We, the trustees of People for Dharma and devotees of Sree Padmanabhaswamy, are elated at the historic verdict in relation to the renowned Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple delivered on July 13, 2020 by a Bench of the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India comprising Justice U.U. Lalit and Justice Indu Malhotra. The verdict was delivered in Special Leave Petitions (Civil) numbered 11295 of 2011 and 12361 of 2011, and Writ Petition (Civil) No. 518 of 2011 preferred against the Judgement of the Kerala High Court dated January 31, 2011 wherein the High Court had held in a batch of Writ Petitions and Civil Suits that the Head of the Travancore Royal Family and his successors had no right to control or manage the affairs of the Temple owing to abolition of all royal titles by the Constitution (Twenty Sixth Amendment) Act, 1971.
Further, the High Court had issued detailed directions directing the State Government of Kerala to constitute a trust to take over the control of the Temple, its assets and management. Critically, such a trust was empowered to open all the vaults (Kallaras) of the Temple, inventorize all its contents and create a museum and exhibit all the treasures of the Temple for the public, devotees and tourists to view the same on a payment basis in the Temple itself. Effectively, through its Judgement, the Kerala High Court had not only deprived the Travancore Royal Family and the Devotees of Lord Padmanabha of their rights to manage and preserve the sanctity of the Temple respectively, but had also directed commercializing the property of the Deity by putting on public display the sacred treasures of the Temple for the public in general, and not just to practising Hindus who believed in the Deity, within the premises of the Temple. Given the sacrifices made by the Hindu community of Kerala and all over the country to preserve the sanctity of their religious spaces, every direction of the Kerala High Court went against everything they held sacred and for which their ancestors had given up their lives.
It is in the above backdrop that the historic verdict of the Hon’ble Supreme Court must be understood and appreciated. Following are the salient outcomes in the Supreme Court’s verdict of July 13, 2020:
- The Court has recognized that Article VIII of the Covenant signed between the Rulers of Travancore and Cochin Princely States on the one hand, and the Indian Union on the other in May 1949 represents the acknowledgement of the special relationship of Shebaitship (the earthly custodian and representative of the Deity) between the Travancore Royal Family and the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, which was independent of and unrelated to any titles bestowed upon Indian Rulers by the British. Therefore, according to the Court, the 26th Amendment of 1971 to the Indian Constitution had no bearing on the pre-existing special relationship between the Travancore Royal Family and the Temple since the amendment was meant to only abolish those titles which came in the way of the republican character of India;
- The Court further recognized that Article VIII of the Covenant forms the basis of Chapter III (Sections 18-23) of the Travancore Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act (TCHRI Act), 1950 which specifically deals with the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple. The object of providing a specific chapter for the Temple was to ensure that the rights guaranteed by Article VIII of the Covenant are protected and guaranteed to the successors of the Ruler even after India’s transition to a republic. The Court recognized that this was precisely the reason why the State Government of Kerala had never diluted the position or rights of the Travancore Royal Family despite having undertaken multiple amendments to the TCHRI Act 1950 before and after 1971, and even after the death of Shri Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma in 1991 who had signed the Covenant as the Ruler of Travancore in 1949.
- Accordingly, the Supreme Court set aside the Judgement and directions of the Kerala High Court and laid down the administrative structure for the Temple largely based on the suggestions placed before the Court by the current head of the Travancore Royal Family. Under the structure as laid down by the Supreme Court:
i. Decisions relating to all policy related matters of the Temple shall be taken by the “Ruler”/Head of the Travancore Royal Family who shall be advised by a three-member Advisory Committee in the discharge of his functions in accordance with Section 20 of the TCHRI Act 1950. The said Advisory Committee shall consist of a retired High Court Judge who shall be nominated by the Chief Justice of the Kerala High court. The said retired High Court Judge shall be treated as the Chairperson of the Advisory Committee. The second member shall be an eminent person nominated by the Ruler and the third member shall be a reputed Chartered Accountant to be nominated by the Chairperson of the Committee in consultation with the Trustee;
ii. A second Committee, namely the Administrative Committee consisting of five members shall exercise the powers of administration previously wielded by an Executive Officer appointed by the Ruler. Importantly, under Section 18(2), such powers of administration will be subject to the control and supervision of the Ruler. The five members of the said Committee shall 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;
iii. Importantly, the Administrative Committee shall not take any decision on the following matters of policy except after obtaining the approval of the Ruler:
a.Any expense item exceeding INR 15 lakhs per month;
b. Any one-time expense of INR 1 Crore;
c. Any major renovation/expansion of the Temple;
d. Any changes in the Standard Operating Procedures of the Temple Administration; and
e. Any fundamental changes in the character of the Temple that would affect the religious sentiments of its devotees.
