Temple entry for women : Gender Equality v/s Religious Freedom

State control over Temples

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Article 25 and 26

Mains level : Paper 2- Evolution of rights-bases jurisprudence

Context

On August 14, 2021, the Tamil Nadu government appointed 24 trained archakas (priests) in temples across the State. In the weeks since, a series of writ petitions have been filed before the Madras High Court assailing these appointments.

Administration of  Hindu temples in Tamil Nadu by government and challenges to it

  • The Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE), 1959, is the governing law on the administration of Hindu temples and religious institutions.
  • In 1971, Section 55 of the HR&CE Act was amended to abolish hereditary priesthood.
  • Removal of caste-based discrimination: In 2006, the amendment provided for the appointment of sufficiently trained Hindus irrespective of their caste as archakas to Hindu temples by the government.
  • Challenges in the Court: Challenges to both amendments were taken to the Supreme Court, which upheld the law, as amended.
  •  In Seshammal v. Union (1972), the Supreme Court observed that the amendment to the HR&CE Act abolishing hereditary priesthood did not mean that the government intended to bring about any “change in the rituals and ceremonies”.
  • Constitutional legitimacy: In Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal v. Govt. of Tamil Nadu (2015), the Supreme Court observed that “the constitutional legitimacy, naturally, must supersede all religious beliefs or practices”.
  • The Court further went on to state that appointments should be tested on a case-by-case basis and any appointment that is not in line with the Agamas will be against the constitutional freedoms enshrined under Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution.

Judicial balancing of the various rights by the Supreme Court

  • In Indian Young Lawyers’ Association v. State of Kerala (the Sabarimala case) and Joseph Shine v. Union of India (2018), the Supreme Court reiterated the need to eliminate “historical discrimination which has pervaded certain identities”’, “systemic discrimination against disadvantaged groups”.
  • In these cases the Supreme Court rejected stereotypical notions used to justify such discrimination.
  • In all these cases, the Court prioritised judicial balancing of various constitutional rights.
  • The constitutional order of priority: In the Sabarimala case, it held that “in the constitutional order of priorities, the individual right to the freedom of religion was not intended to prevail over but was subject to the overriding constitutional postulates of equality, liberty and personal freedoms recognised in the other provisions of Part III”.

Way forward

  • Building on the Sabrimala case: The constitutional courts will now be called upon to build on the gains of the Sabarimala case when it comes to administration of temples, insofar as it concerns matters that are not essentially religious.
  • Dealing with the gender bias: The Supreme Court, in Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India (2018), interpreted Article 15 as being wide, progressive and intersectional.
  • Today, while most of the debate is around whether men from all caste groups can become archakas, we have failed to recognise the gender bias inherent in these discussions.

Consider the question “We have been witnessing the evolution of rights-based jurisprudence in the various judgements of the Supreme Court. This will help to eliminate “systemic discrimination against disadvantaged groups”, and reject stereotypical notions used to justify such discrimination. Comment.”

Conclusion

At once, caste orthodoxy and patriarchy entrenched within the realm of the HR&CE Act can be eliminated and supplanted with a vision of a just, equal and dignified society.

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