Calcutta, Sept. 2: A division bench of Calcutta High Court today struck down as “unconstitutional” the state government’s decision to provide a monthly allowance to imams and muezzins.
“The state government’s notification on special monthly allowances for imams is contradictory to Article 15(1) of the Constitution. The article says that the state shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them,” the divison bench of Justices P. K. Chattopadhyay and M.P. Srivastava said in the order.
The division bench questioned the state government’s stand that the scheme was in “public interest” and pulled it up for not following the procedure for disbursing funds.
“The way the state is giving monthly allowances to the muezzins without any government order is tantamount to misappropriation of public exchequer,” the order added.
However, in the case of the imams, the state government had issued an order to disburse the funds.
The state government had allocated funds from the non-plan expenditure of the budget for the minority affairs and madarsa education department, headed by chief minister Mamata Banerjee, for paying the imams and muezzins.
The funds, disbursed through the Board of Wakfs among 27,784 imams and 18,553 muezzins, have been given till August this year.
But the bench cited a 1993 Supreme Court verdict barring the state government from directly paying allowances to imams.
The court said that although the wakf board was handing over the funds, the state government was providing the money to the board and directing it to disburse them. This, the court ruled, the state government could not do.
The chief minister had announced a monthly honorarium of Rs 2,500 for the imams during an interaction with the religious leaders in April 2012. A month later, the cabinet approved a monthly allowance of Rs 1,000 for the muezzins who give the call to prayer.
The court held that it had the jurisdiction to look into the matter.
“When a decision is taken in the Assembly and any individual or any organisation or any political party moves court to challenge the validity of the decision, the court has the jurisdiction to interfere into it and declare it illegal,” the bench said.
The department budget that included the allowance was passed in the Assembly.
While announcing the scheme, the chief minister had said the government had utilised the services of religious leaders to raise awareness on schemes such as pulse polio.
Following the government’s decision, state BJP chief Rahul Sinha filed a petition in the high court in May 2012 in which he questioned the legal validity of the allowance.
Mamata was on her way to Kalimpong when the verdict was delivered. A source said the chief minister called up law minister Chandrima Bhattacharya and “wanted to know why the state lost the case”.
Firhad Hakim, a minister from the minority community, said in the evening that the government would react only after going through the court order.
“Our government is committed to the socio-economic development of the minorities. If the high court has made any suggestion, we will follow it,” he said.
Abdul Qayyum Biswas, imam of Mathghara Mosque in Barasat, said: “Imams, as part of the local mosque committees, discharge various social duties but they do not get paid adequately. The money that the government was paying was supplementing our paltry monthly income. We will urge the government to appeal against the order in a higher court.”