In a sudden volte-face, the temple management committee of the historic Vitthal Rukmani temple in the pilgrimage town of Pandharpur has decided to temporarily put brakes on its decision to recruit women and non-Brahmins as priests.
The temple committee, which met on Monday to announce the names of successful candidates, instead decided to seek an opinion from the state’s law and judiciary department on whether it was entitled to make such appointments.
The decision to invite applications from woman and non-Brahmin priests was taken by the temple committee in the last week of April. In response to the advertisements placed by the committee, 161 candidates including 23 women turned up for the series of interviews conducted on May 18. It was expected that the names of the successful candidates would be announced on Monday.
Speaking to The Indian Express, former minister and temple committee chairman Anna Dange had earlier said the move aimed to break the hegemony of Brahmins over priesthood.
Dange, when asked about the sudden U-turn, said the Warkari community had staged protests in the temple town a few days back against the decision. “The Vitthal Rukmani temple is the nerve centre for the Warkari cult. They had questioned the rights of the temporary committee to appoint priests. So we have asked an opinion from the law and judiciary department about it. Once the decision comes, we will go ahead with the appointments,” he said. When asked why no such opinion was sought before conducting the interviews, Dange refused to comment.
Sanjay Teli, the chief executive officer the temple, said when the matter was tabled for discussion at the meeting the committee decided to seek an opinion.
While Dange insisted that the recruitment process had been suspended temporarily, many in the temple committee, which incidentally comprises many senior leaders from NCP and Congress, said the actual reason behind the decision could be political. Senior officers associated with the committee said in view of the upcoming Assembly elections it did not want to anger the powerful Warkari community.
It might be recalled that protests by the Warkaris in 2008 had led to the shutdown of Dow Chemical’s proposed plant in Pune.
Located in the Solapur district of the state, the 900-year-old temple is the nerve centre of the Warkari community. The community has presence in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and other parts of the country.
While the community is supposed to be egalitarian, the move to open up priesthood to non-Brahmins and women, was met with strong opposition. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court had overturned the hereditary rights of priesthood at the shrine enjoyed by the families of Badve and Utpats.
For Hema Ashtekar, one of the applicants who had appeared for the interviews, the decision to halt the recruitment process is a “regressive move” and “smacks of chauvinism”. “The protests by the Warkaris is illogical,” she said.