Translated by Saumiya K
First published in Dawat News
The affected women of the poor and backward classes are deprived of the right to dignified life and justice.
Throughout human history, women have been subjected to immense atrocities in several ways. They have been denied basic human rights and have been treated as the means of satisfying the needs of men. Sexual exploitation and objectification of women are established societal and cultural norms. Although human beings claim to be continuously progressing and advancing in all fields of life, atrocities against women are never-ending. However, the mode of these exploitations has kept changing.
One such mode of sexual exploitation of women is the Devadasi system in India. Minor girls were brought to big temples, made to believe that they were married to the deities and were kept in the temple for the entertainment of the priests, landlords and nobles. Throughout their lives, these innocent girls could never marry another person, nor were they allowed to settle in their own homes. These Devadasis used to perform dances to generate income for the temples. Despite the ban on the Devadasi system in Independent India, girls are still being made into Devadasis in the temples of South Indian states, Maharashtra, and Orissa.
In October 2022, the National Human Rights Commission issued a notice to the Central Government and 6 other states saying that even today, girls are being made into Devadasis in various temples. The National Human Rights Commission has sought reports from the Center and 6 states. The Commission issued a notice saying that several laws have been made in the past to ban the Devadasi system, but despite all these laws, minor girls are being made Devadasis in different parts of the country. The Supreme Court had also issued a strong warning against the ongoing process of making young girls into Devadasis, stating that they are subjected to sexual exploitation and prostitution.
These practices are depriving women of their right to life, dignity and equality. Citing media reports, the Commission said that most of the victims belong to poor families, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. According to the report of the Commission, there are seventy thousand Devadasis in Karnataka alone. According to the report of the Commission formed under the chairmanship of Justice Raghunath Rao, there are 80 thousand of such Devadasis in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. The commission has directed the Union Ministry of Women & Child Development’s Secretaries, the Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment’s Chief Secretaries of Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Maharashtra to submit a detailed report within the next six weeks.
Recently, government reports and new data related to Devadasis have been published in various newspapers along with research studies regarding the plight of Devadasis in the states of South India and their vulnerability. The facts that have come out are shocking. Reading these reports, one cannot believe that this is the story of a country that dreams of being a Vishwa Guru, claiming that it has the solution to the world’s many problems and that it can show the light to the world in such a situation. Taking a critical look at the visible situation in front of us is very important. On one hand, a monstrous hate campaign in the country is ongoing, endangering the unity and security of the country, due to which a large population of the country is losing confidence in law and order and the judicial system, and on the other, the cases of sexual violence against women are increasing exponentially. Day by day, the news of rape and violence against women is splashed across the newspapers. In the meantime, marginalized, poor and Dalit women are still victims of the curse of the Devadasi system lasting from the fifth and sixth centuries.
Law enforcement agencies remain mere silent spectators. The country is fast becoming majoritarian. In these circumstances, the statement given by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at Mumbai IIT on October 20, 2022, is very important. He said “India’s voice at the global level can only be heard through domestic involvement and a strong commitment to human rights.” To gain credibility, India should take the responsibility of shaping universal human rights and ensure the provision of rights to all individuals, including members of minority communities. The Indian model of pluralism is simple but based on a deep understanding. António Guterres condemned hate speech and said that without protecting the rights and liberties of journalists, human rights activists, students, academics, and the protection of the majority cultural, multi-religious and multi-ethnic society, India’s voice on the global platform will be lost. This statement by Antonio Guterres makes it clear how the world is looking at India.
But the fact remains that in the 21st century, where women all around the world are progressing at par with men, flying in the high skies and accomplishing so much, the girls of our country are being subjected to sexual violence at an early age in the name of religion. All this is happening undercover. Another question is also very important – even after 75 years of independence, why has cultural and social exploitation not ended? It is also necessary to ponder over the point that while South India is more developed and educated as compared to the North, the Devadasi system nevertheless persists there. According to the 2020 Report of the National Commission for Women, there are more than two lakh Devadasis in the entire country today.
