“The recent Supreme Court verdict along with the previous judgements at various courts gives us a clear picture about the vexed issue of a secular government’s control over the worshipping places of only a particular religion. The judgements have made it clear that a secular government cannot take possession of temples. It has also made it clear that the constitution of Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowment Dept itself is against the Constitution, as it violates the religious fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution.” – B.R. Haran
On Monday the 6th of January 2014, Supreme Court delivered a landmark judgment bringing a permanent end to the long drawn legal battle between the Tamil Nadu government and the Podhu Dikshithars. The SC’s verdict went in favour of the Dikshithars throwing the HR & CE Department out of the world-famous Chidambaram Natarajar Temple confirming the “Religious Denomination” status of the Dikshithars and their “right” to manage the temple.
Significant aspects of the judgment
- Section 107 of the Tamil Nadu HR & CE Act ensures the fundamental rights enshrined in Article 26 of the Constitution. Hence, those fundamental rights can be neither denied nor exempted.
- Section 45 of the TN HR & CE Act has not earmarked the circumstances under which an ‘Executive Officer’ could be appointed. Therefore, an EO cannot be appointed permanently using that section. He can be appointed only for a specific and limited period of time.
- In this case (Chidambaram Temple), the HR & CE Department (TN Govt) has not specified the circumstances and reasons which warranted the appointment of an EO. Hence, the appointment is not legal.
- The government cannot take control of the management of a temple without giving appropriate circumstances, specific reasons and limited timeframe. Even if there is a genuine case of mismanagement by the concerned party (religious denomination or trust), the government can take control of the management only for a specific and limited period of time required to rectify the mistakes and return it to the concerned party. Government violating this provision is against the fundamental rights ensured by the Constitution and hence will not be allowed.
- Although the Chidambaram Temple is not constructed by the Dikshithars, they have been managing and maintaining it for centuries. So, the temple cannot be relieved from their possession and there is no question of considering such a scenario.
- Also there is no provision in TN HR & CE Act for the government to interfere in the religious rituals and worshipping pattern followed in temple.
Confirmation of ‘religious denomination’ status
The most important aspect that the Dikshithars are a “Religious Denomination” has been ascertained many times in the past.
In 1891, the British authorities originally pronounced confirmation of ‘denomination status’ on the Chidambaram Temple (India Case Report 14, Madras, page 103)
In December 1951, Hon’ble Justices Satyanarayana Rao and Rajagopalan of Madras High Court in their order confirmed the denomination status of the Dikshidars and quashed the government’s notifications (Writ Petition 379 and 380 of 1951).
Terming the judgment of this Bench (1951) as very significant and landmark, T.R. Ramesh, President of Chennai based Temple Worshippers Society says, “This verdict cleared all the issues related to the Chidambaram Temple and the Dikshithar community. That the TN government chose to ignore this clear verdict and continued its attempts to take control of the temple is nothing but a show of arrogance and total disregard to the judiciary and the law of the land.”
T.R. Ramesh marks the following aspects of the 1951 verdict as very significant:
- Podhu Dikshithars are a ‘Religious Denomination’.
- As enshrined in Article 26 of the Constitution, the Dikshithars are entitled to continue their worshipping pattern and manage the Temple without interference or supervision by outside parties including the government.
- It has been substantiated by history that Dikshithars are the traditional priests and that they have been managing this temple for ages.
- The Temple’s revenue is the only livelihood of the Dikshithars. Hence, their contention that Hundis must not be placed inside the temple is correct.
- Their arrangements for the safety of jewels and valuables are excellent. No better arrangement could have been made by others.
- The allegations made against their management are baseless and without any evidence.
- The government’s attempt to take control of the temple is against the religious fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution.
After delivering such a clear-cut verdict, the High Court Bench also certified that under Article 132 of the Constitution, the case was fit for appeal at the Supreme Court.
So, the Tamil Nadu government went for an appeal (Civil Appeal no 39 of 1953) at the Supreme Court. The Union of India, State of Bombay, State of Travancore-Cochin and the State of Andhra also applied as interveners. The Rural Welfare Department of the Tamil Nadu government filed a Civil Miscellaneous Petition (CMP no 49 of 1954) also praying for permission to urge additional grounds.
