On 13th July 2020, every devotee’s, as well as Travancore royals’ eyes, were on the two-judge bench of the Supreme Court which was to deliver its judgement in the Padmanabhaswamy Temple case. For the former, it was a question of their faith and for the latter a battle for their rights. The case had been pending before the Apex Court ever since the decision of the Kerala High Court on 31st January 2011, which has been overruled now. The landmark judgment has not only upheld the devotees’ faith but marks a major point in terms of revering the existing rituals, faith, religion and heritage, while also not diminishing the rights of the Travancore Royal Family (hereinafter, ‘the Royal Family’). The present case attains great importance as it dealt with some significant constitutional questions. These included the much controversial 26th Amendment which led to the Abolition of Privy Purses in India. The judgment legally recognised the relationship of shebaitship between the presiding deity Lord Padmanabhaswamy of the temple and the Royal Family.
Down the Corridors of Time: The Covenant of 1949 and Subsequent Acts
The origin of the dispute can be traced down to the Post-Independence years, when the unification of India was on its way. A covenant was signed between the princely states of Travancore and Cochin and the Union of India on May 1949. The main bone of contention, which has led to a series of cases and ultimately an appeal before the apex court itself, can be traced down to this very covenant. Article 8 of the covenant contains the union’s promise to the then ruler, Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, that his rights and control over the management of the Padmanabhaswamy temple shall not be interfered with, and the same shall be followed in case of his successors’. On an agreement, most of the other temples under the Royal Family were brought under the control of the Devaswom Boards of Cochin and Travancore, except the Padmanabhaswamy Temple.
Following this signing 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, with the enactment of State Reorganisation Act of 1956 the four southern taluks of Travancore and a part of the Chencotta were merged and the state of Madras was formed. The State of Kerala came into existence on November 1, 1956, with a Governor, appointed by the President of India, as the head of the State instead of the Maharajah. However, the condition in the accession agreement was incorporated in the State law governing the administration of temples (the TC Act, 1950) after the reorganisation of the States.
The Maharajah was stripped of all his ranks and privileges according to the twenty-sixth amendment of the Indian constitution act of 31st July, 1971. The Royal Family lost its ruling rights in 1949 when Travancore merged with India and their remaining privileges were abolished in 1971 by the Constitutional Amendment. However, even after that, the temple continued to be governed by a trust controlled by the erstwhile royal family until 1991, when the last ruler of Travancore passed away. After the passing of the ruler, the state government allowed the management of the temple to be taken over and retained by his younger brother, Uthradam Thirunal Maranda Varma. This move marks the originating point of the present dispute that the apex court final brought an end to.
The Present Dispute: Legalities of Inheritance and the Challenge of Faith
Things were smooth for the Royal Family and as previously mentioned, Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the eldest member of Royal family, retained the management of the temple, with no challenges filed to his legal position and it is an accepted fact that the temple ‘vested in trust in the ruler of Travancore’, who controlled and managed it through an executive officer. However, tables turned when Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma claimed the treasures of the temple as the properties of the royal family. This agitated the beliefs of many devotees who objected to this declaration and challenged the authority of the Royal Family to run the temple courts. All these petitions, along with a writ petition by a tenant who was asked by the executive board to vacate the temple premises, were clubbed and heard before a Division Bench of the Kerala High Court.
The main issue of the petitioners was that the appointment of the executive officer was illegal as the Royal Family, which had appointed the officer, prima facie no authority to do so. It was contended that all the rights of the Royal Family towards administering the temple were abolished by the 26th Constitutional Amendment, which was upheld in Raghunathrao Ganpatrao v. Union of India in 1993 after being subjected to the Basic Structure test leading to deletion of Art. 262 and later on the addition of Art. 263A. It was also contended 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.
Surprisingly, the Kerala High Court accepted the validity of arguments raised and ruled against the Royal Family disowning them from any authority to manage the temple and directing the state government to take over the administration of the temple. The decision was challenged before the Supreme Court of India, in 2011, granted an interim stay on the directives of the HC order which were aimed to transfer administrative authority and public display of vault treasures. The case finally concluded with the Supreme Court overruling the decision of Kerala High Court and reinstating the Royal Family rights while still maintain the delicate fabric of devotees’ faith.
The Judgment: Balancing Rights and Faith
The Judgment of the apex court defines the relationship between the Royal Family and the temple as that of ‘shebaitship.’ ‘A shebait has no legal claim to the property, which is believed only to rest in the deity (or idol). A shebait is a trustee of the property, and as such, is entitled to custody of both, the property and the idol. The Court even established that the rights of management and administration of the temple pass on to every successive generation as per custom.
Clarifying on which it stated that “According to the settled principles, the ‘Shebaitship’ is like any other heritable property which would devolve in accordance with custom or usage, and that the rule of custom must prevail in all cases, even after the death of the erstwhile Ruler of Travancore in 1991 — the Shebaitship of the Temple being unconnected with the official status of the person who signed the Covenant, must devolve by the applicable laws of succession and custom.” The apex court observed: “Going by the normal incidents of Shebaitship including the heritability, the context in which the expression was used in Article VIII of the Covenant, and carried in the provisions of the TC Act, it must be held that such expression must include the successors to the person who had signed the Covenant.”
The court further added, “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.” Hence, it was held that as the Royal Family was the shebait of the temple it did have a claim on the property but only in the capacity of a trustee. This meant that the claims of Utradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma which stated the temple’s property was that of the Royal Family were annulled.
A Lesson for the World: ‘Faith Wins’ or ‘Right Triumphs’?
The major issue which was before the apex court, in this case, was one hand to secure the Royal Family the rights that they were promised and on the other hand maintaining the faith of people. There was no scope for swaying in favour of the either because had the court swayed in the favour of the Royal Family, the treasures of the temple would have become their property and there would have been a possibility of their being traded, as legally the property would have acquired a personal nature. Such an act would have a deep impact on the sentiments of the devotees’, as in a way their lord’s property would become someone else’s.
While had the court swayed in favor of the devotees, the Royal Family would have seen such a verdict as a historic betrayal, for not only it would have deprived them of their rights which were exclusively conferred on them, but also would be seen as a direct violation to the spirit of the historical treaty. The Supreme Court was critical of both the viewpoints and like a skillful sailor, sailed the harsh seas of conflicting interests by granting the shebaitship. In doing so, the court ensured that the Royal Family explicitly maintained the rights that they were entitled too, i.e. right to maintain the temple, and also the devotees were not deprived of their faith by classifying their lord’s property as a private property of the Royal Family. This judgment not only marked a substantial point in the present issue but rather set a stage for all future conundrums while demonstrating the world how law and faith can indeed be balanced without prejudice to anyone.