iv. All members of both Committees shall be Hindus within the meaning of Section 2(aa) of the TCHRI Act 1950;
v. It is evident from the above that in stark contrast to the judgement of the Kerala High Court, the Supreme Court has restored the position of the Head of the Travancore Royal Family as the Shebait of the Temple, under whose control and supervision both Committees shall function. In addition to the above, in Paragraph 116 of the Judgement, the Court has spelt out detailed directions to preserve the religious practices of the Temple, to recover the property of the Temple from encroachers and to ensure that the funds of the Temple are spent on religious and charitable purposes deemed appropriate by the Advisory Committee, among other things. Critically, the decision of opening Kallara B has been left to the Committees, which effectively leaves the decision to the Advisory Committee since it is a matter of policy and religious tradition. The Advisory Committee under Section 20 of the TCHRI Act is meant to advise the Ruler, which makes the Ruler the last word on such matters.
Therefore, notwithstanding the presence of a nominee of the Union Government, a nominee of the State Government and a District Judge in the five-member Administrative Committee, and a retired High Court Judge in the three-member Advisory Committee, the overall control on all issues, major and minor, remains that of the Ruler in accordance with the clear object of Article VIII of the Covenant and the express intent of Sections 18-23 of the TCHRI Act 1950. In so far as the defraying of security expenses in concerned, we believe that the annuities payable to the Temple in lieu of the lands taken over by the State Government must be increased to bring it at par with the current market value and must be revised periodically, in order for the Temple to meet its expenses. Further, the amount currently being paid to the Temple under Article 290A must be increased given the tourism the Temple attracts and the fact that the Temple has been exposed to security threats owing to the Government’s hyping of the Temple’s treasures.
While we understand that this is not the ideal template for Temple autonomy which is our larger goal, we are of the considered view that the Supreme Court has restored the position as it existed prior to the judgement of the Kerala High Court in so far as the control and supervision of the Ruler is concerned. Should this model undermine the autonomy of the Ruler in matters of administration or lead to interference with the religious practices of the Temple, it is open to all stakeholders to the Temple to press into service appropriate legal remedies before the appropriate Court.
Given the current environment where Governments cutting across party lines seem intent on entrenching themselves in Hindu religious institutions, the template provided by the Supreme Court based on the suggestions of the Travancore Royal Family should be viewed as having limited application to the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple. Though certainly not ideal, it is better than the existing HRCE regimes in various parts of the country where the Temple has no autonomy and is entirely controlled by the State and its mandarins. Therefore, for now, we welcome the Supreme Court’s verdict in the hope that it will address the temporal and spiritual concerns of the devotees of Lord Padmanabha. As always, we will remain vigilant to prevent any entrenchment by the State henceforth in the affairs of the Abode of Lord Padmanabha.
We thank our legal team, Advocate Shri J. Sai Deepak (Arguing Counsel) Shri Suvidutt Sundaram (Advocate on Record) who represented People for Dharma, the Chief Thantri of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple and the Shri M.V.Soundararajan of the Temple Protection Movement, for their unrelenting, committed and effective representation in Court. We also thank the Indic Collective Trust for all the research support provided during the course of the matter. Above all, we thank Lord Padmanabha for giving us all an opportunity to contribute to His Cause, the Cause of Dharma.
Sri Padmanabho Vijayate!!