The Supreme Court has issued its long-awaited verdict on the appeal filed by the royal family against the High Court judgement which had directed the state government to take over the administration of Padmanabhaswamy Temple, Thiruvananthapuram. Given the case has complexities involving different dimensions such as the administration of the temple, ownership of the opulent gold ornaments in the vaults of the temple valued at crores of rupees, the apex court has stopped short of issuing comprehensive orders. Thus the bench, consisting of Justices UU Lalit and Indu Malhotra, closed the issue by directing formation of a new council for the temple administration. The essence of the matter is that the bench has upheld the claim of the royal family staked in its appeal, to its right in the running of the temple. Until a new administrative committee headed by the district judge of Thiruvananthapuram comes into being, the temple administration will continue under the interim committee currently in charge. It will be the new committee that has to take a decision as to how the temple assets, should be managed and about opening of Vault-B.
The judgment brings to an end, at last temporarily, a legal battle that has been fought for the last twelve years about the ownership of the temple. However, if at the end of the litigation a question is raised whether this has solved the issue of the temple raised by the temple employees who brought up the matter, the answer may be a disappointing one. And the core aspects of the historic judgement issued by Kerala High Court nine years ago, have also become null.
The matter came up before the court with the release of a press statement by the erstwhile Travancore royal family in September 2007, claiming title to the assets of the temple. With the Executive Officer Colonel Shashidharan issuing a circular in the meantime that they would open the vaults of the temple and take photos of the gold and silver ornaments in them, the employees of the temple entered the scene alleging several irregularities in the temple administration. The core issue at the bottom of this litigation was who had the ownership of the temple. The argument raised by the 'royal family' was that although royal rule of the kingdom had been replaced by democracy, the right to ownership (shebaitship) of the temple rested with the true 'Padmanabhadasa' which they claimed they were. As a matter of fact this is not historically tenable.
It is true that in 1949, at the time of unification of Travancore-Cochi, as per the covenant signed between Travancore and government of India, the then 'king' Sri Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma was given the right to administration of the temple. And this temple was not integrated into any particular Devaswom. But that right had to end with the death of the last king. But after the death of Sri Chithira Thirunal in 1991, his brother Uthradom Thirunal Marthandha Varma took over the 'rule'. With that, he became the owner of the temple and its fabulously rich properties. It so happened that this change of 'rule' was not questioned by the democratic society. Not only that, things came to such a pass that the 'royal family' often got a consideration and protocol status more prominent than a people's representative enjoyed. Later, the matter came up before the court only when devotees themselves raised a complaint that they were handling the temple assets illegally.
It was in December 2007 that the Thiruvananthapuram Principal Sub-judge SS Vasan decreed that Marthanda Varma did not have any right to the temple or its properties. The royal family's appeal against this was rejected by the High Court's division bench in 2011, who also asked the state government to take over the temple's estates. Monday's Supreme Court verdict comes on the appeal by the 'royal family' against the 2011 HC verdict. In the meantime, the Supreme Court had appointed senior lawyer Gopal Subramanium as amicus curiae. His report to the court had, in addition to upholding the High Court verdict that the temple was a public property, also contained clues about economic irregularities and sexual abuse around the temple administration. It was on the basis of this that the Supreme Couort appointed an interim committee for temple administration.
This committee consisted of the temple shanti, temple nambi, a government representative and a member nominated by district judge, and did not have any representative of the royal family. In other words, it was the first administrative council without 'royal representative '. And it is that council which is currently in charge of the temple's administration. The Supreme Court, which proactively upheld the High Court's verdict on this point based on its merit, was naturally expected to repeat that stance in its final verdict also; but that has not happened. Through this, the representation of 'royal family' is restored and it also gets back it lost right. In addition, the democratic right of the government stands deprived of its right to manage the huge assets, amassed by the royal regime through fair and unfair tax levies and other means. Still the state government has decided to come to terms with the Supreme Court judgment. The government may have opted for this approach, mindful of the political tight spot it would find itself in, if the decision had been the other way round and, as in the Sabarimala case, communal forces would use it politically.