N. Adithayan v. The Travancore Devaswom Board & Ors.

Read this case to find out the Apex Court's stance on issue of appointment of a non-Malayali Brahmin as the priest and conflict of constitutional and statutory rights revolving around the same.
CITATIONAIR 2002 SC 3538
COURTSupreme Court of India
JUDGES/CORAMJustice S. RajendraBabu and Justice DoraiswamyRaju
DATE OF JUDGEMENT03.10.2002

Introduction

In the landmark judgment in N. Adithayan v.Travancore Devaswom Board, the Hon’ble Apex Court while striving to strike a balance between the between two conflicting impulses in our polity, the right to practice one’s religion and the social reform of religious practices, upheld the appointment of a non Malayala Brahmin, as “Santhikaran” or Poojari of Kongorpilly Neerikode Siva Temple at Alangad village in Ernakulam district, Kerala.

Facts

The facts of the case are as follows: In the instant case, the third respondent was ordered to be appointed as a regular Santhikaran or Poojari of Kongorpilly Neerikode Siva Temple at Alangad village in Ernakulam district, Kerala in place of one Shri K.K. Mohanan Poti owing to complaints regarding his performance and conduct and the Devaswom Comissioner confirmed the same on 20-9-1993. However, the second respondent opposed his recruitment since he was a non-Brahmin. Observing that as there was nothing on record to establish that the rules proscribed the appointment of a non-Brahmin as a Santhikaran, Devaswom Commissioner on 12-10-1993 upheld the said appointment and directed the second respondent to allow him to join and perform his duties. On the same day, the Single Judge Bench of Kerala High Court issued an interim order in the appellant’s writ petition staying the appointment.

The primary contention in the writ petition was that the said appointment grossly offended and violated the long established custom and usage that mandated that only the Malayala Brahmins were to be appointed as poojaris in the concerned temple and impaired the rights of the worshippers to practise and profess their religion as enshrined under Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution of India. The respondents contented that the Travancore Devaswom Board (Board) had formulated a scheme and opened a Thanthra Vedantha School at Tiruvalla for the purpose of training Santhikarans and as per the said Scheme prepared by Swami Vyomakesananda and approved by the Board on 7-5-1969, training was imparted dehors caste and community origins. Two of the community members were thanthris of the temple. Consequently, from 1969 onwards persons, who were non-Brahmins but successfully passed out from the Vedantha School, were being appointed and the public had no grievance or grouse whatsoever. Taking note of the fact that since the third respondent possessed the requisite qualifications and was among 54 selected out of 234 interviewed from out of the 299 applicants in lieu of the 1992 notification inviting applications from eligible persons and that since the appellant failed to adduce evidence establishing the existence of norm or custom pleaded, the Full Bench of Kerala High Court affirmed the impugned appointment. Aggrieved, appeal was preferred to the Hon’ble Apex Court.

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Issues

The main issue in the case was: Whether the appointment of the third respondent who was not a Malayala Brahmin, as “Santhikaran” or Poojari (priest) of the Temple in question violated the constitutional and statutory rights of the appellant secured under Article 25 and 26 of the Constitution.

Arguments by the parties

Mr. K. Rajendra Chowdhary, learned Senior Counsel for the appellant contended that only Namboodri Brahmins alone were to perform poojas or daily rituals by entering into the sanctum sanctorum of temples in Kerala, particularly the Temple in question, and that had qualified as a custom and ergo could not have been bypassed in the teeth Article 25 and 26 of the Constitution. It was further urged that though the aforesaid religious practice was being observed from time immemorial that by itself did not become a secular aspect to be dealt with by the Board dehors the wishes of the worshippers and the decisions of the Thanthri of the Temple concerned and ergo was enforceable under Article 25(1) as also Section 31 of the 1950 Act. 

The appellant while repelling the challenge, contented that the appellant had miserably failed to bring on record any evidence establishing the usage as claimed and further pleaded that any rights and claims based upon Article 25 had to be appreciated in the light of Articles 15, 16 and 17 of the Constitution of India and the provisions contained in the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, which also not only prevents and prohibits but makes it an offence to practise “untouchability” in any form and thus no exception could be taken to the impugned decision.

