While elucidating Article 25 and 26, critically examine the Supreme Court judgement on appointment of archakas (priests) in Tamil Nadu Hindu temples.
Article 25 and 26
Article 25 of the Constitution guarantees to every person, and not only to the citizens of India, the “freedom of conscience” and “the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion”. This, however, is subject to public order, health, morality, and other provisions relating to Fundamental Rights.
Article 26 of the Constitution provides freedom to all religious denominations to establish and maintain institutions for religious purposes, manage its own religious affairs, acquire and administer movable or immovable property.
Supreme Court Decision
In its judgement, the Supreme Court observed that the constitutional legitimacy is above the religious practices and beliefs. It said appointment of an individual as a priest cannot be denied solely on the basis of caste, birth or any other condition not acceptable under Constitution principles. It interpreted the Article 16 (5) of the Constitution that any inclusion or exclusion of any person’s appointment to religious institutions is valid only if the exclusion would not violate Article 14 (right to equality). Religious rights provided under Article 25 and 26 are not absolute. They should be enjoyed with a rider that they do not violate the other Constitutional guarantees provided to others. The bench also noted that what comprises essential religious practices has to be decided by the court on a case-to-case basis since it would involve a determination of the contours of a claimed custom. Now as the court has not declared whether the government ordinance is valid or not, it will be open to the government to contend the appointments. The temples while making appointments as per Agamas should also check that the appointments are within the Constitutional mandates and principles.
In my view, the judgement rightly balances the fundamental rights and the state action in larger public interest. The ruling marks a fine balance between interpretations of Articles 25 & 26 of the Constitution and Articles 14, 15, 16, 17. Priesthood, except in few cases, has been the hereditary right of Brahmins. Now the ruling opens the door for other communities to performing temple rituals. The judgement is a step towards achieving social equity.