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OVERVIEW OF RECENT SC JUDGEMENT: MARTHANDA VARMA V. STATE OF KERALA (PADMANABHASWAMY TEMPE CASE)

Updated: Apr 6

Author: Muskan Jain, IV Year of B.A.,LL.B(Hons) from National Law University, Vizag.


INTRODUCTION

The division bench of the Supreme Court headed by Justice Uday Umesh Lalit and Justice Indu Malhotra on July 13, 2020 overturned the Kerala High Court’s decision with regard to the management and ownership of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple (herein referred to as a temple) situated at Tiruvananthapuram, Kerala.


The temple is one of the 108 holy temples associated with Vaishnavism in the country. The Supreme Court ruled as per the customary law that the royal family even after the death of the the last ruler had the right to manage the property of the deity at the temple as Shebait. Also, the court in this decision further delegated the temple administration to an administrative committee.


HISTORICAL AND LEGAL BACKGROUND

Before 1947, the control and management of all the princely states of Travancore and Cochin were under the Travancore and Cochin Devaswom boards. Later, there was a covenant signed in the year 1949 which devolved the management of the temple in the hands of trustees, the descendants of the Travancore royal family.


Till 1991 the management was in the hands of Chithira Thirunal Balavarma Varma, the last ruler of Travancore and continued to be till the 2011 decision of Kerala HC headed by Justice C N Ramachandran Nair and Justice Surendra Mohan, which narrowed the meaning of Ruler and directed the Kerala State Government to set up a trust to control Assets and management of the temple. Answering the issue regarding the definition of ruler, the High Court further stated that “Ruler is not a status that could be acquired through succession.”


However, the Apex Court on May 2, 2011 stayed the High Court finding and directed that kallara (Treasure) A and B of the temple cannot be opened unless permitted by the Supreme Court of India.


ANALYSIS OF SC VERDICT

The following was held in the judgement by the Supreme Court of India;


Firstly, the bench refrained to address the issue regarding the violation of Article 25(1), 26 and 29 of the Constitution of India because it was not an issue before the High Court.


Secondly, that Article VIII of the covenant and Section 62(2) of Travancore Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, 1950 (here in referred to as TC Act) protect traditional relationship between the royal family and the temple. And hence, it doesn’t abridge their status as shebait of the temple.

Generally, a Shebait is the one who controls and manages the endowed properties. (Here the temple was managed by the rulers) Hence, relying on various Judicial Pronunciationments, the Court held that “Mere factum that no emoluments are attached to the office of the Shebait would not make any difference to the character of right and interest of Shebait.” Hence, the court recognised the relationship between the temple and the royal family as shebaits and the Shebaitship is to be vested in the royal family only.


Thirdly, with regard to the definition of ruler, the Court accepted that the ruler of Travancore had a crucial role and was the one who reconstructed the temple in 1686 after the major fire. The court also held that the meaning of Ruler under Section 18 (2) of TC Act is only to identify the person and cannot be used to determine the capacity of that person and the inclusive definition under Article 366 (22) of Constitution of India does not ipso facto apply to the provisions of TC Act.


Fourthly, Article 363 of the constitution does not bar the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court in this particular case. The article states about matters related to covenants and treaties which fall within the jurisdiction of the president of India. This was also rejected by placing reliance on the CJ Hidayatuallah’s observations in the case where to apply Article 363 it should be under any of the two conditions; first being the dispute should be arising out of the covenant signed and second being the dispute must be regarding the right arising out of the constitution relating to covenant only. Since the questions involved in the present case no where come within these two parameters, there is no requirement to apply Article 363 of the constitution of India.


Fifthly, the appellant did not claim the temple as a private property and rather wants to manage the public temple as a trustee only. The court further stated that neither the 26th Amendment to the constitution of India (Abolition of Privy Purses) nor TC Act affect the management of the temple and their valuables, and it continues to be under the management of the ruler of Travancore. And relying on the judgment, held that the Sree Padamanbhaswamy temple is a public temple.


Finally, the principle of escheat is not applicable, and State Government cannot intervene in the present case until the line of succession of Shebaitship is prevailing.

Further, reading Section 18 of the Act, the administration of the temple shall be carried on by an executive officer appointed by the ruler. The court accepted that administration should be in the hands of an administrative committee, and this committee should comprise of a District Judge as the chairperson and a nominee of the ruler as well as a nominee of the government.


Under Section 20 of the Act, the Advisory Committee is appointed to advice the ruler in the matters related to policy. The Advisory Committee consists of Retired High Court Judge as chair person, a Chartered Accountant nominated by chairperson and trustee and a reputed person nominated by trustee.


The court here gave a balanced approach by delegating the administrative powers of Shebait without outraging the duties and functions of the ruler.


Therefore, the Supreme Court upheld the rights of the royal family as the Shebait of the temple. The death of the last ruler will not affect the rights of Shebait and will proceed as per the custom and TC Act.


COMMENT

The judgement strikes a balanced approach between the state’s oversight and the temple’s freedom. There is a a minimal role of the state and management still remains in the hands of the community.


The Apex Court did not go into the matter of opening of Kallara B and left it to the discretion of the Administrative Committee. Also the court refused to consider the Audit report submitted by former CAG Sri Vinod Rai by stating that this would lead to new facts for the first time in the apex court. The court could have recorded the findings by expanding the jurisdiction under Article 136 of the Constitution of India. The report would have determined the liability of the ruler if there was any mismanagement and misuse of the wealth of the temple which could further affect their claim of Shebaitship.