ON 17 SEPTEMBER THIS YEAR, a 30-year-old man named Renganathan was arrested for sitting in protest inside Madurai’s famous Meenakshi temple, close to the sanctum sanctorum. Renganathan had been shouting slogans demanding that men from all castes be considered for appointment as archakas, or temple priests, not only in the Meenakshi temple but all over Tamil Nadu.
Renganathan is one of hundreds in Tamil Nadu trying to draw attention to a relatively little-known case pending in the Supreme Court since August 2006. It concerns a decades-old dispute between the Government of Tamil Nadu and orthodox Hindus over the question of hereditary succession in the appointment of temple priests. The case, brought by an association of orthodox Brahmin priests and contested by activists from Tamil Nadu’s anti-caste movement, challenges the legality of a 2006 state-government ordinance that abolished the hereditary appointment of priests, and instituted a qualification-based selection process instead.
This decree would have allowed men from backward and scheduled castes to become archakas for the first time in modern history. But what should have been a straightforward act of social reform has become the subject of a drawn-out legal battle around the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion. For much of modern Indian history, caste-based discrimination has been thought of, and defined, in terms of the unequal treatment of backward castes in educational institutions and workplaces. Reservation policies have, accordingly, sought to provide some marginalised classes with access to education and jobs. But, by and large, governments have turned a blind eye to discriminatory practices engrained in the religious rituals and orthodoxies of the Hindu faith. In doing so, it appears the constitutional mandate to check social inequality has been halted abruptly at the temple gates.