The recent decision of the Travancore Devaswom (Temple) Recruitment Board (TDRB) to shortlist 36 non-Brahmins, including six Dalits, for appointment as priests is a first of its kind, even for Kerala, which has a long history of fighting caste prejudice in religious places. Non-Brahmins do serve as priests in Kerala, but most of them are attached to smaller temples or private shrines. The TDRB recruitment institutionalises a process where candidates are chosen following an examination open to people of all castes and reservation norms are enforced.
The devaswom boards in Kerala, which manage government-controlled temples, have in the past recruited non-Brahmins as priests, but never have they implemented caste-based reservation. This was an anomaly since a component of the salaries of priests in devaswom temples is covered by public funds. Hence, it has been argued, the recruitment norms followed in other sectors should be maintained in temple appointments as well.
The next battle is to ensure that these recruits get to serve in major temples, including the Sabarimala, many of which invoke shrine-specific traditions and scriptures to exclude non-Brahmins from priestly duties. Moreover, government diktats or judicial pronouncements are not always sufficient to break down caste barriers in worship practices. Kerala’s own history of fighting discrimination in Hindu society points to the importance of inclusive public action in defeating claims made on behalf of tradition and treatises like Manusmriti. Seminal mobilisations like the Vaikkom Satyagraha (1924) and Guruvayur Satyagraha (1931-32) prepared the ground for the landmark temple entry proclamation (1936) of the Travancore king and made it impossible for Hindu conservatives to enforce discriminatory caste practices in public spaces.
The success of the TDRB initiative will also depend on the support it can draw from the community of believers. Conservative views have weighed in against arguments that religious practices must conform with the rights enshrined in the Constitution, including gender equality in worship rights and priesthood. They have challenged court orders which ruled that merit, not caste or hereditary rights, must be the overriding principle in the appointment of priests. The TDRB has now included another critical category — proportional representation — in the mix. The rest of India will be watching the outcome.