Ambedkar has argued that like any other profession that has rules and regulations, priesthood should also be regulated.
Had someone called Hanuman a Dalit, like Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath did, few decades ago, it would have made people happy. After all, many subaltern groups and castes assign themselves a god.
The Yadavs claim they are descendants of Krishna. The Kushwahas claim that Kush, son of Ram, is their ancestor. Similarly, Kurmis claim they are progeny of Lav, the other son of Ram. The Lohars regard Vishwakarma as their deity. The caste associated with manual scavenging claims Valmiki is their progenitor. Kahars or palanquin-bearers claim that Jarasandha, the king of Magadha in Mahabharata, is their forefather.
This is a sociological process by which many caste groups claim sacredness or greatness to mitigate their present lower status in the hierarchy. Sociologist M.N. Srinivas called this process of social mobility Sanskritisation, which entailed imitating the practices of the higher caste groups.
By this logic, Dalits should have been happy when Yogi Adityanath said that Hanuman is a Dalit god. But the contrary has happened.
Dalit groups ridiculed Yogi’s statement. Even Dalit leaders of the BJP didn’t support it. Social media memes showed Hanuman wearing a blue dress and shouting Jai Bhim, the clarion call of the Ambedkarites. In Agra and Lucknow, a group of Dalits actually claimed ownership over prominent Hanuman temples. They reportedly said that the offerings coming to the Hanuman temples should now be spent on Dalit welfare. The Bhim Army and All India Ambedkar Mahasabha supported this demand and said that Dalits should be appointed as priests at Hanuman temples. Even in an era of Dalit assertion and Dalit-led Bharat Bandh, the happenings in Agra and Lucknow are unprecedented.
A section of Dalit intelligentsia is sceptical about Dalits claiming priesthood in Hanuman temples. For them, the road to Dalit emancipation should be built on the slogan of Educate, Agitate, Organise. They see the demand for priesthood as a deviation from the Ambedkarite thought. They see temples as the fountainhead of Hindu caste system and even if the temple priest is a Dalit, temples would still perpetuate caste hierarchy. For them, it doesn’t matter who the face of the system is.
For thinkers like H.L. Dusadh of Bahujan Diversity Mission, religion is a source of power. Seats of religious institutions hold wealth and moral authority over the masses. Since Dalits just can’t wish away these power systems, they must stake claim in these structures. This is the ideological basis of Dalits’ demand that they should be made priests in Hindu temples.
The chairman of the drafting committee of India’s Constitution and the first law minister of independent India, B.R. Ambedkar, deliberated on the issue of appointment of priests in Hindu temples in his widely read text Annihilation of Caste. He wanted to give a speech at the annual conference of Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal, an organisation of caste Hindu social reformers in Lahore in 1936. But the organisation wanted to make some changes in the speech and Ambedkar refused to accept this proposition. The speech was never delivered and later the text along with the correspondence between them was published as AoC.
In this speech, Ambedkar said: “That religion is the source of power is illustrated by the history of India, where the priest holds a sway over the common man often greater than that of the magistrate, and where everything, even such things as strikes and elections, so easily takes a religious turn and can so easily be given a religious twist.”
He proposed that true priesthood should be based on qualification, not heredity. He suggested:
- It would be better if priesthood among Hindus were abolished. If it can’t be abolished, priesthood must at least cease to be hereditary.
- Every person who professes to be a Hindu must be eligible for being a priest.
- It should be provided by law that no Hindu shall be entitled to be a priest unless he has passed an examination prescribed by the state, and holds a sanad(order) from the state permitting him to practice.
- No ceremony performed by a priest who does not hold a sanad shall be deemed valid in law, and it should be made penal for a person who has no sanad to officiate as a priest.
- A priest should be the servant of the state, and should be subject to the disciplinary action of the state.
- The number of priests should be limited by law according to the requirements of the state, as is done in the case of the ICS.
He said like any other profession that has rules and regulations, priesthood should also be regulated. He argued that “mentally a priest may be an idiot, physically a priest may be suffering from a foul disease such as syphilis or gonorrhea, morally he may be a wreck. But he is fit to officiate at solemn ceremonies… because for a priest, it is enough to be born in a priestly caste. The whole thing is abominable, and is due to the fact that the priestly class among Hindus is subject neither to law nor to morality. It recognises no duties. It knows only of rights and privileges. It is a pest which divinity seems to have let loose on the masses for their mental and moral degradation”.
As Dalits want to broadbase the institution of priesthood by becoming priests, can we say that they are working as per Ambedkar’s suggestions and that this will eventually lead to the democratisation of this powerful institution? As for the government, is this the time to institute a different kind of UPSC – Union and State Priesthood Service Commission? And will that commission follow the constitutional mandate of reservation under Article 16(4)?
Will the BJP fulfil the dreams of Ambedkar in this regard and prove that their newfound love for this great man is not just for the sake of Dalit votes?
The author is a senior journalist.
For ThePrint's smart analysis of how the rest of the media is doing its job, no holds barred, go to PluggedIn.