Caste Discrimination Still Plagues India’s Temples – News18

Restrictions on temple entry for marginalised and lower-caste individuals are not uncommon in Indian society. (Representative image/PTI)

Restrictions on temple entry for marginalised and lower-caste individuals are not uncommon in Indian society. (Representative image/PTI)

India boasts constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and laws against caste discrimination. Yet, a recent clash in Tamil Nadu, where lower-caste individuals were barred from a temple, exposes the grim reality: age-old prejudices continue to trump legal protections

Temple entry restrictions imposed on lower castes question the constitutional validity of Article 25 and SC and ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, 2015. This issue was recently highlighted by a caste clash in Tamil Nadu’s Salem District, where the Scheduled Caste (Arunthathiyar community) clashed with Backward Communities (Udayar, Vanniyar, Naicker, and Gounder communities). This incident in Deevattipatti gram panchayat of Kadayampatti town panchayat underscores how socio-religious practices can be challenged through political empowerment. Reforms are urgently needed to strengthen the enforcement of legal provisions that protect lower castes from discriminatory and exclusionary practices.

Restrictions on temple entry for marginalised and lower-caste individuals are not uncommon in Indian society (Ravinder Reddy, 2022; Galanter, 1964). This conflict ignited a paradox between constitutional provisions and age-old socio-religious practices. The Chittarai festival is traditionally celebrated in almost every temple throughout Tamil Nadu in the month of April/May. The Mariamman temple in Deevattipatti also celebrates its annual festival during this time. However, the clash between the lower and upper strata escalated to violence on May 2, 2024, despite officials’ attempts to conduct peace meetings.

In the village of Deevattipatti, there is a long-standing socio-religious practice where the Aruntathiyar community worships and performs all the rituals to their goddess outside the temple. Only the upper-caste Hindus are allowed to enter the temple and perform all the rituals. Recently, during a festival, the Aruntathiyar community attempted to enter the temple but was obstructed by the upper-caste Hindus. It is important to note that the temple is situated in a public place and not on private property. Why is it that a long-established practice is suddenly being questioned now? It is important to re-evaluate our routines occasionally, but we should also be mindful of the reasons behind it.

The Constitution of India guarantees religious freedom under Article 25, which opens up all Hindu religious institutions of public character to all classes and sections of Hindus. Additionally, the Scheduled Caste and Schedule Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 2015 clearly states that it is an offence to obstruct or prevent a Scheduled Caste or a Schedule Tribe from entering any place of worship. Despite these laws being in place for almost seven decades, temple entry restrictions are still being practised. The question of why they continue to persist remains unanswered.

Based on an analysis of news media content and telephonic interviews with the public, it has become clear that the president of the Kadayampatti town panchayat is a member of the Aruntathiyar community. This panchayat was announced as reserved for Schedule Caste in the 2022 local elections of Tamil Nadu, and the ruling party allocated the seat to the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal party. The region is dominated by the backward community, which accounts for 61 per cent of the total population, with SC members making up 37 per cent of the population. According to M.N Srinivas, political power allows for domination in the social sphere of society. Communities that attain political power can challenge the age-old practices (Tharamangalam, 2019).

The media has shed light on a nationwide issue. Although the situation has been controlled by authorities and the police, the problem persists throughout India. At the entrance of all Indian Hindu temples, there must be a board displaying the following information in the local language: ‘Obstructing or preventing a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe from entering any place of worship is a punishable offence.’ This helps to create awareness and encourages people to approach the legal system to address caste-based discrimination. It’s fascinating to note that scholars (Weiner, 2001) widely acknowledge the potential of nationwide awareness to bring about change in deep-rooted practices. The impact of such awareness can be truly transformative, leading to a better society for all.

Let’s work together to spread awareness and promote an egalitarian society.

The author is Assistant Professor, ICFAI Law School, IFHE (Deemed to be University), Telangana, India. Views expressed in the above piece are personal and solely those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect News18’s views.