purpose, stringent action should be taken by the police authorities and the State,” the court said.
If every Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Jews, and Parsis among others start to construct religious places and prayer halls near his or her residence, the state would face consequences such as communal disharmony, the court said.
“In this case the intelligence report and the police report say that if the present conversion of the commercial building to a religious prayer hall is allowed, there is a chance for communal disharmony. It is a sensitive issue,” the court said.