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PADMANABHASWAMI TEMPLE DISPUTE – THE LEGAL NUANCES

Author: Smruti Kanugo, III year of B.A.,LL.B from NLIU, Bhopal.


ABSTRACT

Reversing the judgement of the Kerala high court the supreme court last year maintained the autonomy of the royal family of Travancore in the matter of property of the Padmanabhaswami temple situated in Thiruvananthapuram. The court said that, according to standard law, the shebait rights (option to deal with the monetary issues of the divine) will remain with the individuals of the family even after the demise of the last ruler . The decision closes the long ensuing battle in the court for temple administration and individuals from the imperial family over control of probably one of the richest Hindu temples on the planet. The focal inquiry was whether Utradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the younger brother of Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, the last Ruler of Travancore, could profess to be the "Leader of Travancore" after the death of the ruler in 1991 and this contention was taken to the court. The paper throws light on what the court observed and how this judgement will play a very important role in the years to come. The paper aims to analyse and collate the history and the dispute which happened eventually - tracing it from the very beginnings and why the misinformation spread like wildfire around the issue.



INTRODUCTION

The Padmanabhaswami temple was in news due to the relatively recent “judgement of the supreme court” which upheld the right of the Travancore royal family to manage the property of the deity at Shree Padmanabhaswami temple in Kerala. The Padmanabhaswami temple, created by raja Marthanda Verma is a temple of the Hindu lord Vishnu in the city of Travancore. This paper will focus on the importance of the temple in the history of India and the dispute which arose when India attained freedom and changes with regard to the rulers and the ruled started to take place. On one hand The context is of high importance because of the recent judgement by the supreme court of India granting the royal family of Travancore their Shebait rights. This judgement is also important in the light of the developments regarding the Sabrimala temple , because it marks a standard premise for further decisions on the extent to which the supreme court can interfere when religion and law gets muddled.



ABOUT THE TEMPLE

“The Padmanabhaswami temple as we see it today was made by Raja Marthanda Verma. Its a temple of Vishnu- the Indian deity of creation who lies on a serpent’s back. Padmanabhasami temple is often touted as the richest temples in the world, thanks to the vaults of gold discovered in it. In 2011, some of the vaults were opened and massive amounts of gold- worth more than 1 lakh crore rupees was found.”The temple was built in Kerala back when Travancore’ s king Martandaverma started constructing it in the 18th C. He renovated the whole temple premise and built it on Dravidian style- the way it now stands. It was the common belief and the ritual at the time that the royal family is the devotee and servant of the deity in the temple and hence all the rituals and prayers of the temple were in the hands of the royal family. After India got independence and the instruments of accession were being signed, the then kings of the royal Travancore family requested Patel and Menon to let the priestly rights of the temple stay with them. Vallabhbhai Patel, the then home minister conceded to this request . With the coming of 1971 and the 26th amendment, the privy purses of the kings were cancelled. The privileges and the monetary benefits being provided to the kings by the state were withdrawn and the monetary compensation awarded to them was taken back. According to article 368 (32) of the Indian constitution the ruler’s definition was changed to - “only those are kings, whose succession was declared on or before 1991” and the term “king “was disposed of after 1971. In 1991 the king of Travancore, maharaja Balram Verma expired. The question of the temple arose as to the accession and the shebait rights. Martanda Verma II, the brother of Balram Verma demanded the Shebait rights of the temple. According to the 26th amendment 1971, he could no longer be the king and he contested this matter in the court. The high court of Kerala opened the vaults of the temple in 2011 and devoid Rajgharana any Shebait rights, In furtherance of which, the royal family of Travancore went to the supreme court which finally delivered its judgement. In its decision the court quashed the order of the Kerala high court and hence the Shebait rights were restored with the Rajgharana. In addition, The Supreme Court laid down a framework of 2 committees:-


1. “Travancore (Thiruvananthapuram) district judge and one member of the royal family will head the committee no 1 and apart from that a tantric an one person from the union minister will hold. It was also declared that this committee can include only Hindus.


