Earlier this month, District Collectors of Andhra Pradesh directed subordinate officers to begin the exercise of enumeration of Pastors and Churches in their respective jurisdictions. Detailed information about Pastors, including their caste, education, remuneration, age, similar details about their spouses, etc. and also elaborate information about the churches that they lead, are to be collected.
The Christians have expressed concern about this singling out of their community for enumeration of religious leaders and places of worship. Their hesitation is understandable in the light of the unprecedented rise in instances of hostility that they have faced from religious extremists in recent years.
Two years ago, a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India ruled unanimously that privacy is a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution. Christians in Andhra Pradesh apprehend infringement of their privacy and harassment in the course of the enumeration process.
Ironically, this survey finds its origin in the pre-poll promise of the ruling party to provide an honorarium of Rs. 5000 to all Christian pastors. Following their electoral victory, the Minorities Welfare Department of the Andhra Pradesh Government issued a memo dated 27.08.2019 directing all District Collectors to carry out the survey on priority. Several Christian leaders have stated that the antecedents of only those pastors who wish to apply for the honorarium need to be verified, without conducting such an expansive and intrusive state-wide survey.
According to legal experts, another problematic aspect of the government’s “honorarium for Pastors” scheme is the usage of money from the public exchequer to benefit religious workers of a single religious community. The government would have to substantiate how this is not in violation of equality under Article 14 and 15 of the Indian Constitution. Moreover, this would violate Article 27 which states that “No person shall be compelled to pay any taxes, the proceeds of which are specifically appropriated in payment of expenses for the promotion or maintenance of any particular religion or religious denomination”. Furthermore, Article 282 of the Constitution of India stipulates that the Union or State may make grants only for public purpose.
The Calcutta High Court had struck down a similar move by the West Bengal government to grant honorariums to Muslim Imams and Muezzins, finding the action to be patronizing to one religious community and serving no public purpose under the meaning of Article 282.
The same High Court and the Supreme Court of India did not however interfere with the decision of the West Bengal government to grant 28 crore rupees to benefit 28,000 Durga Puja committees, because of the government’s clarification that the money would go to the State Police towards security measures during the pujas and not directly towards any religious purpose.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that a “substantial part of taxpayers’ money cannot be granted for repairing religious structures” under Article 27 in a case concerned with the restoration of religious places in Gujarat which had been damaged during the 2002 riots.
It is unlikely therefore that the present decision of the Andhra government to conduct this survey and grant honorariums to Pastors will withstand judicial scrutiny.