This article has been authored by Udisha Mishra, a second year law student at West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata.
The Supreme court bench on July 13th 2020, delivered the historic Padmanabhaswamy Temple judgement in the case of Shri Marthanda Varma v. State of Kerala. The two-judge bench of the apex court overturned the Kerala High Court decision, which was filed on January 31, 2011, before the courts and was pending since.
The case comprised of substantial questions of law as to the interpretation of the constitution and was especially regarding the 26th Constitutional Amendment (related to Abolition of Privy Purses). The Apex court, in this case, acknowledged the “relationship of shebaitship” (one who considers himself the servant of deity and render sewa to him) existing between the deity of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple, Lord Padmanabhaswamy and the Travancore Royal Family. It also bestowed upon the Royal family, the rights of control and management of the temple which were taken away earlier via the Kerala High Court Judgement.
History of the Temple
Unlike the other rulers and their administration in India, the history of Padmanabhaswamy temple is unique and astonishing. It is linked to the identity and origin of the Travancore Royal Family itself. Shri Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the legendary Travancore ruler, became a ‘Shri Padmanbhadsa’ that is a custodian and servant of the temple’s deity and dedicated his entire empire to Lord Padmanabhaswamy in 1950. Since then, each titular head of the Royal Family adopted the same title of the servant and pledged his devotion to the lord. All the proclamations that were issued and the events that were conducted were in the name of the deity, who was referred to as “Deshantha”, i.e., ‘The Lord of the State.’ Shree Balarama Varma, the then head, signed the instrument of accession between the Union of India and the princely states of Cochin and Travancore on behalf of the Lord.
The Royal Family always reinstated that all that exists inside the temple, including a ‘grain of sand’ belongs to the Lord, and none of the family members wants a share in it. The same goes for the six vaults in the temple premises which contain hordes of treasure.
Post- Independence - Legal Developments and Kerala High Court Case
Various covenants were entered into between the Indian Union and the princely states that existed after independence for their merger with the grand Indian union. These agreements guaranteed the princely state rulers some rights and privileged in lieu of their merger. In May 1949 a similar covenant was signed between Union of India and the princely states of Cochin and Travancore. This covenant established a legal relationship between the Royal family and the temple as in Article 8 of the covenant, enshrined the promise made by the Indian Union to then ruler protecting his control and rights over the management of the temple which shall never be inhibited during his lifetime or his successor’s. Later, in 1950 the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act (“TC Act”)was passed, which in its Chapter III expressly mentioned that the administration of the temple is entirely under supervision and control of the Travancore ruler which can be carried out by any executive officer selected by him.
Later, the Indian parliament passed the 26th amendment, which centrally abolished the notion of privy purses. The amendment sought to delete the Article 291 that was dealing with the privy purses and Article 362 which mandated the Union of India to honour its promise that was made to the rulers of princely states via instruments of accession concerning their rights, prerogatives and privileges while composing any law affecting them. The Apex court in Raghunathrao Ganpatrao v. Union of India upheld the validity of the 26th amendment after subjecting it to the Basic Structure test.
The temple came into dispute when the tenant residing in the premises of the temple was ordered by an executive officer to vacate the place. The tenant challenged the legality of the executive order by filing a Quo Warranto writ petition in the Kerala HC. With this many petitions were filed in various courts contending that the appointment of a member by the Royal Family is illegal as it has no authority to do so. The 26th amendment abolished these rights of the royal family and according to the amended Article 366(22) which lays down the meaning of ‘succession of rulers’, the Royal Family is not capable of being the ruler, as also found under the TC Act, after the death of Shree Balaram Verma, who was the original signatory.
The Kerala HC accepted these contentions and ordered the state government to take over the temple administration. It held that the Royal family now has no control over the family. Appealing against the same, the Royal Family took the case to the apex court. The Supreme Court granted an interim stay in 2011 on the directions given by the Kerala HC.
The Supreme Court Judgement
The Supreme Court, acknowledged the relationship of ‘shebaitship’ that exists between the deity and the Royal Family. It held that as per the custom the established rights of supervision, control and management and administration pass on to each successive generation. This manner of succession and devolution can be ended only when the Royal family expressly gives away these rights, and till then, the Doctrine of Escheat is inapplicable, preventing the state’s control over the property. The court observed that this relationship is identified by history. It interpreted that the term ‘ruler’ in article 8 of the TC Act was to recognise the person who was wholly independent of any official capacity as ruler. Nonetheless, the 26th Amendment was brought in to end the notion that existed in India and diluted India’s Republican Character, and shebaitship was not such a character.
The court also stated that the deletion of article 362 does not make the TC act inoperable. It held that TC act was passed after providing due acknowledgement to the rights of the princely states in 362. No express amendment made to Chapter III of the TC Act, undoubtedly implies that the obligation, privileges and rights concerning the temple still reside with the Royal Family.
Freeing the Hindu Temples - Conclusion
The Padmanabhaswamy Temple judgement is a perfect balance of various important consideration- rights of the Royal Family, political interests and interest of the general public. The court here accepted the recommendations given by the Family to create two committees for better administration and management of the temple. All the policy-related decisions would be taken by the head of the Royal Family, who would be advised by an advisory committee consisting of a retired Kerala HC judge, an eminent Charted ccountant and a reputed person appointed by the ‘ruler’. The recommendation of the committee would not be binding on the Ruler. Further, it replaced the executive officer that was to appointed by the ruler with an administrative committee consisting of five members to look after the administration. The committee would consist of “the district judge of Thiruvananthapuram, one member nominated by the Ruler, one member nominated by the state government of Kerala, one member nominated by the Union Ministry of Culture, and the Chief Thantri of the Temple.” All the decision regarding the renovation and other vital aspects of temple-functioning can be only carried out after approval by the ruler.
This model of administration safeguards that the ‘ruler’ will have a conclusive say in both policy-related and administrative matters of the temple. It provides the ruler with an upper hand in the committee making rest of the members subordinate, limiting the intrusion of the state as much as possible.
This case can be regarded as one challenging the colonial legacy of controlling the Hindu institutions that continues to exist in Independent India. Recently, the Char-Dham Devasthanam Management Board Act was enacted in Uttarakhand, which adds 51 temples to the existing list of state-controlled temples. The act was challenged because of being violative of Article 25 of the Indian constitution. The Uttarakhand HC held the act to be constitutional, stating that the temples are ‘non-denominational’ bodies by nature. As the management, if the religious institutions depend upon the existence of denomination, there is no harm in the state taking over the administration and management of the non-denominational temples.
In Padmanabhaswamy Temple judgement, the court identified the socio-cultural history of the temple and honoured the related rights of the Royal Family. It did not decide the case basing it on Article 25 or whether this temple qualifies as a denominational institute or not. It strikes a perfect balance between the apt oversight of the state and freedom of the temple. Such a model can indeed be undertaken across the country so that the socio-historical and cultural aspects of these temples can be preserved, preventing them from becoming a money-generating business. Though not all the temples have such covenants signed, like the ones in the present case, what is to be focussed upon is the stance of the apex court while deciding the case. The adoption of the civilisational and sensitive approach, in this case, is heartening. It respected the deeply rooted Indian values and traditions and honoured the rights and stake of the parties attached. This judgement can be witnessed as a light of hope to preserve these sanctum-sanctorum as beacons of hope and faith rather than metamorphosing them into stone walls controlled by the state.