Using Caste To Deny Hindus The Right To Run Temples Is A Red Herring: Here's Why

R Jagannathan

Jun 12, 2023, 11:51 AM | Updated 11:48 AM IST

Hindu priests perform religious rituals at the Somnath temple.
Hindu priests perform religious rituals at the Somnath temple.
  • Those who favour state control of temples are essentially those who want Hinduism to die. Casteism is just a red herring.
  • One myth that is repeatedly propagated by anti-Hindu and Leftist circles is that temples cannot be freed from state control because that is the only way to check casteism, caste-based discrimination, and exclusion.

    A recent article by one Dhivya Sivaramane, headlined “Constitution, not caste, must govern temple space", makes this shop-soiled argument once again.

    She writes: “Anti-caste activism in Tamil Nadu has created an atmosphere where Brahmanical hegemony, Aryan traditions, and exclusionary caste norms in the temple space can be questioned. However, given that we still hear reports of caste prohibitions in the temple, violent attacks on Dalits by the higher castes, and socio-economic boycotts of them, the temple realm has to come under legal and public scrutiny and the state must ensure that the constitution, not caste, governs it.”

    Some time back, “PTR” Palanivel Thiagarajan, who was a darling of the secular media when he was Tamil Nadu Finance Minister, rubbished the idea that temples can be freed as “nonsense”. He said this in response to Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev’s campaign for freeing temples from state control. 

    Before we come to the question of state control of temples, we must question the way the whole caste question has been framed by Sivaramane.

    After mentioning Brahmins and Aryans in order to attack caste, she forgets to mention that most cases of atrocities against Dalits and exclusions from temples have less to do with Brahmins and more with the castes that fought against “Brahminism”.

    It is not Brahmins who are targeting Dalits for mistreatment in Tamil Nadu.

    If, after more than half a century of rule by Dravidian parties, which was preceded by more than half a century of social movements against Brahmins, the only villains to be singled out are Brahmins and Aryans, it shows the sheer intellectual dishonesty of the writer.

    Some temples may indeed, regrettably, discriminate against Dalits, but these are hardly the reasons for incidents of violence against the latter. 

    But here’s my full rebuttal.

    First, we are asking the wrong question, raising a red herring about caste in order to avoid addressing the real issue. The question is not whether temples freed from state control will continue to practise casteism, but why the state should at all be involved in running temples? Would you nationalise all family-run private companies because some practise nepotism and discriminate? 

    Second, why is there a presumption that caste discrimination exists only in temples, and not mosques or churches? And if discrimination is the basis for state meddling in places of worship, why not address the biggest discrimination of them all: exclusion of women from running temples, churches and mosques, or even officiating as priests?

    Third, assuming we want to prevent caste-based exclusion from temples, why not make a law that enforces this? After all, the Sikhs have a special law, the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee, to run their places of worship. But this does not prevent Jat Sikhs from wielding all the levers of power. Why not have a similar law to regulate Hindu temples after the state exits? 

    In general, we make laws to regulate corporations and even non-government organisations. We don’t bring in the state to do anything other than enforcement. So why focus only on temples and Hindu institutions?

    Fourth, what is truly nonsense is the effective presumption, both by the state and often the courts, that Hindu institutions must be secularised and modernised, but not minority institutions. In fact, Article 25 mentions Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists to be covered under the provisions of sub-clause (2) (b), which allows the state to interfere only with the religious institutions of Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists.

    The article, which deals with freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion, suggests that religious freedom can be restricted to “provide for social welfare and reform, or the throwing open of Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all classes and sections of Hindus.”

    The explanation to this proviso under 25(2)(b) reads: 

    “The wearing and carrying of kirpans shall be deemed to be included in the profession of the Sikh religion;

    “In sub clause (b) of clause reference to Hindus shall be construed as including a reference to persons professing the Sikh, Jaina or Buddhist religion, and the reference to Hindu religious institutions shall be construed accordingly.”

    Consider the unfairness inherent in this. When it comes to Hindus, the Constitution mandates direct interference; in the case of Sikhs, the explanation explicitly provides them with an exceptional right.

    The US Constitution’s second amendment, which allows citizens to carry arms, does not say that only one category of citizens will be entitled to do so. But our Constitution does this brazenly.

    No, surprise, over the last few decades, with some exceptions, the freedom to run religious institutions has been extended to Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists, but not Hindus in many states. 

    Clearly, Article 25(2)(b) is itself discriminatory in practice, even if one assumes that the original intent was to ensure that Dalits and other castes were not barred from entering temples.

    If the intent was not to discriminate, why not make a simple provision saying that any form of caste or gender discrimination would be barred in any religious institution? 

    After all, don’t the Muslims have Ashraf-run mosques and Christian upper caste-run churches? Does not the Quran itself assure the Quraysh that they have priority in running the Mecca mosque?

    The Arabs in the Prophet’s time did not have caste as India understood this institution, but they had tribes that had special privileges, like the Quraysh. Faiyaz Ahmad Fyzee writes in ThePrint.in that caste played a role in the selection of the caliphs. But our Constitution believes that discrimination exists only among Hindus.

    Fourth, most religious traditions are specific to social groups, and the purpose is not discrimination, but to keep the group closely aligned. A temple, in any case, is not purely a public place like, say, a park.

    It is both private and public, and its traditions can seem discriminatory if viewed from a narrow equality perspective.

    Let’s illustrate this with a counter-example. Let’s suppose that a group of women decide to build a Stree Shakti Mandir to worship female deities.

    The temple is financed, built and managed, including managing the rites of worship, by women in order to empower themselves in religious and spiritual spaces.

    Men can enter only if accompanied by their mothers, daughters or wives.

    This can be called discriminatory, but does freedom to worship not include the right to create new forms of worship?

    If new forms of worship can be created, why not allow traditional forms too?

    The larger point is this: traditions can change, and often the way to change tradition is to offer an alternative.

    Let’s take Sabarimala, where tradition calls for women in the reproductive age to stay out.

    If, say, some Hindus believe that women should also be allowed, nothing stops them from creating another Swami Ayyappa temple that allows all to enter, and if women (and men) start thronging this shrine, Sabarimala would itself be forced to change, though it may choose to remain a male bonding club.

    There has to be space for exclusive spaces in religion. Just as many women object to the creation of unisex bathrooms, where transgenders can also come, the world should not see every exclusive space as a form of discrimination.

    A vegan housing society is about helping people with similar interests to stay together, not about discriminating against non-vegans.

    In the ultimate analysis, the issue is freedom to practise your own form of religion, and this includes the freedom to create exclusive spaces for certain social groups.

    The remedy is to create other spaces where all can come, and even spaces where the excluded can make their own rules of inclusion and exclusion.

    Traditional temples are such kinds of spaces. They offer options for both continuing hallowed tradition, and for adopting new practices and traditions.

    If the state wants to really make temples like public parks, it should create its own temples, not take over those run by others.

    There is no reason why the state should think that only one kind of temple should exist.

    Religion cannot thrive in the deracinated public sector.

    In any case, nothing stops the state from making non-discrimination laws for all religious spaces, laws that include all religions and not only Hinduism.

    Those who favour state control of temples are essentially those who want Hinduism to die. Casteism is just a red herring.

    Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.

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