Unending wait in Tamil Nadu

Over 200 non-Brahmin youths, including 30 Dalits, who were trained at government-run Archakas’ Training Centres, remain jobless.

Published : Oct 25, 2017 12:30 IST

G. Balaguru,  a Dalit who was trained to be a priest. Since he has not got any posting so far, he has taken up independent assignments.

G. Balaguru, a Dalit who was trained to be a priest. Since he has not got any posting so far, he has taken up independent assignments.

WHAT bothers reformists in Tamil Nadu is why every government in the State, which is known for the social reform movement pioneered by E.V. Ramasamy “Periyar”, has been reluctant to appoint non-Brahmin archakas in temples within its administrative purview, while neighbouring Kerala has done it with relative ease. As many as 206 non-Brahmin youths, including 30 Dalit candidates, who were trained at government-run Archakas’ Training Centres have remained jobless for a decade.

The issue of archakas in the six-decade-old Dravidian party rule in Tamil Nadu exposes a sinister fact—the power of regressive forces that are determined to carry on their discriminatory practices against any social reform the State attempts to initiate. Activists and followers of Periyar blame it on the lack of political will. “The problem in Tamil Nadu could not be resolved despite the DMK [Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam] government’s intervention, mainly because of a few who adopt partisan attitudes against any reform in the State, especially in temples,” said S. Vanchinathan, a Madurai-based lawyer who is also the State coordinator of the People’s Rights Protection Centre, which, along with a few similar organisations, has taken up the issue.

It is not far from the truth. A peek into history will reveal the persistent Hindutva politics behind it. Periyar called “hereditary priesthood” and the exclusion of non-Brahmins from priestly functions a “thorn in his heart”. The issue has its origins in the passing of the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act in 1959 which brought temples under the State administration. But the piece of legislation came with a rider. Section 55 of the Act sought to recognise the right of hereditary priesthood. “Hence, it retained one denomination’s control over worship and other ritualistic exercises that are performed inside the sanctum sanctorum of temples,” said C. Raju, State coordinator, Makkal Athigaram (People’s Power).

In 1971, the then DMK government moved an amendment abolishing Section 55. It was moved on the basis of the findings of a committee headed by the Dalit leader L. Elayaperumal in 1969 at the behest of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. (It was an all-India committee that detailed the status of the oppressed in the country.) As expected, the abolition was challenged in court ( Seshammal vs State of Tamil Nadu ).

Including that of Seshammal, 12 petitions were filed in the Supreme Court against the 1971 amendment alleging that it violated Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution. The Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court, while concurring with the abolition move, said that the appointment of office-bearers or servants of the temples was required to be made from a particular denomination/group/sect as mandated by the Agamas.

It was again left to the government headed by the DMK to take up the issue in 2006. It issued a Government Order (G.O.) and subsequently an ordinance on May 23, 2006, saying that “any person who is a Hindu and possessing requisite qualification and training can be appointed Archaka in Hindu temples”. In pursuant of the order, it opened six priest training schools for candidates from all castes to train them as archakas. A year and a half later, a batch of 206 candidates passed out, but no one has so far been appointed in any of the temples. It is still the preserve of veda pathasalas, run by individuals and attached to big temples that train only Brahmin boys.

K. Venkatesan, 28, a Dalit who was trained at the Tiruvannamalai Archaka Centre, told Frontline that out of 39 students in his class, six, including himself, were Dalits and two were Brahmins. “We were trained in Vedic chanting, mantras and other Agama rules. Senior Vedic scholars took classes. It was a year-long course, and on successful completion, we were issued certificates of merit,” he said. “I am struggling today with no income. The government promised us jobs. But it has failed on its promise,” he said.

Another Dalit priest, G. Balaguru, who was trained at the Tiruchendur Centre, however, said that since he was not given any posting, he took up independent assignments of performing pujas, kumbabhisekams (temple renovation pujas), grihapravesams (housewarming), marriages and other work which Brahmins used to perform in his area. “I am busy today. All castes, including the backward caste groups, ask me to perform rituals at their functions today. I even perform the role of chief purohit in marriages. There is no use of waiting for the government nod [to get appointment]. I have no regrets,” he said.

Both have turned vegetarians and strictly adhere to the Vedic principles of life today. The State provided them a stipend of Rs.500 a month during their course at the Archaka residential centres. “Admission was strictly on merit and on 69 per cent reservation basis. All Vedic scholars took classes. Both Tamil and grantham were taught. We can chant and perform pujas and other rituals as per Agama scriptures. Only our birth prevents us from performing pujas to our gods,” Balaguru said. Today, these schools have been closed, with the government citing no reason whatsoever. The issue was revived every time the DMK was in power, but political indifference prevented a solution. As the State had been ruled alternately by the DMK and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam or AIADMK (barring the 2016 elections in which the AIADMK retained power), the governments, especially the Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK government, never showed any interest in it.

The G.O. issued by the DMK government was also challenged in court, preventing any further development. The State government then closed down the training centres after the completion of the inaugural course. “In fact, out of 1,174 archakas working in big Vedic temples, 574 are serving on hereditary basis. Many of them are not trained as per the Agamas. This was noted in the Justice A.K. Rajan Committee report,” said Raju.

The Supreme Court, in its December 2015 judgment, did not strike down the G.O. of May 23, 2006, but said that “priests can be appointed only as per the Agama sastras of respective temples”. This has led to misinterpretations and haphazard conclusions. The court’s ruling was that the appointment of archakas in temples as per the Agamas was not a violation of the right to equality and contended that Agamas were the "fundamental religious belief" of a particular sect and that the exclusive right to enter the sanctum sanctorum could not be construed as “untouchability”.

Any person, irrespective of caste, the court said, would be eligible for appointment so far as he belonged to the particular denomination of the temple, and in case of dispute, individuals could approach the court as it had to be decided “on a case by case basis”. But the ambiguity in the verdict made the present government put things on hold.

“This verdict in our view creates confusion among people. Any discriminatory practice on birth-based descent, whether it is inside the sanctum sanctorum or not, is an act of untouchability. Agamas are not codified, how can one rely on them? The State should come out with an answer to this vexatious issue,” said Vanchinathan.

But the State remains a mute spectator on this issue of social justice.

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