(In this guest post, Suhrith Parthasarathy, a Madras-based lawyer, discusses the recent Supreme Court decision on Archakas and Agamas)
Previously, in a three-part essay published on this blog, I had previewed a case concerning the appointment of archakas (priests) to Tamil Nadu’s temples which brought to light seemingly significant conflicts between the rights of certain denominations to a freedom of religion and conscience and the state’s duty in bringing forth reform and welfare to society. Last week, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India, in Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal Nala Sangam & Others v. The Government of Tamil Nadu & Another, delivered a final verdict in this case. Unfortunately, the judgment, authored by Justice Ranjan Gogoi, not only lacks clarity, but also fails to address the key constitutional questions at the root of the dispute.
Conventionally, as a matter of custom, archakas were consecrated by virtue of rights flowing through what are known as the Agamas, which are a collection of scriptures governing the conduct of a Hindu temple’s religious affairs. The Agamas include within their numerous diktats specific criteria for eligibility to the post of an archaka. One such criterion was explicated by the Supreme Court, as an example, in Seshammal v. State of Tamil Nadu [ERJ Swami v. The State of Tamil Nadu], AIR 1972 SC 1586. The statement is worth quoting in full:
“Shri R. Parthasarthy Bhattacharya, whose authority on Agama literature is unquestioned, has filed his affidavit in Writ Petition No. 442 of 1971 and stated in his affidavit, with special reference to the Vaikhanasa Sutra to which he belongs, that according to the texts of the Vaikhansa Shastra (Agama), persons who are the followers of the four Rishi traditions of Bhrigu, Atri, Marichi and Kasyapa and born of Vaikhanasa parents are alone competent to do puja in Vaikhanasa temples of Vaishnavites. They only can touch the idols and perform the ceremonies and rituals. None others, however, high placed in society as pontiffs or Acharyas or even other Brahmins could touch the idol, do puja or even enter the Garbha Griha. Not even a person belonging to another Agama is competent to do puja in Vaikhanasa temples. That is the general rule with regard to all these sectarian denominational temples. It is, therefore, manifest that the Archaka of such a temple besides being proficient in the rituals appropriate to the worship of the particular deity, must also belong, according to the Agamas, to a particular denomination.”
From time immemorial, the Agamas have represented a personal law relating, among other things, to the appointment of archakas to Hindu temples. However, through its constant usage and application a convention appeared to have developed by which appointments of archakas were made only on the basis of hereditary succession, usually from within a small denomination of Brahmins. This practice of making hereditary appointments, while not a part of the personal law as contained in the Agamas, came to form a custom, of sorts, and was accorded further legitimacy by Section 55 of the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act, 1959, a legislation that was enacted to specifically enable a complete takeover of Hindu temples by the State. The section reads: “(1) Vacancies, whether permanent or temporary, among the office-holders or servants of a religious institution shall be filled up by the trustee in cases where the office or service is not hereditary.” And “(2) In cases where the office or service is hereditary, the person next in the line of succession shall be entitled to succeed.”
In 1970, the Tamil Nadu government amended Section 55. It now read as follows: “(1) Vacancies, whether permanent or temporary among the office holders or servants of a religious institution shall be filled up by the trustee in all cases. Explanation: The expression ‘Office-holders or servants shall include archakas and poojaris.’” And “(2) No person shall be entitled to appointment to any vacancy referred to in sub-section (1) merely on the ground that he is next in the line of succession to the last holder of office.”
Soon after the provision was modified, a group of hereditarily appointed Archakas challenged the amendment, in Seshammal, arguing that their rights under Articles 25 and 26 stood infracted. A five-judge constitutional bench, speaking through Justice D.G. Palekar’s opinion, dismissed these petitions, but nonetheless provided an additional imprimatur to the supposed sacrosanctity of the Agamas. The power to make appointments of archakas, the court held, was a secular function—the archaka, the judgment said, was “a servant of the temple…As a servant he is subject to the discipline and control of the trustee as recognised by the unamended Section 56 of the Principal Act [Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act] which provides all office-holders and servants attached to a religious institution or in receipt of any emolument or perquisite there from shall, whether the office or service is hereditary or not be controlled by the trustee, and the trustee may, after following the prescribed procedure, if any, fine, suspend, remove or dismiss any of them for breach of trust, incapacity, disobedience of orders neglect of duty, misconduct or other sufficient cause. That being the position of an Archaka, the act of his appointment by the trustee is essentially secular. He owes his appointment to a secular authority.” Nonetheless, while the state is exercising a secular power in making appointments, the court found that the the criteria prescribed under the Agamas was essential to the practice of the religion, and was therefore inviolable. “In a Saivite or a Vaishnavite temple the appointment of the Archaka will have to be made from a specified denomination, sect or group in accordance with the directions of the Agamas governing those temples,” wrote Justice Palekar. “Failure to do so would not only be contrary to Section 28(1) [of the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act] but would also interfere with a religious practice the inevitable result of which would be to defile the image.” However, according to the court, while making appointments from a specified denomination, sect or group in accordance with the Agamas, the state was not bound to follow a principle of hereditary succession, and therefore the amendment was found valid.
