Why SC Kerala temple verdict is pragmatic
In many instances, the management of religious institutions was handed over to the state by the courts. What is distinctive about the Padmanabhaswamy temple case?
The apex court on 13 July 2020 in Sri Marthanda Varma vs. State of Kerala correctly settled the decade-long controversy regarding the management and administration of the Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram, holding that the erstwhile former Travancore royal family is the manager (shebait) of the temple properties. The top court has decided on the management of the religious institution based on diverse facts of the case and by emphasising on the origins of that particular institution.
This appeal was against the 2011 judgment of the Kerala High Court, which directed the state government to take over the management of the Padmanabhaswamy temple on the grounds that the Travancore ex-royals lost control over its management after the death of the last ruler in 1991. The apex court examined the royal family’s management in the past and after the princely states of Travancore-Cochin (now Kerala) were brought into the Union of India in 1949, and set aside the decision of the Kerala High Court.
This article analyses the different circumstances which the Supreme Court considered before ruling in favour of the former royals by comparing it with a few judicial precedents. In Durgah Committee vs. Syed Hussain Ali (1961), the Khadims of the tomb of Khwaja Moin-ud-din Chishti of Ajmer challenged the validity of the Durgah Khwaja Saheb Act, 1955, which took away their “right of management of the Durgah”, by arguing that the Act hindered their right to freedom of religion, among other fundamental rights. A Constitution Bench decided that the management of properties of the Durgah was always in the hands of the state and the denomination never had the right to manage the properties endowed in favour of a denominational institution. Consequently, Articles 26(c) and (d) of the Constitution also never came to the rescue of petitioners.
In Tilkayat Shri Govindlalji Maharaj vs. State of Rajasthan (1963), the Tilkayat challenged the validity of the Nathdwara Temple Act, 1959, which took away his right to manage the temple properties on the grounds that it was his private property and its deprivation violated his rights under Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution. The Constitution Bench analysed the historical background of the temple and held that though the idols of the deities of the Nathdwara Temple belonged to the Tilkayat and his family, the temple land was granted to him by a firman. Hence his “management rights” could be taken away by the state though his ceremonial rights were upheld. Noted jurist H M Seervai hailed this decision as a secular decision.
Similarly, in Seshammal vs. State of Tamil Nadu (1972) and A S Narayana Deekshitulu vs. State of AP (1996), the Supreme Court upheld the abolition of the hereditary appointment of archakas (priests) as an instance of a “secular act” for ensuring social reforms. In many other cases, the management of religious institutions, as a “secular act”, was handed over to the state by the courts in India. Then what is distinctive about the Padmanabhaswamy temple in Kerala that the apex court held that the management would lie in the hands of the former Travancore royals? Firstly, it is the antecedents of the temple.
During ancient times, the Padmanabhaswamy temple was administered by the Ettarayogam (Council of eight and a half priests). Then, Raja Marthanda Varma, after becoming the king of the erstwhile Travancore State, took full control of the Padmanabhaswamy temple and administered the entire kingdom as a servant of Lord Padmanabhaswamy by describing himself as Padmanabhadasa. After the merger of princely states into India, an agreement was entered into between the then Maharaja and the Union of India, represented by V P Menon, to ensure that the management of the Padmanabhaswamy temple remained with the royal family.
Secondly, Article 290A of the Constitution stipulates that certain sums of money have to be charged on and paid out of the consolidated funds of Tamil Nadu and Kerala every year for the maintenance of Hindu temples and shrines in those states. This provision inserted through the Seventh Constitution Amendment Act, 1956, relating to reorganisation of states, makes an exception only in the case of temples under control of the erstwhile Travancore-Cochin rulers, since they used to allocate money for the maintenance of shrines and the revenues from the temples would go into their treasury. The 1949 covenant between the Maharaja and the Union recognises that the temples in these two states would be funded out of the consolidated funds of the respective states. Article 290A still remains in the Constitution, even after Mrs Indira Gandhi’s successful attempt to do away with privy purses, which lends credibility to the claim of the ex-royals.
The apex court also directed the setting up of administrative and advisory committees to ensure fair and transparent administration of the temple by involving the district judge and chief tantri. It is particularly interesting to see the consistent stand of the ex-royals that they don’t need any remuneration for managing the temple or its properties, and the state government’s stand that the wealth found with the temple belongs to the temple only. The court left the decision to open the Kallara B (cellar/secret vault), which is estimated to have a total of Rs 1.5 lakh crore wealth, to the discretion of the committees. This is one area where the apex court appears to have failed to do complete justice in the matter brought before it. The court has rightly refused to take cognisance of the controversy around essential religious practices, if any, over the management of the temple affairs by the shebaits, though it was raised by one of the interveners. Therein lies the pragmatism, much needed in the present era.
G B Reddy
Professor, University College of Law, Osmania University
Akash Kumar Baglekar
Student, University College of Law, Osmania University