When the law is the balance between rituals and rights | Chennai News

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By RS Raveendhren
The Tamil Nadu government’s recent dramatic ban on Dharmapuram Adheenam pattina pravesam and its subsequent about-face has raised many questions in people’s minds. One of them being whether ritual practices need to be isolated from the long arm of the law, even if they are anachronistic and/or undermine human rights and dignity?
Pattina pravesam observed by the Dharmapuram Adheenam requires the seer to be carried on a palanquin on the shoulders of devotees. The secular ritual is a way of congratulating the seer when he enters a city.
The ban which was ordered by the Divisional Revenue Officer (RDO) of Mayiladuthurai last month referred to Article 23(1) of the Constitution which prohibits human trafficking and other similar forms of labor strength. The order stated categorically that the seer was only prohibited from being physically transported by people in a palanquin and that there was no objection to the seer visiting the premises in the name of pattina pravesam.
This ban, which was revoked on May 8, was seen as a reformist program by part of society and viewed with suspicion by others who saw it as an intrusion into their religious beliefs and practices in addition to being an attack on their freedom. religious.
The Supreme Court has consistently evolved the “Essential Religious Practice Doctrine” as the standard test for ruling on constitutionally permitted religious practices, ranging from the famous Shirur Mutt case (1954) to the Ajmer Dargah case (1961), then to the Ananda Margis case (2004) and more recently the Sabarimala case (2018).
What comes to mind is a statement by BR Ambedkar to the Constituent Assembly during one of the debates on the codification of Hindu law. He said, “Religious views in this country are so broad that they cover all aspects of life, from birth to death; there is nothing more, there is nothing extraordinary to say that we must now strive to limit the definition of religion in such a way that we will not extend it beyond beliefs and rituals that can be linked to ceremonies that are essentially religious.
Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution protect rituals and observances, ceremonies and modes of worship which are an integral part of religion. But what exactly constitutes an essential part of the religion and its practices should be decided by the courts solely with reference to that particular religion and its practices. In this context, the pattina pravesam on a palanquin has today become superfluous due to the use of motorized transport which was not then in vogue.
A 2017 report from the Pew Research Center in the United States indicates that government restrictions on religion through laws, policies and state actions restricting religious beliefs and practices have increased significantly around the world during the last decade. Human rights can never be separated from religion. Human rights and faith must coexist and religious philosophies and practices can never undermine human dignity, human equality and justice.
The Rabat Plan of Action (2012) promoted by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OCDH) through the UN endorsed “Faith for Rights” and the Beirut Declaration that followed in 2017 requires nations to ensure that the interpretation of religion or belief adds to the level of protection of human dignity provided by laws of human origin. He asserts that religions only flourish in environments where human rights, based on the equal worth of individuals, are protected. The 18 commitments it contains largely speak to human rights which must be linked to the deeply rooted ethical and spiritual foundations provided by religions and beliefs.
Any ritual practice that is purely symbolic and furthermore contrary to human rights and dignity must be abandoned. Even supposing for a moment that the seer is carried on the palanquin only by voluntary devotees; in practice, the responsibility most often lies with the employees (sippanthis). This is evident by giving ‘pallakku manyam’ or a grant to lift the palanquin to the porters.
When a dispute arose at Ranganathar Temple, Srirangam, among the descendants-beneficiaries of the Sree Veda Vyasa Battar Swamigal family over who was entitled to be carried on the palanquin (Brahmaratham) within the temple premises, the directors had adopted a resolution in 2010 abandoning the practice of transporting people by palanquin. The Tamil Nadu Temple Employees Association also passed a resolution stating that it would not participate in any practice of carrying people in a palanquin on temple premises.
Although certain practices have been followed for many years, such that they are part of the religious rights recognized by Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution, a reasonable restriction may be imposed by the State if it is justified.
Many religious institutions have, in their own way, adapted their routines to the times. They must come forward of their own free will to show a similar spirit and determination to adopt a new approach by changing age-old practices that have lost their relevance and meaning. In doing so, seers would practice the highest form of spiritualism by treating other human beings as equals. A modern democratic welfare state has the right to outlaw backward practices and regulate non-essential religious activity.
(The author is a barrister in the High Court of Madras)
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