New Delhi: The Guruvayur Temple in Kerala has moved the Supreme Court against a 2020 Kerala High Court ruling that a Rs 5 crore contribution, made by the shrine to the Chief Minister’s Disaster Relief Fund soon after the 2018 floods, was illegal.
The Devaswom Board and Guruvayur Devaswom Managing Committee (GDMC) of the temple had made the contribution soon after the state was ravaged by devastating floods, described as the worst in nearly a century, following heavy monsoon rains in 2018. However, the contribution was held as “bad in law” by the Kerala High Court in a December 2020 verdict, after it had heard a set of petitions opposing the move.
Filed by “ardent devotees” of the temple deity ‘Lord Krishna’, the petitions had, among other things, demanded that the donated sum of Rs 5 crore be returned to the temple’s treasury.
Questioning the HC judgment, the Devaswom Board and the GDMC have in their appeal — filed last month — asserted their authority to incur expenditure for “secular activities and to promote cultural tenets and the philosophy associated with the temple”.
“The high court had failed to appreciate the board’s argument. Therefore, after consulting senior advocates of the Supreme Court, we filed the appeal,” K.B. Mohandas, chairman of the Devaswom Board, told ThePrint.
Filed by the board’s lawyer Jishnu M.L., the petition is likely to be heard next week.
The outcome of the case is expected to give clarity on what all the Devaswom Board and GDMC can spend temple funds on.
‘Contribution is in line with temple’s philosophy’
Devaswom Board chairman Mohandas told ThePrint that the Guruvayur Devaswom Act, 1978 — a state-enacted law that governs the shrine’s functioning — allows the committee to incur expenditure for certain purposes.
“These include expenditure for cultural propagation of the tenets and philosophy associated with the temple,” he added.
He further said the deity of the temple is “Lord Sree Krishna, who during his life in Dwarka, had during a flood situation extended all help to people, including animals, by saving their lives, and had lifted the Govardhan to protect them”.
“We are worshipping such an idol in Guruvayur, so the tenets and philosophy associated with the temple include extending support to flood victims,” he added.
‘No religious tag attached to worshipper’
Under Section 27 of the Guruvayur Devaswom Act, the Devaswom Board and the GDMC are empowered to use temple funds. However, according to the December 2020 HC judgment, the funds can only be used for the benefit of pilgrims and worshippers visiting the temple.
The board’s appeal cited the “secular nature” of the temple administration, and argued that there is no religious tag attached to the terms “worshippers and pilgrims” in the Guruvayur Devaswom Act.
Furthermore, it said that the GDMC is managing schools and colleges where non-Hindus are also students. Admissions to these educational institutions are done on the basis of merits and rules relating to reservation. Also, since there is no bar on a non-Hindu making an offering to the temple, the contribution to the relief fund is not a violation of the law.
The board contended that under the Act, the board’s duties can partake of a secular character. Therefore, communities other than Hindus cannot be totally excluded from deriving benefits of a decision taken in good faith, the appeal has maintained.
The 2020 HC judgment
On 18 December 2020, the HC had delivered its verdict on a set of petitions filed by “devotees of lord Guruvayurappan, the presiding deity in the Sree Krishna Temple in Guruvayur”.
The prayers in the petitions ranged from seeking directions to the state government to return the Rs 5 crore to the board, to restraining the board from releasing funds other than for religious purposes, and appointing a receiver or administrator to oversee expenditure of funds.
The petitioners in the case alleged that “diversion of funds” to the relief fund “violated their fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution”.
According to them, the contribution does not come within the scope of Section 27 of the 1978 Act and “transfer of Devaswom funds for unauthorised purposes amounted to a serious misconduct in the administration of Devaswom”.
They argued that it was the managing committee’s responsibility to provide facilities to worshippers and do all things incidental to the efficient management of the affairs of Devaswom.
In defence, the Devaswom board said that, during the floods, a lot of people, including worshippers of the deity, had suffered loss of life and damage to property. Under the Act, the GDMC is authorised to spend Devaswom funds on medical relief for worshippers, and to provide adequate supply of essentials that got disrupted due to the floods, the board had told the HC.
The Devaswom board’s arguments were supported by the state attorney.
In its verdict, the HC had held that a comprehensive reading of the law empowers the GDMC to provide facilities to worshippers and pilgrims visiting the temple for darshan and other religious purposes. No other expenditure, not provided under the law, can be incurred by the committee, according to the scheme of the Act.
“…Pilgrims throng Guruvayur Temple from various parts of the country. Likewise, Lord Guruvayurappan is worshipped by hundreds of thousands outside the state too. Is it intended or possible to provide help to all such worshippers and pilgrims in case any natural calamity affecting them happens elsewhere in the country? In our view, the answer is an emphatic negative,” the HC concluded.
It added the law cannot be interpreted in an expansive sense to cover the entire state, and that such an argument will lead to “absurd results”.
(Edited by Gitanjali Das)