Book Excerpt: Gandhi and his ‘opinion poll’ over temple entry in Guruvayur

An exclusive excerpt from the keenly awaited ‘Caste Pride: Battles for Equality in Hindu India’, by Manoj Mitta.

ByManoj Mitta

Published Apr 28, 2023 | 9:13 AMUpdatedApr 28, 2023 | 9:13 AM

Guruvayur temple entry satyagraha

Manoj Mitta’s new book, ‘Caste Pride: Battles for Equality in Hindu India’, reveals that it was only after Dalits had yielded to his demand through the Poona Pact for giving up their hard-fought right to a separate electorate did Gandhi begin to countenance temple entry for them. Even then, as a votary of the scriptural varna system, Gandhi adopted an incremental approach in that he was initially open in 1932 to letting Dalits enter only such temples where local devotees had given their consent through a referendum. An exclusive excerpt:

From press reports and the feedback he had received in Yeravda Prison through letters and visitors, Gandhi’s reading of the Guruvayur situation was that the resistance to temple entry was only from an orthodox section that was in a minority. He sought to demonstrate that most caste Hindus were on his side and thus his fast could not be considered coercive. In his next letter to [his associate, the ‘Kerala Gandhi’ Koyapalli] Kelappan on 23 November 1932, Gandhi explained, ‘Our claim is that the proposed fast can never savour of coercion because it is based on the assumption that the vast majority of the temple-going Savarnas are in favour of temple-entry. If this cannot be proved up to the hilt there is no case for fasting by us. Fasting with the knowledge that Savarnas are opposed to temple entry by Harijans would undoubtedly amount to coercion.’

Gandhi hit upon an idea to prove this claim. As he said in the same letter, ‘In order to demonstrate to all concerned the fact that we have the majority of temple-goers on our side, there should be a methodical taking of a referendum of temple-goers, say within a ten-mile radius. And in order to have the thing absolutely above the board, signatures should be taken at public meetings in the presence of witnesses known to the signatories with their full names, addresses and occupations, together with age and sex.’

Guruvayur temple entry: Referendum

Caste Pride by Manoj Mitta

Caste Pride: Battles for Equality in Hindu India. By Manoj Mitta. Context. Rs 999.

Since his three-month reprieve before the launch of a fresh fast was running out, Gandhi lost no time in implementing the referendum idea. He set up a committee, headed by one of his followers from Kerala, K. Madhavan Nair, to conduct the referendum. And he deployed one of his top lieutenants, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, who had played a key role in the Poona Pact negotiations, to oversee this delicate and unprecedented operation. The process of the referendum began on 4 December. Besides public meetings, it entailed a door-to-door survey of caste Hindu voters in the Ponnani taluk in which Guravayur was located.

This initiative inspired a member of the Madras Legislative Council, P. Subbarayan, to draft a bill on temple entry based on the referendum principle. Though he had no party affiliation when he was chief minister of the Madras Presidency from 1926 to 1930 in the pre-autonomy phase, Subbarayan later joined the Congress and served as a minister in Rajagopalachari’s provincial government from 1937 to 1939 and Jawaharlal Nehru’s Central government after Independence. Before he gave a notice of his temple-entry bill, Subbarayan had already moved a resolution in the Madras Legislative Council on 1 November 1932, urging the government to ‘bring up legislation setting at rest … the doubts and disabilities … which trustees … of Hindu temples feel in regard to throwing them open to the Depressed Classes’.

Subbarayan’s resolution was carried with an amendment proposed by an untouchable legislator, V.I. Muniswami Pillai. Where the resolution urged the government to take advantage of ‘the great impetus’ given by the Poona Pact, Pillai suggested an addition of the words ‘and the Bombay Conference’. His reasoning was that it was ‘only at the Bombay Conferences that … the social side of the problem was discussed’. Subbarayan accepted Pillai’s amendment, little realising that both those gatherings had actually been chary of legislative intervention on temple entry. Although the members of the Justice Party government and the official bloc did not vote so they may ‘have the view of this House’, there was enough support in the council for it to adopt Subbarayan’s resolution with fifty-six ayes and nineteen neutral votes.

Bill on temple entry

Having pulled off the first-ever resolution on temple entry, and one that urged the government to come up with a bill on the subject, Subbarayan himself came up with one before long. Embodying Gandhi’s case-by-case approach, Subbarayan’s bill proposed a referendum as a statutory precondition for every instance of temple entry. As he put it in the preamble to his bill, it was meant to provide ‘legal machinery for the ascertainment of the opinion of the Hindu community’.

Manoj Mitta author Caste Pride

Author Manoj Mitta.

Informally called the ‘local option’ bill, it was laden with procedural details for conducting the referendum in the neighbourhood of the temple concerned on whether members of the ‘excluded caste’ could be let in. It also proposed an amendment to get around the statutory hurdle of Section 40 of the Madras Religious Endowments Act, 1926, which obligated every temple trustee to administer in accordance with ‘the usage of the institution’. Subbarayan’s bill proposed to make that obligation subject to the outcome of the referendum on temple entry.

