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This article is penned down by Pranjali Aggarwal of the University Institute of Legal Studies, Panjab University, Chandigarh. This article deals with all aspects and critical analysis of the judgment of the honorable Supreme court in the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple case.

Introduction

The Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple is one of the 108 holy temples or ‘Divya Deshams’ dedicated to Vaishnavism in India and is situated in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. According to historians, there is no exact record of the origin of this temple but there are several versions about its origins with the date ranging from the 3rd century to the 9th century CE. The existing structure of the temple was built by the then Travancore Maharaja Marthanda Verma in the year 1739 (18th century). The temple has the idol of Lord Vishnu who is found in the Anantha Shayana pose on Adishesha (the king of all serpents). The temple has always been in the spotlight because it is believed to be one of the richest places of worship in the world. Abundant treasure in the vaults of the temple (estimated to be worth over Rs. 1 lakh crore) is the pivotal reason behind filing the cases as it prompted the debate as to who is responsible to manage and control the administration and finances of the temple.

Background of the dispute

  • The temples which were under the control of the then princely states of Travancore were to be governed by the Travancore and Cochin Devaswom Boards before 1947.
  • The Instrument of Accession was signed between the Government of India and the princely states in the year 1949 which vested the administration and control of the Padmanabhaswamy temple in the Ruler of Travancore.
  • Even after the formation of Kerala as a state in 1956, the royal family had complete rights over the management of the temple.
  • The 26th Amendment of the Constitution in the year 1971 deleted Articles 291 and 362 and inserted Article 363A and as a result privy purses (the sum given to the royals (king or queen) for personal expenses by the British as a token of gratitude) were abolished and thus all the privileges and entitlements enjoyed by them were withdrawn.
  • The last ruler of Travancore died in the year 1991 and the state government gave permission to Uthradam Thirunal Marthnada Varma (younger brother of the last ruler) to continue exerting control over the temple.
  • The Royal family continued to control and regulate all the matters of the temple until the decision of the Kerala High Court stripped them of their shebait rights.
  • And this matter relating to the administration and management of the temple was pending before the Apex Court for the last nine years and was decided on 13 July 2020 in the case of Sri Marthanda Varma (deceased) through Legal Representatives(LR’s) versus the State of Kerala. The whole case law is discussed below.

Facts of the case

  • In 2007, Advocate Ananda Padmanabhan, on the behalf of two devotees, filed a lawsuit claiming that there is mismanagement of the funds of the temple and new trustees should be appointed to manage the wealth of the deity. The lower court of Trivandrum ordered the government to take over control over the temple and its assets.
  • The royal family appealed the decision in the High Court and contended that they are entitled to the control of the temple as they have been managing the temple and its possession for centuries and as they are heirs of the last ruler of Travancore, they hold the right to preside over the temple.
  • The case was filed primarily to decide whether the shebait rights (right to manage the financial affairs of the deity) continue to exist even after the death of the last ruler of the family. The crucial legal question that was to be answered was whether the heirs of the last ruler (Utradam Thirunal Marthnada Varma, the younger brother of Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma) of Travancore can claim to be the “Ruler of Travancore”, even after the death of the ruler in 1991?
  • The Honorable Kerala High Court in this case (Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma and Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple v. Union of India and others) ordered that the royal family is not entitled to any shebait rights as they were of the view that according to Section 18(2) of the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Act, 1950, any successor of the ruler cannot claim same rights as that of the ruler after the death of the last ruler in 1991. The court asked the state government to establish a body or trust that will govern the temple and will exercise control over its assets and management but abiding by the traditions followed and with this judgment, all the properties and assets reverted to the state as per Article 295 and Article 296 of the Constitution.
  • The two Special Leave Petitions were filed in the Supreme Court were filed by the aggrieved party- Maharaja and the then-Executive Officer of the temple-Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma and his younger brother Sri Uthradam Thirunal Marthannda Varma in May 2011 challenging the judgment of the High Court.
  •  The court in this case also tried the writ petitions that were filed earlier relating to this matter. The writs are as follows:
  1. Writ Petition (C) No.36487 of 2009 was filed by one T.P. Sundara Rajan, a practicing Advocate who was asked to vacate his place, which was located in the premises of the temple by the executive officer of the temple. The petition was filed as a reply to eviction proceedings, praying High Court to issue the writ of Quo Warranto that questions the authority of Sri Uthradam Varma holding the post of Executive Officer of the temple.
  2. The second petition was filed by Marthanda Varma in 2010 (Appellant no. 2) which challenged the maintainability of the suits that were filed against them between 2007 and 2009 by employees of the temple and others before courts in Thiruvananthapuram, questioning the authority of the royal family to administer and manage the temple affairs.
  • The Honorable Supreme Court, in this case, stayed the decision of the High Court and also ordered the opening of vaults (Kallaras in Malayalam) A to F in order to ascertain the inventory (articles, valuables, jewelry, diamonds, etc.) present in the temple and to decide the approximate wealth of the temple. 
  • On 8th July, the Supreme Court ordered that Vault B would not be opened for now as there were claims regarding the extraordinary treasure with ‘mystical energy’ present in vault B which was to be decided before ordering its opening.
  • On 23rd August 2013, Gopal Subramaniam was appointed as the amicus curiae by the court for the assessment of the activities at the temple and he suggested some measures for the temple i.e.strengthening of security of the vaults, restraining media coverage so that the image of the Expert Committee is not tainted, even suggested measures for efficient and effective management of the affairs of the temple on the daily basis, etc. 
  • He submitted his interim report in October 2012 and the final report in April 2014.
  • And based on his report, the power to manage the temple was withdrawn from the royal family and was provided to the committee formed by the court until the case is finally decided. 
  • The further case was deliberated by adhering to his reports and other relevant details.

