Midway through his much-awaited press conference on the Sabarimala issue, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan raised his head and asked like a schoolteacher, “Who does the temple belong to?”
To a room full of media persons scribbling busy notes, he spoke of the Tripartite Covenant, made in 1949, between the kings of Travancore and Cochin and the Union government, then represented by VP Menon. This was just before the princely states had joined the Indian Union and the state of Kerala was formed. The Covenant, the CM said, transferred the administration of the temples and its funds and properties to an independent body called the Devaswom Board. The Travancore and Cochin Devaswom Boards were formed to manage and administer temples that were under the erstwhile kingdoms of Travancore and Cochin respectively.
“Whose property is the temple? It is the property of the Devaswom Board and the reality is that no one else has a right on it. Quoting the tripartite Covenant of 1949, a few people are claiming that they have rights. The covenant was signed by the Kings of Travancore and Cochin and VP Menon representing the Indian government.
“The Sabarimala temple therefore is the Devaswom Board’s, the Travancore Devaswom Board’s. No one else has rights over it,” Pinarayi Vijayan declared. The Chief Minister’s ‘fact-check’ was in response to the thantri threatening to shut down the Sabarimala temple, and the Pandalam royal family urging him to do so if women of menstruating age are allowed to enter.
The thantri’s threat to close down the temple if age-old rituals were broken came at a time when a couple of women were close to entering the Sabarimala temple and about to create history, after a recent Supreme Court verdict allowed them to do so. But the women had gone back, they did not enter. Opinions followed, some ridiculing the women, others ridiculing the forces that couldn’t protect them. Two ministers had earlier questioned the thantri, and Pinarayi Vijayan, too, said that the thantri and his staff were disobeying the Supreme Court.
Nalinakshan Nair, former Travancore Devaswom Board Commissioner, however, does not agree with the government's stand that the thantri cannot decide. “The thantri has rights, where rituals are concerned,” he says.
Nalinakshan goes back to the 1949 Covenant that transferred rights and wealth of temples from kings to Devaswom Boards. The next year, the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institution Act 1950 was passed, forming the Travancore and Cochin Devaswom Boards.
He mentions the sections – 3 and 15 of Chapter 2 – of the Act, that allowed powers to the respective Boards, but not, to the government. “The Devaswom Board was formed to follow the prevalent usage and customs. The government has no rights (over the temple),” he says.
Pandalam royal family and Sabarimala
Pinarayi had in his press conference on Tuesday said, “The Pandalam royal family was not part of this Covenant. They had already pledged their country and rights, due to debts they owed. They had given all the rights regarding the Sabarimala temple to Travancore, which means their rights on the temple had become redundant then. So all these temples including Sabarimala were Devaswom properties. After the state of Kerala was formed, these temples became the state's properties. Later a Devaswom Board, an independent board was created to manage Hindu temples. The legal rights of that temple are vested with the Travancore Devaswom Board."
Nalinakshan agrees and says that the 1949 covenant transferred rights and wealth of temples from kings to Devaswom Boards. The kings had wanted the boards to follow the customs of the Hindu religion.
The Chief Minister also gave a rebuttal to questions being raised by BJP and other right-wing groups that Sabarimala temple belongs to the Pandalam family and that the state government was misusing temple funds.
Countering these allegations, the CM said, “The government has spent Rs 302.18 crore in the last two years to provide facilities for devotees coming to Sabarimala. I am forced to say this as there is propaganda that the government is taking funds from Devaswom Board. The reality is that the government does not take a paisa from the Devaswom Board.”
Nalinakshan, however, questioned the CM’s claim that the government didn’t touch the Devaswom Board funds. “No one said Pinarayi Vijayan took the money. But the funds are grossly misused. The funds that come to the Board are deposited in various banks, and then who controls it? There is an extravagance in hiring employees to the Board,” he says.
Incidentally, Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran recently stated that the revenue from Sabarimala temple for 2017-18 was Rs 342 crore with, with Rs 73 crore being spent on the temple itself.