In a victory for the erstwhile Travancore royal family, the Supreme Court on Monday held that its members shebaitship (right to manage the deitys property) at the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple survived on the death of the ruler as per custom.
The court held that the death of a ruler did not result in escheatment of property in favour of the government despite the 26th Amendment (to terminate the privy purses and privileges of the Rulers of former Indian States) of the Constitution.
The court, however, has constituted a committee under the chairmanship of the district judge, who will continue as the administrative head. The committee, which will have Hindus as members, will decide on the opening of Kallara B.
With this, the court has dismissed arguments that covenants executed by the erstwhile Travancore king have no existence and are not enforceable.
A few devotees, who were the original plaintiffs in the suits filed in lower courts alleging mismanagement of the temples treasures, had argued before a Supreme Court Bench of Justices U.U. Lalit and Indu Malhotra that a broad-based committee has to be set up to manage the Padmanabha Swamy temple similar to other temples managed by Devaswom boards like the Guruvayur temple in Kerala.
Advocates P.B. Suresh, Vipin Nair and Karthik Jayshankar, for the devotees, 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 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 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 were made in the backdrop of the Agreement of Accession signed in 1949, integrating the princely States of Travancore and Cochin as one and bringing the Travancore-Cochin as Part B State under the Constitution. This covenant had allowed the management of the temple to be vested in trust with the Travancore ruler.
They had argued that the words guarantee and assurance in the covenants were basically moral obligations and cannot be converted into a legal obligation.
The guarantee by the Government of India cannot be enforced as its sanction is not legal, but is only political and, hence, any violation of the terms of the covenants cannot be enforced& Section 18(2) and Section 20 Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, 1950, are void as being repugnant to Article 363-A of the Constitution of India and hence not enforceable, the devotees had submitted.
The submissions of the devotees support the observations recorded by the Kerala High Court in its 2011 judgment, which had interpreted the Travancore kings 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 the temple was a public one. No exclusive claim to manage the public temple can arise, the devotees had submitted.