Supreme Court verdict on Sabarimala temple: Nationalised religion cannot be the answer to bigotry
Supreme Court's judgment on the Sabarimala temple issue is the decent, honourable thing. But the decent thing isn’t necessarily the right thing.
For as long as anyone could remember, the Billavas and Holeyas of Dakshina Kannada had only been able to gaze at God from across the walls outside the Sri Krishna temple in Udupi. They were kept from 'defiling' the idol as it was worshipped and they waited patiently for a priest to collect their offerings from their outstretched hands. Then, in the first years of Independence, Madras Province acted to ensure Dalits were allowed in. In 1954, the Supreme Court upheld the right of all to worship as equals.
The court’s Thursday judgment allowing women to enter the Sabarimala shrine has done the decent, honourable thing — something every right-thinking Indian will support.
But the decent thing isn’t necessarily the right thing. As Indians celebrate the judgment, we ought also be considering the costs of the court’s involvement in adjudicating questions linked to faith — are mosques a necessary part of Islamic practice? Should temples be open to all? Should Sikhs wear their hair long?
In effect, religion has been nationalised. It's time for India’s judicial system and government to leave the business of God to the pious — and the private sector. Politicians will not easily give up the power nationalised religion gives them — but the alternative is a creeping theocracy that will consume our democratic rights.
Back in 1954, when the Supreme Court heard the case of His Holiness Sri Vishwothama vs The State of Madras, it sought guidance from the Constitution. Even Clause 2 of Article 25, guaranteeing religious freedoms, has a caveat: the right to worship does not prevent the State from “regulating or restricting any economic, financial, political or other secular activity” associated with religious practice, or “throwing open of Hindu religious institutions of a public character, to all classes and sections of Hindus”.
To understand why this caveat exists, we must turn to the early years of the freedom movement, when egalitarian tendencies seeking reforms in Hinduism began to surface.
In 1917, Indian National Congress — including many Hindu nationalists in its ranks — adopted a resolution urging supporters to accept “the necessity, justice and righteousness of removing all disabilities, imposed by customs upon the Dalits”.
Three years later, the INC identified removing discrimination against Dalits as a major national priority. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s followers established spiritual centres, where Dalit agricultural workers might inculcate the values of temperance.
For the most part, the INC did not see state-led action as a solution to Dalit issues. Instead, its campaigns recruited religious heads and Hindu notables to speak out for reform within.
Even though many upper-caste leaders in the INC were less-than-enthused by this fledgling war on caste, the project was the key to building bridges between the Congress’ largely élite leadership and Dalits — and thus, creating a united front against imperialism.
The movement came to flower, first, in Tamil Nadu — then, the Madras Presidency. Following years of battle, when Hindu reformers proved unable to transform social attitudes, the state’s legislature passed a law allowing temple entry for all.
Less than a month before the Second World War, Dalits were able to enter the Soundararaja Perumal Temple at Valayapatti in Melur taluk, followed in quick time by the Meenakshi Amman Temple at Madurai, and the magnificent Brihadeswar Temple at Tanjore.
In large swathes of India, the battle goes on: just in 2016, BJP’s Tarun Vijay had to face a stone-pelting mob when he, along with a Dalit colleague, visited Uttarakhand’s Jaunsar Bhabhar temple.
From the 1950s, the pursuit of egalitarian ends led the state to take direct control of growing numbers of Hindu religious institutions. In 1951, the Madras government introduced the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act. The law's 1959 successor-legislation became a template for similar laws nationwide. The law gave a government-appointed commissioner the power to take control of Hindu institutions if it thought they were mismanaged.
Tamil Nadu’s commissioner for Hindu religious institutions, wrote legal scholar Donald Smith, “a public servant of the secular state, today exercises far greater authority over the Hindu religion in Madras state than the archbishop of Canterbury does over the Church of England”.
In the years since, staggering numbers of Hindu institutions have come to be run by the government. Tamil Nadu administers more than 34,000 temples, presiding over everything from the selection of rituals to the appointment of priests. The Andhra Pradesh government alone administered more than 30,000 temples in 2003, scholar Pratap Bhanu Mehta noted.
Even though the Supreme Court, in 2014, qualified the State’s powers — saying “if the management of a temple is taken over to remedy evil, the management must be handed over to the person concerned immediately after the evil stands remedied” — the ground reality is different.
The Amarnath Shrine, Vaishno Devi to Sabarimala — they are all government-run enterprises.
The courts have turned their attention to Islam too. In 1961, the Supreme Court heard the case of Ajmer Sharif’s Khadims, or hereditary retainers, against the state legislation which governs its functioning. The Khadims said the legislation deprived them of their freedom of religion, as members of the Chishti Sufi order, to manage the affairs of a shrine long associated with their denomination. In particular, they asserted a right to pilgrims’ offerings.
In response, the court held that unless a practice was found to “constitute an essential and integral part of a religion”, its claims to constitutional protection would have to be carefully examined. Put another way, this meant that courts — not custom, or communities — would be the final arbiter of faith.
Senior advocates Rajeev Dhavan and Fali Nariman have pointed out that judges have, for all practical purposes, “assumed the theological authority to determine which tenets of faith are essential to any faith."
Perched on a hill above the Sahasrakshi Meru temple in Visakhapatnam — where worshippers, irrespective of their caste or gender, may worship the goddess themselves — is the Kamakhya Peetham. Each month, when the Goddess is believed to menstruate, men are barred from the temple.
Sabrimala’s deity shuns women who have passed puberty; the Brahma Temple in Pushkar bars married men from sanctorum; only celibate men may enter even the premises of the Kumari Ammal temple in Kanyakumari.
Faiths may indeed have essential features — but determining them clearly isn’t easy.
Ever since the 1950s, courts have been drawn into a maze of religious disputes, ranging from Shah Bano and Ram Janmabhoomi, to disputes between Sikh orthodoxy and fringe cults. The effect has been to allow the State to play the monarch, arbitrating on legitimacy, dispensing patronage to the priesthood, and governing the practices of the pious.
From Catholic Spain and Italy to Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the alliance of clerics with state power has strangled democratic rights.
In India, where religion suffuses life, it seems impossible — even dangerous — for the State to untangle itself from religion. The State would argue that its efforts have played an important role in transforming religious institutions from corruption-ridden oligarchies to publicly accountable bodies.
There is a better model: allowing all religious orders to administer their own affairs, and pay the price for running — or misgoverning — them.
Getting the State out of the God business will serve several ends. It will curb the political impulse to use religious institutions as sources of legitimacy and patronage, and push communities to take responsibility for their own faith.
The State will no longer be able to build alliances with clerics by serving their interests. Perhaps most important, privatising religion will extricate the State from the morass of competing religious interests it now mediates.
Find the practices of the temple next door toxic? Picket it. Proselytise. Pray. Pay to build an alternative temple. Every Indian should be able to exercise these Constitution-given rights — but not to use the power of the State to enforce their vision of what’s right.
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