High Caste Priests Cannot Refuse To Perform Religious Ceremonies On Behalf Of Lower Caste People: Uttarakhand High Court


It has to be conceded with grace right at the very beginning that in a landmark judgment with far reaching consequences hugely uplifting the sagging morale of lower caste pilgrims, the Uttarakhand High Court just recently on 15 June, 2018 in Pukhraj & Others Versus State of Uttarakhand and other in Writ Petition (PIL) No. 199 of 2016 warned high caste priests very strongly against refusing to perform religious ceremonies on behalf of lower caste pilgrims. It took a very stern view of the still existing practice of exclusion of the SC/ST community in Haridwar. Very rightly so!
                                         Deriding the system for its failure to protect the dignity, honour and human rights of persons belonging to lower castes, which has led to large-scale conversions, a Division Bench of Uttarakhand High Court has directed the state to ensure there was no discrimination done by upper caste priests in refusing to perform puja and other rituals for those from lower castes. The Division Bench also ordered that “all persons, irrespective of their caste, are permitted to enter/visit any temple throughout the state without any discrimination.”  This is truly commendable and must be implemented not just in Haridwar or Uttarakhand alone but should be extended uniformly in each and every part of India as early as possible!
                                            Be it noted, the order was delivered almost a month ago in mid June but its official copy was released on July 12. It was further directed that “any properly trained and qualified person can be appointed as pujari irrespective of his/her caste in temples across the state.” The court in its ruling observed that “high caste priests were not accepting alms offered by pilgrims belonging to the lower caste.” This is just not acceptable and it was conveyed in no uncertain terms by the Division Bench of Uttarakhand High Court which delivered this landmark ruling!
                      Needless to say, whenever the lower caste pilgrims face any discrimination at any place from now onwards, they can always cite this most commendable ruling which should be emulated not just by lower courts alone but also by all the high courts in India and even the Supreme Court also! It is a pathbreaking ruling which will always ensure that lower caste pilgrims don’t face any kind of discrimination in any place of worship! No wonder, it has grabbed news headlines all over!
                  Truth be told, the Bench of Uttarakhand High Court comprising of Justice Rajiv Sharma and Justice Lokpal Singh in no uncertain terms directed clearly and categorically that, “The High caste priests throughout the State of Uttarakhand shall not refuse to perform religious ceremonies/puja/rituals on behalf of the members belonging to lower castes in all the religious places/temples.” Now the high class priests have no option but to follow what has been so laudably laid down in this landmark judgment! No prizes for guessing that this landmark ruling has become a subject of discussion among all people of all categories and even newspaper headlines have not left it out!
                                       For the uninitiated, it would be pertinent to mention here that the Uttarakhand High Court was hearing a petition (PIL) filed in 2016 by people belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, complaining about the shifting of the staircase over the Sant Ravidas temple at Har-ki-Pauri, Haridwar. The decision to shift the staircase was taken on complaints received by followers of Sant Ravidas, who were unhappy with the fact that the staircase covered the temple. The Court, however, noted that this staircase was near a Dharamshala situated in the close vicinity of the river Ganga, where the people from the petitioners’ community perform religious ceremonies. It, therefore, directed the State to consult with the members of this community before shifting the staircase. Very rightly so!
                       Not stopping here, the petitioners had further highlighted the rigid practice of untouchability in Haridwar. The petitioners had alleged that high caste priests in the city often refused to accept alms offered by pilgrims belonging to the lower caste or perform ceremonies on their behalf. Nothing can be more degrading for the lower caste people which can never be justified on any ground whatsoever!
                          To be sure, while strongly condemning and deprecating the reprehensible practice, the Uttarakhand High Court minced just no words in stating clearly that exclusion of people from temples only for the reason of them belonging to a lower caste is violative of Article 17 of the Constitution of India, which abolishes untouchability. How can this be permitted to continue with impunity on any ground? So what the Uttarakhand High Court ruled was the crying need of the hour and it didn’t err in doing so!  
                      Simply put, Uttarakhand High Court sent across a clear and categorical message that, “High caste priests cannot refuse to perform religious ceremonies on behalf of the persons belonging to lower caste. The exclusion of persons from temples open to worship to the Hindu public at large, only on the pretext that they belong to the excluded community, is violative of Article 17 of the Constitution of India. Every person to whatsoever caste he/she belongs has a right to visit/enter the temple and worship and perform religious ceremonies/rituals.” Most certainly, this land mark ruling will ensure from now onwards that the pilgrims belonging to lower castes are not discriminated against and treated on an equal footing with others. This is certainly a historic feat for which both Justice Rajiv Sharma and Justice Lokpal Singh who delivered this landmark judgment must be applauded as it is they who have made possible what was earlier considered as impossible for lower caste pilgrims to achieve!
                       Having said this, it must also be pointed out here that during the hearing, the Court’s attention was also drawn to the large-scale encroachments on the banks of the river Ganga. The Court after taking note of all such concerns and after thoroughly deliberating on it issued landmark directions as mentioned in Para 30 of this landmark judgment. Para 30 reads thus: “Accordingly, in the larger public interest, as an interim measure, the following directions are issued to the District Administration to maintain the purity and sanctity of river Ganges and the Ghats at Haridwar and also for resolving the issue of the staircase and for the removal of encroachment and un-authorized construction in the town of Haridwar and also to remove social evils prevailing in the system: -
                       Meeting with SC/ST Community before                                                                                              shifting the staircase

