We discussed legal issues surrounding the 'treasure' discovered at the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Trivandrum. Having first read through the decision of the Kerala High Court in January 2011, the discussants were familiar with the history of the litigation, the temple's administration and the issues that had been raised in appeal before the Supreme Court.
One of the two writ petitioners in the case were Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the brother of the last ruler of Travancore, Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma. The issues before the Kerala High court were a] who could manage the temple and b] in what manner is this administration to be carried out? This in turn hinged upon an interpretation of the term 'ruler' in the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act read with Article 366 (22) of the Constitution.
The case was apparently filed because Uthradam Thirunal had apparently made a comment during a press interview to a leading Malayalam daily that the assets of the temple 'belonged' to the Travancore royal family. The civil courts in Trivandrum were approached by concerned devotees and the case ultimately came before the Kerala High Court. The High Court upheld the
claim of the state government, stating the administration of the temple, after the demise of the last recognised ruler of Travancore vested with the state government. Meanwhile, Uthradam Thirunal, after the death of Chithira Thirunal in 1992, had continued with appointing people to the temple administrative bodies. The Supreme Court was approached, seeking the writ of quo warranto in this respect.
Some of the issues that we discussed were:
1. Does Uthradam Thirunal have a viable claim to be ruler under the TC Hindu Religious Institutions Act? The majority of the discussants felt, upon a reading of the relevant Sections, Articles 366 (22), 363A, 295 and 296 of the Constitution that the administration vests with the state. This is in line with the reasoning of the High Court, although there appears to be a genuine legal lacuna in terms of who will continue to administer the temple, given that the State Government seems unwilling to take this up. The High Court's suggestion was that a statutory body or a trust should be created afresh, while respecting the rights of the royal family / denomination to worship freely.
2. Can the wealth of the temple be legally claimed by the royal family? This appears to be a non-argument, since idols are juristic persons under Hindu law, who can hold property and be taxed.
3. Are there problems with the way in which an ostensibly secular state such as India is implicated in the running of religious institutions like temples? We discussed the distinction between administration of temples as a religious matter and the religious practices themselves as a religious matter. Some of us argued that this was an artificial distinction (along the lines of the distinction between religion and religious practice in Article 25 cases).
4. In re the opening of Vault B, should courts take into account faith and belief? The question was one of public legitimacy too, some argued. The courts cannot go completely against public opinion. On the other hand, it cannot also be a situation where legal procedure is completely ignored.
We also discussed at some length the decisions in (a) N. Muraleedharan Nair (1991 - Ker HC), (b) M.P. Gopalakrishnan Nair (2005 - SC) and (c) G. Raman Nair (2005 - Ker HC) which deal with the question of whether elected representatives who are to be part of the Devasom Boards have to believe in temple worship themselves.