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This article is written by Kavana Rao, from Symbiosis Law School, Noida. This article discusses the appointment of Dalits as temple priests and their conditions and rights in India.

Introduction

Franklin D. Roosevelt had once said, “No democracy can long survive which does not accept as fundamental to its very existence the recognition of the rights of minorities.” The Indian Constitution not only embraces and acknowledges the rights of the minorities, but also includes provisions to uplift those communities. Inequality has been prevalent in India for so long that it would be absurd to expect the law to treat everyone equally. Therefore, the Constitution follows the concept of equity which ensures that the gap between the downtrodden classes and the rest of the society can be bridged through affirmative actions. 

Condition of Dalits in India

Despite the laws and affirmative actions, the Dalits in India continue to survive under inhumane conditions. Around 80% of the Dalits live in the rural regions where economic exploitation remains their most evident problem. They are mostly marginal or landless farmers or labourers. Though the practice of bonded labour has been abolished, the Dalits, when under extreme debt and poverty, resort to being bonded labourers where they take loans from the moneylenders and agree to work for them until the debt is repaid. In reality, it is very difficult for them to repay such debts. These debts are further passed down to the next generations and the vicious cycle never ends until the debt is repaid. Their moneylenders and landlords pay the labourers minimum wages or food or nothing at all. These workers are often met with violence and ill-treatment during the course of their work, leading to either death or injury. 

Dalit women also have been put through the worst in recent times. These women not only have to face discrimination because of their sex but also because of the social, religious and cultural structures to which they adhere and are given the lowest position in the social rung of the hierarchy. Sexual violence is a problem faced by women across India, but it is more challenging for Dalit women due to the added discrimination and lack of support that they face from the communities that they reside in.

Dalit children and students also face discrimination in schools and educational institutions. It is not a hidden fact that there are many schools and educational institutions which have come to light in recent years, because of complaints of discrimination and oppression upon Dalit students. 

Temple Entry Movement

In the year 1930, Dr Amedkar and B.K. Gaikwad started the Temple Entry Movement in Nashik. The depressed classes in Nashik launched the satyagraha as the trustees of the temple did not allow the ‘untouchables’ to enter the temple. Their Temple Entry Satyagraha was the inception of the fight for social equality. This movement also saw resistance from the high caste Hindus, who were not for letting the Dalits enter the temple. Dr Amedekar, in his letter to his colleague Bhaurao, stated that he did not start the Temple Entry Movement for the Depressed Classes to become worshippers of idols, which they were stopped from worshipping, instead, he wanted them to be a part of the movement to prove that they were an equal and integral part of the society and the movement was the best way to energise the Depressed Classes and make them aware of their rights. Once the movement had been completed, he also asked the members of the Depressed Classes to direct their energy towards education and politics and understand the importance of both. He believed that the surest way of elevating the depressed classes was in imparting higher education, providing higher employment and in better ways of earning a living. The Temple Entry Movement was not limited to Nasik but spread in different places like Travancore, Puri, etc.

Appointment of Dalits as temple priests 

The Supreme Court in 2002 held that the eligibility for the priesthood should be based on the knowledge of rites and traditions and not the caste. This opens up the doors of the temples and religious places to the backward and the oppressed castes. On this basis, the Kerala government directed all state-run Devaswom boards (temple boards) to conduct their recruiting processes without discrimination based on caste, and the State Public Service Commission was given the task of appointing priests. Despite the dearth of Brahmin priests, temples, they were unwilling to install non-Brahmins as priests even after the Supreme Court ruling.

