- Apprentice Lawyer
A full bench of the Kerala High Court has held that the Guruvayur Devaswom Managing Committee (GDMC) has no authority to contribute amounts from Devaswom funds to the Chief Minister's Distress Relief Fund (CMDRF) or to any other government agency. (Bijesh Kumar v. State of Kerala and Connected petitions)
In so ruling, a bench of Justices A Hariprasad, Anu Sivaraman and MR Anitha has set aside a judgment that had upheld the validity of Guruvayur Devaswom Board contributions to the Kerala Chief Minister’s fund.
The Court came to the aforestated conclusion on interpretation of Sections 27 and 21 of the Guruvayur Devaswom Act, 1978.
In this case, various petitioners had assailed the Guruvayur Devaswom Board’s decision to set up darshan boxes etc. for contributions to the CMDRF in the wake of th COVID-19 pandemic.
Section 27 of the Guruvayur Devaswom Act, 1978 empowers the GDMC to incur expenditure for 'certain purposes', namely:
maintenance, management, administration of the temple
training persons to perform the religious ceremonies
providing medical relief, water supply and other sanitary arrangements to worshippers and pilgrims and construction of buildings for their accommodation (this clause was invoked in the case at hand)
propagation of the temple's culture and tenets philosophy
grant or contributions to poor home and the like for the benefit mainly of persons belonging to the Hindu Community
construction of buildings connected with the affairs of the devaswom
measures to promote Sanskrit and Malayalam language
contributions to any religious institution
When the matter came up earlier before a division bench of Justices Shaji P Chaly and MR Anitha, it took note of differing judgments of the Court in on allied issues.
While a judgment from 2019, Anil V. v. State of Kerala & Ors., had upheld the Devaswom’s Contributions in the wake of the Kerala floods, a prior judgment, CK Rajan v. State had noted that the Devaswom was not authorised to make such contributions under Section 27, regardless of whether it was for a “laudable purpose”.
The petitioners, in sum, contended that the contributions were outside the purview of the Board’s enumerated functions as laid out in the 1978 Act.
The Devaswom Board, on the other hand, relied on Section 27(c) of the Act to argue that the Board was empowered to make a contribution for medical relief, water supply, construction of buildings etc. for worshippers and pilgrims at the temple. Arguing that these ‘worshippers and pilgrims’ were scattered across the State, the Board asserted that the contribution would ameliorate their condition.
The Court stated that the functions under Section 27(c) were to be performed within the precincts of the temple, for its worshippers and pilgrims. If necessary, the obligation could be exercised within a reasonable distance. The provision, however, could not be interpreted so as to allow contributions to a secular governmental agency to ameliorate the distress of pilgrims across the state.
It was also stated:
"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 of any natural calamity affecting them happens anywhere else in the country? In our view, the answer is an emphatic negative…it will lead to absurd results."
The division bench had upheld the contribution to the CMDRF by adopting an expansive interpretation of the term ‘certain’ occurring in the heading to Section 27. It had reasoned that the functions in Section 27 were not exhaustive.
Differing with this view, the full bench emphasized that the term certain demonstrated that the list of functions was exhaustive.
The Devaswom Board, being a trustee for the deity under the legislation, was bound by the functions enumerated in the founding document. Therefore, it could not endow funds for purposes other than those enumerated in the legislation, the Court finally concluded.
“... it is the non-negotiable obligation of G.D.M.C., as a trustee, to perform the duties and obligations enumerated therein all by itself or, in an exigency, directly under its supervision and control through other means,” the Bench reasoned.
Read the Judgment: