SC verdict on Kerala temple today

The Supreme Court will on Monday pronounce verdict on the long-standing dispute over whether the control of the Padmanabha Swamy temple in Kerala will vest with the state government or the Travancore royal family.

The verdict, which will be pronounced by the court after nine long years of hearing the case, will decide the correctness of a January 2011 judgment of the Kerala high court which had ruled that the state government should take over the control of the temple from a trust headed by the royal family. The temple located in the state capital of Thirvunanthapuram shot into limelight after the Supreme Court in May 2011 ordered a detailed inventory of the articles in the temple vaults which had long rumoured to be holding immense riches.

The verdict of the Supreme Court will be pronounced at 10.30 am by a division bench of justices UU Lalit and Indu Malhotra.

When five its six vaults, known as ‘Kallara’ in Malayalam, were opened pursuant to the Supreme Court order, vast treasure of gold and other priceless objects were discovered. It was estimated that the intrinsic value of the treasure amounted to more than Rs. 90,000 crore. One of the vaults, Kallara B could not be opened and the opening of the same was later kept in abeyance by the apex court.

The temple was under the control of a trust headed by the royal family until April 2014 when the top court by way of a crucial interim order handed over its management to a four-member administrative committee headed by a district judge.

The case dates back to 2009 when TP Sundarrajan, a former IPS officer, filed a public interest litigation petition before the Kerala high court praying that the control of the temple should be handed over to the Kerala government from the royal family.

The state government took a stand before the high court that the traditional and customary belief is that the temple belongs to the royal family head of Travancore palace and that the administration of the temple has not broken down nor is there any allegation of a major nature which forces the government to interfere with the administrative affairs of the temple.

Despite that, the high court by its judgment rendered in January 2011 ordered the state government to take over the control of the temple. It also restrained the executive officer and the Maharaja of the royal family against opening any of the Kallaras or removing any of the articles of the temple.

The Maharaja, Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma, appealed to the Supreme Court against the high court judgment.

In August 2012, senior advocate Gopal Subramanium was appointed Amicus Curiae (friend of the court) by the Supreme Court. Subramanium submitted a voluminous report before the court in April 2014 alleging serious mismanagement of the temple by the trust and indicting the royal family on various counts.

The court after accepting the report set up an administrative committee on April 24, 2014 to manage the temple in the interim and also ordered a special audit of the temple and its properties by former Comptroller and Auditor General of India, Vinod Rai.

Legal genesis of the dispute

The legal genesis of the dispute lies in the agreement of accession (agreement) signed between the Kings of Travancore with the Government of India in 1949 by which the princely state of Travancore became a part of the Indian Union.

Article VII of the agreement provided that administration of the Padmanabha Swamy temple shall be conducted, subject to the control and supervision of the ruler of Travancore, by an executive officer appointed by the ruler.

The ruler at the time of Independence, Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma passed away in 1991 and Utharadom Thirunal Marthanda Varma assumed charge as trustee of the Temple.

The question before the high court was whether the new Maharaja would fall within the definition of the term “ruler” used in the agreement. The agreement itself did not define the term “ruler” and the high court, therefore, relied upon the definition of “ruler” in article 366(22) of the Constitution of India.

Article 366(22) states that ruler means any prince or chief who was recognized by the President of India as ruler of an Indian state before 1971, the year in which privy purse (payments made by the Government of India to royal families of erstwhile princely states for joining the Indian union at the time of independence) was abolished.

Based on the definition in Article 366(22), the high court held that “ruler” is not a status that can be achieved through succession and after the death of the last ruler in 1991,there is no ruler in the erstwhile state of Travancore.

In such a scenario, the present “ruler” is the state of kerala and the administration and control of temple will, therefore, vest with the Kerala government, the high court had ruled.

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