On 9 February 1954, a five judge bench headed by Chief Justice Mehr Chand Mahajan along with Justices Bijan Kumar Mukherjee, Sudi Rajan Das, Vivian Bose and Ghulam Hasan gave the following verdict:
“The Appeal and the Civil Miscellaneous Petitions above mentioned being called on for hearing before this court on the 9th day of February 1954, UPON hearing the Advocate General, Madras, on behalf of the appellants and counsel for the respondents and upon the said Advocate General appearing on behalf of the State of Madras agreeing to withdraw the notification G.O. Ms. No 894 Rural Welfare Department dated 28-8-1951 published in Fort St. George Gazette dated 4-9-1951 in the matter of Sabanayagar Temple, Chidambaram, South Arcot District. THIS COURT DOTH ORDER that the appeal and the civil miscellaneous petitions above-mentioned be and the same are hereby DISMISSED and THIS COURT DOTH FURTHER ORDER that there shall be no order as to costs witness.”
Hence, the 1951 verdict given by the Madras High Court was final and binding on the government.
In another instance, the Supreme Court, vide its verdict in the case between Mulkipetta Sri Venkataramana Devaru Devasthanam and State of Mysore, (AIR 1958 SC 255 – SC reporter 1958 p. 895), confirmed the denomination status of Chidambaram Temple as an off-shoot judgment.
Previous judgments related to this case
Shirur Mutt Case (Commissioner, HR & CE Madras Vs Sri Lakshimindra Thirtha Swamiji of Shri Shirur Mutt – SPA 1954): Supreme Court categorically observed that, “Under Article 26 (b), a religious denomination or organisation enjoys complete autonomy in the matter of deciding as to what rites and ceremonies are essential according to the religion they hold and no outside authority has any jurisdiction to interfere with their decision in such matters.”
Mr. Narahari Shasthri Vs Badrinarayanan Temple (AIR 1952 SC 245; SCR 1952 page 849): The court upheld the concept of ‘Ceremonial Law.’
Thiruvengada Chariyar Vs. Krishnaswamy in 1915 (p. 281 of Madras Weekly Notes): The Supreme Court ruled that one mode of worship has to be followed at a given time and it cannot be interfered by another mode of worship.
A judgement by Allahabad High Court in Karamat Hussain Vs. Janaki Prasad case (AIR 1931, p. 674), and Supreme Court judgment in Ismail Farooqui Vs. Union of India (SC 1994 – 6 cases – p. 361) corroborate the earlier judgment of 1915 that one form of worship cannot be interfered with another form of worship.
Recently, with reference to the administration of Sri Karaneeswarar Temple, Saidapet, Chennai, when the HR & CE Department appointed an Executive Officer to administer the temple, the Hon’ble High Court, admitting petitions filed by the Senguntha Mudhaliar community (WP No 15468 of 2003 and WP No 15469 of 2003), ruled that the appointment of EO is unnecessary and observed that the EO could operate only as an ‘implementing functionary’ of the dictates of the Senguntha Mudhaliar community. It is pertinent that the judgment was in favour of the Senguntha Mudhaliar community despite it not enjoying ‘denomination’ status.
As recently as 2008, the Andhra Pradesh government recognised the worship and administration of the Chilkur Balaji Temple, Hyderabad, as unique and confirmed it through a special government order (GO M/s No 260 dated 29/2/08), allowing it to continue as it is, thereby assuring that the government would not interfere in the administration of the temple in future too.
State Government’s utter disregard for ‘Justice’
As agreed in the Supreme Court, the state government, vide G.O. Ms. No 1278 dated 21-5-1954, cancelled its notification dated (G.O. Ms. No 894 28-8-1951). But, seemingly with a deliberate intention of twisting facts, the state pretended that the Civil Appeal was “withdrawn,” while actually the five judge bench of the SC had “dismissed” it.
