The Kerala Law Reforms Commission, under the able guidance of Hon’ble Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer has mooted a draft legislation that may have far-reaching implications in the State and beyond; titled the Secular Norms for Administration of Places of Public Worship Bill, the draft seeks to ensure public access to all places of worship. Apart from such a step, the Bill ushers in sweeping changes in areas hitherto untouched by State machinery. It is pertinent to note its salient features and the ‘unsettling’ impact it may have on the polity.

Firstly, the Bill ensures access to all persons regardless of their faith, to all public places of worship belonging to various religions. The access is however, subject to the “solemn obligations consistent with the dignity, decorum, reverence and submission to the sublime conditions prescribed by respective religious authorities”. A very dubious provision, indeed. At the outset, there are problems in granting a statutory right to all persons the right of access to public places of worship; perhaps on a high moral ground, it might indicate our receptive religious traditions. However, the Reforms Commission, knowing well that an unconditional right might create problems with religious bodies and authorities, has sought to mask this right by subjecting it to their respective conditions. Such a submission would ensure prevalence of status quo; people have been refused entry by religious organizations on a host of grounds and since the Bill does not lay down a standard for the “sublime conditions” mentioned above, such organizations can continue to put their foot down on these matters. Not only would this fuel litigation between the right-holder and the largely administrative religious bodies in charge of places of worship, but result in unnecessary judicial intervention in each and every minor incident.

Secondly, the Bill attempts to establish an institute that will impart training to persons aspiring to become priests in performing pujas and other holy functions in all Hindu places of worship, irrespective of caste differences. This seemingly absurd provision, quite regrettably, ignores the ground realities existent in society today. Priesthood in India (by and large) is not in the nature of a vocation that applicants/job-seekers “aspire” to become. Mostly traditional and hereditary in character, priesthood is seen as a right by many that is the result of a sanctimonious life adherent to rituals. How can Government norms be the yardstick to measure the qualification of a priest?

Further, the training will cater to Hindu Philosophy, based on Vedas, Upanishads and other great teachings of Hindu theology. In a scenario where no single, uniform interpretation of these texts is prevalent, one wonders what the State would seek guidance from. Evidently, subscribing to the interpretation of one caste/sect can have disastrous implications, going contrary to the very soul of this draft.

Thirdly, the Bill envisages the formation of a Board that would lay out the “course of study” in these training institutions. The Board will comprise presidents of all Devaswom Boards and three “outstanding” Hindu religious personalities; the inclusions of Devaswom presidents, all of whom occupy purely administrative posts, leave much to be desired. The Bill also leaves any question as to the criteria for diversified selection of outstanding religious personalities in the dark. Inviting discontent among religious segments that are unhappy with the selection process may threaten our secular fabric itself. Moreover, with most Board members likely to belong to upper castes, reconciliatory measures that accomodate the opinion of oppressed lower castes must be taken into account.

Fourthly, the Government is also to frame rules prescribing minimum qualifications for admission to the institutions and the service conditions for teaching. Apart from the problems aforementioned, this provision also runs the risk of commodifying the entire norm of priesthood, the sanctity of which is undisputed in society. This proposition is further accentuated by the fact that the admission process is directed to take “due representation to Hindu Dalits, conventionally considered Sudras and Andhyodaya communities”. The provision is prima facie evidence of State-sponsored upward social mobility measures: when affirmative action policies face so much opposition, it is needless to outline the problems that such interference in religious ‘posts’ might create.

The Bill also vests the Board with powers to direct disposal of dakshina and presents that priests receive from devotees and temple-visitors. This disposal is subject to the emoluments due to the priests for improving facilities for worshippers and other temple requirements. Once again, the Bill adopts a very commercial outlook to the entire system, quite antagonistic to the concept of dakshina.

Fifthly, with regard to judicial remedies, the constitution of a Tribunal headed by a judicial officer in the rank of a Dist. Judge is envisaged in the Bill. The Tribunal will have jurisdiction to entertain complaints and initiate appropriate proceedings for violation of Bill provisions. An appeal against the Board’s decision may also be preferred before the Dist. Court with territorial jurisdiction. Quite certainly, many issues shall arise that concern the “right” interpretation and meaning of religious texts. Whereas the Supreme Court’s attempts to interpret the Quran in Shah Bano generated huge controversy, it would not be prudent to let the judiciary indulge in its own versions of the texts.

Lastly, another cause for concern is the absence of any similar regulatory provisions for other religions in the State. While this would not only expose the Bill to allegations of discriminatory treatment, but might also fall short of Constitutional requirements of equality. The very purpose of the Bill is to ensure greater public access regardless of faith, and it would surely then, be necessary to adopt regulatory measures that pertain to all religions?

In conclusion, one must say that the Bill must be subjected to intensive public scrutiny and debate. When matters concerning the realm of religion are at hand, it is imperative to juxtapose the law with secular norms as mandated by our Founding Fathers in the Constitution. While a strict divide between the Church and State is certainly not what Indian secularism is all about, the extent of State intervention in religion is an aspect to be given ample thought.