SHEBAIT RIGHTS

SHRI MARTHANDA VARMA (D) THR. LRs &ANR.……..Appellants

VERSUS

STATE OF KERALA & ORS.[1] ………..Respondents

WITH

CIVIL APPEAL NO. 2733 OF 2020

[Arising Out of Special Leave Petition (C) No.12361 of 2011]

AND

WRIT PETITION(C) No.518 OF 2011

AND

CONMT. PET.(C) No.493 OF 2019 IN SLP(C) No.12361 OF 2011

……judgement delivered on July 13, 2020

FACTS

According to the Instrument of Accession signed between the princely states and the government of India, since 1949 the administration of the Temple of Padmanabhaswamy has been entrusted to the ruler of Travancore in trust.

Private purses to the former royals were abolished in 1971 by means of a constitutional amendment which stripped their rights and privileges.

In 1991, when Travancore’s last king, ChithiraThirunal Balarama Varma, passed away, he took over the temple management from his brother UthradamThirunalMarthanda Varma.

It created a furore because he did not have the legal right to assert temple power or management.

However, Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple’s affairs continued to be handled by the royal family before the Kerala High Court ruled in 2011 that the family can not continue to exercise its shebait rights.

 

Brief timeline of the case

2009: –The prelude to this case starts when, in response to a comment made by the royal family ‘s heir, an IPS officer turned lawyer, T P Sunderrajan, filed a public interest lawsuit (PIL).

UtharadomThirunalMarthanda Varma, the royal family heir is said to have said that the temple property belonged to the royal family. Some groups of devotees protested and filed suits to ensure that the land of the temple was not ‘deviated by the royals.’ Among others, the PIL of Sunderrajan was based on the 1949 Accession Agreement signed between the Travancore kings and the Indian government.

Nevertheless, according to the Accession Treaty, the temple administration had the “Travancore’s king.”

Article VII of the Agreement states that, subject to the control and supervision of Travancore ‘s ruler, the administration of the Temple of Padmanabhaswamy shall be performed by an executive appointed by the ruler.

The Kerala High Court directed in January 2011 that the State take over ownership of the temple from the trust led by the royal family. It ruled that family rights had ceased to exist with the death of the Travancore’s last ruler in 1991.

Thus the State would take over the temple administration. The High Court ruled that there was no ‘Travancore king’ as the title was not a ‘rank that could be successively gained.’

This therefore ruled that MarthandaVerma was unable to step into the former ‘king’ shoes.

In May 2011, Marthanda Varma, brother of ChithiraThirunal Balarama Varma, who was Travancore’s ruler at the time of independence, and the one who signed the Accession Agreement, challenged this order.

Kerala High Court order: – This has got the supreme court to stay the orders of the Kerala high court. It also ordered a thorough inventory of the valuables and other items in its numerous vaults that the temple had retained.

The wealth of five of the six opened vaults is estimated to be worth about Rs 90,000 crore.

We addressed the opening of the sixth vault, the Kalara B, which had a complicated locking mechanism in place. Finally, it was decided that the court should consider the question only after completion of the documents and other procedures relating to the property of the other five vaults.

2012: –  Senior lawyer Gopal Subaramaniam was named as amicus curiae by the court.

2013: –UtharadomThirunalMarthanda Varma, the petitioner, passed away leaving his legitimate heirs as alternates.

2014: The amicus curiae submitted its report in April, following which the Supreme Court, by interim order, handed over the administration of the temple to a four-member committee headed by the district judge.

In November at the Supreme Court the royal family opposed the amicus curiae ‘s report. The apex tribunal acknowledged some of the report ‘s suggestions.

2017: The Supreme Court raised the issue of the unopened vault, which was said to have ‘mystical energy’ and was therefore ‘not to be opened,’ with the amicus curiae dismissing its content as ‘unusable suspicion generated.’

Although issuing various orders relating to the protection and temple repair etc, the court said it would later look into the opening of the sixth vault. The royal family and the priests of the temple had protested the vault opening, which the royals say in their affidavit as one they never received.