What is the Devadasi System?
The Devadasi system prevails due to the Brahminical dominance and caste system. As a result of an economic, social and religious monopoly of the upper castes, the Devadasi system began. Violence against women has been a shameful chapter in human history. However, when barbarism is cloaked in the garb of religion, its consequences are deeper and wider in scope. Devadasi means Servant of God. These women are considered to be dedicated to God and they are ‘married’ to God, so effectively, they cannot marry any man. CS Murugan has written in his work ‘Varalatril Devadasigal’ that Devadasi is mentioned in the Padma Purana. Devadasi is also mentioned in Matsya Purana, Vishnu Purana etc. Historically, the ritual of Devadasi started in the 6th century AD.
Most of the Puranas are said to have been written during this period. Early historical evidence suggests that Devadasis served in Shakta temples (temples of Shakti). They were primarily found in places where there were many Kali temples. So, in the Kali temples of West Bengal, there were also Devadasis. These Devadasi women were dedicated to the temple through a ceremony called Potuktu. This ceremony is similar to a traditional wedding ceremony, except that these women are considered to be God’s wives. From the 6th to 13th century AD, most temples in India had Devadasis. They were experts in various arts including dance and music.
Devadasis used to perform dances in public and thereby increasing the income of the temples. During this period, it was considered immoral for women from aristocratic families to dance in public. So, except for a couple of cases, most of the Devadasis belonged to the backward and lower castes. How can it be expected that women of the Dalit community marrying the Lord were treated with respect and dignity in society in this era when the men of the backward and Dalit classes were not allowed to enter the temples?
During the rule of Cholas, Cheras and Pandyas in South India, Devadasis were nothing more than sex slaves or child sex workers. The Devadasis of modern India are mostly in parts of Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Telangana. They are called Devadasis in Maharashtra, Jogini or Mathamma in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, Mathangi in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
In the 10th century, India was exposed to Muslim rule. Due to the teachings of Islam, the society which was suffering from social discrimination and oppression of caste for centuries got an opportunity to get out of oppression. Most historians have admitted that the Devadasi system in North Indian temples was weakened by Muslim rulers and reintroduced as a social scourge during the colonial period, including the historian Dr Tara Chand. But at the same time, the contract of prostitution and sexual exploitation of the Devadasis is blamed on the Muslim rulers by saying that due to the destruction of the temples, the system of sponsoring the Devadasis was weakened, so these Devdasis danced in the wedding ceremonies. They started doing prostitution and were forced into prostitution. As the invasions of Muslim rulers in South India were rare, this custom remained in South India. Such claims are false propaganda, as today the communally-minded people associate the curse of sati with the Muslim rulers, saying that widows were ready to climb the pyre with their husbands out of fear of the Muslim rulers. The famous historian Davies has written in his book “Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies” that every Devadasi had to dance and sing in the temple. At the same time, one had to have sexual relations with the special guests who came to the temples. In return, they were given grains or rupees. Delhi University professor and social worker Vimla Thorat writes in her research paper that “After becoming a Devdaasi, women no longer had the right to refuse to satisfy someone’s lust.”
Despite the Dravidian movement and Periyar’s self-respect movement, the Brahmin classes remained dominant in the South Indian system. To maintain social and economic superiority, women from backward classes were forced to become Devadasis. In the 19th century, a reformation campaign was launched among the Hindus in North India as a large number of missionaries were active in the Dalit and tribal areas with the help of the British government during the colonial era.
Ban on the Devadasi system and the present situation
At the beginning of the 19th century, movements against the Devadasi system began, notable ones being the anti-dance movement and the ‘self-respect movement. These movements resulted in the first legal prohibition against the Devadasi practice, and the Bombay Devadasi Protection Act was imposed in 1934. The first law to ban the Devadasi system was enacted before independence. The Madras Devadasi Prevention Act 1947 was enacted soon after independence. It was later amended in 1988.