Again, when the state government tried to meddle with the temple, the Podhu Dikshidars filed a Writ Petition (WP 616/1981) with the Madras High Court. Hon’ble Justice Mohan in his order dated 20-1-1982, observed that the exercise of power by the HR & CE Commissioner is wholly without jurisdiction and is clearly against the statutory provision of Section 73 of the Act. Though his verdict went in favour of the Dikshidars, the Honourable Justice had also made an observation that “consequent to the cancellation of the notification appointing the Executive Officer the appeal before the Supreme Court was withdrawn.”
Notwithstanding the judgment delivered by Justice Mohan, the government again issued a notice (RC No 52754/1982/B6 dated 20-7-1982) to Podhu Dikshithars alleging irregularities in the administration of the temple and its properties and the proposal to appoint an Executive Officer. The Podhu Dikshithars had to rush to the Madras HC again by filing yet another Writ Petition (WP 5638/1982).
The High Court, through its judgment dated 9-8-1983, directed that the aforesaid notice would be treated only as a show cause notice and not as a decision, and that the Dikshithars could put forth their objections as per Section 45 of the HR & CE Act. Pursuant to the direction, the Dikshithars filed a reply on 9 January 1984.
Conducting an enquiry thereafter, the Commissioner passed an order on 31 July 1987, stating that the appointment of Executive Officer was only to look after the administration of the temple and management of properties, and it would not mean interference with the rights of Dikshithars relating to religious practices in the temple.
As against this order, the Podhu Dikshithars again filed a writ petition (WP 7843/1987) before the HC, even while the EO assumed charge of the temple on 10 August 1987. The HC didn’t grant stay, but stayed only the ‘clause 3’ (powers and duties of EO) and dismissed the petition on 11 February 1997. Even while dismissing the petition, Hon’ble Justice Venkatachalam made an observation (para 2 of judgment) that the Madras Division Bench’s judgment (13 December 1951) favouring the Dikshidars was “not upheld” by the SC, but was dismissed as withdrawn.
The Podhu Dikshithars again challenged the dismissal by filing a Writ Appeal (W.A. No 145/1997) against which the HC directed them to file a Revision Petition under Section 114 of the HR & CE Act before the respondents and also ordered the continuation of the stay of ‘clause 3’.
The Revision Petition filed by the Dikshithars was rejected by the state government through a government order (GO. Ms. No: 168 dated 9 May 2006) and when it was challenged again, Hon’ble Justice Banumathi gave a verdict upholding the appointment of Executive Officer by the Hr & CE Department.
It was a sort of coup at Chidambaram on the afternoon of 2 February 2009, as the HR & CE officials took over the Nataraja Temple. The very fact that HR & CE Department officials and police were ready to enter the temple within a few hours of pronouncement of the judgement and attempted to do the same, gave rise to the suspicion that they were in the know of the coming verdict.
The first and foremost thing done by the department was to place a hundi inside the temple, exhibiting its greed for money while hitting strongly at the meagre earnings of the poor Dikshithar community. Within the next few months, the government placed three more hundis at strategic points inside the temple, which further hit the income of the poor Dikshithars. Apart from placing hundis, the government also had further commercialization plans, such as construction of choultry, marriage hall, trade and commercial venues within and outside the temple premises and promoting Chidambaram Temple as a heritage tourist centre, along with the nearby Pitchavaram Lake as eco-tourist spot – a total disregard for religious tradition.
The Podhu Dikshithars again appealed to a Division Bench of Madras High Court comprising Honourable Justices Mr. Raviraja Pandian and Mr. Janardhana Raja. Sr. Advocate G. Rajagopal represented the Podhu Dikdhithars and placed brilliant arguments. The bench adjourned the hearing for two weeks and Justice A. Raja replaced Justice Janardhana Raja. Finally, the bench upheld the verdict given by Single Judge (Justice Banumathi).
Evil forces and their nefarious designs
From this sordid story one can understand the greed and arrogance of the state government and its total disregard for Judiciary, Constitution and the Law of the land. Despite a flurry of judgements against its brazen attempts to take over the temple, the state government has not shown even an iota of remorse. The state government’s track record on this particular issue smacks of total contempt for law and judiciary, and utter disregard for morality, the majority community’s religious sentiments and timeless traditions.
