This is the first post in this month's series on Religious Freedom and Social Reform in the Indian Constitutional History.
The 2018 Sabarimala case has generated public controversy and re-ignited debates on the question of opening up temples for historically marginalised classes. Around 86 years ago, the first legislative attempt was made to open up temples for lower castes.
In the 1933, the Indian National Congress introduced a Temple Entry Bill in the Madras Legislative Assembly as well as the Central Legislative Assembly; The Bill, introduced by Ranga Iyer in the Central Assembly, called for temples in the country to be opened for lower castes.
Image Credits: National Archives of India, Governemnt of India.
The British government disallowed the Madras Bill; however it circulated the Central Bill to garner public opinion. The Bill was widely opposed by upper caste Hindus; Ironically, temples that had started to allow lower castes entry began to shut their doors in light of the Bill.
In February 1933 Gandhi sought Ambedkar’s endorsement of the Bill. Ambedkar responded by issuing an open statement – he was against the Bill. Ambedkar offered two key arguments for his position.
First, he believed that the Bill was not radical or revolutionary enough; it merely gave the municipal authorities the power to pass a resolution to allow people from lower caste to enter temples. Ambedkar added that temple entry for lowers castes would never be successful if let to majority rule and therefore he was sceptical: ‘ [The] Bill cannot hasten the day of temple-entry for the Depressed Classes any nearer than would otherwise be the case.’
Second, the Bill did not make untouchability illegal. It did not denounce the practice of untouchability nor did it articulate it as an evil custom in need of social reform. Ambedkar claimed that the Bill treated untouchability on par with the prohibition of alcohol.
Further, Ambedkar asked,“Do the Depressed Classes desire Temple Entry or do they not?” He argued that depressed classes cared more about economic and educational upliftment rather than temple entry.
However, he did acknowledge that the religious section of the Depressed Classes may desire entry to temples. Here, Ambedkar pointed out that their final answer must depend on the purpose of temple entry reform as proposed by the Bill and Gandhi; is temple entry the final goal of upliftment or a step towards emancipation?
Ambedkar ended by making a larger point on religion and the depressed classes:
What the Depressed Classes want is a religion, which will give them equality of social status...Social evils can have no justification whatsoever in a civilised society. But nothing can be more odious and vile than that admitted social evils should be sought to be justified on the ground of religion. (bold introduced)
Gandhi unsuccessfully fasted between May 8th and 29th, 1933 to galvanise public support against untouchability and the Bill. In the light of heavy public backlash, the British Government opposed the Bill stating it was ‘impracticable and likely to lead to serious disturbance," and would cause "serious invasion of private rights." As a result, Ranga Iyer withdrew the Bill on July 23rd, 1934.