Issues involved in the case

  1. Whether the heir (here, younger brother) of the last ruler of Travancore is entitled to claim the title of ‘Ruler of Travancore’ as per its meaning as elucidated in Section 18(2) of the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Act, 1950?
  2. Whether the royal family or Sree Marthanda Varma can claim the ownership, control, and management of the temple, its assets, and the status of Shebaitship?
  3. What was the aftermath of the 26th Constitutional Amendment, 1971 over the powers related to the management of the temple that was vested in the Ruler of the Travancore? 
  4. Whether Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple is public property or private property that belongs to the royal family?
  5. Article 363 and its relation to the particular case and does intervention in this matter fall within the jurisdiction of the court?
  6. Whether the principle of escheat would be applicable in the case of the right of shebaitship?

The findings and discussions of the Supreme Court 

For deciding the issues (1),(2), and (3), the Honorable Supreme Court first deliberated and delved over the five scenarios which were:

  • The position until the Covenant of Accession was not signed in 1949.
  • The position after the Covenant was signed.
  • The effect of the Constitution of India on the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Act, 1950 before 26th Constitutional Amendment in the year 1971.
  • The impact over the Act after the enforcement of the 26th Constitutional Amendment Amendment Act, 1971.
  • The effect of the death of the signatory of the Covenant as the Ruler of Travancore.

The position until the Covenant of Accession was not signed in 1949

In order to decide the issue (1) and (2) of the case, the Hon’ble Supreme Court took the history of the temple into account. Thus, after ascertaining the whole historical records and reports of the temple, the court was of the opinion that though the origin and facts about the establishment of the temple are not clear and explicit but in every version explaining the same, accepts the role of the Ruler of Travancore as an administrator of the temple. The traces that the present-day structure was renovated by him after he took full control of the temple in 1686, were also found. 

The conclusion derived from the findings was that the ruler was holding the office of the Shebait of the temple when the covenant was signed. The Shebait is a person who is bestowed with the right of the management of the property (in this case the temple). There was a continuous and unbroken line of shebaits that existed thus it was finally concluded that the power to exercise control over the temple was vested with the Ruler of Travancore till the Instrument of Accession was not signed in 1949.

The position after the Covenant was signed

The Instrument of Accession was signed between the Ruler of Travancore and the Government of India in 1949 which paved the way towards the formation of the United State of Travancore and Cochin. The Supreme Court held that the Covenant itself conferred the powers of management of the temple in the hands of the Ruler of Travancore and the royal family. The two provisions of the Act that were taken into consideration are:

  • Firstly, Article VIII of the Covenant explicitly mentions that the control of the administration of the temple is in the hands of the Ruler of the Travancore and thus, the Covenant also did not affect the rights of the family to control the temple.
  • Secondly, Section 62 (2) of the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Act, 1950, read with proviso to Sub-Article ‘d’ of Article VIII of the Covenant, states that even if the administration is in the hands of the Cochin Devaswom Board then also the performance and regulation of rituals and ceremonies should fall under the ambit of the Ruler of Travancore.

Thus, the Covenant did not alter the power of the Ruler of Travancore.

