Is the Supreme Court’s order on Jagannath Temple tenable?

The controversy over Shri Jagannath Temple, Puri refuses to die down. Barely a week after the manufactured propaganda on ill-treatment to President in Puri for his caste, the temple is back to discussion courtesy, some adverse court observation on general administration and affairs of the temple.

Series of events

  • On 6th of July, one Mrs Mrinalini Padhi filed a writ petition alleging gross mismanagement in the affairs of temple management in Shri Jagannath Temple, Puri in the wake of recent incidents. The PIL states that incidents like Bramha Bibhrata during Nabakalebara, missing key of Ratna Bhandara raises serious questions about temple management. At the same time, being a centre of pilgrimage which attracts a large number of crowd, the facilities for a streamlined darshan as well as the sanitary arrangement in and around the temple are inadequate. The PIL expressed concern about the harassment meted out to devotees by the servitors for extracting money. The honourable court, while admitting the PIL, directed Puri district court, to submit a report on 4 things by 30th June 2018. SC also appointed senior counsel Mr Gopal Subramanium, as Amicus Curiae to assist the Court.
    • Difficulties faced by the visitors
    • Exploitative practices, if any
    • Deficiencies in the management
    • Suggestions, if any
  • The Puri district court submitted its report on 26th June 2018
  • On 5th July 2018, SC issued order in this regard while accepting the Puri district court report in principle. It has also asked the state and central government to submit their interim report on the direction issued by SC, latest by 31st August 2018.

Supreme Court’s Direction on the PIL

Here is the summary of the directions issued by the honourable Supreme Court.

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While some of the direction seems to be in the right spirit to improve the temple administration as well as guard devotee’s interest, some part of it do seem like judicial activism and overreach. It may, if I am allowed to say so, be breaching the secular confines as established by the constitution and bordering on state interference into religious matters. Particularly, point i, ii and iii seems contentious. One other issue that has caught public attention and is being hotly discussed in media is SC’s suggestion on allowing members of other faiths i.e. non-Hindus, inside the temple premises. Now, it must be clarified that this is merely a suggestion which the temple authority, centre etc are free to reject.

Allow me to explain, why these issues may not be as simple as they sound.

The district judge’s observation on indiscipline among servitors seems to be based on the idea that servitors have absolute right on worship inside the temple. Hereditary appointment of servitors is a matter of Record-of-Right (R-o-R) recorded and accepted by the government as per SJTA, 1955. This is also guaranteed to the servitor’s families as per the Tamra Patra presented to them by King of Puri. Selling Mahaprasad from Annadan Attika is also a right of the servitors.

However, it’s worthwhile to note here that, the rights are not absolute. The successors, upon attaining the age of 18, have to exhibit the duties they have to perform, to the satisfaction of a group of experts consisting of high priests and members of Mukti Mandapa. Upon their assuagement, they are formally inducted into Temple. Once inducted, their position is still not absolute.

Upon dereliction of duty, the state reserves the right to remove them from seva, again as per SJTA, 1955. Point being, the remedy is already available in law to deal with errant servitors. The right question that needs to be asked is, why that remedy is not being used? Why is government shying away from taking action against erring servitors if any?

Just abolishing hereditary appointments won’t help. The state government is already equipped with enough arsenal in the current scheme of things. Just that they are not using it for some strange reasons. Also, temple Sevak is not a professional job where govt can appoint people from outside who show the required expertise. A temple is established and worshipped with pran, pratistha and bhakti. How does one ensure these qualities in the new ‘recruits’? These are complex questions and need to be discussed with subject matter experts and stakeholders viz. Sevayat community, Puri King (Gajapati) and Shankaracharya before the directions from SC can be considered.

As far as Rosaghar is concerned, this is the world’s largest kitchen. The “Bhoga niti” of Lord is quite complex and process driven. The knowledge is passed from one generation to another. SJTA in the past had appointed a food inspector for quality checks on the raw materials used and Maha Prasada served to Lord and sold to devotees. The administration needs to answer if the quality is being maintained and if not, why. How is the court direction going to help if SJTA is not doing its job?

Finally, on the most contentious issue of allowing non-Hindus into the temple, a rather interesting point to be noted is, neither the original petitioner nor the Puri district court magistrate in his report ever raised this point. This suggestion was solely taken up by the Supreme court on its own. We would like to bring it to reader’s notice that, on a similar occasion, while arguing against the abolition of Triple Talaq, we had reported how defence counsel Salman Khurshid had pleaded the court to look at the issue at hand i.e. Triple Talaq and not at the broader matter of UCC and Nikah Halala. SC had accepted his argument.

Whether to allow people from another religious faith or not is a bigger debate to be discussed among those who have adequate knowledge of Shastras and rulebooks which guide the temple rituals. My humble point is, the role of courts, be it a magisterial court or CJI’s court, should be limited to adjudicate matters. The point to adjudicate here is, does it violate the law of the land by not allowing non-Hindus? A reading of article 25 of the constitution would be in order here. The debate can go on between temple stakeholders and devotees. Court’s role should be limited to the adjudication. It must against be reiterated here that the Supreme Court merely made a suggestion which was not binding. However, since the suggestion came up, it becomes important to discuss its merits.

Therefore the two basic questions that are in front of us are as below

  • Have Hindus violated any constitutionality by maintaining a religious place where they don’t allow non-Hindus?
  • Is it a violation of a non-Hindu’s constitutional rights if he/she is not allowed into a Hindu shrine?

A reading of article 25 along with article 26 which gives everyone the right to practice, manage religious affairs and maintain institutions for religious purposes, should establish that answer to both the above question is a resounding “No”. The matter should settle there as far as adjudication is concerned. As it doesn’t violate anyone’s right and also inline with constitutional provisions, the court should state the same and keep out of it to maintain the secular sanctity of state.

Final submission

The SJTA act, 1955 as we had described earlier, already vests power with the state government for the management of the temple matters. The original petition pleaded against the mismanagement of temple affairs. In the whole episode, not even once, the state government was pulled up. When you give powers to the state to administer the temple, and it’s not happening as per rulebooks, whom should you question? And if SJTA is not doing its job, how does making the above changes are going to help anyway? The dysfunctional SJTA is still going to be a mute spectator. Unless you fix responsibilities, don’t expect different outcomes from the same set of people.

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