In so holding, the Supreme Court effectively foiled the Tamil Nadu government’s intention to appoint archakas from denominations beyond those purportedly prescribed under the Agamas. After decades of accepting the status quo, in 2006, the government sought to adopt a more direct approach—it introduced an executive order stating, “Any person who is a Hindu and possessing the requisite qualification and training can be appointed as a Archaka in Hindu temples.” The ostensible objective of this order was to allow the state to appoint archakas, by prescribing a new set of criteria, which would not necessarily be in consonance with the Agamas. The order was followed by an ordinance, which declared that “suitably trained and qualified Hindus, without discrimination of caste, creed, custom or usage” could be appointed as priests to temples administered by the government of Tamil Nadu. This ordinance however subsequently lapsed, leaving the executive order alone as the subject matter of challenge before the Supreme Court in Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal Nala Sangam.
The petitioners in Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal Nala Sangam argued that the Supreme Court was bound by the decision of the 5-judge bench in Seshammal. According to them, any deviation from the Agamas in appointing archakas, would infract their rights under Articles 25 and 26. While the power to appoint priests was a secular function, the qualifications prescribed under the Agamas, they argued, were essential to the practice of their religion, and were therefore inviolable. Countering, the State sought to rely on another decision of the Supreme Court, N. Adithayan v. The Travancore Devaswom Board, AIR 2002 SC 3538. Here, a two-judge bench had upheld the appointment of a person from outside the Malayala Brahmin community as priest of a Siva temple in Kerala. The State further contended that the Petitioners’ rights under Article 25 were not violated by the executive order, as it was a measure intended at bringing forth social reform and welfare—a feature, which the Constitution specifically protects.
The Supreme Court however, took a curious approach to determining the issue. The bench found (correctly) that the decision in N. Adithayan was inapplicable to the present contest, as it was a judgment rendered on very specific facts, where a petitioner had been unable to prove that an appointment of a priest from a community outside of his own was in violation of any established religious practice, protected under Article 25. The court similarly found (more questionably though) that its decision in Seshammal was also of only limited relevance to the present dispute. “Seshammal is not an authority for any proposition as to what an Agama or a set of Agamas governing a particular or group of temples lay down with regard to the question that confronts the court, namely, whether any particular denomination of worshippers or believers have an exclusive right to be appointed as Archakas to perform the poojas,” Justice Gogoi wrote. “Much less, has the judgment taken note of the particular class or caste to which the Archakas of a temple must belong as prescribed by the Agamas. All that it does and says is that some of the Agamas do incorporate a fundamental religious belief of the necessity of performance of the Poojas by Archakas belonging to a particular and distinct sect/group/denomination, failing which, there will be defilement of deity requiring purification ceremonies.”
Having found that neither of these judgments was particularly helpful to it in resolving the dispute, the court arrived at an unusual conclusion. Wrote Justice Gogoi:
“…It will be necessary to re-emphasise what has been already stated with regard to the purport and effect of Article 16(5) of the Constitution,* namely, that the exclusion of some and inclusion of a particular segment or denomination for appointment as Archakas would not violate Article 14 so long such inclusion/exclusion is not based on the criteria of caste, birth or any other constitutionally unacceptable parameter. So long as the prescription(s) under a particular Agama or Agamas is not contrary to any constitutional mandate as discussed above, the impugned G.O. dated 23.05.2006 by its blanket fiat to the effect that, “Any person who is a Hindu and possessing the requisite qualification and training can be appointed as a Archaka in Hindu temples” has the potential of falling foul of the dictum laid down in Seshammal (supra). A determination of the contours of a claimed custom or usage would be imperative and it is in that light that the validity of the impugned G.O. dated 23.05.2006 will have to be decided in each case of appointment of Archakas whenever and wherever the issue is raised. The necessity of seeking specific judicial verdicts in the future is inevitable and unavoidable; the contours of the present case and the issues arising being what has been discussed.”
