HR&CE Minister Sekar Babu To South First: DMK is firm in its stand that people of all castes can become priests.
The Supreme Court on Monday, 29 August, issued notices to the Tamil Nadu government on pleas filed by BJP leader Subramanian Swamy challenging key provisions of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Act, which allows state control of temples, and the law permitting appointment of non-Brahmin priests.
This has yet again brought to fore the debate around the “free temples campaign” pushed by right-wing organisations in the state.
Apart from Swamy, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), self-proclaimed spiritual guru Jaggi Vasudev and other right-wing groups have been at the forefront of the demand to free temples from government control.
For instance, in a recent closed-door meeting with top journalists in Chennai, RSS, General Secretary Dattatreya Hosabale reportedly said that the organisation supported the “free temples” campaign, as a secular government should not control temples when it is not looking into the affairs of other religious institutions.
The Tamil Nadu unit of the BJP, in its 2021 election manifesto, had also promised that, if elected, the party would hand over the administration of Hindu temples to a board comprising Hindu scholars and saints.
Swamy’s petition challenged the constitutional validity of Sections 21, 23, 27, 28, 29, 29B, 53, 55, 56 and 114 of the HR&CE Act on the grounds that they are violative of Articles 14 (equality before law), 25 (freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion) and 26 (freedom to manage religious affairs) of the Constitution of India.
“By exercising its powers under the various provisions of the Act, the respondent-government has taken over nearly 40,000 Hindu temples in the state of Tamil Nadu, in utter disregard of the rights of the Hindus in the state to profess, practice and propagate their religion,” the petition read.
It added that the “government servants appointed under the HR&CE Act exercise various functions, including directly or indirectly appointing archakas (priests) to these temples, in disregard to the customs followed in these temples or the agamas governing these temples”.
His main prayers to the Supreme Court included an order striking down 11 sections under the HR&CE Act as unconstitutional, and a temporary injunction restraining the Tamil Nadu government, its officers, employees, etc., from appointing or dismissing archakas in temples and Hindu religious institutions.
Speaking to South First, Swamy said that he has taken up cases relating to different temples across the country, including the Chidambaram Nataraja temple in Tamil Nadu, where the Supreme Court ordered that the famous Shiva temple would be managed by the priests and not the government.
The apex court passed this order on an appeal filed by Swamy and the priests of the temple challenging a 2009 order of the Madras High Court which handed over the administration of the temple to the state government.
Swamy said that if the sections of the HR&CE Act which he has challenged are struck down by the Supreme Court, the Act would become “toothless”.
“I want to throw out the government from managing the affairs of the Hindu temples,” he told South First.
Accusing the DMK of being “anti-Hindu”, Swamy further charged that a party of “atheists” cannot govern temples. “Let them (DMK government) look after the deteriorating law and order issues in the state. Let them end corruption. The DMK is looting temples. A party of atheists has no business governing Hindu temples,” he claimed.
Elaborating on why he moved a plea challenging the DMK government’s decision to appoint archakas of all castes at temples managed by the HR&CE department, Swamy said a few Brahmin priests approached him over the matter and sought his help.
It may be noted that the Madras High Court had, on 23 August, ruled that the government could appoint people of any caste as archakas in temples that are not governed by the agama shastra.
When asked if he wanted to “free temples” from government control in the BJP ruled states as well, Swamy replied in the affirmative, saying, “They (BJP) also want to loot temples.”
“Narendra Modi’s leadership is so poor that he doesn’t look after the interests of the temples,” he alleged.
Responding to the court action, Tamil Nadu HR&CE Minister Sekar Babu told South First that the apex court did not stay the appointments of non-Brahmin archakas to temples and that it had only issued a notice.
“As far as the DMK government is concerned, we are firm on our stand that people belonging to all castes can become priests,” he said.
He refused to comment further on the matter, and even on the “free temples” demand, stating that the issue is pending before the Supreme Court.
Speaking to South First, Manu Sundaram, lawyer and spokesperson of the DMK, said that the “free temples” campaign was an attempt by right-wing groups to “stir the pot” and “vitiate” the communal atmosphere in Tamil Nadu. It is a result of their frustration over not being able to gain ground in the state, he said.
Sundaram pointed out that the HR&CE Act has been in effect for decades and, so far, no court has struck it down. Similar laws have been enacted to administer Hindu religious places of worship in other states as well.
“They (right-wing groups) say they want to free temples. But my question is: Free temples and give them to whom?”
Commenting specifically on Swamy’s plea challenging the appointment of non-Brahmin priests, Sundaram said that the former and other petitioners were “living in a different era”.
“Though essential religious practices are protected, it also needs to be looked at from the prism of constitutional morality. The Supreme Court, through its order in the Sabarimala case and other related cases, has upheld that any practice that discriminates against people based on caste, gender, etc., cannot be allowed,” he said.