The High Court of Kerala allowed a second appeal on the principle that a worshipper cannot maintain a suit for recover of possession of property dedicated to a temple.
The judgment was delivered by Justice P B Sureshkumar, in a second appeal filed by defendants in a suit against the concurrent decrees of lower Courts.
The case was in relation to properties of a temple which belonged to a family. The defendants were in possession of temple properties which originally belonged to a Namboothiri family. They traced their possession to a lease deed executed for unspecified term by the Karanavar of Namboothiri family.
On the basis of possession, they were issued purchase certificates under the Kerala Land Reforms Act as well.
The plaintiff, a member of family, sought recovery of temple properties from the defendants on ground that the alienation by Karanavar was contrary to the terms of the partition deed of the family.
The trial court decreed the suit holding that the lease deeds by Karanavar were invalid, as contrary to the partition deed, which had dedicated the properties to temple. It was also held that Land Reforms Act had exempted temple properties, and hence the purchase certificates had no validity. Though it was found that the joint family(illom) was not in existence after the Kerala Joint Hindu Family System (Abolition) Act 1975, the trial court held that the plaintiff was entitled to institute a suit of this nature as a co-owner of the suit properties.
The defendants appealed against the decree. The appellate court affirmed the findings of the trial court except the finding that the suit property is to be regarded as the co-ownership property of the plaintiff. The appellate court found that the partition deed had dedicated the properties to temple, and therefore they cannot be regarded as family properties. However, the appellate court sustained the decree on the reasoning that the plaintiff could seek recovery as a worshipper of the temple.
This was put to further challenged by the defendants in High Court.
Based on the recitals in the partition deed, the High Court found that there was a dedication of properties to temple. As the family divested itself of the property, the appellate court was found to be right in concluding that plaintiff could not seek recovery as a co-owner.
Therefore, the question remained was whether the plaintiff could seek recovery in the capacity of a believer. On this, the High Court disagreed with the first appellate court. Once there is a dedication to temple, the property will vest with the deity. So, only the deity can seek recovery of possession of properties in a suit instituted through 'next friend', or through the shebait or trustee of the temple. Though an ordinary worshipper can seek to represent the idol when the shebait or trustee is acting adverse to the interests of property, he cannot seek recovery of possession on its behalf.
The Court observed :
The scope of suits by worshippers/beneficiaries of Hindu temples has been considered by the Apex Court in Veruareddi Ramaraghava Reddy and others v. Konduru Seshu Reddy and others [AIR 1967 SC 436]. It was held in the said case that notwithstanding the provision in Section 42 of the Specific Relief Act, worshippers are entitled to institute a suit even for a mere declaration that the alienation of the temple properties by the de jure shebait is invalid and not binding upon the temple. It was, however, made clear in the said case by the Apex Court that no decree for recovery of possession can be passed in such suits, unless the plaintiff has a present right to be in possession of the properties. The reason being that in such suits, the worshipper is not exercising the right of the deity to protect its interest.
The Court traced the rationale behind the principle as :
the court cannot pass a decree permitting the worshipper to recover possession of the property of the deity for, if such a decree is passed, only the plaintiff therein could execute the same and in such an event, the property may or may not inure to the benefit of the temple and if the property does not go to the hands of the trustee, the trustee may have to file a suit again for the same. The possibility of the worshipper decree holder creating encumbrances over the property of the temple or committing waste therein on the strength of the decree obtained by him cannot also be ruled out.
The Court further noted that neither the deity nor the shebait/trustee has been made a party in the suit.
The HC also disagreed with the findings of lower courts that lease deeds by Karanavar were invalid. There was no interdiction in the partition deed in Karanvar leasing out the temple properties.
Therefore the second appeals were allowed. The Court however clarified that the decision will not preclude the deity or the trustee of the temple from instituting a suit for recovery possession of the suit properties in accordance with law.