Earlier this week, the Karnataka High Court ruled that the state government was not empowered to appoint an administrator for the Murugha Matha in Chitradurga.
In doing so, it also quashed the government’s order of appointment of the administrator — retired IAS officer PS Vastrad — who had taken over the administration of the matha on 13 December, 2022.
Seers of the Murugha Matha — close confidants of Shivamurthy Sharanaru, especially the stand-in pontiff and temporary head of Murugha Matha Basavaprabhu Swami — and others had filed a writ petition challenging the state government’s order of appointing an administrator even after the matha seers appointed a retired judge for that position.
Now, in a relief for the seers, the high court has ruled that the state-appointed administrator could be dismissed and the community leaders and seers could return to the helm of the administration of the matha and its affiliated institutions.
The Murugha Matha has been in the eye of a storm since its pontiff was held last year on POCSO charges.
Related: Murugha Matha interim chief tells CM to withdraw administrator
“Good times have started for the Murugha Matha,” stand-in pontiff Basavaprabhu Swamy told South First after the ruling.
He added: “The honourable court ruled that within four to six weeks, we could get back the administration from the state-appointed administrator and run it ourselves.
The seer continued: “Now we are also hopeful that Shivamurthy Sharanaru will get bail soon and return to the matha.”
The high court bench was headed by Justice Krishna Dixit, who heard the writ petition filed by the matha and a group of devotees and reserved the final verdict for Monday.
The court order stated that the government had no authority to appoint an administrator to the matha.
An appropriate decision to maintain the matha and the educational administrations affiliated with it could be taken by the devotees of the matha and the prominent leaders of the Veerashaiva Lingayat community.
However, the order also averred that the administrator, who had been already appointed by the government for the matha, could continue for the next four weeks, but would have to gradually hand over the reins to the matha seers in less than six weeks.
Related: Prominent Lingayat seer among 5 booked under POCSO Act
When counsel for the state argued that it had powers to appoint an administrator under Article 162 of the Constitution along with the Karnataka Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowments Act of 1997, advocates for the petitioners argued that the Karnataka Hindu Religious and Endowment (Amendment) Act of 2011 clarified that monasteries and temples maintained by religious leaders were excluded from its purview.
The advocates for the petitioners also argued that the matha’s head pontiff was presumed innocent until proven guilty of the charges on which he is in custody. Hence, the law did not prohibit him from directing the management of the matha through his confidant/delegate Basavaprabhu Swami.
They also argued that this prohibition interfered with their religious rights under Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution.
They said the administrative functions stated that the state government could not interfere in the matha’s administration, its religious rituals, or other related activities.
In such a situation, the bench said that it was not known how the government appointed an administrative officer to the Murugha Matha.
The fact that the government had given some land and funds to the matha did not justify its interference in all its internal matters, it noted.
The bench said that the government should leave the religious institutions to resolve their issues on their own through appropriate measures, such as community mediation or judicial process.
The bench also said in its order that the Veerashaiva Lingayat community leaders may come up with an action plan in the next six weeks to continue overseeing the day-to-day activities of the matha.
Related: Murugha Matha says ex-MLA, fired teacher conspiring against seer
Court rejects government view
An advocate general who argued on behalf of the government told the court that the head seer and a few others associated with the administration of Murugha Matha were arrested and in jail in POCSO cases.
In such cases, if they managed the matha and its educational institutions from jail, there could be setbacks like misappropriation of movable and immovable property worth thousands of crores.
Shivamurthy Sharanaru is the sole trustee and the president of the matha and the Vidyapeetha. The trust deed was dated 26 November, 2010. As such, he has complete authority in the administration of the mathas and the Vidyapeetha.
The Vidyapeetha runs around 106 educational institutions, including medical and engineering colleges. Thousands of employees are working in those institutions. This trust is a public one. Since those responsible for the matha’s activities have been jailed, the government is duty-bound to protect it, the advocate general argued.
The advocate general explained to the bench that an administrator was appointed against this backdrop. He also requested that since an administrator has been appointed for the matha, the daily religious rituals or other activities would not be hampered.
However, the bench ruled that it would be quashing the government’s order, appointing the administrator.
Related: Seer cleared of some charges, but no bail yet
Twists and turns
Shivamurthy Murugha Sharanaru, the politically influential chief pontiff of the Jagadguru Murugarajendra Vidyapeetha Matha in Karnataka’s Chitradurga district, was arrested on 1 September, 2022.
He was arrested on complaints by two minor girls that the seer had sexually abused them. The case was registered at the Nazarabad police station in Mysuru on 26 August, 2022.
Besides Sharanaru, the girls had also named Rashmi (warden of the matha-run hostel), Paramashivaiah (secretary of the matha), a junior pontiff, and Gangadariah (the matha’s advocate) as parties to the crime.
The junior pontiff, Paramashivaiah, and Gangadariah were aware of the happenings and they supported the seer, the girls alleged.
On 13 October, the police filed another case after a woman, who had been working as a maid in the matha, alleged that her minor daughter was sexually harassed by the seer.
A medical examination of the girls revealed that they were not subjected to penetrative sex.
Later, an audio clip of a conversation purportedly between Basavarajendra, a teacher at the matha, and a girl surfaced.
The man was heard trying to make the girl complain against the seer. The girl replied saying she cannot lie and be a party to the alleged conspiracy.
A counter FIR was later filed against Basavarajendra, former administrator SK Basavarajan, the maid, and a few others, including the members of Odanadi, a Mysuru-based non-profit that has been providing legal aid to the girls.
The police arrested Basavarajendra and SK Basavarajan for trying to implicate the seer in a false case. Basavarajan’s wife Sowbhagaya was also arrested.
The stand-in pontiff filed the counter-complaint after the audio clip of the conversation purportedly between the teacher and the minor had surfaced.