The petitioners have alleged mismanagement of Padmanabha Swamy temple’s treasures
The hearing in the Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple case in the Supreme Court has reached a significant point, with devotees arguing that covenants executed by the erstwhile Travancore King were non-existent and non-enforceable.
The devotees, who were the original plaintiffs in the suits filed in lower courts alleging mismanagement of the temple’s treasures, argued before a Supreme Court Bench of Justices U.U. Lalit and Indu Malhotra that a broad-based committee must be set up to manage the Padmanabha Swamy temple, as was the case with other temples in Kerala managed by the devaswom boards, like the Guruvayur temple.
Advocates P.B. Suresh and Karthik Jayshankar, for the devotees, referred to the Twenty-sixth Constitution Amendment which abolished the very term ‘ruler’ from the Constitution. The 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.
Mr. Suresh highlighted the 1994 Raghunathrao Ganpatrao versus Union of India case, in which the Supreme Court upheld the Constitution Amendment as the will of the people and a measure to ensure an egalitarian society. It held that covenants of erstwhile rulers no longer had sanctity or meaning.
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 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.
The devotees 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, only political, and hence any violation of the terms of the covenants cannot be enforced. “Section 18(2) and Section 20 of the 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 submitted.
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 is incompatible with 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 is a public temple. “No exclusive claim to manage the public Temple can arise,” the devotees submitted.