As if this is not enough, Tamil extremist, Maoist and atheist outfits indulged in repeated protest demonstrations making false allegations against the Dikshithars and their traditional practices. These outfits spread a canard that the Dikshithars practice untouchability inside the temple and that they were not allowing singing of Tamil Saivite hymns like Thevaram, etc. Foreign funded NGOs, which always work with a hidden agenda of de-Hinduising this nation, also supported these extremist outfits in the name of secularism and human rights. These outfits also had Islamic and Christian fundamentalists as members.
A fake Othuvar (one who recites Tamil Hymns) named Arumugasamy, was planted by these vested interests and keeping him as a front, they have been creating a ruckus inside the temple every now and then and acting against the Dikshidars, filing false complaints against them. The planting of this fake Othuvar interfered with the centuries-old worshipping pattern of the temple, causing immense trauma for the Dikshidars and genuine devotees. The state government, for its part, encouraged these forces by turning a blind eye to all their sacrilegious actions. The TN government even went to the extent of paying Rs. 3000/- as monthly salary to the fake Othuvar and a famous Senior Advocate represented him at both the High Court and later in the Supreme Court! The fact that there is a conspiracy to undermine and destroy the religious tradition of the Tamil Hindus is evidenced by the support and backing given by the state government and other outfits and NGOs to the fake Othuvar.
But the truth is that the Temple is open to all people cutting across caste, colour and creed. It is also a fact that the Tamil hymns are a part of daily rituals and the Dikshithars are extremely proficient in singing them. With regards to Othuvars and other persons who are proficient in singing Thevaram and other hymns, they can sing from Sitrambalam or Sitsaba, which is just under the Ponnambalam or Kanaka Saba. It is ages old tradition that only the Dikshithars can sing Tamil hymns from Kanaka Saba. The famous and most respected Othuvar by name Sri Swaminathan of Dharmapuram has recorded that the “Othuvars must respect the tradition of singing hymns from under the Kanaka Saba”. More importantly, during Utsavams, the Tamil hymns get the top most priority as they are sung first and then only the Vedic Suktams follow.
However, the state government, Dravidian outfits, Maoists and Tamil extremists have hidden these facts and projected a wrong image about the temple and the Dikshithars, with the help of a section of the media.
Dr. Swamy and his foes
Totally demoralised and disheartened by the High Court’s verdict and the subsequent activities carried out by the evil forces, the Dikshithars approached a section of social activists and intellectuals, who in turn took them to Dr. Subramanian Swamy. Dr. Swamy gave a patient hearing and agreed to help them regain the temple management. As committed, he impleaded himself in the case before the two judge bench of the HC.
The Writ Appeal of Podhu Dikshthars (WP 181/182/183/2009) dated 2 February 2009 was listed on 17 February 2009 before the Division Bench comprising Justices P K Mishra and K Chandru. Dr. Subramanian Swamy appeared in Court Hall:3 to implead himself in the Chidambaram case.
As the Sri Lankan Tamil issue was at its peak then, it came in handy for a section of lawyers to thwart Dr. Swamy’s attempt to implead himself, and also to spoil the admission of the writ appeal. The unruly lawyers physically attacked Dr. Swamy and a few concerned persons, and though the division bench postponed the hearing to the 19th, it could not be conducted due to the unprecedented violence inside the High Court that day.
Since then, counsel representing the Dikshidars could not list the writ appeal for more than four months, for ‘obvious’ reasons! As the counsel’s inability, possibly due to backroom manoeuvers of the ‘powers’ that be, to proceed further caused a lot of trauma to the Dikshidars, they ultimately opted for change of counsel. Then came Sr. Advocate Rajagopal and placed his effective arguments as mentioned above before Honourable Justices Raviraja Pandian and A. Raja. However, the bench upheld the earlier order of the single judge Justice Banumathi.
