Pratyush Kumar Jena &Vishal Choudhury
On 13th July 2020, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court delivered its judgement in the Padmanabhaswamy Temple case. The case was pending before the Court since the decision of the Kerala High Court on 31st January 2011, which the Apex court has now overturned.
The case dealt with some significant constitutional questions, primarily including the 26th Amendment (Abolition of Privy Purses). The Apex Court has recognised the relationship of shebaitship (one who renders sewa to the deity) between the presiding deity of the temple (Lord Padmanabhaswamy) and the Travancore Royal Family (hereinafter, “the Royal Family”). The right to control and manage the temple has now been restored to the Royal Family.
This article seeks to examine the history of the temple, and various legal developments post-independence, the background of the case, primary issues raised in the proceedings, and how the Apex court resolved them. It also discusses the prospective effects of this decision on the broader issue of freeing Hindu temples from state control.
History of the Temple
The Padmanabhaswamy temple’s history is closely linked to the origin and identity of the Royal Family. The legendary ruler of Travancore, Shri Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma, dedicated his entire kingdom to Lord Padmanabhaswamy in January 1750 and became a ‘Shree Padmanabhadasa,’ i.e., a servant and earthly custodian of the deity. Every titular head of the family has adopted this title ever since. Proclamations were issued in the name of the Lord himself, who was known as the ‘Deshanatha,’ meaning the Lord of the State. The instrument of accession between the princely states of Travancore and Cochin and the Indian Union was also signed on behalf of the Padmanabhadasa by Shri Balarama Varma, the then ruler of the state.
According to the Royal Family, everything inside the temple, including a ‘grain of sand’ belongs to the Lord himself. The same rule would apply to the hordes of treasure present in the six vaults of the temple. Of these, the opening of Vault ‘B’ was the most significant issue raised in the legal proceedings. All other vaults were opened and inventoried except Vault ‘B,’ which could not be opened, in keeping with tradition.
Legal developments post-independence
After independence, the Union of India signed an ‘Instrument of Accession’ with almost all the princely states that existed at the time. This arrangement guaranteed some rights and privileges to the princely states in lieu of their merger with India. A similar covenant was signed between the princely states of Travancore and Cochin and the Indian Union in May 1949. The legal relationship between the temple and the Royal Family is primarily based on this covenant. Art. 8 of the covenant contains the Indian union’s promise to the then ruler that his rights and control over the management of the Padmanabhaswamy temple shall not be interfered with, not only in his lifetime but also his successors’. Later, most of the other temples were brought under the control of the Devaswom Boards of Cochin and Travancore, except this one.
Following that, in 1950, the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions (TC) Act was passed, which effectively captured all the obligations recorded in the covenant. Chapter III of the Act is entirely dedicated to the temple, Section 18(2) of which entails that “the administration of the temple shall be conducted, subject to the control and supervision of the ruler of Travancore, by an executive officer appointed by him.”
Later, the 26th Constitutional Amendment was passed, which abolished the concept of “privy purses.” This Amendment deleted Articles 291 (dealing with Privy Purses) and 362 of the Constitution. Art. 362 had mandated the Indian Union to honour all the obligations undertaken by it concerning the rights, privileges, and prerogatives of the ruler of a princely state while making any law.
The last ruler of Travancore, Shri Balarama Varma, passed away in 1991, and the 26th Amendment was upheld in Raghunathrao Ganpatrao v. Union of India in 1993 after being subjected to the Basic Structure test. The deletion of Article 362 and the relevance of the 26th Amendment later went on to form the bedrock of the Supreme Court’s ratio.
Background of the Dispute
The genesis of the case dates back to when a tenant, presiding over a property owned by the temple, was asked by the executive officer of the temple to vacate the premises. He challenged the legality of the order in the Kerala HC through a Quo Warranto writ petition. Similar petitions were filed in the district courts, which were clubbed together with the writ petition filed by the tenant. The main contention of the petitioners was that the appointment of the said executive officer was illegal because the Royal Family, which had appointed the officer, had no authority to do so. They contended that all the rights of the Royal Family concerning the administration of the temple were abolished by the 26th Constitutional Amendment, vis-à-vis Art. 363A. They also argued that the operation of the amended Art. 366 (22), which did away with the concept of ‘succession of rulers,’ meant that the Royal Family did not fall under the ambit of the concept of ‘ruler,’ as laid down in the TC Act, after the death of Shri Balarama Verma, who was the original signatory to the covenant.
The Kerala HC accepted these contentions and held that the Royal Family had no authority to manage the temple. It also directed the state government to take over the administration of the temple, open all vaults and put its treasures up for display inside the temple premises. Appealing against this judgment, the Royal Family moved the Supreme Court Meanwhile, the Supreme Court, in 2011, granted an interim stay on the directives of the HC order.
Issues raised before the Supreme Court
The significant issues raised before the Supreme Court related to the effect of the 26th Amendment on the rights and duties of the royal family as managers of the temple and the meaning of the word ‘Ruler’ within the TC Act. There were other ancillary issues such as the jurisdiction of the Court and the applicability of Articles 25 and 26 to the case, which the intervenors argued were applicable on account of the temple being a ‘denominational temple.’ The Court found no bar on its jurisdiction to hear the matter and refused to delve into the questions of Articles 25 and 26, as the argument was never raised in the High Court.
