In the Sri Marthanda Varma vs State of Kerala, a two-judge Supreme Court bench overturned a Kerala High Court finding that the Travancore royal family had no role in controlling or managing the Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple. In 1949, the princely state of Travancore had signed a covenant with the Union of India that the rulers of Travancore, Balarama Varma and his legitimate successors, could control the management of the temple. In 1971, the 26th Amendment to the Constitution had abolished all royal titles. So the conundrum: If there were no royal titles, could there be a royal family? If there was no royal family, how could it control the temple? The Supreme Court held that the 26th Amendment did not impugn the rights of the royal family in the case of the Padmanabhaswamy temple.
The Supreme Court’s finding turned on two claims. A vast number of temples in Kerala had been handed over to state trusts in 1949. That there was a specific covenant concerning the Padmanabhaswamy temple made it an exception. It also turned on the metaphysically interesting claim that the royal family was not royal by virtue of its particular title, but because it was a particular family. The royal family had played a key role in managing the temple; but that role derived from the centrality of kingship in the managing of the temple. It was the king who, after all, offered his realm to Padmanabhaswamy as the sovereign. So in this sense the case was not about a title to property. It was about whether kingship could have a role when there were no kings. The Supreme Court held that it was the family lineage, not the title, that made this family royal.
The findings in the Padmanabhaswamy case turn on facts specific to the case. But the case has wider political ramifications. Many have been arguing that thousands of temples need to be liberated from the state, particularly in South India. They see the political climate as ripe for it. And they see the evolving jurisprudence in the Supreme Court, driven by a constellation of “conservative” judges, as setting a new precedent for wresting control of temples away from the state. This was most recently seen in the Chidambaram temple case, which limited the duration of management of the temple by the state of Tamil Nadu. This is, ironically, at the same moment when BJP governments in states like Uttarakhand want the state to take over more temples.
The spectre of a secular state managing thousands of temples through properly organised government departments is an anomaly. The future chief justice, Patanjali Sastri, had argued in the debate over the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act that “rigid departmental control over the religious institutions and management was against the secular nature of the Indian Constitution”. The distinction that the state manages the secular aspects of the temple and not its religious aspects can be hard to maintain. The line between what is a private denominational temple, and what is a public temple, has always been deeply politicised. The Right is partially correct that liberals sometimes worry too little about the statism implicit in the state running temples. State management of these temples needs scrutiny.
But the Hindutva narrative, that this phenomenon is another instance of the state victimising Hindus, is exaggerated myth making. No Hindu religious worship has been impeded. The histories of the management of specific temples and state endowment acts vary. But broadly speaking, there was a genuine conundrum over who has sovereign rights over the administration of historically significant temples. Temples were ritual scaffoldings for maintaining kingship; the king, while leaving theological matters to priests, was responsible for management oversight. As kingship dissolved, the question was: Who would step in for that management role? The answer was, other Hindus, but now through the democratic mechanisms of the state. This is not an instance of the state exercising sovereignty over Hindus; it is Hindus collectively governing their temples through new mechanisms. So the campaign to rescue temples is not about rescuing Hindus from the state. Hindu temples are run by Hindus. It is about displacing one mechanism controlled by Hindus, with another set of Hindus.
Temples were not just at the centre of kingship. They controlled land; and vast resources. They were often mechanisms of exclusion, in the religious hierarchies and norms of entry they instituted. Even in the Padmanabhaswamy temple, lower castes were not allowed in on important occasions till the mid-twentieth century. And the management of temples is the source of patronage. So the contest is, who controls, as Devraj Urs once put it, endowment, hereditary and patronage rights. It is not about Hindus being victimised. The systematisation of temple management challenged these nodes of power. A lot of the exaggerated angst about the state managing temples comes from a desire to wrest control over these nodes of power; it is the ressentiment of privilege asserting itself against democratisation. There is a legitimate question: Who should allocate the vast resources that temples command? Neither private trusts nor the government has used them for the enlightened public good. But this question is not well served by discounting the serious moral imperatives that led to state oversight of temples. No wonder the BJP in power understands some of this logic, even as its adherents launch campaigns to rescue allegedly colonised temples.
There is also an irony here. It is actually the state’s systematisation of temple management that created a singular legal identity for Hindu temples in the first place; Tamil Nadu, for example, treats collections from Hindu temples as a common pool that can be shared by other struggling temples. It is actually the very state, whom the temple rescue brigade reviles, that created a national Hindu legal identity, and perhaps unwittingly abetted Hindutva in its political form.
In the Padmanabhaswamy case also, the court has tried a fine line. While it invokes the hereditary principle to secure the royal family’s rights, it still retains the mechanism of an Administrative Committee where state functionaries have a role. Given its specific features, it is not clear that the Padmanabhaswamy case sets, in legal terms, a precedent for radically reconstituting the governance of temples as the Right supposes. But then temples, as we know, are never about the law. The idols in the temple are meant to be pathways to a luminous consciousness; the management of temples is always a pathway to murky politics.
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 21, 2020 under the title ‘State and temple’. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express