The effects of the Constitution of India on the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Act, 1950 before the 26th Constitutional Amendment in the year 1971

There was no conflict between the Travancore-Cochin Act, 1950 and the Constitution of India before the 26th Amendment. The provisions of the Travancore-Cochin Act were not affected by the Constitution, even the status of Shebait was enjoyed by the Ruler of Travancore and he was the holder of power over the temple.

The impact over the Act after the enforcement of the 26th Constitutional Amendment Amendment Act, 1971

The 26th Constitutional Amendment Act, 1971 came into force during the reign of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Because of this Amendment, Articles 291 and 362 of the Constitution were deleted but the Supreme Court held that the deletion of these Articles does not mean that the ruler of Travancore is deprived of all the rights and privileges that he enjoyed earlier. The insertion of Article 363A only abolished the rights and liabilities relating to privy purses.

The effect of the death of the signatory of the Covenant as the Ruler of Travancore

The Supreme Court found that the status of Shebaitship was conferred over the ruler of Travancore not in his capacity as a ruler but as an individual. And the status cannot be revoked unless it is disposed of in the particular. This conclusion was derived because Shebaitship has the elements of office and property, of duties and personal interest amalgamated into one and they invest the office of the Shebait with the character of the proprietary right. Thus, the status of Shebaitship should be inheritable and will devolve by adhering to the principles of law and custom upon the successors of the Ruler. Thus, the death of the signatory of the Covenant (Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma) does not impact the right of the successors of the ruler in any way.

new legal draft

Held

The Hon’ble Supreme Court gave a decision on this long-running case on 13th July 2020. The following opinion and decision were laid down by the Honorable Supreme Court on each issue.

  • Issue 1- The Honorable Supreme Court relied on the case-law Mahavir Pravir Chandra Bhanj Deo Kakatiya versus the State of Madhya Pradesh (1960) to ascertain this issue, and held that the status of Shebaitship exists independently to the status of the Ruler of Travancore. Moreover, the term ‘Ruler’ is not explicitly defined under the Travancore-Cochin Act and the definition, as enumerated under Article 363 and 366(2) of the Constitution, is only applicable for the purpose of this Article as it is an inclusive definition. Thus, it cannot be said that this definition of Ruler applies to the TCHRI Act,1950 also. Thus, the younger brother can claim the title of the Ruler of Travancore as per the provisions of the TCHRI Act.
  • Issue 2- The status of Shebaitship, in this case, was decided by delving and taking into account numerous judgments. The role and position of a Shebait were considered as laid down by the Constitution Bench in the Ram Janmabhoomi Temple Case (M. Siddiq (deceased) through LR’s versus Mahant Suresh Das and others (2019). Another judicial pronouncement that played an important role in the judgment was Angurbala Mullick versus Debabrata Mullick (1951) in which it was held that even if there is no gratuity or emoluments linked to the Shebaitship then also the Right of Shebaitship is a Proprietary Right. In the judgment of Revathinnal Balagopala Varma versus His Highness Sree Oadmanabha Dasa Baka Rana Varna(since deceased) and others (1991), it was held that Shebaitship is the inheritable right and passes from one ruler to another subject to the principles of the succession as prevalent in the family. Based on the above judgments, the Supreme Court presented the divergent view as that was presented by the Kerala High Court earlier and held that the status of Shebaitship should be passed to the family of the Ruler as they are the custodian of the Ruler and have been taking care of the temple for such a long time.
  • Issue 3- As mentioned above, the 26th Amendment of the Constitution did not affect the personal assets of the Ruler and they would be inherited as per their custom of succession. In a similar way, though the aspects of ‘Rule’ or ‘Rulership’ are not recognized by law but still the ‘Right to succeed Gaddi’ can exist as the incident. Thus, the amendment does not in any way affect any right of the Ruler or royal family of Travancore concerning the administration and possession of the assets of the temple. This issue was decided by the Honorable Supreme Court by relying on the judgment of MadhavRao Jivaji Rao Scindia v Union of India (1971).
  • Issue 4- To decide this issue, the Supreme Court applied the test to determine whether the temple is public property or private property which was laid down in the case of Bala Shanker Maha Shaker Bhattjee and others versus Charity Commissioner of Gujarat (1994). By applying the parameters to decide, it was concluded that Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple is public property.
  • Issue 5- The bar as articulated under Article 363 can be applied in two cases:
  1. When the dispute emerges because of the provisions of the Covenant.
  2. Or if the dispute is related to the right arising out of the Constitution relating to Covenant.