Gandhi embraced the bill that fleshed out his referendum idea. It was, in fact, Subbarayan’s bill that marked a shift from his own position of legislative intervention only in secular spaces. Having since hit upon a non-coercive method in the referendum option, he was evidently no longer shy of legislation on temple entry.

Subbarayan’s bill dovetailed with Gandhi’s plan of going on a fast in Kelappan’s company from 2 January 1934 should the zamorin fail to throw open Guruvayur even after the referendum had turned out to be in favour of it. In a press interview given on 5 December, Gandhi made it clear that he was so ‘satisfied’ with Subbarayan’s bill that he now linked it to his fast. He was quoted as saying that ‘if Dr. Subbarayan was not granted leave to introduce the bill, the fast would commence on 2nd January’.

Madras Governor George Stanley passed the buck to Viceroy Willingdon on sanctioning introduction of the bill. In its letter to the Government of India on 10 December 1932, the Madras government pointed out, ‘Mr. Gandhi has threatened to fast if sanction to the introduction of Dr. Subbarayan’s Bill is refused.’ While recognising ‘the undesirability of an appearance of yielding to a threat of this kind’, the Madras government said that the real question for consideration was whether a bill that ‘regulates civil rights should not be introduced in the Central Legislature’.

Gandhi changes his mind

Finding merit in the suggestion that Subbarayan’s bill had implications for the Hindu community in the rest of the country, the Willingdon administration decided to consult the other provinces of British India. A letter was sent out to all such provinces on 21 December, and it soon became clear that there was little chance that Willingdon would be able to make up his mind on Subbarayan’s bill before Gandhi’s 2 January deadline for the launch of his fast.

P Subbarayan.

A 1989 stamp commemorating P Subbarayan.

As the deadline neared, Gandhi changed his mind about the fast. In a statement issued on 30 December 1932, he declared that, pending the ‘Viceregal decision’ on Subbarayan’s bill, the fast stood ‘indefinitely postponed’. At the time he made this announcement, the referendum had vindicated his claim of local support for temple entry in Guruvayur. Gandhi said that, out of the electorate of 65,000 caste Hindus in the Ponnani taluk, 55 per cent had voted in favour of temple entry, 9 per cent against, 8 per cent neutral and 27 per cent had abstained. Pointing out that the referendum had been held amidst ‘adverse influences’, including the hostility of the zamorin, Gandhi said, ‘The Ponnani Taluk is the stronghold of orthodoxy and yet there was a decisive majority in favour of admission of the untouchables to that shrine.’

Gandhi also reproduced the resolution of the 25 September Bombay conference, saying he was doing so to remind caste Hindus of their ‘original vow’. The version he quoted though was his original draft, which asserted that social disabilities had been ‘imposed by caste Hindus’, rather than the one amended by Malaviya and actually adopted at the conference, with the words ‘imposed by custom’. Conveniently, Gandhi’s statement also ignored the 30 September resolution that had disclaimed the legislative option on any untouchability-related reform.

On 4 January 1933, M.K. Acharya, the president of the Madras Varnashrama Swarajya Sangha, sent to Willingdon a copy of a memorandum he had submitted the previous day to the Madras governor. Calling upon the viceroy to deny sanction to the temple entry bill, the body of orthodox Hindus fired a series of questions: ‘How far are the Depressed Classes themselves anxious to abandon their own temples and force their way into the Temples of the Caste Hindus? Are not the Depressed Classes more anxious to ameliorate their worldly wants? Is it not the duty of the reformers more to inculcate among these classes higher standards of cleanliness and morality than to force their entry into the Temples of Caste Hindus? Will not such forcible entry embitter the present relations between the Caste Hindus and their Untouchable countrymen?’

Reviling the reformers as ‘intellectual slaves of the West’, the Madras Varnashrama Swarajya Sangha said: ‘All cheap talk of equality and democracy is due to ignorance of the higher laws of life; that is what the modern West is learning at terrible cost.’ It added: ‘Our modern reformers including Mr. Gandhi are ignorant of these higher laws of evolution; and so they talk glibly of the supposed Right of every born Hindu to enter and worship in every Hindu Temple.’

Unabashedly, it declared: ‘There exists no such universal Right in Hinduism, which teaches on the other hand that every Hindu must worship in the specific manner best suited to his birth and environment. Indeed Hinduism teaches that birth and environment are not accidents but the result of the Law of Karma or spiritual causation. “The one goal through many paths”—this is the supreme teaching of the Sanatana Dharma, and the very mark of its superiority over all other religions in the world. It is through ignorance of this law of the One in the Many that modern reformers are blindly sowing strife where they want peace.’

(Excerpted with permission from Caste Pride: Battles for Equality in Hindu India. By Manoj Mitta. Context. Rs 999.)