However, the Kerala Devaswom Recruitment Board has proposed the appointment of 36 non-Brahmins, including six Dalits/ Scheduled Castes (SCs), as priests in temples coming under the board. The appointment list was prepared after conducting the written test and interview. It is interesting to note that this was the first time in history that the appointment of temple priests in Kerala was made based on reservation norms that exist in the recruitment of government staff. Presently, in Kerala, the total reservation for SC/ST and OBC (Other Backward Classes) is 32%. This move is also considered as progressive as previously; some priests from the backward communities had been appointed, but that was based on merit. It was for the first time that affirmative action of reservation had been implemented to appoint the priests of the temples

Affirmative actions

Affirmative action means positive steps taken to improve the representation of people or a community that is barely represented or which historically has always been excluded and needs elevation to be at par with the rest of the population.

To counter caste discrimination, affirmative actions for SCs & STs and OBCs are needed. Affirmative action was needed to outweigh the imbalances of the past In India; it is also known as “preferential treatment”, “protective discrimination” or “reverse discrimination”. The purpose of affirmative action is to end discrimination against SCs/STs and OBCs.

In India, affirmative action is taken through job quotas, reservations and Constitutional provisions.

Job quotas

  • 22.5% quotas in government educational institutions, government jobs and all levels of elected bodies of SCs & STs 
  • Since 1990, after the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report 27% quotas for OBCs in jobs extended to educational institutions via the 93rd Constitution Amendment in 2006. 

Reservation in Centre and State Legislature

Under Article 330 seats are reserved for SCs (15%) and STs (7.5%) in Lok Sabha, that is 131 Seats for SCs & STs. where SC can hold  84 seats and ST can hold 47 seats. Quotas for SCs & STs are also implemented in state legislatures and local governments.

Constitutional Provisions and Acts

Article 14 is the cornerstone of protecting the rights of the Dalits or the disadvantaged. It states that “Equality before law; the State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India”; Article 15(1) prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth”. These fundamental rights ensure that the Dalits are not discriminated against on the basis of their social standing in society and are treated equally in all aspects of life.

Provision for advancement of backward classes

Article 15(4) states, “Nothing in this article or in clause (2) of Article 29 shall prevent the State from making any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes”. The Constitution (1st Amendment) Act of 1951 included Article 15(4), which is an exemption to clauses (1) and (2) of Article 15. The state is allowed to make provisions for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward sections of individuals, as well as the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, under this article.

Reservation for backward classes in public employment 

Article 16(4) states that “Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making any provision for the reservation of appointments or posts in favor of any backward class of citizens which, in the opinion of the State, is not adequately represented in the services under the State”. It is the second exception to the general rule embodied in Articles 16(1) and 16(2). It empowers the state to make special provisions for the reservation in appointments of posts in favour of any backward class of citizens which in the opinion of the State are not adequately represented in the services under the State.

Freedom to profess any profession

Article 19 (g) of the Indian Constitution allows any person to practice any profession, trade or business or carry on any occupation. Prohibiting the Dalits to be appointed as priests in the temples is a violation of that right. 

The Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989 

The Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989 lists offences of human behaviour towards the SC/ST community. It defines atrocities that deny socio-economic and political rights and perpetuating discrimination and abuse by a non-SC/ST individual.

The way forward

There is a constant debate about how reservations and quotas are acting as disadvantages for the other communities which do not fall under the SC/ST quota and how everything should be based on merit. This argument is true when bright minds belonging to other communities lose out on opportunities due to such reservations, but there is also a significant part of the society belonging to the Dalit class where they are already battling against the discriminations constantly hurled at them. In such situations and conditions, reservations allow them to uplift and elevate themselves. Laws are always applicable among equals, but the disadvantaged need help and support to uplift themselves and these affirmative actions are the required help and support.

References

  1. https://minorityrights.org/minorities/dalits/ 
  2. https://www.livelaw.in/appointment-dalits-temple-priests-affirmative-action-way-forward/ 
  3. https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/indiascope/story/20021028-backward-caste-kerala-temple-priest-wins-battle-against-travancore-devaswom-board-794016-2002-10-28 
  4. http://www.mgcub.ac.in/pdf/material/202004101120317f4a32b19c.pdf 

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