sc-gives-ex-royals-right-to-manage-deitys-property

Context: The recent verdict of the Supreme Court in a case involving the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram has done little to address the issue of practice of secularism in India. 

More on news: 

  • Since 2011, the process of opening the vaults has led to the discovery of treasures within the Padmanabhaswamy temple, prompting a debate on who owns temple property and how it should be regulated. 
  • Despite being a secular country that separates religion from the affairs of the state, Hindu temples, its assets are governed through statutory laws and boards heavily controlled by state governments.
  • This system came into being mainly through the development of a legal framework to outlaw untouchability by treating temples as public land; it has resulted in many legal battles.

Background:

  • It was a dispute on whether the temple and its assets should devolve to the Kerala government.
  • As per the Instrument of Accession signed between the princely states and the Government of India, since 1949, the administration of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple was “vested in trust” in the Ruler of Travancore.
  • The state of Kerala was carved out in 1956 but the temple continued to be managed by the erstwhile royals.
  • In 1971, privy purses to the former royals were abolished through 26th constitutional amendment stripping their entitlements and privileges.
  • The move was upheld in court in 1993 and the last ruler of Travancore who died during the pendency of this case continued to manage the affairs of the temple till then.
  • The question was whether the 26th Constitutional Amendment, which banished rulers and privy purses, would nudge the temple and properties into the hands of the State. 
  • Even after the death of the last Travancore ruler in 1991, the state government allowed the management of the temple to be taken over and retained by his younger brother, Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma.
  • But in 2011, the Kerala High Court ruled that the family cannot continue to exert its shebait rights. Shebait is a person who serves a Hindu deity and manages the temple.
  • That ruling has now been overturned. 

 

26th Constitutional Amendment Act

  • Prime minister Indira Gandhi introduced the 26th amendment to the Constitution of India in July 1971, abolishing privy purses and recognition granted to the rulers of Indian states.
    • Privy purses, in proportion to the size of the revenue of former princely states, had been granted to the royals at the time of Independence as a quid pro quo for surrender of their ruling powers and dissolution of their states.
  • Articles 291 and 362 of the Constitution were omitted.
  • Insertion of new article 363A: Recognition granted to Rulers of Indian States to cease and privy purses to be abolished, notwithstanding anything in this Constitution or in any law for the time being in force.
 

Privy Purse in India

  • In India, a privy purse was a payment made to the ruling (royal or lower) families of erstwhile princely states as part of their agreements to first integrate with India in 1947 after the independence of India, and later to merge their states in 1949 whereby they lost all ruling rights.

Key takeaways of the SC judgement

  • The SC held that the death of a ruler does not affect the royal family’s shebaitship of the temple. Shebaitship was always in the royal family and the Ruler represented the unbroken line of shebaits.
    • Shebaitship does not lapse in favour of the State by principle of escheat (reversion of property to the State).
    • The court defined ‘shebait’ as the “custodian of the idol, its earthly spokesman, its authorised representative entitled to deal with all its temporal affairs and to manage its property.
  • SC directions: Saying that the temple is a “public temple”, the court issued directions for its transparent administration.
  • Committee for the daily administration of the temple:
    • It directed the setting up of an administrative committee with the Thiruvananthapuram District Judge as its chairperson. 
    • The other members would be a nominee of the trustee (royal family), the chief thanthri of the temple, a nominee of the State and a member nominated by the Union Ministry of Culture. 
  • Second committee to advise the administrative committee on policy matters: This would be chaired by a retired High Court judge nominated by the Chief Justice of the Kerala High Court. 
  • The primary duties of the committees:
    • It would be to preserve the treasures and properties. 
    • They would take a call on whether to open Kallara B, considered to be the richest among the temple vaults, for inventorisation.
    • The committees would ensure that rituals and religious practices are conducted as per custom and on the advice of the chief thantri.
    • The committees would ensure that income to the temple would be used to augment the facilities. 
  • Temple audit:
  • SC ordered an audit to be conducted for the past 25 years. 
  • The royal family would not take any remuneration for the services they render to the temple.

