Home / Politics / Policy /  Armenian church poll in Kolkata may turn into legal battle

Kolkata: In a season of polls, several Armenians from around the world have arrived in Kolkata to vote in an election on Sunday to elect a panel that will control assets running into thousands of crores, and the proceedings could turn into a slugfest, with a possible court challenge on Friday.

The assets are mostly in the form of prime real estate and some five million shares of HSBC that are held by one of the richest religious institutions in India: the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth in Kolkata.

The panel, which has a term of four years, will control and manage these assets and the income arising from them.

Once the most prosperous business community in Kolkata, and one which established itself in the city even before the British arrived on the banks of the Hooghly river, the Armenians of Kolkata now number only around 200, largely due to migration over the past 60 years.

The prosperous Armenians left behind with their church huge estates for the benefit of the underprivileged of the community. The church manages these jointly with the official trustee of the West Bengal government—a custodian of estates—and spends the income from these properties and dividend from shares on charity that is not restricted to Armenians alone.

Most Armenians who still live in Kolkata are old and ailing, and largely reclusive, evident from the poor attendance at last Sunday’s mass at a community church in Park Circus, where services are still held in Armenian. A group of activists used the Sunday services to discretely canvas for support in Sunday’s election to form a new governing body at the church.

The election, which takes place once every four years, could turn ugly. At least two camps, determinedly campaigning to swing voters in their favour, are voicing the same promise: rightful distribution of the church’s largesse, though they differ sharply on the definition of deserving beneficiaries.

Only a handful of those who still live in the city are eligible to vote in Sunday’s election because most local Armenians, being beneficiaries of the church, are barred by an 1889 court judgement from having a say in the formation of the governing body of the institution that provides.

The 1889 judgement was the outcome of a spat within the community over the management of its properties. Typically referred to as “the scheme" by the community, it created statutes aimed at securing the properties from being frittered away by people in control of the Armenian church. Hence, it puts restrictions on the people who can vote.

These statutes, though, have been amended from time to time by the Calcutta High Court, and under one interpretation of a 2009 amendment, even Armenians who do not live in Kolkata and are not Indian nationals can vote. This is likely to be challenged in court on Friday.

The 1889 judgement said only Armenians who lived within a 50 mile (80km) radius of Kolkata, and had been living there for at least six months, could vote in the church election. An amendment six years ago added that only Indians could vote, but this was later repealed.

The dilution in the eligibility criteria has resulted in many people turning up to vote in this year’s election, said Max Galstaun, an activist trying to oust the current committee and its proxies for the next term.

“Many of those people who have turned up to vote this time aren’t, in my view, eligible to vote because they have no connection with Kolkata," Galstaun said.

He alleged that a large group of Armenian nationals are currently staying in a hotel in central Kolkata, and they are looking to vote in Sunday’s election. Mint couldn’t independently verify this.

An employee at Kolkata’s Armenian College (that is actually a school) said some foreign nationals have lately been teaching there. This person declined to be identified. Whether the same people would be voting on Sunday isn’t immediately known.

At the same time, many of those who have come down are concerned that the church authorities may not allow them to vote. Anthranick Khachaturian, a Kolkata-born Armenian who lives in the UK, said he could face resistance if he tries to vote on Sunday though he has been living in Kolkata for several months, working with a local non-governmental organization.

Similarly, the voting right of Stefano Sarkies, who lives in Australia, having migrated there from Kolkata, has been questioned by the church, though he too claimed he has been living here for many months now.

“People in control of the church are trying to usurp properties," said Sonia John, a former chairperson of the church. The church manages at least 52 estates, according John, who alleges she wasn’t allowed to vote in the 2009 election.

Several attempts by church officials to hand control of old Armenian properties to real estate developers through murky deals have been blocked by court orders, said Galstaun, adding that many similar attempts have also gone unnoticed or couldn’t be thwarted.

The assets are so vast that the official trustee of the state government refused to give details of them. Replying to a request from the Armenian church, the custodian said in a note in December last year that preparing a list of its assets was a “Himalayan task" because most of them were brought under its control “more than 100 years ago". Their book value from that time was around 3 crore, show the annual accounts of the church.

There is no controversy over Sunday’s election, said Sunil Sobti, one of the wardens in the committee that runs the Armenian church. “All assets are duly assessed by the official trustee and they are in safe hands," he said.

An email sent to the church committee seeking clarifications on its recent activities remained unanswered.

A significant section of the surviving Armenians in Kolkata do not have complaints about the way their church is run. “The church takes good care of me and my wife," said Mac Adams, who is in his mid-80s. He and his wife live in a church-run home for the elderly. “The church has been nice to old people like us."

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