AUSTRAL AFFAIRS: Leaving issues of faith to a signboard to resolve

The Madras High Court, on 30 January, ordered the state government to install signboards in all Hindu temples against permitting non-Hindus.

ByV V P Sharma

Published Jan 31, 2024 | 6:00 PMUpdatedJan 31, 2024 | 6:00 PM


The Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court, on Tuesday, 30 January, ordered the Tamil Nadu government to install signboards in all Hindu temples against permitting non-Hindus beyond the “kodimaram” (flagpole) area.

The Bench headed by Justice S Srimathy said the “restrictions would ensure communal harmony among different religions and peace in the society”.

The verdict can help open the possibility of subjecting such court orders in today’s India to societal scrutiny.

The case is quite simple.

Senthilkumar, who runs a shop near the Arulmigu Palani Dhandayuthapani Swamy temple in Tamil Nadu, approached the court to make it mandatory to have signboards at the temple prohibiting the entry of non-Hindus. He felt non-Hindu visitors were using the temple as a picnic spot.

The court admitted the petition. It observed that Hindus have the fundamental right to practice and profess their religion.

Also Read: HC directs TN govt not to allow non-Hindus beyond flagpole in temples

Undertaking for entry of non-Hindus

The ruling also directed non-Hindus wishing to visit a particular deity in the temple to furnish an undertaking expressing their faith in the deity and their commitment to adhere to Hindu religious customs and practices. The temple management must record this information in its register.

The ruling does not state that, having given the undertaking, the non-Hindu devotee can go anywhere in the temple, or they will still not be allowed to proceed beyond the “kodimaram”.

On the face of it, the judgement appears fair to all. There is no entry for non-Hindus from a specific point in the temple leading to the sanctum sanctorum. There can be an entry for non-Hindus ready to pledge to follow Hindu customs for praying before their preferred deity.

But then, the judgement is neither new nor revolutionary. Millions of temples in India have evolved their separate customs over a long time on who can enter.

Temples already have their entry codes

Most Vaishnavite temples, and some Shaivite temples, follow stringent agama codes and do not allow other religious people.

Non-Hindus are not allowed entry into major temples like the Jagannath Temple, Padmanabhaswamy Temple, Kapaleeshwarar Temple, or the Lingaraja Temple, to name a few.

Former prime minister Indira Gandhi was denied entry to the Jagannath Temple in Puri because she had married a Parsi. The temple authorities stopped the Queen of Thailand, Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, because she was a Buddhist.

Entry into some big temples is restricted to allow people of all faiths to celebrate the magnificent constructions and architecture.

In Somnath and Tirupati, non-Hindus must declare their religious identity and sign a form for entry.

And, yes, there are temples like Sabarimala where rules are so strict that even Hindu women of menstruating age cannot enter. The irony is stretched in the case of Guruvayur, where famous Carnatic singer Yesudas was disallowed entry because of his faith despite his Hindu devotional songs being played across all temples in Kerala.

At the same time, there is a list of temples managed by state governments, called open temples, because anyone can enter. There are thousands of such temples in all the southern states, that operate with some restrictions.

Also Read: Tamil Nadu government seals village temple that denied entry to Dalits

No-entry for Dalits was once a norm; for women in Sabarimala

One should never forget that while some temples or petitioners like Senthilkumar squabble over the entry of non-Hindus, till a few decades ago, these temples exhibited such orthodoxy as to ban the entry of Hindus — lower castes, especially Dalits. The Indian Parliament had to pass legislation to end this evil discrimination.

Even today, there are reports of lower-caste Hindus finding it difficult to enter some temples freely. Menstruating women or men not wearing prescribed clothes and children in Western clothing are not allowed into some temples — many temples have their separate codes.

The Madurai Bench’s judgement brings out an irony. Its order talks of restricting entry to non-Hindus. The Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, some time ago allowed entry of Hindu women of all ages into Sabarimala, only to stay its order for examination by a Constitutional Bench.

Erecting signboards easier than enforcing rule

The other issue with the Madurai Bench order is identifying a non-Hindu. What is more complicated is identifying a non-Hindu who genuinely believes in a Hindu deity and is willing to give a declaration to that effect. Lastly, during festivals, when millions throng the temples, it is humanly impossible for the authorities to check the religious identity of people streaming in.

The signboards are of no use in these situations.

The Madurai Bench was aware of this complication. The judgement refers to it as well. It quotes the respondents (the state government and temple authorities) as suggesting that “If any non-Hindus who are having faith in any particular deity and accepts the customs and practices followed in the Hindu Religion as well as Temple customs they should be allowed”.

The Bench notes, “But the respondents have not explained in the counter how they could identify the non-Hindus having faith in the particular deity of the temple and are willing to abide by the customs of Hindu religion and customs of the concerned temple.”

To that extent, the court’s order is an iteration of a practice already in vogue in many temples. Moreover, in 2022, the Madras High Court observed in the C Soman v Secretary, Hindu Religious Charitable Departments and Others that if a person belonging to another religion has faith in a particular Hindu deity, they cannot be denied entry into that deity’s temple.

Also Read: Gandhi and his ‘opinion poll’ over temple entry in Guruvayur

Majoritarian right-wing also uses same signboards

The last issue, but not the least, is how the signboard about non-Hindus that the Madurai Bench refers to represents a majoritarian, exclusionist tool wielded by far right-wing organisations promoting a communal agenda in contemporary India today.

In late 2021, a Muslim boy accidentally entered a temple in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, to drink water. He was assaulted. The temple priest, Yati Narsinghanand, told the police the boy entered to “recce the temple to execute a conspiracy”. A poster came up at the temple entrance banning the entry of non-Hindus and Muslims.

Sometime later, activists of a right-wing organisation, the Hindu Yuva Vahini, put up banners in nearly 150 temples in Dehradun, Uttarakhand, saying no entry for non-Hindus.

These activists did not even spare the Ganga river.

In 2022, some VHP and Bajrang Dal activists put up posters saying “Entry prohibited – non-Hindus” at the various ghats on the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi. Following an uproar, the leaders of the organisations distanced themselves from the poster incident.

There are signboards and signboards. Some have legal sanctions protecting the exclusivity of faith. Some are illegal and unsanctioned, barring inclusivity of faiths.