All of Goa will agree, that cutting across faiths, this is one of India’s most harmonious of states where co-existence between communities is legendary. And if there is a feeling that selective targeting of a community is taking place (irrespective of what the official reasons are), then all communities will get together to condemn this.
It is clear that the decision to send I-T notices to the Archdiocese of Goa and Daman by the Assistant Commissioner (Exemptions), Circle 1 Mangaluru, could have been better thought out and more sensitive. This is the time when over 160 churches across Goa are busy with the wedding season and a host of other functions. The preparations for Christmas have begun in right earnest. Many of the Churches are undergoing repairs. In the middle of all this the Archdiocese received a letter asking them to furnish details of all cash and balance receipts of churches and societies registered under it. Moreover, details of all demonetised notes, in possession of all church bodies have been sought. This kind of a demand is a cruel joke. As Father Victor Ferrao of Rachol seminary, somewhat dramatically puts it, ‘It’s a surgical strike on Churches’.
Let this not be misunderstood as a call for protecting the Church from all scrutiny. This is a serious call for all institutions of government to be sensitive to institutions which are closely connected to the lives of the people. The demand that all these replies be furnished in a day, has either come from ignorance or insensitivity or both. While the time has been extended to a week from a day, even that is too short a time and is making priests and church officials, leave everything else, open up collection boxes, and separate demonetised notes, in a bid to compile requirements.
The I-T department must also explain the reason for this notice. Was there a sudden feeling that Churches were actually hoarding money and not paying taxes? Or was there suspicion that many people would pump in their old notes into Church boxes as donations which would in turn be deposited in accounts. While a notice is no declaration of any wrong doing, it has an impact on parishioners for whom the Church is more than a home. It is their life. Most importantly, the majority community is Goa is equally pained at this. There is no joy anywhere as feedback from people confirms.
Meanwhile look at the greater irony. Temple devasthans and their committees are not subject to Income Tax, as they are governed under the Mahajan Act and the Devasthan Regulation (translation of “Regulamento das Mazanias”) or regulation by members. Audits of devasthans are verified by Mamlatdars and there is no compulsion to pay Income Tax, as financial auditing is done by their own appointed CAs and finally verified by the Mamlatdar. While no Church body has ever complained against what it could have called different playing fields – a further proof of Goa’s religious harmony – the feeling of being singled out comes to the fore when post demonetisation, such scrutiny happens on Churches, with abrupt notices, demanding replies within a day.
It serves nobody’s interest to do this. In fact for the ruling party, it is actually uncomfortable since it is going on an overdrive to project at least a part of the minority vote bank which had pledged loyalties with the BJP in 2012. Even an action of this nature by the I-T will be perceived as a state (Central government) direction. Alienation of any section is a political slip up, as the ruling party in Gujarat itself has learnt during the successful agitation for reservations by the Patels.
Notwithstanding all of this, it is a fact that religious institutions of all faiths receive a lot of funds from the faithful. And the need to ensure that the hard earned money of the faithful, is not misappropriated, is all important. Church bodies registered under various heads, mainly charitable, have to pay tax which is fine. All religious bodies should be subjected to the same scanner, for the sake of transparency and not to cast aspersions. The manner this notice was issued, points to the latter, which is not right, because Churches (like temples) are places for healing, for solace and for the community to come together. Let the laws of the land and everything under the Constitution apply to Churches as well as all religious bodies, but this application should be carried out with dignity, respect and sensitivity. Otherwise it comes across as plain bullying.