Supreme Court’s decisive verdict
As the Podhu Dikshithars went for an appeal at the SC, Dr. Swamy impleaded himself in the case. Senior Advocates C.S. Vaidyanathan and R. Venkataramani, ably assisted by Junior Advocates on Record Smt. Bindu Nair and Sri Chandrasekar, represented the Dikshithars and Sri T.R. Ramesh, President of Temple Worshippers Society ably supported Dr. Subramanian Swamy. This team worked very hard for almost five years and won the case ultimately resulting in the Chidambaram Dikshithars regaining their Temple.
A lesson for Dravidian, atheist and Tamil extremist forces
Branding Non-Brahmins as ‘Tamil-Dravidians’ and Brahmins as ‘Sanskrit-Aryans,’ the ‘stalwarts’ of the Dravidian Movement have been trying to separate the Tamil people from the ‘Hindu’ fold, to de-Hinduise the state.
One stalwart, poet Barathidasan, wrote: “That day we demolish Sriranganathan (Bhagwan Ranganatha of Srirangam) and Thillai Natarajan (Bhagwan Nataraja of Chidambaram) with a cannon, will be the golden day for us.” Other Dravidian leaders also propagated that evil intent.
However, the Supreme Court’s verdict has landed heavily on their heads and completely destroyed their evil intent.
The glorious history and tradition
The Chidambaram Temple and its custodians the Dikshithars, have a glorious history enormously recorded with proofs and evidences in abundance in ancient Tamil literature, epigraphy and official records of British India and Independent India. Bhagwan Shiva identified and projected himself as the first among the 3000 Dikshithars (Tillai Moovaayiravar).
Sage Thirumoolar, Saivite Sages Thirunavukkarasar, Thirugnana Sambanthar, Sundarar and Manikkavachgar have all sung in praise of Chidambrama Dikshithars in their Saivite hymns such as Thirumanthiram, Thevaram, Thiruvachakam, et al. Divine Poet Sekkizhar who wrote Periya Puranam and another Saivite Scholar Nambi Aandar Nambi also have recorded the tradition practiced by the Dikshithars.
Even the Vaishnavite Naalaayira Divya Prabandham has hymns sung by Thirumangai Aazhvar and Kulasekara Aazhvar in praise of Chidambaram Dikshithars. The Chola history has recorded the glory of the temple and the Dikshithars community. We have epigraphic evidences with inscriptions made during Chola period.
Sanskrit texts such as Chidambara Mahatmiyam also talk about Chidambaram Temple and Dikshithars. In 1893, English writer Mcleen had published a lexicon in which it was mentioned Chidambaram Temple as a property of Dikshithars. Most respected scholar Dr. T.N. Ramachandran, in his English translation of Periya Puranam, has recorded the facts of a legal case involving the Chidambaram Temple and the Dikshithars in 1890.
Almost 1300 years of records talking about the glory of Chidambaram Temple and the Dikshithars, have been neatly compiled by Dr. R. Subbarayalu, former Deputy Registrar of Thanjavur Tamil University in his book Thillaivaazh Anthanar (Brahmins of Thillai).
A verdict which will liberate the temples
A close scrutiny of the recent Supreme Court verdict along with the previous judgements at various courts gives us a clear picture about the vexed issue of a secular government’s control over the worshipping places of only a particular religion. The judgements have made it clear that a secular government cannot take possession of temples. It has also made it clear that the constitution of Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowment Dept itself is against the Constitution, as it violates the religious fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution.
Hence, it will be only appropriate that the various state governments which have taken control over temples return them to the concerned denominations and trusts. Immediately after the Supreme Court ruling Dr. Swamy had shot off a letter to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayallaitha urging her to de-notify all the 40000 temples under the control of HR & CE Department of the TN government. He has assured his cooperation, in his capacity as the Convener of the Legal Cell of the Hindu Dharma Acharya Saba, the apex body of the various Hindu traditions, for orderly freeing of the temples in a phased manner. He has also attached the copy of the SC’s verdict on Chidambaram Temple.
Now the onus of freeing the temples from government control lies with the Chief Minister. Will she, is a million dollar question! – Uday India, 15 February 2014
» B.R. Haran is a senior journalist in Chennai.
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