Supreme Court ruling on July 12 in Padmanabha Swamy temple case

The Supreme Court is scheduled to pronounce its judgment on Monday in the famed Padmanabha Swamy temple case, primarily who should play a dominant role in running the temple and managing its considerable assets — the State government or the erstwhile royal Travancore family.

The judgment by a Bench of Justices U.U. Lalit and Indu Malhotra will answer major questions in the case: whether the temple is a “public” entity; should a devaswom board be formed like in Tirupathi, Guruvayur and Sabarimala; what is the ideal scheme to be formulated by the court in its parents patriae jurisdiction to protect the assets of the deity, which in law is a perpetual minor; what should be the role of the erstwhile royals in future administration of the temple, the deity being a perpetual minor; and should the erstwhile royals be allowed to continue to manage or administer the other assets and properties belonging to the temple through their private trusts.

Over the years, different Benches of the Supreme Court had played a part in taking an inventory of the treasures stored in the temple vaults, appointed amicus curiae to report on the happenings of the temple and even had former Comptroller and Auditor General Vinod Rai audit the valuables. One of the major debates was the opening of Kallara (vault) B.

Two independent reports from former amicus curiae and senior advocate Gopal Subramanium, who bowed out of the case later, and Mr. Rai had pointed to a large number of financial discrepancies, major system deficiencies as regards maintenance of temple accounts, and discrepancies in the use of precious metals, among other things.

Also read: ‘Padmanabhaswamy temple belongs to public’

The judgment is on petitions challenging a 2011 decision of the Kerala High Court. The High Court had essentially held that, upon the death of the last ruler of the erstwhile State of Travancore on July 20, 1991, the petitioner, His Highness Sri Marthanda Varma, did not step into the shoes of the ruler and cannot claim management rights over the temple under the provisions of the Travancore Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, 1950.

The High Court had passed a series of directions in exercise of its jurisdiction as ‘parens patriae’ and concluded that the temple, its properties and assets would revert and vest in the State government under Article 295 and Article 296 of the Constitution. It had held that to preserve the temple and its treasures, it was the duty of the State Government to make arrangements as in the case of State-run temples that were handed over to the State Devaswom Board.

Devotees, represented by advocates Vipin Nair, P.B. Suresh and Karthik Jayashankar, said that covenants executed by the erstwhile Travancore King have “no existence and are “not enforceable”.

The devotees, who were the original plaintiffs in the suits filed in lower courts alleging mismanagement of the temple’s treasures, had argued that a “broad-based committee had to be set up to manage the Padmanabha Swamy temple, similar to other temples managed by devaswom boards like the Guruvayur temple.”

They had referred to the Twenty-sixth Constitution Amendment which abolished the very term ‘ruler’ from the Constitution. The Constitution (Twenty Sixth) Amendment Act of 1971 abolished privy purses, privileges and other special rights of the erstwhile rulers of Indian States by deleting Articles 291 and 362 and by incorporating Article 366 (22) of the Constitution.

They had highlighted a Constitution Bench judgment of 1994 in Raghunathrao Ganpatrao versus Union of India, in which the Supreme Court upheld the Constitution Amendment as the will of the people and a measure to ensure an egalitarian society. It had held that covenants of erstwhile rulers had no sanctity or meaning any longer.

The submissions of the devotees support the observations recorded by the Kerala High Court in its 2011 judgment, which had interpreted the Travancore King’s role as far as the temple was concerned as that of “a trustee who has retained the control of the Temple for the benefit of the devotees, the State and the public at large.”

The High Court had said that the “beneficiaries obviously are the devotees, the State and the public at large and all those who have an interest in the temple.”

The devotees argued that ‘exclusive private management’ of a public trust was incompatible and an antithesis to the character of a public temple.

They reminded the erstwhile Travancore royals that they had already admitted before the Supreme Court that temple is a public temple.

“No exclusive claim to manage the public temple can arise,” the devotees submitted.

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Printable version | Aug 13, 2020 10:51:46 AM |

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