2 May 2008, 0259 hrs IST,TNN
NEW DELHI: The Centre may end up dealing with sticky issues of religion and faith in SC to justify its eagerness to go ahead with the controversial Sethusamudram Shipping Channel Project, virtually stalled because of a judicial stay on dredging Ram Setu or Adam's Bridge.
It had avoided dealing with these issues in its affidavit saying matters of faith and religion could not dictate state policies. However, the petitioners, challenging the validity of the project, used faith and religion extensively on Thursday to demand declaration of Ram Setu as a national monument.
A Bench comprising Chief Justice K G Balakrishnan and Justices R V Raveendran and J M Panchal began the final hearing on a bunch of petitions which by conservative estimates is expected to last at least two weeks. This means the court would give its verdict on the petitions rather than decide the request of the Centre for early vacation of the eight-month-old interim stay that restrained the Centre from harming the Ram Setu.
If petitioner O Fernandes through senior advocate Sriram Panchu faulted the project on the ground of its adverse impact on environment — the project being done in a marine sanctuary housing rare sea-cows and corals — senior advocate K K Venugopal, appearing for a Kanchi Mutt monk and AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa, said the project involving dredging of Ram Setu hit at the root of the belief of 800 million Indians that Lord Ram had built the bridge.
People's belief, coupled with the existence of the underwater structure which many also believed was used as a bridge by people of India and Sri Lanka since time immemorial to cross the sea, cast a duty on the government to protect it as an ancient monument.
The Bench said: "Assuming that it is man-made and assuming it to be an ancient monument, should it prevent the government from setting up a developmental project?"
Venugopal said: "Under law no one is allowed to take out a single brick from an ancient monument. Developmental projects are necessary for the progress of the country, but not at the cost of ancient civilisation." He then counter questioned. "Can anyone question whether Jesus Christ was actually crucified over a mound at a particular place? None would, for billions believe in the place and the incident."
The Bench asked the petitioners whether anyone ever had actually petitioned the government, especially the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), for declaring Ram Setu as an ancient monument. Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy said he had sent a letter to this effect to the culture minister who on the floor of Parliament had said that his request had been forwarded to the ASI.
Venugopal said both the Kanchi Mutt monk and Jayalalithaa had made specific prayers to this effect and recalled that a petition signed by 35 lakh people was sent to the President seeking declaration of Ram Sethu as an ancient monument.
While replying to these arguments, the Centre is bound to dwell into the issues of faith and religion. However, in its February 29 affidavit, the Centre had steered clear of the controversy while seeking SC's permission to resume dredging of the Setu.