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Why Uttarakhand HC order on temple entry for Dalits is a landmark judgment

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 14 July 2018, 16:43 IST

The Uttarakhand High Court order on entry of allowing entry of Dalits in temples and performance of their rituals by upper caste priests is a landmark judgment that makes a powerful statement on the denial of social equality 70 years after independence. The judgment throws up several questions in the socio-political while pointing towards the collective failure of the successive regimes to address these issues.

The bench comprising Justice Rajiv Sharma and Justice Lok Pal Singh passed the order saying, “High-caste priests throughout the state of Uttarakhand shall not refuse to perform religious ceremonies/puja/rituals on behalf of the members belonging to lower castes in all the religious places/temples. All the persons, irrespective of their caste, are permitted to enter/visit any
temple throughout the state of Uttarakhand without any discrimination in the spirit of Articles 14, 15(2), 17, 19,21, 25, 29(2), 38, 46 and 51-A of the Constitution of India. It is made clear that any properly trained and qualified person can be appointed as Poojari irrespective of his caste in the temples, as laid down by Hon’ble Supreme Court.”

The court was hearing a petition on shifting of the staircase over the Sant Ravi Dass temple at Har-ki-Pauri in Haridwar.

The decision comes as an embarrassment to the Uttarakhand government as it establishes the fact that discrimination against Scheduled Castes (SC) continues in this primarily hill state. Social observers point out that the social discrimination exists even in the hill districts though its manifestation is not as brazen as in the districts in the plains. There have been attempts in the past to sweep the dirt under the carpet by making statements that such practices do not exist. But the fact remains that they are a reality and are more pronounced in areas like Jaunsar Bhabhar.

There have been instances reported from time to time of even SC MLAs being denied entry into some temples. In 2016, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Tarun Vijay was pelted with stones when he along with a Dalit leader reportedly touched a 'Dev Doli' during a visit to the Punah temple in Jaunsar Bhabhar temple.

Some very interesting observations about the High Court order come from Indresh Maikhuri who is a CPI (ML) leader from the Garhwal region. He points out, “The relevance of the order stems out from the fact that social equality is still being denied to people even after 70 years of the independence. The fact that the High Court has to intervene in such issues and issue orders shows how deep-rooted the malice of caste is in our society.” He pointed that the most ironic part is about Dalits seeking equality for entry into a temple without understanding that it is because of this institution run by a Brahminical order there is the denial.

“You want SC members to play the Dhol outside the temples on all the festivals and other auspicious occasions but the same SCs are not allowed inside,” he remarked.

Talking about the social discrimination against the SCs in the hill districts, eminent historian Shekhar Pathak points out that the manifestation of casteist discrimination has not been brazen and pointed in the hilly regions. “In the hills, upper castes were traditionally dependent on Dalit artisans. In addition to this there were no big landlords. Traditionally even the Dalits have been land owners having rights over the common land in the village.”

“Then there has been a joint participation of Dalits and upper castes in various agitations in this part of the country. These movements and agitations include the ones for independence, protecting the jungles and against the practice of Begar. One of the most relevant movement was the 'Doli Palki' agitation that took place between the two world wars. This was a movement that aimed at allowing Dalits also to move in palanquins. Even the agitations for Dalit entry into temples was supported by large sections of upper castes,” he told Catch.

Pathak points out that after the independence there has been a considerable increase in the level of education among SCs but they could not fill their places when it comes to jobs. On this front the Scheduled Tribes (ST) have fared very well.

He also points about the psychological aspect that leads to Dalits following the dead ideals of the upper castes. He says that it needs to be understood why Dalits treat the rituals of upper castes as ideal even if they are of no consequence. He quotes the example of Lala Lajpat Rai's Kumaon visit in 1913 and performing the 'Janeu' (tying of sacred thread) ceremony of Dalits.

Another interesting point mentioned in the order is, “Since the system has failed to accord and protect the dignity, honour and human rights of the persons belonging to lower castes, it has led to large scale conversions.” An interesting aspect of Uttarakhand's demography is that the number of SC population is very less in the hill districts.

First published: 14 July 2018, 16:43 IST