And this case falls outside the purview of Article 363 as the matter to be decided in the present case was whether the Royal family has the authority to control the temple and if they are covered under the definition of ‘Ruler of Travancore’ as given under Chapter III of Part I of the TCHRI Act, 1950. Thus, the conditions to impose bar as per Article 363 of the Constitution are not fulfilled and therefore there will be no impact of Article 363. This opinion of the court was based on the observation of Justice Hidayatullah which was given in the case of Madhav Rao Jivaji Rao Scindia versus Union of India.

  • Issue 6- The court found that the death of the ruler who signed the covenant does not impact the status of Shebaitship because Chapter III of Part I of the TCHRI Act, 1950 uses the title of the Ruler of Travancore for the natural successors. Thus, the royal family shall be entitled to the status of Shebaitship by application of the principle of escheat because the status is being held by them for a long period.

Thus, the two-judge bench of Justice UU Lalit and Justice Indu Malhotra decided the case in the favour of the Royal family and overruled the judgment of the Kerala High Court. The right of the royal family to manage the property of the deity was recognized by the Supreme court by following the customary law. The royal family was provided with the Shebait rights to manage the financial affairs of the deity. In the judgment, the court ordered the formation of a two-tier administrative structure as suggested by the royal family. The main objectives behind the institution of the Committee were the management of the temple, preservation of the assets and treasure of the temple, and ensuring the performance of rituals and religious practices as per the customs.

The Committees are as follows-

  1. First (Administrative) Committee to take care of daily administration in the temple. It comprised of:
  • District Judge of Thiruvanthampuram as the Chairman.
  • One nominee of the Maharajah of the royal family. 
  • One nominee of the Kerala government.
  • One Chief Thanthri (priest) of the Temple.
  • A member to be nominated by the Union Ministry of Culture (Government of India).

2. The second (Advisory) Committee was formed to advise the Administrative Committee and is a three-member committee which would comprise of:

  • Retired judge of the High Court to be nominated by the Chief Justice of Kerala High Court as its Chairman.
  • An eminent person nominated by Maharaja.
  • A reputed Chartered Accountant nominated by the chairperson in consultation with the royal trustee.

All the members of the Committee must be Hindu and the Ruler is bound by the advice of the advisory committee. 

Critical Analysis

The judgment, no doubt, is seen as a victory by the devotees but it does not mean everything is hunky-dory with the decision of the Supreme Court. Some concerns arise from the decision:

Security expenses to be borne by the temple

Since the discovery of the wealth in the underground vaults of the temple, the temple has been in abuzz and this exposes the temple to greater security concerns. The annual income (from the offerings and donations) is not even enough for the maintenance and other expenditures of the temple and as after the judgment the security is to be maintained by the temple itself, it does not seem possible for the temple to make the security arrangements. Moreover, this COVID-19 pandemic added fuel to the fire as the offerings have significantly reduced and thus forcing the temple to approach the government with a begging bowl in order to manage the affairs of the temple effectively.

Long audits of the temple

The Supreme Court has ordered the 25 year-long audits for the temple as suggested by the amicus curiae appointed by the court. The audit has to be done by the reputed firm of the Chartered Accountants. This will prescribe a continuous burden on the temple that Chartered Accountants can surprise them now and then with their findings. No doubt, it will prevent financial irregularities but such long-term audits are not even ordered in the cases of the firms that are involved in scams or that have tarnished reputations. Thus, this decision seems superfluous in this case.

Excessive control of state and judiciary over the temple

The ruling by the Supreme Court has empowered the state with a significant role in the administration of the temple. Firstly, the administrative committee includes three government nominees out of five members (District judge, one nominated by the state government, and one by the Union Culture Ministry). Even in the advisory committee, the judiciary is controlling all the major aspects. Thus, both state and judiciary are indirectly involved in the administration of the temple.

Violation of Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution

The judgment is violative of Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution of India; Article 25 guarantees the freedom of profession, practice, and propagation of religion, and Article 26 guarantees freedom to manage religious orders to religious denominations. With the passing of the judgment, the role of the state as well as the judiciary has become crucial in the management and thus will hamper the rights of the state nominees to propagate their religion and their freedom to manage religious orders. This ground was raised before the Supreme Court but this was not dwelled upon and was dismissed as the issue was not presented before the High Court.

Arise of other similar matters

In this case, the Supreme Court recognized Article VIII of the Covenant and even gave it perpetual validity; this will lead to bearing on the cases which were earlier decided by the court on similar terms.

Conclusion

In this case, though the Supreme Court adopted the civilizational and sensitive approach while deciding the case, the addition of the government nominees as the members in the committee is against the spirit of secularism recognized by our Constitution and thus in the future, it may be questioned.

References


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