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The Supreme Court bench comprising of Justice UU Lalit and Justice Indu Malhotra, delivered the final judgement in the case concerning the management of Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple on July 13, 2020. The judgement is being hailed as a victory for the Travancore Royal Family which was involved in a long-drawn legal battle with the state of Kerala. The present case arose from an appeal preferred by the Royal family and its members, from the judgement of the Kerala High Court on January 31, 2011. In the following paragraphs we will discuss the various issues which were dealt with by the Supreme Court.
Facts of the Issue
Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple is located in the modern-day city of Thiruvananthapuram and finds mention in many historical texts, but its exact origin is lost in antiquity. In the 18th Century, Marthanda Varma became the king of Travancore and carried renovations to the temple and declared himself as the vice regent of the Deity. After India gained independence, the Travancore and Cochin princely states signed the Instrument of Accession and also entered into a covenant with the Indian Union which laid down various terms of agreement in exchange of relinquishment of its sovereign status. Article VIII of the said covenant granted the management rights over the Padmanabhaswamy Temple to the ‘Ruler’ of the Travancore State, which got reproduced in a separate Chapter III of the Travancore Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, 1950 (hereinafter referred to as “TCHRI Act”). Under the Act, the ‘Ruler’ has been given the authority to administer the Temple with the aid of an Executive Officer and advice of a three-member Advisory Committee, both nominated by the Ruler.
The signatory to the original covenant passed away in 1991, after which the rights were inherited by his brother, who has died during the pendency of the proceedings before the Supreme Court. The genesis of the present legal dispute goes back to 2009, when the ouster of a tenant led to a suit challenging the executive authority, which was appointed by the Royal Family.
The tenant, a practicing advocate, questioned the legitimacy of the royal family as administrators of the temple post the death of the original ‘Ruler’ in 1991. This suit was followed by multiple civil suits in various Districts Courts of Kerala, following which the Royal Family moved to the Kerala High Court to get a decision on the common question of whether the successors of the original signatory king claim the rights bestowed on the ‘Ruler’ under the TCHRI Act, 1950. The High Court answered the question in the negative, and granted the State Government complete rights over the temple’s management and ordered for opening of the sacred treasure vaults within the temple’s structure. Aggrieved by the decision, the ‘Ruler’ and the Temple Trust preferred appeals against the High Court’s decision, and later the Chief Thantri of the Temple and some other organisations joined as Intervenors to present their grievances.
Critical analysis of legal provisions involved
The critical question for consideration was whether the successors of the original signatory can avail the rights bestowed upon the ‘Ruler’ rooted in the 26th Constitutional Amendment of 1971. The 1971 Amendment put an end to the Privy Purses and further inserted Article 366(22) which confined the definition the term ‘Ruler’ to only the person recognised prior to the Amendment. The State argued that owing to the Constitutional Amendment, the title of ‘Ruler’ under the TCHRI Act ceases to hold relevance and any successor of the original signatory is not empowered by law to claim the title.
The Supreme Court, in its wisdom, has sided with the Royal Family and has opined that the Kerala High Court’s judgement was erroneous, incorrect and violative of the historical spirit of the original covenant (signed in 1949). The Supreme Court held that Article VIII of the covenant establishes the special connection of the royal family with the temple which has further been given statutory backing by the TCHRI Act. The ‘special relation’ of the royal family with the temple is explained by the Supreme Court to be in the nature of “Shebait”- which effectively places the royal family as the earthly custodian of the deity and gives them financial and administrative rights in connection to the deity. The Apex Court further remarked that the Shebait rights exists in a historical context and are rooted in the Hindu tradition and customary law of the region and as such, cannot be abridged by an act of the Parliament. Holding this reasoning, the Court ordered that the rights of the royal family remain unaffected by the Constitutional Amendment and extends to all the successors of the original signatory, in perpetuity, and will be passed on and devolved only as per established customs. The Court also decided that the association of the royal family with the temple is independent of the title of being the ruler of the State and it purely exists in Shebaitship. Unless the Shebaitship ceases to be operative in consonance with established customs, no escheat will lie in favour of the State Government.
The Supreme Court, realising the public nature of the temple and the large amounts of wealth it holds, ordered the constitution of two committees- an Advisory Committee and an Administrative Committee. These committees will have members nominated by both the Union and the State Governments, in addition to the members appointed by the royal family. The major responsibilities of the committees will be to aid and advise the day-to-day functioning of the temple. The committees were finalised by the Supreme Court by making minute alterations to the structure proposed by the royal family. The Court has further recognised the rights of the Chief Thantri of the temple and has directed that all rituals and religious practices should be performed in accordance with his instructions and guidance. The Court has further granted Chief Thantri rights over the temporal matters concerning the temple.
The Supreme Court’s verdict in the Temple case reverses the perceived injustices on the Royal Family and devotees of the Temple, following the Kerala High Court’s decision in 2011. By restoring the age-old tradition, the Supreme Court has upheld the religious rights of a community of people who wish to be governed by their traditions without interference from the State Governments. The Kerala High Court, in its decision, ordered for the opening of vaults of the temples which are said to house innumerable treasures. Opening of one such vaults was strongly protested against by the Royal Family and the local population, as it is believed to house an ancient curse which would invite divine calamity on Earth. With the restoration of rights to the Royal Family and the setting up of the two committees, all decisions with regards to the treasures of the vault also rest with them. The decision, apart from holding historical relevance for the Royal Family, is also being touted as a positive step in the direction of freeing Hindu temples and institutions from excessive State control.
Author: Anshum Agarwal from West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS), Kolkata.
Editor: Astha Garg, Junior Editor, Lexlife India