2. A second committee will also be constituted in which one retired judge from the high court and the chairman of the committee will look after the working of the first committee and keep a check on them .” This project includes the in-depth analysis of the issue and its various nuanced factors.



THE KEY POINTS WHICH CAME OUT OF THE JUDGEMENT

The supreme court overturned and reversed the order by the high court of Kerela in which the Kerela high court had decided to make a trust which would control the assets, the money and the management of the temple.


In addition to that , since the amendment of the term ruler happened in article 366 ( 22) of the constitution of India, the high court had ordered that the successor of the then present time royal family could not continue to be in charge of the Padmanabhaswami temple . The supreme court in its judgements ruled that as per customary law, that even after the death of the last ruler, the royal family of the Rajgharana will continue to have shebait rights. The term shebait rights entails the rights to serve and to manage the affairs of the deity and the temple. What this judgment, the court has paved the way to free the institution of the temple from government control and can be considered a landmark judgement.



GENESIS OF THE CASE

It all started with the eviction proceeding of the tenant. A practicing advocate, tenant on the premises owned by the temple was asked to evict the premises in 2009 by the then executive officer. The tenant refused and challenged the authority of the officer alleging his appointment as the executive officer was illegal and that the person who appointed him the executive officer lacked the authority to do so under law.


In response to an eviction proceeding he filed a writ petition in the Kerala HC in 2009 on the grounds that the royal family does not fall within the definition of ruler for the purposes of the Travancore Hindu religious institutions act of 1950 which governs temples in Kerala. He went on to allege that post the 26th amendment of the constitution in 1971 when the privy purses and royal titles was abolished, the concept of ruler became redundant and therefore any power or privilege enjoyed by the Travancore royal family with respect to the temple came to an end either in 1971 or at the very least after the death of the signatory to the original covenant between the Travancore princely state and the union. The signatory of the covenant had passed away in 1991 and was the legendry king of the Travancore princely state Chitratiranalalanar verma also known as the walking Vishnu das or Padmanabha Das because of his saintly nature and practically every institution of public in Thiruvananthapuram was built by him and under him in those times . This is how the proceeding started and a couple of suits were filed in the district and rural courts of Thiruvananthapuram challenging the authority of the family over the temple in addition to alleging that perhaps there was some kind of mismanagement in addition to the writ petition filed by the tenant.



DECISION OF THE KERELA HIGH COURT

The then ruler of the family or the head of the family Shri Marthanda Verma approached the high court in 2010 with a writ petition for all these civil suits in various courts to be transferred to the Kerela HC because ultimately the central question across all the suits was whether they continued to hold the authority over the temple and whether the 26th amendment in any way affected their relationship with the temple. “The writ petition filed by the tenant and by the ruler was tagged together and it resulted in the judgement of the Kerala HC on 31st January 2011 holding that any privilege or position enjoyed by the ruler of Travancore who originally signed the covenant in May 1949 on behalf of the princely states of Travancore and cochin on one hand and Indian union on the other ended with his demise in 1991. In any case, according to the 26th amendment, there is no concept of ruler.”It also in its judgement stated that since everywhere in the act of the Padmanabhaswami Temple the word ruler has been used , and it has been declared redundant, therefore none of the successors of the royal family would have any rights with respect to the temple . The simple question was whether the use of the word ruler in the act - was with reference to an individual or was it with reference to an office. The Kerala HC ruled that it ended with the life of the previous ruler in 1991 and it also passed detailed directions facilitating the takeover of the temple, its assets and management by the state government of Kerela through a trust created by the State govt of Kerela. It also directed all the vaults of the temple which were held sacred and never to be opened be opened and each article in each of the vaults to be inventoried and put out on public display in a museum on a payment basis so that people and tourists can visit the temple to look at that on the payment of a fee.



