S Sudhikumar has been working in various temples under the Travancore Devaswom Board for the past 13 years. But today, the Ezhava priest is facing discrimination at the Chettikulangara Devi temple in Mavelikkara in Alappuzha district, whose management does not want a 'non-Brahmin' man to perform the pujas. So much so, that the temple has gone to court to deny Sudhikumar's appointment, demanding that only a 'Malayali Brahmin' should be given the job.
Appointed as a Keezh Shanti (assistant priest) at the temple in June this year, Sudhikumar has not been allowed to start his tenure by the Hindu Matha Convention in the temple.
Speaking to TNM, Sudhikumar said that the Hindu Matha Convention holds the view that if a 'non-Brahmin' man is allowed to work as a priest, it would anger the goddess.
â€śI donâ€™t know why they are stuck on 18th century beliefs," Sudhikumar rued.
"The temple has a Hindu Matha Convention - called Sridevi Vilasam - which does not exist in any other temple under the Travancore Devaswom Board. The convention is run by RSS-BJP people, and it's their agenda that non-Brahmin people shouldn't be allowed in as priests," Sudhikumar alleged.
"In other temples, all decisions related to the temple are taken by the temple administrative committee. But it's different at this temple. Setting up of such conventions is not mentioned in the bye-laws of the Travancore Devaswom Board," he said.
Sudhikumar alleged that the administrative committee members did not even allow him to enter the temple. The main priest, too, opposed him taking up of the job, he said.
On July 7, the Hindu Matha Convention of the temple approached the High Court, demanding that no one other than a Malayali Brahmin who has undergone rituals upto 'Samavarthanam' of Shodasa Samskaram, should be allowed as a priest at the temple.
The court, on the same day disposed the petition, but without a clear decision - they threw the ball back in the court of the Travancore Devaswom Board, who were named as respondents in the case.
Subsequently in an order issued by the Assistant Devaswom Commissioner Mavelikkara, Sudhikumarâ€™s transfer was cancelled, and he was sent back to Puthiyidam temple.
Sudhikumar was working at Puthiyidam Sree Krishna Swamy temple Kayamkulam prior to his appointment at the Chettikulangara temple.
Rubbishing the discrimination on the basis of 'ritual' qualifications, Sudhikumar said, "In the course, thanthra pravesaham, that is considered as the qualification to be appointed as a priest, we learn the same mantras and pujas as Brahmins, the mantras that a priest should know to perform in a temple. The course duration is three and half years, and we are taught the same things the Brahmins learn. No one can discriminate against us in the name of knowledge."
Kayakulam MLA Prathibha Hari in August had moved a submission in the Assembly on the issue. Devaswom Minister Kadakampaly Surendran in response to the submission had said that the government will take stern action against violation of law by the TDB. â€śThe Supreme Court in 2012 had issued a judgment not to consider caste in the appointment of priests. The Travancore Devaswom Board, by cancelling the transfer of the priest to the Chettikulangara temple, has violated the law. The government has taken the issue with seriousness and action will be taken accordingly,â€ť the Minister had said.
At present Sudhikumar has been waiting for an order from the government that quashes the Assistant Devaswom Commissionerâ€™s order.
While Sudhikumar's contentious case is ongoing, the fact is that in Kerala, under the two Devaswom Boards - Travancore and Cochin - rarely has a Dalit been appointed a priest.
This discrimination continues even as temples are finding it difficult to find Brahmin priests.
The incumbent LDF government has made 14% reservation for lower caste people in the appointment of priests.
â€śIn a list of 285 people recently prepared by the Travancore Devaswom Board, 80% of the candidates belong to non-Brahmin castes,â€ť Sudhikumar said.
â€śMost of the candidates in the list are from the Ezhava and other disadvantaged communities. There is only one Dalit person, from Pulaya community. The previous LDF government, when G Sudhakaran was the Devaswom Minister, had introduced reservation for backward castes in the board administration. Eyebrows were raised then also from the conservative Brahmins. But nothing happened as they were afraid of angering the gods," said Kerala Pulayar Mahasabha state General Secretary Punnala Sreekumar.
â€śIn a recent meeting with the Chief Minister I have requested them to strictly follow the SC direction in priest appointments and he has promised action. If they are neglected, we will launch a strong agitation against the board,â€ť Sreekumar added.