Even back then, the PinarayiVijayan government insisted that a thorough audit of its inventory would be the best way to “protect the riches of the temple.”

The court order on 4 July 2017 had said that the opening of the vault would only be investigated after the final hearing about the temple administration.

2019: –The final hearing of the case began in January with the Bench of Justices U.U.Lalit and Indu Malhotra.

The supreme court said it had reserved its hearing on that matter on 10 April 2019.

HELD

“We allow the appeal of the royal family of Travancore. Death does not effectShebaitship of the Travancore Family.”[1]

-supreme court

The Supreme Court overturned the 2011 Kerala High Court ruling which had ordered the Kerala government to create a trust to control the temple ‘s management and properties.

The High Court (HC) had ruled that after amending the concept of ‘Ruler’ in Article 366(22) of the Constitution of India,[2] the successor to the former royals could not claim to be in charge of the Shree Padmanabhaswamy Temple.

Ruler’s meaning was amended by the 1971 Twenty Sixth (Constitutional) Amendment Act, which abolished the privy purses.

According to Article 366(22), ‘Ruler’ means a Prince, Chief or other person who, at any time before the beginning of the Twenty Sixth (Constitutional) Amendment Act, 1971, was recognized as the Ruler of an Indian State or was recognized as the successor of that Ruler.

The SC, however, denied this and said that royal family members have the shebait rights, even after the last ruler ‘s death, as is customary law.

Shebait rights means right to handle the deity’s financial affairs.

The SC held that the term of Ruler should apply and be transferred to the successor for the purpose of shebait rights.

Hence,

On July 13, a two-judge Supreme Court bench comprising Justice UU Lalit and Indu Malhotra delivered its verdict on a nine-year long dispute over the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in the capital of Kerala, Thiruvanthapuram, upholding the interests of the former Travancore royal family in its administration.

According to the latest judgment, a new temple administration committee will also be created, headed by a district judge, with the inventory of Vault (Kalara) B, said to house the most precious objects in the temple, left to the committee’s direction.

With the latest judgment, the SC bench has now set aside the Kerala High Court ‘s previous judgment which had ordered the state government to establish a trust to take charge of the temple.

Supreme court verdict reads that: –

“We hold that the death of SreeChithiraThirunal Balarama Varma who had signed the Covenant, would not in any way affect the Shebaitship of the Temple held by the royal family of Travancore; that after such death, the Shebaitship must devolve in accordance with the applicable law and custom upon his successor; that the expression “Ruler of Travancore” as appearing in Chapter III of Part I of the TC Act must include his natural successors according to law and custom; and that the Shebaitship did not lapse in favour of the State by principle of escheat”.[3]

Administrative committee: – The SC acknowledged the royal family ‘s submission that the temple is a public temple, and ordered the formation of an administrative committee with the District Judge of Thiruvananthapuram as its chairperson for its future transparent administration.

The other members of the Committee will be a trustee nominee (royal family), the temple chief thanthri, a state nominee and a member appointed by the Ministry of Culture of the Union.

The SC also directed the creation of a second committee to advise the Administrative Committee on policy matters.

That would be chaired by a retired judge of the High Court nominated by the Kerala High Court’s chief justice.

The two committees will have the primary duties of protecting the artifacts and property.

References:
  1. https://main.sci.gov.in/supremecourt/2011/10179/10179_2011_32_1501_22898_Judgement_13-Jul-2020.pdf
  2. https://main.sci.gov.in/supremecourt/2011/10179/10179_2011_32_1501_22898_Judgement_13-Jul-2020.pdf
  3. https://indiankanoon.org/doc/475664/
  4. https://main.sci.gov.in/supremecourt/2011/10179/10179_2011_32_1501_22898_Judgement_13-Jul-2020.pdf

This Article is Written by Ayush Garg, 3rd Year Student of Gujarat National Law University.