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Why this priestly community wants reservation

November 23, 2015 11:12 IST

Namboothiris priests

IMAGE: Young Namboothiris priests undergo training. Photograph only published for representational purposes. Image: Kind courtesy Finnian MM Gerety/Vimeo

'Our children score very high marks, but do not get admission in good colleges. They get top rank, but they do not get jobs because they belong to the so-called forward caste.'

'What can we do when a boy or girl from the community with first rank is considered only at the 6th or 7th position for a government job just because those with reservation get precedence over us?'

It appears that the agitation by the Patels in Gujarat has provoked a ripple effect in other parts of India. The Yogakshema Sabha, an organisation that works for Kerala's Namboothiri community, recently issued a statement demanding minority status for the Namboothiris.

It was the first time that a priestly community in India is demanding reservation.

Akkeeraman Kalidasan Bhattathirippad, 52, a tantri priest in Kerala, is the president of the Yogakshema Sabha.

Bhattathiripad, below, left, a commerce graduate, worked in the private sector for some time before becoming a priest 25 years ago.

Bhattathiripad spoke exclusively to Shobha Warrier/Rediff.com from Kottayam on why he wants minority status for the Namboothiris in Kerala.

Was the Patel agitation in Gujarat the reason behind your demanding minority status for the Namboothiri community in Kerala?

It is true that what happened in Gujarat made us think on what we should do. We felt it was because we had been remaining silent that we are in this situation right now.

If you look at the way reservation is given in Kerala, you will see that from 50:50, it has become 70:30 in favour of the backward communities.

We feel that it is the duty of the government and the elected members to take care of every member of society. The government is bound to help those who are backward economically too.

Reservation cannot be based on just caste and religion alone. Economic status also has to be a criterion.

One of your demands was that minority status should be calculated state wise and not nationally. Why do you say so?

One of our demands is minority status should be looked at state wise and not all India wise. That is because Christians and Muslims are minorities if you look at the number nationally, but it is not so in the case of Kerala.

The fact is, Namboothiris are minorities among minorities. We are only 2.5 per cent of the population, but we are not considered minorities while Muslims and Christians are minorities here.

Muslims form 26.56 per cent of the population and Christians are 18.38 per cent in Kerala. Even the rich among them also enjoy the fruits of reservation while the majority from our community are economically backward.

Here, all the educational institutions are under their control as they get a license to run minority institutions.

We have been feeling there is an urgent need to have a re-look at the way reservation is being given in Kerala. If you look at the way reservation is given all over India also. I don't think this is the way Babasaheb Ambedkar wanted it to happen.

It is a fact that the benefits offered by reservation have not reached those who really deserve.

Ambedkar wanted to bring those who are backward in society to the forefront slowly, but how many people could come forward because of reservation?

There were inequalities and injustices in Kerala society and who came forward to correct them? People from our community like E M S Namboothiripad, Bhattathiripad, etc. But look at the condition of the majority of those from our community today.

They were neither given proper compensation nor given any opportunity to come up in life. Rather, they are being denied an opportunity to study and also jobs.

You have said the condition of Namboothiri priests is pathetic...

Namboothiris are the priests of Kerala and do you know what their position is? They are mere Class 4 employees according to the Kerala government. (Temples come under the Devaswom Board, which is under the Kerala government.) They work 18 hours a day without any holiday and union powers.

No girl wants to marry young Namboothiri men who work as priests. 70 per cent of Namboothiris fall in this category and their condition is very pathetic.

If you compare the social status of a Hindu priest and a Christian priest, you will understand the difference. If the Hindu priest doesn't enjoy any social status, it is because of the low living standard of a Hindu priest.

Namboothiri priests get no benefits though they earn less than Rs 2 lakhs (200,000) a year. On the other hand, those with more than Rs 50,000 monthly salary get benefits as they belong to the minority community.

Though our priests are the minorities among the minorities, what benefits do they get?

Their children score very high marks, but do not get admission in good colleges. They get top rank, but they do not get jobs because they belong to the so-called 'forward caste' and do not enjoy any reservation.

What kind of reservation are we following? It is not the deserving who enjoy the benefits of reservation now.

Do you consider the land reforms the reason for the condition of the Namboothiri community now?

In a way, yes. They lost their land and were not adequately compensated till now.

The situation is such that they have neither land nor good jobs.

That's why we demand the reservation policy to be re-written so that it reaches those who need it now.

Let those who have benefitted go out of the ambit of reservation.

Are you for the continuance of reservation, or for ending reservation itself?

We still need reservation. There are many communities in our country who have not come up at all despite the country following reservation for 68 years.

If it was followed properly, we would have been able to bring them up by now, but what the country followed was a lopsided vision of reservation. It was due to mismanagement by the powers that be that we have the present situation.

Because of this, the education system and in turn the healthcare system in Kerala is in shambles.

Deserving candidates are not getting their due now. Merit has no value here.

But you are asking for minority status and that is reservation?

Yes, we are the minorities in Kerala now. Just 2 per cent of the population, of which 70 per cent are in poor condition.

When the prime minister is talking about Make in India and an India attractive to the world, you have to recognise merit and quality.

If meritorious people do not get proper recognition, the standard of India will go down, and India will not be an attractive destination for world-class companies. Today, the quality of Indian students and the education system is abysmally low.

In Kerala, people from other communities are also trained to be priests, people who are not born in the Brahmin community. Do you support this?

We have absolutely no problem with anyone with dedication and sincerity learning to be a priest. Anyone with dedication and knowledge can be a priest. It has nothing to do with caste, but he has to be a vegetarian. The sanctity and spirituality of the temple has to be maintained.

Do you support the Census done based on caste and religion?

Now that you have a Census based on caste and religion, you know who needs reservation. Why do you have reservation? To support those who are backward. When you say backward, you should also include the economically backward in the list.

That is why we demand that reservation has to be calculated state wise. Then, deserving people from our community also will be able to get the benefits of reservation.

So by asking for minority status, you want the Namboothiri community to be categorised as a backward community?

Yes, economically and number wise, we will be backward. We have no other option, but to ask for minority status as a majority of our community members are in dire straits.

Is it not like the highly successful Patel community asking for reservation in Gujarat?

Yes, the comparison is correct. What can we do when a boy or girl from the community with first rank is considered only at the 6th or 7th position for a government job just because those with reservation get precedence over us? This is the situation in Kerala.

We are not against uplifting our brothers, but we feel sad when it is done at the expense of meritorious students from our community.

What will be your next step? Are you planning an agitation like what we saw in Gujarat?

Agitation will be our last option. The next step will be to make the government understand the condition of the community. We will give them one year to act and if they don't, we will have no other option but agitate.

Shobha Warrier / Rediff.com