Last week, Andhra Pradesh Chief Secretary LV Subrahmanyam told reporters after meeting officials of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam, the board that manages the Tirumala Venkatachalapathy temple, that non-Hindu employees working at the complex will be sacked.
“If people have converted while working here, that is fine,” he said. “They are free to change their religion and no one will oppose it. However, they can’t continue with the job and will not be given an important post because it will hurt the sentiments of Hindus.”
The state government’s most senior bureaucrat added that surprise inspections will be made at the employees’ homes to verify if they are genuine Hindus.
The announcement comes at a time when the Bharatiya Janata Party has upped the ante against the YS Jagan Mohan Reddy government over preserving the character of the Tirumala temple and the autonomy of its management. Ever since the YSR Congress stormed to power in the state in May, Hindutva organisations have tried to make political capital of the fact that Reddy is a Christian. Over the last few decades, there have been protests against emergence of churches in Tirumala. The BJP had accused previous Congress governments of allowing evangelical organisations to function at the site Hindus hold as sacred.
The state government’s reaction seems to be an attempt to deflect campaigns trying to paint the administration as anti-Hindu. Just last week, the government was criticised when advertisements for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem were printed on the back of tickets for buses plying between Tirumala and Tirupati.
But there are fundamental flaws in the manner in which the state government is reacting to the controversy.
It is true that laws governing temple administration in Andhra Pradesh make it mandatory for temple employees to be Hindu. But many of the employees that the administration now wants to remove have been working for decades. Many of them are lower-level employees engaged in jobs such as maintenance and sanitation. Last year, when the administration tried to act against over 40 such people, the High Court stayed the move.
Having shown disregard to the law for decades and having employed non-Hindus, the government, in view of the emerging political situation, is trying to remedy the problem by sacking the employees without any regard for their rights.
This decision has also sparked a larger debate about the fairness of such laws. It is, of course, completely justifiable to assert that those appointed to religious positions in the shrine, such as priests and ritual managers, have to be Hindu. But to insist that even non-religious functions should be restricted to a member of a specific community is a violation of the fundamental right to equality. Rather than succumbing to the pressure from Hindutva organisations, the officials should try to revisit the law, given that the Supreme Court has held in the past that governments have the right to frame rules for appointments to secular positions in temples.
For the government to sack long-time temple staff for purely political reasons is an affront to the very idea of fundamental rights.