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Court upholds disputed Bandel Church land


By C.M. Paul
Disputed playground in front of Bandel Church.
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Guwahati, Sep. 11. In a land mark judgment Calcutta High Court upheld Church's right over its disputed property ending a prolonged legal battle spanning almost two decades.

The historic Portuguese Church (estd 1599) on the banks of Hooghly river near Kolkata was dragged into the legal battle in July 1995 when a Civil Miscellaneous Petition Case was filed by Biswanath Mondal and Others of the locality in the Court of the Sub-Divisional Executive Magistrate (SDEM) Hooghly challenging the order of the Church authorities restraining them from organizing any sort of games/sports within the Church grounds.
The Church authorities sprung into action and obtained in Mach 1996 a clear and strong Order in favour of Bandel Church and its right to restrain any unlawful trespassing of its grounds.

Aggrieved by this Order, the opponents intensified their efforts to malign the Church authorities through all sorts of false propaganda and, in defiance of the SDEM's Order, began to go round with loud speakers making false accusations and instigating the public against the Church.

With due permission and support from the district authorities the Church authorities started to construct a wall to seal off the disputed property. In a month's time of the Order, on Good Friday, 5th April 1996, the Opposite party, having failed to obtain an interim stay of the Court Order, ''resorted to sheer violence and vandalism that culminated in the total demolition of the boundary walls, extensive damage to the Church property, desecration of the holy place of worship, and attacks on the minority Christian community and its institutions,'' says then Head Master of church run St John's School Bandel Fr K.T. Thomas who acted as Church's spokesperson.

Meanwhile preparations for the celebration of the 400th anniversary (1599-1999) of the foundation of Bandel Church started. The church was elevated to the status of a Basilica by the Vatican in 1988 in recognition of its national and international significance as a Marian Shrine of Pilgrimage and as the oldest Church in Eastern India.

During the year-long celebrations beginning in November 1998, and particularly for the grand finale in November 1999 many eminent personalities and high level dignitaries, both national and international, including the President of India, Portuguese Ambassador and others would be invited.

Seeing that the opponents were intentionally dragging and delaying the conclusion of the judicial process, the Church authorities approached the Calcutta High Court and obtained an Interim Order dated 24th March 1999 permitting the Church to enclose its grounds with a new boundary wall as well as to re-construct the crumbling old monastery building adjacent to the said grounds.

In 2004, the High Court directed the Trial Court to dispose of the suit within 3 months positively.  Aggrieved by this judgment, the Plaintiffs filed Title Appeal in the Additional District Court, Hooghly.

Challenging the said impugned judgment and decree passed by the learned First Appellate Court the Church authorities filed a Second Appeal in the Calcutta High Court which admitted the appeal for hearing by and called for the entire suit to be brought to the High Court and declared that the verdict of the Trial Court would remain valid until final disposal of the matter in the High Court.    

After eight long years, finally the Appeal was taken up for hearing on 5th and 6th August 2013, the long-pending dispute over Bandel Church Grounds was finally settled by the Hon'ble Justice, Sri Tapan Kumar Dutt, of Calcutta High Court.

''The Courts have arrived at their conclusions on the strength of the evidence on record, and documents/exhibits, the veracity of which has remained unchallenged and there is nothing to disbelieve them,'' judge Dutt declared.

The Trial Court concluded that important things are noticed from the records of right, i.e., the name of the Bandel Church as owner has been recorded in respect of the suit property in the land records.

Second, the Church regularly paid rent in respect of the suit Khatian to the Government.

Third, the Church had given permission to some persons and/or organizations to hold sports and/games on the suit property and on the basis of such permission games and sports were held on the suit property, proving that Bandel Church alone had the ownership and use of the suit property.

Fourth evidence has been adduced by the Church showing that a portion of the suit property was requisitioned at one point of time by the Government but the same was subsequently derequisitioned in favour of the Church since Bandel Church is the owner of the suit plot.

Fifth evidence shows that Bandel Church has been regularly paying Municipal Taxes and Land Revenues and the suit property is the absolute private property of the Church.

In conclusion, the court noted that ''ever since the construction of the new boundary wall with the Hon'ble High Court's Order, and the successful completion of the grand 4th Centenary celebrations of the foundation of the Church (1599-1999), peace and normalcy has been prevailing in and around Bandel Church with no disturbance of any sort reported.''
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