[*Note: Clauses 1 and 2 of Article 16 provide that there shall be equality of opportunity for all citizens in matters relating to employment or appointment to any office under the State, and that no no citizen shall, on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, descent, place of birth, residence or any of them, be ineligible for, or discriminated against in respect or, any employment or office under the State. Article 16(5) however carves out an exception for laws relating to appointments by the State to religious or denominational institutions where a person professing a particular religion or belonging to a particular denomination may be accorded special preference.]
Any law, whether legislative or otherwise, can either be valid or invalid. It’s difficult to understand how the constitutionality of an executive order can differ based on the facts and circumstances of an appointment made under such a law. The issue really ought to have been simple enough for the Supreme Court from a purely constitutional perspective. That the Agamas and its diktats represent an essential religious practice is now trite. After all, the court, in a five-judge bench decision in Seshammal, has already held thus. The only question that was to be answered therefore was whether the governmental order, which sought to deviate from the Agamas, was protected by any one of the exceptions carved into Article 25, specifically whether it was necessary in the interest of social welfare and reform. Unfortunately, the bench in Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal Nala Sangam makes no attempt to answer such questions. Instead, it ends with a rather flawed proposition—that the government order ought to be tested on the touchstone of Article 14, each time an appointment of an archaka is made.
The effective result of the judgment is therefore this: that the executive order is simply extraneous to any appointment of an archaka. Any selection made in the future would have to be in consonance with the Agamas. However, in cases of appointments, where caste, birth or any other constitutionally unacceptable parameter, to use the court’s words, are invoked as criteria, such a choice would be open to challenge under Article 14. This is a quite remarkable conclusion. There is no finding in the judgment on whether the criteria fixed in the Agamas constitute “law” within the meaning of Article 13(3) (it’s apposite to remember here that the court in Seshammal only found that the power of appointing priests to be a secular function; the qualifications for such a post, prescribed as they are under the Agamas, were considered essential to the practice of religion). If the Agamas fall within what are generally regarded as “personal laws,” they would fall outside the scope of the definition prescribed in Article 13(3), and they would therefore not be amenable to a challenge under Article 14. Interestingly, in July this year, in Riju Prasad Sarma v. State of Assam, (2015) 9 SCC 461, the Supreme Court had found that religious scriptures are in the nature of personal law and their validity is ordinarily protected by Articles 25 and 26. The Supreme Court’s almost hypothetical conclusion that an appointment made under the Agamas would infract Article 14 if the appointment partakes a consideration based on caste is therefore doctrinally unsustainable. Were such a position to be accepted, it may well be tantamount to reforming a religion out of existence, to use Justice N. Rajagopala Ayyangar’s aphorism in Sardar Syedna Taher Saifuddin Saheb v. The State of Bombay, AIR 1962 SC 853, for no classification made in a religious scripture is likely to meet the scruples of Article 14.
Ultimately the Supreme Court’s decisions on matters such as these turn on political considerations. In Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal Nala Sangam, the court was clearly handicapped by the decision of its larger bench in Seshammal; what’s more, while Article 25 permits the State to bring forth a law in the interest of social reform and welfare, such a law would necessarily have to be introduced by way of legislation. Unless a larger bench overrules Seshammal, the Agamas cannot be considered as anything but an essential religious practice. And it must logically follow therefrom that the thwarting of appointments of archakas under the Agamas can only be made by way of legislation, and only in the interest of social reform and welfare. Hence, purely on constitutional grounds, the Supreme Court, in my submission, has erred in failing to strike down the Tamil Nadu government’s executive order. Additionally, the court has left us with a further conundrum. Now, every time an appointment of an archaka is made, the selection is likely to be challenged. Each of those challenges will likely entail an analysis of the Agamas, an exercise that the courts are certainly not competent to perform. Reformation of religion is an important function of the state, especially in a country such as ours, where social iniquities abound. But, regardless of how we might feel intuitively about a reformatory measure of the State, the question of how far a constitutional court must go in furthering this movement continues to perplex.