A.  The District administration is directed to hold parleys with the respondent no. 3 and respectable members of SC/ST community before shifting the staircase from present place to maintain peace and harmony.    
                              Removal of encroachments
B. The District administration is directed to remove all the encroachment made on both the banks of river Ganges as well as public roads and public paths in Haridwar town by issuing four weeks’ notice to the occupants who have encroached upon the government land/forest land and two weeks’ notice to the persons, who have encroached upon the public roads/public paths by permitting them to establish their possession on the encroached land/unauthorised construction by way of sale-deed or any order passed by the Competent Authority in their favour putting them into possession of the property. Special drive be launched to evict the unauthorised occupants near Chandi ghat/Chandi bridge opposite V.I.P. ghat.
Warning against discrimination
C. The High caste priests throughout the State of Uttarakhand shall not refuse to perform religious ceremonies/puja/rituals on behalf of the members belonging to lower castes in all the religious places/temples. All the persons, irrespective of their caste are permitted to enter/visit any temple throughout the State of Uttarakhand without any discrimination in the spirit of Articles 14, 15(2), 17, 19, 21, 25, 29(2), 38, 46 and 51-A of the Constitution of India. It is made clear that any properly trained and qualified person can be appointed as Poojari irrespective off his caste in the temples, as laid down by Hon’ble Supreme Court.
            Maintenance of cleanliness
D. The District Magistrate, Haridwar shall ensure cleanliness and maintaining hygienic conditions on all the ghats in Haridwar.
E. The Commissioner Garhwal Division is directed to hold inquiry against the Officers/Officials who have permitted the encroachment on the Government land/public land/public roads within a period of ten weeks from today.
F. The District administration shall install nets at Subhash Ghat and Tulsi Ghat to collect trash/garbage from the river and dispose the same in a scientific manner.
                 Beautification of temple
G. Since there is only one temple of Lord Ravi Das near the Har-ki-Pauri, the State Government is directed to take all necessary steps to beautify the temple and its surroundings after holding consultation with respondent no. 3 and respected members of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes community within a period of three weeks from the date of production of certified copy of this order.
                              All said and done, it is a landmark ruling which treats lower caste pilgrims on the same footing as higher caste pilgrims. It enjoins upon priests of higher class not to perpetuate any kind of discrimination against them on any ground whatsoever and also not to refuse to perform religious ceremonies on their behalf. It also issues landmark directives to ensure that purity and sanctity of the river Ganges and the Ghats at Haridwar is maintained and also the issue of staircase is resolved and the encroachment is removed and also unauthorized construction in the town of Haridwar and also to remove social evils prevailing in the system.
                                    On a concluding note, it must be said with certitude that the crying need of the hour now is to ensure its swift and strict implementation if this landmark judgment is to be rendered really effective on ground! It brooks no more delay now of any kind! All kinds of discrimination against lower caste pilgrims must come to an end forthwith as ordered by the Division Bench of Uttarakhand High Court!   
Sanjeev Sirohi, Advocate,
s/o Col BPS Sirohi,
A 82, Defence Enclave,
Sardhana Road, Kankerkhera,
Meerut – 250001, Uttar Pradesh.

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