"It is a fact that nobody will dare to touch on it or challenge it because of the political and religious power held by those institutions on account of the vote bank and it is quite easy for them to get pattayam over the said property", the Kerala High Court has observed in its order on a possible case of land grabbing by the Syro Malabar Church.

The Court has also urged the Central Government to explore the possibility of uniform central legislation to regulate the functioning of religious and charitable organizations/institutions. (read report)

While hearing a challenge by the Major Archbishop of Syro Malabar Church, Cardinal Mar George Alencherry against the order of a lower court taking cognizance of offences alleged against him under Sections 120 B, 406, 409, 418, 420, 423, 465, 467, 468 and 34 of the IPC, the Court had on August 12, 2021, the Court had directed the state government to conduct an investigation into whether government land has been encroached upon.

"Suppression of material facts regarding the title and interest over the property hence looms large and causes a reasonable doubt whether it is a property owned by the public or the Government or it is a puramboke land or a no-man's land", the Bench of Justice P. Somarajan had observed about property claimed to be under the ownership of the Church.

Subsequently, on February 8, 2022, upon noting that the state has filed a "half-baked report without conducting a proper enquiry" as ordered, the Court suo moto impleaded the Union of India, represented by the Additional Solicitor General of India as an additional party, taking judicial note of the fact that there is massive and large-scale encroachment over government land, public property and puramboke land at the instance of religious and charitable unincorporated bodies in Kerala.

On March 3, 2022, the Court suo moto impleaded the Central Bureau of Investigation and on March 21, it was submitted by the Deputy Solicitor General on behalf of the Union that the matter was taken up before the central ministry and is pending consideration.

On June 10, the Court passed the following order while directing the State Government to address the issue in reference to Article 296 of the Constitution of India and submit a detailed report:-

"Several postings have been given to the Central Government and the Assistant Solicitor General of India to take instructions. So far there is no positive response on the part of Assistant Solicitor General and as such, there will be a direction to file an affidavit as to whether they are actually interested in the matter or not."

On June 23, the Deputy Solicitor General submitted before the Court that the Ministry of Law and Justice has informed that the matter comes under the Ministry of Home Affairs and sought time to file an affidavit. It appears that no affidavit has been filed by the Center in the matter thereafter.

It is in this background that the Court has passed the latest order on October 27, observing, "This reprehensible inaction on the part of Government, political leaders and the society at large has given leverage to such massive assaults over the large tracts of properties all over Kerala by some religious/charitable institution/organization added by the fact that it is quite easy for them to obtain pattayam under the bargain of vote bank they possessed".

The Court has also said that a congenial environment is still in existence in the entire State of Kerala promoting encroachment over the Government land with the apparent acquisition of properties by such institutions. "This has given immense wealth and authority to religious institution to dominate the will of government machineries and it is injurious to our democratic system and the principle of equality and liberty guaranteed under the Constitution", the Court said.

The Court added, "This would speak volumes of the manner in which the person or the group of persons have trampled over the will of general public and the officials under the Government. Both the State Government and the Central Government are duty bound to follow the constitutional mandate and to preserve properties of bona vacantia and property belonged to the public at large. The property ostensibly obtained by such bodies/institution has to be enquired into and investigated by taking proper action against the culprits".

The Court said that the present incident is only the "tip of an iceberg" and that necessarily, the State Government is duty bound to take over all property of bona vacantia and to preserve it, remove all sorts of encroachment over the Government land, to scrutinize the validity of pattayam, if any obtained under the garb of Land Assignment Act by misusing its provisions and to conduct a survey in order to find out such incident all over Kerala.

For this purpose, the Court directed that the State Government (the Chief Secretary) shall constitute a State-wise high power body for its implementation and to supervise the survey besides the formation of District level body headed by the respective District Collector and revenue head of each district and the Tahsildar. The Court added that assistance of forest officials can also be obtained whenever it is found necessary.

The Court observed that it is advisable for the State Government to legislate a state law by incorporating a provision for periodical/quinquennial survey so as to find out any encroachment or invasion over the property of the State Government/public property/property of bona vacantia. "Needless to say that the State Government is also bound to register cases against the erring officers and the culprits under the provisions of Land Conservancy Act", the Court added.

The Court has directed that the survey has to be completed by the State Government within a period of six months and report has to be filed before the Court. "The misdeeds and mischief done by various persons/institution to extort the property of public shall be investigated through the agencies available under the State Government such as Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau etc.", the Court added.

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