Non-Brahmin priests: Kerala leads

Non-Brahmin priests: Kerala leads
The Kerala government’s decision to appoint 36 non-Brahmins, including six Dalits and many belonging to backward castes, as priests in temples managed by the Travancore Devaswom Board is an important and pioneering initiative of social reform. Non-Brahmins have served as priests in Kerala but they were either in small shrines, private temples or temples owned by non-Brahmin individuals or bodies. An attempt to appoint them in Devaswom Board temples in the 1960s had fizzled out. The Board manages over 1,200 temples, including the famous Sabarimala temple. The appointments followed the rules and procedures of public recruitments and were based on an examination open to all castes, and subsequent interviews. Importantly, reservation norms were followed. Even when stray appointments took place in the past, reservation norms were not implemented. This was inexplicable because the Boaryed temples are publicly funded. So, there was no reason why the recruitments should not follow the rules for appointments in other sectors.

Even the right of entry into temples had once been denied to large sections of people. The law gave the right of access to temples to everybody in the last century. The next logical step is the right to priesthood for everybody, irrespective of caste and community. Priesthood has been considered the monopoly of Brahmins for no reason but that it has been sanctified by tradition. The idea has been challenged in the past but even court orders which recognised the right to priesthood of all believers were not implemented. The importance of the Kerala government’s decision lies in that it has implemented the idea that everybody has the right to priesthood and has introduced the principle of reservation in the selection. But it should be noted that some of the candidates who were selected excelled in the general category, proving that they are as good as others in knowledge, skills and the attitude that the profession demands.

There is bound to be opposition to the decision from conservative sections of society. The resistance and opposition will gradually wear off as all progressive and well-intentioned reforms take time to get accepted and internalised by society. Governments have the responsibility to lead such reforms with law and executive action. Other states should follow the trail blazed in Kerala. Leaders in Tamil Nadu have demanded the implementation of an enabling law which already exists in the state. Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has said that the government is ready to appoint non-Brahmins as priests in muzrai temples. Enlightened sections of the public should put pressure on governments to move ahead in the matter.
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