Archakas case draws to a close in SC


Issue relates to basis of appointing priests in temples in Tamil Nadu

A case which is bound to have wide political and social repercussions is drawing to a close in the Supreme Court.

In May, judgment was reserved on petitions challenging a Government Order of 2006 that allowed persons with requisite qualifications, irrespective of their caste, to become priests in temples in Tamil Nadu.

In 1971, the then DMK government under Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi amended the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious Endowments Act to abolish the concept of hereditary appointments for priests (Archakas) in temples in the State. The amendment was challenged in the Supreme Court, which took the side of the government.

In its judgment in the Seshammal case, a Constitution bench of the apex court held that appointment of Archakas was a “secular function” and abolished “next-in-line succession” appointments. However, the court also made it clear that appointments so made, even if they are non-hereditary, should confirm to the “usage” prevalent in the said temple. If the “usage” was that Archakas were appointed from a given “denomination, sect or group”, this had to be followed.

Critics said this translated into priest appointments again getting restricted to the community of Brahmins for several subsequent decades. A committee formed by the State government, in fact, said the Seshammal case had been misunderstood.

In May 2006, the DMK government took up the issue of priests appointments yet again. Relying on a 2002 judgement in the Adhithayan case, where the apex court held that there was no justification for insisting that persons of a particular caste alone could conduct temple rituals, the State issued a GO making any person with “requisite qualification and training” eligible for appointment. The GO and the ordinance that followed were challenged by the Adi Saiva Sivacharyargal Nala Sangam.

The nine-year case witnessed extensive arguments by legal stalwarts, who represented different sides. Appearing for the petitioners, former Attorney General K. Parasaran contended that the accusation that priest appointments under Agamas were essentially caste-based was incorrect.

“No person is permitted to enter the Sanctum Sanctorum, irrespective of whatever varna/caste he may belong,” Mr. Parasaran said. Only those belonging to a particular denomination, in this case descendants of four rishis mentioned in the Agamas , could become priests and the denomination is determined by the usage in the particular temple. He also rejected the contention that Saivas and Vaishnavas by themselves are denominations and with training they become eligible to function as Archakas , a line taken by the State.

Mr. Parasaran said the right to enter temples had been fully achieved in Tamil Nadu and the social reform dealt with in Article 25 (2) ( throwing open of Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all classes and sections of Hindus) and Protection of Civil Rights (PCR) Act had been carried out. However, by law, this right could only be exercised by a person “in the same manner and to the same extent” as it is permissible to the others professing the same religion. Which means, if no one but the Archakas , appointed based on denomination, could enter the Sanctum Sanctorum, the rule would be applicable to all sections.

The petitioners also contended that since the Seshammal case was delivered by a five-member bench, it would take precedence over the two-judge order in the Adhithayan case. Also, the temple under contention in the Adhithayan case did not belong to any denominational category and hence could not be relied upon to adjudicate the current matter.

Appearing for the State, senior counsel P.P. Rao said the apex court, in the Seshammal case, had rejected the theory that only descendants of four rishis could become Archakas. In fact, he said there was no admitted text of the Agamas and their contents have been surrounded by significant controversies. Further, it was contended that the petitioners of the case have never been declared a denomination by any court.

‘No conflict’

“The impugned GO gives effect to right to equality,” he added, stressing there was no conflict between Seshammal and Adhithayan cases. Any person, irrespective of caste and creed, would be eligible for appointment so far as he belongs to the particular denomination of the temple.

Lawyer Kovilan Poonkuntran of the Archagar Payirchi Petra Manavar Sangam, which impleaded in the case, said the petitioners, employed and working in a public temple, cannot claim privilege of customs and usage in terms of Article 26 (freedom to manage religious affairs). No right can be claimed on basis of caste by birth.

“Further, the word “usage” as mentioned in Section 28 of the TN HR&CE Act, should apply only to a lawful usage and cannot be said to mean all unlawful and illegal usage contrary to Article 17 [abolition of untouchability] in any form and PCR Act,” he said.

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Printable version | Apr 18, 2019 4:23:42 PM |

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