THE SUPREME COURT GETS INVOLVED

It is against this judgement that the royal family approached the SC in 2011. A stay was granted by the supreme court on day 1 and the court put in place certain committees which would administer and govern this temple in the meanwhile. The proceeding ultimately resulted in the judgement on 13th of July 2020, and the supreme court held that the judgement of the Kerela HC was blatantly erroneous and a flu in the face of history of the covenant and the spirit behind the protection given to this particular family by the Travancore cochin act of 1950.



THE PARTIES

The royal family along with the temple trust - the royal family has the ruler as the head of the family and all the other members were individual parties of the case. Shri Krishan Renu Gopal represented the king along with Mr Shyam Mohan. Senior advocate Arvinti Datar represented the temple trust and other members of the royal family were represented by Mr Ismin. The proceedings were entered on behalf of dharma and chief Tantri of the temple. On the defendant side was the state govt of Kerela and the originally tenant who continued to fight the battle along with the Union of India. The committee of 7 to 8 brahmins who also form part of the traditional management structure as the stakeholders of the temple were also included.



THE CASE BEFORE THE SUPREME COURT - ANALYSED

There are some broad outcomes we should look at from the case presented before the supreme court –


1. The entire relationship between the royal family and the temple was based on a specific instrument or document. That document was the covenant signed between the rulers and the princely states of Travancore and Cochin on the one hand and the Indian union on the other.


2. The Indian Union was represented by Mr VP Menon, the right hand of sardar Patel- the then home minister of India, who was doing the negotiations with all the princely states. The ruler of Travancore state was Chirtratiranal Balram Verma.


3. Once the instrument of accession stating that “I wish to be a part of Bharat”, is signed, the signatories agree into couple of more agreements to protect their interests and rights and that additional document is the one being referred to here.


4. This document was entered into separately but both the states had, by now merged to form the Travancore cochin state and hence only one document was signed on behalf of both the states.


5. The central feature of this document which was relevant to the case was a provision called “article 8” which captured the covenant and the promise made by the Indian Union to the ruler of the Travancore family stating that their rights and their control over the management of the temple should not be interfered with just not for his lifetime but also his successors.


6. The rest of the temples formed a part of the Travancore Deva Swami board which governs all the temples in Travancore and cochin. This temple is an exception as it falls under the exclusive domain of the ruler of Travancore.


7. There were 3 major temples of Kerala which had special relationships with different families and hence were recognised by the covenants. The covenant was signed in may 1949. In 1950 the HRC legislation of Kerala, passed the Travancore Cochin Hindu religious institutions act of 1950. The act contains a specific chapter of this particular section dedicated to this temple, which is chapter 3, section 18 to 23 . This chapter is called Shri Padmanabhaswami Temple, dedicated to this institution and captures all the obligations which were recorded as part of the covenant. Under this structure the raja or the head of the royal family of Travancore had a power to appoint a 3member committee and an executive in order to help the “raja” in the discharge of his duties towards the temple. This was the structure in the act. There has been no amendment to that particular portion of this act since then, even after the abolition of privy purses and even after the death of the covenant ruler. The contention put forward was that the state government, which had till now not amended any part of this part of the act, knew that this particular section was protected.



THE JUDGEMENT OF THE COURT

“In the judgement of the SC, the SC recognises that if this entire act is Ganga then the Gangotri is the covenant. The relationship recognised in the covenant is a special relationship in which the Travancore family is the earthly custodian or representative of the deity.” The relationship between the Rajgharana and the deity is not a product of the British title. The supreme court recognised that the abolition of privy purses in 1971 can take away all the titles but not this relationship which existed even before the concept of British came about. The court in its judgement said that therefore, this particular relationship stands unaffected by the abolition of the privy purses in 1971. in addition to this, the right that was given under article 8 of the act was not limited to the signing ruler or that particular ruler who signed the covenant but also his successors. The judgement the court goes on to say further that in matters of policy relating to the fundamental matter of the temple, it shall be the ruler who has the final say. The requirement of the permission from the ruler extended to this ambit. Any monthly expenditure or any one-time expenditure over one crore, the permission of the ruler will have to be taken. The court ruled that any expansion or renovation of the temple, will require the approval of the ruler under para 47. What the court also says that any aspect of the administration which changes the fundamental character of the temple in so far as the religious sentiments are concerned it will be the raja who is the final authority.


