Though the Constitution declares that “untouchability is abolished,” insidious forms of the practice persist in India’s casteist society

The provenance of each idli that you eat at any Udupi restaurant in the world can be traced to the Sri Krishna math (temple) in Udupi town in Karnataka. The math was founded in the 13th Century by the foremost proponent of dwaita Hinduism, Madhwacharya. His eight disciples created eight subsidiary maths, each of whom manage the main math for two years, over a 16-year cycle.

A miracle is said to have occurred in the 16th Century when a low caste devotee, a shepherd (Kuruba) called Kanakadasa, was denied entry into the temple. He stood outside the temple and sang praises of Lord Krishna till the east facing idol turned itself to the west, broke open the intervening wall, and revealed the Lord to his true seeker. The event was commemorated by the then pontiff Vadiraja Swamy, who built a window where the wall had broken. It is through this window, the Kanakana Kindi, that every devotee today views the Udupi Sri Krishna, before he enters the math to pay full obeisance.

If you think the orthodoxy of Kanakadasa’s days vanished with the 16th Century, think again. In the 1930s, Mahatma Gandhi skipped visiting the temple when he was informed about its discriminatory practices. In the 1980s, the famous Jazz musician and Carnatic performer Jon Higgins, known to this country as Higgins Bhagvattar, was denied entry into the temple as he was white-skinned. He stood outside singing “Krishna nee begaane baaro,” till the wonderstruck priests were forced to invite him inside to visit the Lord. One would have thought that the walls of exclusion would have given way at least now, but they still exist.

On April 15 this year, Vanita Shetty, an assistant professor at Manipal University, prayed at the math and sat with her colleagues on the ground floor of the dining hall, where devotees are fed as part of the prasad ritual. Before she was served, she was told to get up and eat her meal on the first floor, since the ground floor was reserved only for Brahmins. This practice, wherein Brahmins are served food in one area and all other castes are separately served, is called ‘pankti bedha.’ Ms Shetty went home without eating.

In Montgomery, Alabama in the United States, in a similar moment in 1955, a black seamstress call Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, where blacks traditionally sat, to allow a white man to sit in her seat. Her act of defiance lead to the start of the Civil Rights movement. Today we say: “Rosa sat so Martin could walk. Martin walked so Obama could run (for president).”

Ms Shetty did not continue sitting. Her case is not an isolated instance. Inquiries reveal that over thirty people from Mumbai from the same community were on an earlier occasion interrupted halfway through their meal. They too had no option but to walk out.

Subtle forms of untouchability

Though the Indian Constitution declares in Article 17 that “untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden,” insidious forms of the practice persist in India’s casteist society. Many communities in North India cannot even ride a horse on their marriage day as it would be an affront to the traditional horse-riding castes. A Scheduled Caste Chief Minister’s wife in Rajasthan had to wear a purificatory garland of holy basil (tulsi) to gain entry into the Nathdwara temple.

Caste discrimination in public temples is often justified by resorting to the religion argument. But Article 25 (2) of the Constitution clarifies that “nothing in this article shall affect the operation of any existing law or prevent the State from making any law-providing for social welfare and reform or the throwing open of Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all classes and sections of Hindus.” Section 69 of the Karnataka Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowments Act, 1997, which applies to the Vanita Shetty case, outlaws discrimination in the distribution of prasada in temples. It says: “Notwithstanding anything contained in this Act or in any text, rule of interpretation of Hindu Law or any custom or usage, no discrimination shall be made in the distribution of prasada or theertha in any temple or other religious place on grounds only of caste, sex, place of birth, or any of them.” The Act has provisions under Sections 43 and 44 to take over the administration of temples.

The Supreme Court has already ruled in 1958 in the Venkataramana Devaru case that “the right of a denomination to wholly exclude members of the public from worshipping in the temple, though comprised in Article 26 (b), must yield to the overriding right declared by Article 25 (2) (b) in favour of the public to enter into a temple for worship. But where the right claimed is not one of general and total exclusion of the public from worship in the temple at all times but of exclusion from certain religious services, they being limited by the rules of the foundation to the members of the denomination, then the question is not whether Article 25 (2) (b) overrides that right so as to extinguish it, but whether it is possible to regulate the rights of the persons protected by Article 25 (2) (b) as to give effect to both the rights. If the denominational rights are such that to give effect to them would substantially reduce the right conferred by Article 25 (2) (b), then, of course, on our conclusion that Article 25 (2) (b) prevails as against Article 26(b), the denominational rights must vanish.”

Not a denominational temple

The Udupi Sri Krishna temple was never a denominational temple of the Brahmins alone. The discriminatory practice of ‘pankti bedha’ is outlawed by legislation and is not protected by any provision of the Constitution. This regressive custom continues solely through acquiescence on part of the citizen and the state alike. It is time for the Karnataka government, headed by a Chief Minister of Kanakadasa’s Kuruba community, to once again restore Udupi Sri Krishna’s blessings to all his devotees, without any discrimination whatsoever. The Lord needs to perform no miracles if his bhaktas on earth act with good will and firm resolve.

If the temple authorities do not immediately announce an immediate end to this pernicious practise, the state can and must act with the full force of the law.

(Sanjay Hegde is a Supreme Court lawyer.)

More In: Comment | Opinion