The Apex court held that the relationship between the Royal Family and the temple is that of ‘shebaitship.’ Consequently, it was established that the rights of management and administration of the temple pass on to every successive generation as per custom. Until the Royal Family expressly did away with the existing manner of devolution and succession, the Doctrine of Escheat was held to be inapplicable, precluding state control over the landed property.
This relationship, the Court observed, is defined by history, independent of any title bestowed upon the rulers of the princely states by the British. Upon a definitional interpretation, the Court concluded that even the term ‘Ruler’ in Article 8 of the Covenant and subsequently in the TC Act was used only to identify the person who was wholly unconnected with his official capacity as ruler. The 26th Amendment was meant to abolish all titles and privileges under Article 291, which came in the way of India’s Republican character- shebaitship was not one of them.
The Court also discussed the impact of the deletion of Article 362 on the application of the TC Act. It said that the TC act was passed after giving due recognition to the rights under Art.362. The Court held that the deletion of Art.362 did not automatically mean that the TC act was inoperative. It further stated that since no express changes were made to Chapter III of the TC Act, the rights and privileges concerning the temple could still be enjoyed by the Royal Family.
Freeing Hindu Temples: Affecting the Bigger Picture
The judgement in the Padmanabhaswamy case sought to balance various considerations- political interests, general public interest, and rights of the Royal Family. The Court accepted the recommendations of the Royal Family and created two committees.
The head of the Royal Family, advised by a three-member advisory committee, will take all policy-related decisions. The committee will consist of a retired Kerala HC judge appointed by the Chief Justice of the HC, an eminent person appointed by the ‘ruler,’ and a reputed chartered accountant appointed by the Chairman (retired HC judge) in consultation with the ‘ruler.’ The body will be advisory, and its recommendations will not be binding.
Further, the executive officer will be replaced by a five-member administrative committee to look after the administration of the temple. The five members of the committee will be ‘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 members of the committee will have to be Hindus by religion. Further, essential decisions regarding spending, renovations, and change in the religious nature of the temple will be taken only with the approval of the ‘ruler.’
The decision on whether vault ‘B’ will be opened has been left to the committees. This model ensures that the ‘ruler’ will have a decisive say in matters of both policy and administration. This, in turn, will ensure a limited and non-intrusive role for the state- whose officials will be a part of the committees but subordinate to the ‘ruler.’
What does the decision mean for the larger cause of freeing Hindu temples from state control?
The colonial legacy of exercising control over Hindu institutions continues in Independent India. Around one lakh temples are under state control in the southern states. Recently, the Char Dham Devasthanam Management Board Act was passed in Uttarakhand, which seeks to undertake 51 plus temples under state control. A constitutional challenge against the Act under Article 25 was recently rejected by the Uttarakhand High Court, which ruled that the temples are ‘non-denominational’ in nature. Since the right to manage religious institutions is contingent upon the existence of a denomination, the management and administration of non-denominational temples can be taken over by the state, as it has done in this case.
In this gloomy backdrop, the Padmanabhaswamy verdict comes as the light at the end of the tunnel. The verdict is based on particular issues such as the 26th Amendment and the ‘Instrument of Accession.’ The temple has a specific socio-cultural history based on which the rights of the Royal Family were restored. The Court did not decide upon the question of Article 25- on whether the temple qualifies as a denominational temple.
Other temples are not based on such covenants, nor do they have any historical basis or special families as shebaits. Hence, the judgement is of little use if one seeks to apply its ratio to other temples. It is also impractical to file individual cases for each temple and try to establish a denominational status. In that sense, the precedent of the case will not be helpful to the larger cause. But the judgement has some key takeaways.
The model adopted by the Court strikes a perfect balance between freedom of the temple and appropriate oversight of the state. This model can be emulated for other temples across the country that are under state control, to ensure that the essential functions of each temple remain in the hands of the community and the state plays a minimal role. For the state to give in to these demands, awareness needs to be generated across different communities, who can collectively bargain with the state.
Also, the fact that the highest Court of the land adopted a sensitive and civilisational approach in reaching their conclusion is very heartening. They recognised the historical antecedents underpinning the temple, and their understanding of ‘shebaitship’ was deeply rooted in Indic traditions and values. They also respected the will of the Royal Family and refused to pass a ruling on the opening of Vault ‘B’ of the temple. Since the decision has been left to the committees which are subordinate to the ‘ruler,’ who in turn is bound by tradition, it can be safely assumed that the vault will not be opened. Perhaps the judgement can serve as a catalyst for meaningful discussion on the overt discrimination of the Indian state where only one community has been singled out, and their places of sanctity have been overtaken. But only time will tell if hundreds of these sanctum-sanctorum will remain beacons of faith and hope or metamorphose into state-controlled stone walls.
The authors are students currently enrolled in the West Bengal National University of Juridical Studies, Kolkata.