In addition to that, the decisions with respect to all the treasures and vaults are left to the committees. But the committees are operating under the raja. And the raja is bound with the tradition.


Under this act the court also directed what would happen to the current administrative structure: - There were 3 sets of proposals placed before the court 1. From the ruler of the royal family 2. from the state government. 3 . from the interveners. The court accepted the proposal of the ruler in entirety except one or two changes.



ADMINISTRATIVE STRUCTURE PROPOSED BY THE COURT

The court proposed that there will be 2 committees instead of one. The advisory committee has to have 3 people. In addition to that an administrative committee will have to be formed which has 5 people. Under the advisory committee there will be a retired judge from the high court nominated by the retired justice of the Kerala high court, someone who is nominated by the ruler and a third person, a reputed charted accountant nominated by the retired judge in consultation with the ruler. The raja proposed the first person should be a retired IAS officer of the rank of secretory which the court of Kerala replaced by the district judge.



OBSERVATIONS AND EXPLAINATIONS

To someone who believes in the concept of sanctity and religious basis to significant extent, direction of a secular institution which affectively strips a religious institution of its sanctity and all of it being sanctified in a judicial authority, does not sit well. Moreover, when a religious institution is handed over to a secular body and one does not need to be in practice of hinduism or the constitution to arrive at this very basic conclusion that the directions of the Kerala HC transgressed all levels of reasonableness, of expectation of fairness with respect to treatment of fundamental and religious nature. According to reasoning, this was not a question of one family at a temple. Crores and crores of people believe in Padmanabhaswami and the temple is an object of faith and worship and respect When seen in that light, this was an extremely disturbing consequence. When we look at what the institution has gone through in the last 11 years, the judgement of the Supreme Court is a welcome relief. Similarly placed temples and similarly placed royal families can now look at the justice system with hope to agitate for a similar kind of judgement. There is still a fear among the people that that this is a backdoor for the entrenchment of the temple by the government. But on looking at the act, it clearly states that the administrative committee now replacing the executive officer to be appointed by the raja shall be under the control and supervision of the ruler. These apprehensions are baseless and if we have recognised that article 8 is valid and it speaks of the dominion of the ruler over the temple then the court would obviously not contradict it on footing so as to uphold rights on one hand and make committees which demeans those very rights? The act expressly states that under section 18 of the act, any entity which persons in the role of the executive officer shall be under the ruler. And as far as section 20 is concerned, an advisory body can only advise. However, after going through the case in its entirety, personally I am of the opinion that the court could have avoided populating this certain body with state representatives.



CONCLUSION

With this judgement of the supreme court, it stands established that as far as the Fundamental relation between the family and temple is concerned, Supremacy of the ruler as far as the temple is concerned is restored. To the other temples, the extent the court is willing to recognise a relationship rooted in religion, it is a welcome step that today Indian court recognise a religious relationship which is hindu in nature and character and also believes that the right of control can reside in this royal families. From a big picture perspective, it is a positive sign but not a giant leap. However , It can be called a giant leap for this temple alone . For similarly placed temples it can perhaps be the starting point of the discussion if not a brilliant end. This judgement paves the way and can be instrumental in freeing the temples in the country such as the Tirumala Tirupati temple which is populated entirely by the people appointed by the state. In the temples in Uttarakhand, under the char Dham act, the state govt has taken over 51 temples and the present judgement paves a way for these.


Shri Jagannathan temple administration committee is a government appointed committee. To the other temples, to the extent the court is willing to recognise a relationship rooted in religion, it is a welcome step that today, Indian court recognise a religious relationship which is Hindu in nature and character and also believes that the right of control can reside in this royal family. From a big picture perspective, it is a positive sign but not a giant leap for similarly placed temples and it can perhaps be the starting point of the discussion if not a brilliant end.