Income Tax notice issued to Shri Ram Temple in Orchha: Can the deity be subject to income tax? Here is what the law says

New Delhi: On April 18, Sudarshan News shared an Income Tax notice issued to Shri Ram Temple in Orchha where the IT department sought an explanation of cash deposits of Rs 1,22,55,572 during the Financial Year 2015-16. The notice read that despite carrying out significant financial transactions, the IT Return for the AY 2016-17 was not filed by the Temple.

While there are discussions if the temple should be asked to pay tax or not, the law is clear on the matter. First of all, it is necessary to understand how Gods or deities are represented in the law. As per the law, Gods and deities are litigants, just like a normal person. They are called juristic entities. The law recognizes two types of persons that are natural persons (human beings) or artificially created persons (juristic persons), also called legal persons.

In the case of an artificially created person, the identity is used for companies, trusts, societies, private businesses, and companies. It is notable that the courts have distinguished animal kingdoms as juristic entities as well. If we look at the July 2018 judgment of the Uttarakhand High Court, it has declared the entire animal kingdom as a juristic entity based on the fact that all of them have a distinct persona with corresponding rights, duties, and liabilities of a living person.

Speaking of the deity, especially when it comes to the Hindu deities or Gods, the recognition as a person goes back to the time of the Britishers. Back in 1887, deities were recognized as persons through a friend/she bait/manager and it was mentioned that they have rights. The Privy Council of that time ruled in the Dakor Temple case that the “Hindu idol is a juridical subject and the pious idea that it embodies is given the status of a legal person”.

Not only deities but rivers have also been treated as persons with rights. In the 2000 case of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee vs Som Nath Dass and Others in the Supreme Court, it was said, “The very words Juristic Person connote recognition of an entity to be in law a person which otherwise it is not. In other words, it is not an individual natural person but an artificially created person which is to be recognized to be in law as such. Gods, corporations, rivers, and animals, have all been treated as juristic persons by courts.”

In the cases related to Lord Krishna, Lord Ayyappa, and Ram Lalla, the deity was recognized as a person represented by a manager/shebait/guardian in the court. However, it does not mean that all idols can be described as a person. Only the idols that have been publicly consecrated or pran prathishta has been done, enjoys the right as a juristic entity. The distinction between non-entity and entity was described by the Supreme Court in its 1969 verdict where it said, “Not all idols will qualify for being ‘juristic person’ but only when it is consecrated and installed at a public place for the public at large.”

The definition changes with religion.

While the Hindu deity has been recognized as a person who can own properties and have rights or obligations, the case is not the same with other religions. In Sikhism, Shri Guru Granth Sahib Ji is considered a living Guru, and thus, the law sees Granth Sahib as a juristic entity. However, every Granth Sahib cannot be a juristic person unless it takes a juristic role through its installation in a Gurudwara, the Supreme Court observed in a 2000 verdict. In the case of Christianity or Islam, there is no provision for deities. Thus, these two religions do not have a juristic entity per se. In the case of Islam, caretakers operate the place of worship and in the case of Churches, organizations that are registered as trusts or societies take care of the buildings.

It is pertinent to note that most of the temples in India file yearly Income Tax Returns and pay taxes if required. The notice issued by the IT Department seeking an explanation about cash deposits can be a regular notice that the department sends to individuals from time to time. There was no mention in the notice that the department sought tax on the amount mentioned. As the temple administration allegedly did not include the transactions in the IT Return, the notice simply sought an explanation on why it should be considered as income.

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