Following the Puri district judge’s recommendation to the Supreme Court to abolish hereditary appointment of servitors in Jagannath Temple, a section of influential servitors has alleged a plot by “powerful non-Odiyas in the state”. Jagannath scholars, meanwhile, are of the view that the hereditary system cannot be done away with legally.
The servitors also said the court’s suggestion to consider entry of non-Hindus into the temple was “incongruent with core tenets of Hinduism”.
In the first hearing over a writ petition by a social activist on the state of the temple’s administration, the apex court bench had directed the district judge to file a report recommending reforms. On Thursday, the bench of Justices Adarsh Kumar Goel and Justice S Abdul Nazeer revealed that the report recommends “Abolition of hereditary Sevaks/Appointment of Sevaks”. It is not clear if the report recommended an alternative system of appointment.
There are around 12,147 sevaks at the temple and each has a different role — fetching water, bringing flowers, dressing up the Lord. The servitors say these tasks have been assigned to particular families for generations. “I don’t think there is any provision for abolition of hereditary rights in the law,” said Somnath Khuntia, general secretary of Shree Jagannath Sebayat Sammilani. “All these attacks against the temple are the plot of powerful non-Odiyas in the state,” said Khuntia. “The Chief Minister is for all purposes a non-Odiya, considering he cannot speak the language. Add to that his key lieutenants — V K Pandian and Puri district collector (Aravind Agrawal), a Marwari”.
Jagannath scholar Dr Harihar Kanungo said, “As per the Record of Rights (RoR), the hereditary privileges of servitors cannot be taken away by the Supreme Court. I don’t know on what basis the district judge made such a recommendation”. The RoR, under Sri Jagannath Temple Act (1952), provides a detailed account of the duties and privileges enjoyed by temple attendants. As per the document, rights of the roughly 36 categories of servitors are in most cases hereditary.
The ruling BJD’s Rajya Sabha MP and spokesperson Pratap Deb said, “The state government is studying the orders and will take action at the appropriate time”. On the court’s suggestion to consider entry of non-Hindus, Khuntia said, “Non-Hindus are known as jabana — people who do not fall within the caste system. When the core of Sanatana Dharma, or what they call Hinduism, is caste, how can people who do not fit into the system enter?”, he asked, clarifying that even “untouchable Hindus” are allowed “because they are part of the system”. Another servitor said that earlier, only “orthodox Hindus” were allowed, but it was then changed to “all Hindus”. “However, entry of non-Hindus is a gross imposition”.
Responding to the court’s order against collection of offerings, a servitor said, “Thousands of servitor families depend on the temple for their livelihood. Let the state government make provisions regarding their food, housing, clothes and then implement the orders.”