-- By Rajindar Sachar, 30 Jan., 2006
Indian Constitution proudly proclaims amongst others in its preamble that we are a Secular, Democratic Republic.
In Bommai’s case, secularism has been accepted by the Supreme Court as a basic feature of the Constitution. What secularism means has been aptly summed up by former President Dr. Radhakrishnan as follows:
“When India is said to be a Secular State, it does not mean that we reject the reality of an unseen spirit or the relevance of religion to life or that we exalt irreligion… We hold that not one religion should be given preferential status… This view of religious impartiality, or comprehension and forbearance, has a prophetic role to play within the National and International life.”
It was in this context that one felt embarrassed when Sri Lankan President had to call up Chief Minister of Kerala to clarify that his wife is a Buddhist and not a Christian. This was necessitated when newspapers reported that the priests at Guruvayur temple (Kerala) had taken the stand that if the wife of the President who had prayed at the temple, was a Christian, they would do purifying ceremony because temple authorities do not allow admission to non-Hindus.
I am shocked that neither the State Govt. nor the Central Govt. has woken to this embarrassing and unacceptable stand of temple authorities. It is one thing to ask the visitors to observe the decorum as determined by temple authorities. But that does not mean that purely secular practices (like a visit to the temple) can be prohibited on the ground of visitors’ religions.
The Supreme Court has clarified that what is protected under Arts. 25(1) and 26(b) of the Constitution are the religious practices. If the practice in question is secular (like a visit to the temple outside the Sanctum-Sanctorum), it cannot be urged that Art.25 (1) or Art. 26(b) has been contravened. Therefore, whenever a claim is made on behalf of the denomination that the fundamental right guaranteed to it to manage its own affairs in matters of religion is contravened, what has to be determined is whether the practice is a religious practice and if so, only then protection guaranteed by Articles 25(1) and Article 26(b) will arise. But if an obviously secular practice is alleged to be a religious practice by the temple authorities, it has to be rejected on the ground that it is based on irrational considerations and cannot attract the provisions of Article 25(1) or Article 26(b).
It has invariably been held by the Supreme Court that the right to manage the properties of the temple is a purely secular matter and it cannot be regarded as a religious practice so as to fall under Article 25(1). I am accepting that there could be no such thing as an unregulated and unrestricted right of entry in a public temple or other religious institution for persons who are not connected with the spiritual functions thereof. It is a traditional custom universally observed not to allow access to any outsider to the particularly sacred parts of a temple as for example, the place where the deity is located. There are also fixed hours of worship and rest for the idol when no disturbance by any member of the public is allowed. But all this does not, under our Constitution, permit an embargo on a visit by non-Hindus (including citizens of the country) to visit the temple while observing all these formalities. Admittedly, Guruvayur temple is not a private temple, rather it is managed under Religious Endowment Act and its Managing Committee is headed by public officials.
There is no denial that the members of the public are entitled to an entry in the temple and they are entitled to take part in offering service and having Darshan in the temple. It is also well known that the State Government spends public funds (and rightly so) for maintaining and improving the access to the temple and other expenses connected with the security and upkeep of the temple. This contribution of Govt. is undoubtedly a public welfare measure permitted notwithstanding the secular character of our nation.
I am pointing this out not out of any desire to hurt the devotees, nor am I, in any way, trying to belittle the faith and commitment of the priests and the devotees of the temple. All that I am saying is that the secular character of our nation gives fundamental rights to all citizens of whatever religion to have access to all places of worship of all religions subject of course to legally permitted parameters. How can a Hindu justify in denying entry to non-Hindus in view of the fact that it at the same time takes pride in the catholicity and expanse of spiritualism of Hinduism expressed so eloquently in “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” meaning that the whole world is one family?
As a matter of fact, Swami Vivekanand was so disturbed over a century ago at this exclusiveness of the caste in Hindu society that he openly proclaimed “No man, no nation, my son, can hate others and live; India’s doom was sealed the very day they invented the word mlechchha and stopped from communion with others”. Still further he emphasized “Vedanta, according to him, applauded a variety of religions and faiths : ‘whether you are a Christian or a Buddhist, or a Jew or a Hindu, whatever mythology you believe in, whether you owe allegiance to the prophet of Nazareth, or of Mecca, or of India, or of anywhere else, whether you yourself are a prophet…it (Vedanta) preaches the principle which is the background of every religion and of which all prophets and saints and seers are but illustrations and manifestations”. He said that the piety of the Hindus on the banks of the Gangaa was no different than the piety of Muslims offering their namaaz in the mosque.”