As 94-year-old M Karunanidhi lies on a hospital bed in Chennai barely conscious of the happenings around him, a result of his decades long political battle against caste is finally bearing fruit on ground. For the first time in the history of Tamil Nadu, a non-brahmin priest trained under the government has been appointed to a temple managed by the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments(HR&CE) Department.
The 35-year-old priest who does not wish to be named has been appointed to an Ayyappan temple in Madurai. He is the first among 206 men who underwent the government offered ‘junior priest certificate’ course in 2007-08. The course was offered to men from all castes, so that they could be appointed as priests in temples run by the HR&CE department. The department largely administers Shaivite and Vaishnavite temples, which generate huge revenues.
Talking to TNM, Mahesh Kumar* however says his appointment can hardly be considered a victory for non-brahmin priest aspirants in the state.
"I am the only one in a batch of 206 students to receive an appointment. I attended the interview and got through merit. But this is a rare occasion. Usually if Brahmins are present for an interview, they are given priority," he explains.
This in direct contravention to a Government Order passed by M Karunanidhi in May 2006, where the HR & CE Act was amended to pave way for appointment of non-Brahmins as archakas. The GO stated, that 'should vacancies arise in the 36,000 temples under its control, the best available candidate, irrespective of caste, will be appointed.' It also pointed out that the unwritten rule about hereditary, familial succession will no longer be held. Training was to be further given to those who wished to take up priest posts in temples administered by the government. Following this six institutes were set up across the state. Shaivite priests were trained in Madurai, Tiruvannamalai, Tiruchendur and Palani while Vaishnavite priests were trained in Srirangam and Tiruvallikeni. But the move was challenged and 16 writ petitions being filed in the Supreme Court.
This made job opportunities for those who were trained impossible and the centres were closed in 2008. Seven years later, the Supreme Court held that the government's amendment was a secular act that did not interfere with any religious practice.
For close to a decade after the training I worked in a small private temple and could hardly make ends meet, especially with a family to take care of," explains Mahesh. "Meanwhile, in larger temples, nepotism continued and priests were chosen based on their fathers working there," he adds.
V Ranganathan, coordinator of Tamil Nadu Government Trained Archakar (Priests) Association, alleges that the government is deliberately playing down this historic appointment.
"Yes, I agree that this is hardly a victory in our fight against casteism. But the government is not even acknowledging this appointment because they are afraid that more non-Brahmins will come demand for posts in government temples. Even now, the Ayyappan temple where Mahesh is posted is a very small temple. The government doesn't want to promote this because they are afraid that we will then demand posting in bigger temples," he alleges.
When TNM contacted the Madurai Collector, he said that he was unaware of his development in his district.