Summary of court decision and judgment

While dismissing the appeal, Doraiswamy Raju, J. speaking for the Division Bench of Hon’ble Supreme Court heralded the real scope and extent of Article 25 and 26 of the Constitution. Articles 25 and 26, it was opined, extend a guarantee for rituals and observances, ceremonies and modes of worship which are integral parts of religion and as to what really constitutes an essential part of religion or religious practice has to be decided by the courts with reference to the doctrine of a particular religion or practices regarded as parts of religion. It was opined that where the temple had been constructed and consecrated as per Agamas, in order to perform the considered necessary daily rituals, poojas and recitations as required to maintain the sanctity of the idol which varied in respect of any and every temple, only a well versed and qualified person could perform poojas in the temple since he had not only to enter into the sanctum sanctorum but also touch the idol installed therein. Traditionally, though Brahmins alone were conducting poojas or performing the job of Santhikaran, the Hon’ble Court held that it was not because there was a bar on a person other than Brahmin from doing so but because the other persons were not in a position and, as a matter of fact, were prohibited from learning, reciting or mastering Vedic literature, rites or performance of rituals. Thus the plea pressing upon the appointment of Brahmin or Malayala Brahmin alone in lieu of Article 25 was negatived. Further, the Hon’ble Court held that since neither sufficient proof was adduced to establish the existence of any custom claimed nor did the temple belonged to any denominational category with any specialized form of worship peculiar to such denomination or to its credit, there was no need to pronounce upon the invalidity of any such practice being violative of the constitutional mandate contained in Articles 14 to 17 and 21 of the Constitution of India. In doing so, it was held that no custom or usage irrespective of even any proof of their existence in pre-constitutional days can be countenanced as a source of law to claim any rights if it is in derogation of human rights, dignity, social equality and the specific mandate of the Constitution and law made by Parliament. Lastly, taking into consideration that an institution had been started to impart training to students in all relevant Vedic texts, rites, religious observancesby engaging reputed scholars and Thanthris and besides that among such qualified persons, selections based upon merit were made by the Committee, it was held that to insist that the person concerned should be a member of a particular caste born of particular parents of his caste can neither be said to be an insistence upon an essential religious practice, rite, ritual, observance or mode of worship nor has any proper or sufficient basis for asserting such a claim been made out either on facts or in law. 

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Analysis

The judgement delivered by the Divison Bench of Hon’ble Apex Court adumbrated the notion of religious freedom guaranteed by Article 25 and 26 of the Constitution as intended to be a guide to a community life and ordain every religion to act according to its cultural and social demands to establish an egalitarian social order. Articles 25 and 26, therefore, strike a balance between the rigidity of right to religious belief and faith and their intrinsic restrictions in matters of religion, religious beliefs and religious practices and guaranteed freedom of conscience to commune with his cosmos/creator and realize his spiritual self.[1] After careful perusal of the contentions raised by the parties and the judgments cited, the Hon’ble Court rightly opined that as there was no express bar proscribing the appointment of a non Brahmin as poojari of the temple in question and the fact that the third respondent was well qualified and versed with the required necessary rituals to perform poojas in the temple and was among 54 selected out of 234 interviewed potential candidates, there was no inconsistency in his appointment. Moreover, his appointment was in furtherance of the categorical revelations made in the Gita and the dream of the Father of the Nation Mahatma Gandhi that all distinctions based on caste and creed must be abolished and man must be known and recognized by his actions, irrespective of the caste to which he may on account of his birth belong.[2]

Conclusion

The dicta of the Hon’ble Supreme Court in the instant case lays down the correct proposition of law that rights claimed solely on the basis of caste are bereft of the protection of Article 25 and 26 and there can be plausible justification in restricting duly qualified persons from being appointed as poojari on the ground that such person is not a Brahmin by birth or pedigree. 

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[1] Sri Adi Visheshwara of Kashi Vishwanath Temple v. State of U.P. (1997) 4 SCC 606.

[2] Kailash Sonkar v. Maya Devi (1984) 2 SCC 91 : AIR 1984 SC 600.