initial defeat in the Supreme Court (SC),
Tamil Nadu (TN)
Government withdrew controversial provisions on appointment of priests in Hindu temples by the state irrespective of caste, religion, or parameters for qualification. After this provision was withdrawn, the TN State Assembly unanimously passed the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (Amendment) Bill.
TN Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi dressed up the step down, by telling the Assembly that the government was withdrawing the controversial amendment because of its respect for “rule of law.” Asserting that Government was right in bringing the amendment, he referred to two earlier judgments where the SC had allowed the state to appoint priests based on eligibility and performance of prayers in Tamil. He concluded that since those verdicts referred to religion and not to caste, his Government’s initiative to introduce change was legal.
What Karunanidhi does not understand is that the Constitution also provides for freedom to practice religion and a separation of religion and state. The earlier judgment of 1971 that allowed state appointment of priests does not necessarily mean that the state has power over religion nor does it mean that this is the preferred mode of appointing priests. Moreover, concepts of customary practices, eligibility criteria, and religious norms are also protected by the Constitution and not abrogated by the court.
This does not mean that Hinduism disallows priests from other castes:
definition of castes in Indian democracy is wrong and is contrary to original definitions. Therefore, a priest is someone who adheres to definitions based on behavior, habits, and character and is not by birth.
Caste has become a political tool to alienate society to win elections. Hence, any measures to promote casteless society by politicians are viewed with great skepticism. Karunanidhi has a track record of dividing societies based on caste, religion, and language and hence the nation needs to be careful of changes that he advocates.
While there was a commission headed by veteran Congressman and Dalit leader L Elayaperumal which recommended the appointment of priests of all castes, Karunanidhi is picking items that is politically convenient for him instead of choosing the entire recommendation that Elayaperumal proposed. Many of those recommendations required equal treatment from non-Brahmins and administrative changes that will improve the lot of Dalits but very inconvenient politically.
While invoking comments by Justice Maharajan that the agama sastras did not prohibit priests from all castes, Karunanidhi is again hiding details that Mahajan also called for training and adherence to strictures regarding diet, behavior, habits, and belief systems. This conclusion was reiterated by a October 2002 SC verdict that allowed any Hindu to become a priests as long as the adherence to Agama Shastras was followed. Karunanidhi’s proposed amendment did not require any such measures and would allow Jains, Sikhs, or Buddhists to become Hindu priests.
Karunanidhi cites untouchability as justification for appointing priests in Hindu temples and seems to suggest that untouchability is practiced only by Brahmins or priests. This is a ploy to subvert national attention away from the widespread practice of untouchability by those who are not Brahmins. In fact, many non-Brahmin castes of Tamil Nadu are anti-Dalit because of their habit of beef eating practice.
Karunanidhi’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party has systematically abused traditional trusts that manage temples siphoning off monies, coveting large land holdings of temples for party cadre, and embezzling or “losing” artifacts or treasures. For example, diamond jewels, spatika lingas, gold jewels, ancient bronze idols, etc have disappeared from temples and successive Governments have done nothing to trace, recover, or bring justice. In many cases, the events are hidden and nothing is reported.
Other provisions of the amendments to the bill is to aggrandize power over these traditional trusts by the State so they will have access to traditional wealth, land, and power held by these ancient temples. Unfortunately, mainstream media has focused only on the appointment of priests and broadly ignored these other proposed changes which was probably the real intention—meaning the priest issue could well have been a smokescreen to divert attention.