The Supreme Court ruling on caste and the performing of priestly duties signals what the idea of modern India has to be. While the apex court struck a fine balance between interpretations of Articles 25 (right to practise one’s religious beliefs) & 26 (right to manage one’s religious affairs) of the Constitution and Articles 14 (equality before law), 15 (prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, caste, sex of place of birth), 16 (equality of opportunity in public appointments) and 17 (prohibition of untouchability), it categorically said that a Hindu person can’t be restricted from carrying out priestly duties at a public place of worship on the basis of caste, and only the terms of exclusion set by the Agama Shastras (temple treatises), if one is applicable, would be the deciding factor. But as the court observed, “Surely, if the Agamas in question do not proscribe any group of citizens from being appointed as archakas on the basis of caste or class, the sanctity of Article 17 or any other provision of Part III (fundamental rights) of the Constitution or even the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, will not be violated.” Priesthood, except for a very few instances, has largely been the preserve of Brahmins. But the new ruling opens the doors for Dalits or any non-Brahmin caste to enter the sanctum sanctorum and carry out the temple rituals.
Entrenched practises of caste discrimination have always been fractious, but in the wake of the so-called “affirmative action” policy of the government, viz. reservations, these divides have deepened. The need, as the historically oppressed castes find more opportunities place themselves on similar economic footing as the general category, it is important that social equity, too, be fostered. The SC judgment prods the society in this direction.