Concerns: 

  • State meddling in religious affairs: The judgment effectively embeds the state in temple administration, even while retaining an outward form of hereditary trusteeship.
  • Govt. nominees in administrative committee:  The administrative committee’s chairperson will be a district judge from Thiruvananthapuram. The other two members are nominees of the Kerala government and the Union culture ministry. Thus, three of its five members are government nominees.
  • Judiciary involvement in the advisory committee: It is to be headed by a retired high court judge to be nominated by the Chief Justice of the Kerala High Court. Here the judiciary is having a say in the advisory committee.
  • All members of both committees have to be Hindus who believe in the religion’s mode of temple worship.
    • Though given the unstructured nature of Hinduism, anyone who claims such belief will be deemed Hindu for the purposes of being part of the committees.
  • Violative of Article 25 and 26: The insertion of state nominees artificially constrict the rights of Hindus to propagate their religion and manage temple affairs as they like.
    • It seems violative of Article 26, which guarantees freedom to “manage religious affairs, subject to public order, morality and health" to every “religious denomination or any section thereof".
    • This also appears violative of the spirit of secularism and Article 25 of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees freedom of conscience and also the free profession, practice and propagation of religion. 
    • Denominational rights: Most Hindu religious orders can, for commonsense purposes, be regarded as minority religions in their own right. 
    • So, should the State not restrain itself from inserting itself in the running of temples, except in cases of a clear contravention of the fundamental human rights assured by the Constitution?
    • In an earlier judgement on the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, the SC denied the reality that Swamy Ayyappa’s devotees constitute a denomination with specific essential practices. 

While the Sabarimala judgment is being reviewed by a nine-judge constitutional bench (which will examine issues relating to other religions, too, including women’s entry to mosques and female genital mutilation), the issue that needs debate and clarity is whether Hindu diversity of practice should make space for a wider range of beliefs and practices to be considered “essential" and thus inviolate under the law.

 

Article 26. Freedom to manage religious affairs: 

Subject to public order, morality and health, every religious denomination or any section thereof shall have the right (a) to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes; (b) to manage its own affairs in matters of religion; (c) to own and acquire movable and immovable property; and (d) to administer such property in accordance with the law.

What is a religious denomination?

The definition of the religious denomination was clarified based on the Sri Shirur Mutt case. A body to be categorized as a religious denomination, it must have a

  1. Common Faith
  2. Common Organisation
  3. Distinctive Name;

A sect or sub-sect of religion is also part of Article 26 due to the existence of the word “section” in the article. 

In both Sabarimala case and Haji Ali dargah case, the religious denominations in question were denied the rights under article 26(b), because their activities cannot be categorized under the definition of religious denominations for the purpose of article 26(b).

The relation between article 25 and 26

Initially, it appeared that article 26 is not subject to the restrictions of article 25. But in the case of Sri Venkataramana Devaruand Ors. v. The State of Mysore & Ors, the court declared that article 25(2) has a wider scope of application. And article 26 is subject to the restrictions of article 25. Analysis of article 26

  1. This article includes denomination of any religion, whether it is a majority or a minority religion.
  2. It does not deal with the rights of individual rather it deals with the rights of religious denominations.
  3. The state cannot interfere in the matters of the religion of denominations subject to the grounds provided in article 25(2) (b).
  4. But the state can interfere in the secular activities of the religious denominations and organizations.

 

About Padmanabhaswamy Temple

  • The temple dates back to the 8th century but the present structure was built in the 18th century by the then Travancore Maharaja Marthanda Varma.
  • The temple is built in the unique Chera style of architecture. The Chera style of architecture is only one of its kind in Dravidian architecture.
    • The temple was first made of wood but later constructed with granite that is seen today. 
    • It has 365 pillars, one for each day of the year.
    • It is known to be one of the 108 holy temples associated with Vaishnavism in India.
  • Its main deity is Lord Vishnu who is found in the Anantha Shayana posture (reclined posture of eternal yoga) on Adishesha or king of all serpents.
    • The deity at the temple represents the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Legend has it that Vilvamangalathu Swamiyar, an ascetic, traveled all over the world in search of Lord Padmanabha.
    • The idol is made of kadasharakara, a composition of herbs, resin and sand.
    • The main idol is made with 12,500 shaligram stones transported from the Gandaki river in Nepal.

The treasure

  • There are a total of six vaults located below the temple. These six chambers are named A, B, C, D, E and F.
  • In 2017, the Supreme Court appointed a seven-member panel headed by amicus curiae Gopal Subramanium to assess the value of the treasure inside the vaults, including two chambers that had not been opened for over 130 years.
  • When Vault A was opened by the Gopal Subramanium committee, it unearthed treasure estimated to be roughly around Rs 1,00,000 crore.
  • It contained bags of gold coins from the Napoleonic, Roman, medieval and British eras. 
  • However, vault B or Kallara B remained untouched owing to the belief that the one who would attempt to open it would invite misfortune.

The Travancore family: Their family tree has been traced to 1870 AD when the Travancore dynasty was started by Ayyan Adigal Thiruvadir.

Image Source: The Print