The Karnataka Devadasi Prohibition Act was passed in 1982 and, surprisingly, the Karnataka Government has not yet issued rules for the implementation of this Act. The Maharashtra Devadasi Abolition Act was passed in 2005. Despite these laws, even after 75 years of independence, the Devadasi tradition exists in a toxic form in Indian society and is flourishing in many parts of the country. Legislation exists but implementation is pending.
According to Sampark’s 2015 report, the weakness of these laws is that there is no focus on the protection and rehabilitation of Devadasis. A report by the Tata Institute of Social Science in 2016 mentioned the negligence of the governments. Most of the state governments do not take the incidents of making a girl a Devadasi seriously. Sometimes, the government comes to know which girl has been made Devadasi only after the Devadasi is pregnant. The report, prepared in collaboration with the International Labor Organization, states that there are currently 450,000 Devadasis in India.
Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra have been identified as the states with the largest population of Devadasis. According to a 2018 study by the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), the Devadasi tradition is practised in several states. Women become Devadasis every year with the approval of the family. An NLSIU study reveals the horrifying details that 92 per cent of those who become Devadasi are minors.
Among them, 74 per cent of girls have sex before the age of 18, due to which they suffer from various health complications. Sometimes they have to go through the pain of miscarriage at a young age. A 2018 Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) study and other surveys also revealed that most women who become Devadasis belong to socially and economically backward castes.
Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) have written in their report after reviewing government surveys in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Maharashtra that the Devadasi system has gradually declined but has not stopped completely. Actually, after 2010, no state government or central government conducted any survey or study related to Devadasis. Hence, no definitive data is available regarding Devadasis. However, some non-governmental organizations have conducted surveys, but due to the lack of government support, these reports are unable to present accurate and statistically significant ground realities.
Devadasi Ashamma from Andhra Pradesh says, “In Mahbubnagar alone, the number of children born from these illicit relationships ranges from five to ten thousand.” It should be surveyed. Ashamma further says that all such children should be DNA tested so that their fathers can be traced and these children can also get rights to their property. Nagaratna, state vice-president of Devadasi Mahileyara Vimochana Sangha in Karnataka, says that there are hundreds of local deities in South India for whom girls are made into Devadasis.
Among them, three goddesses, Alagamma, Yellamma and Hosuramma are famous and women of Scheduled Castes are also dedicated to the temples in their names. Devadasis have no fixed age. Even a five-year-old innocent girl can become a Devadasi. Satyamurthy, head of Dalita Hakkugala Samiti says that this tradition has been going on for centuries. Earlier, girls were dedicated to the service of gods and goddesses, and now the head of the village, if the chief or any dominant person of the upper caste falls in love with a girl, he sends a message to her family through his disciples. They tempt her family members to make her a Devadasi as a lucrative means to put an end to all troubles in the house.
Why has the Devadasi system continued despite strict restrictions?
The exploitation of women, human trafficking and child abduction has become an industry in the country. Reports by the Women’s Commission and the Human Rights Commission show that governments have been unable to eradicate this industry because its flourishing is connected to political and powerful people.
As a result, the Devadasii system has turned into an institutionalized sexual exploitation of the poorest castes. Almost all of those who became Devadasis are Dalits, most of whom belong to the Madiga, Valmiki, Mahar and Matang castes. These communities are among the most marginalized sections in India. People belonging to these communities are so poor that the girl’s immediate family including parents or husbands do not mind making the girl a regular source of income or making her a Devadasi.
Sociologists and historians have analyzed that the caste system in India is not only limited to social division but its effects have affected women the most. This caste system has not only drawn lines of social division but also sexual division. Therefore, women of the Dalit society are the most exploited. According to a 2015 SMPRIC report, the labour market experiences of Dalit women differ from those of upper-caste women due to traditional notions of purity and impurity in the caste system.
This belief system means that the Devadasis are unable to attain the status of a wife in society. This affects the legal status and upbringing of their children, subjecting them and their children to further discrimination in the community. Apart from belonging to the untouchable caste, the children of Devadasis also face further discrimination because they have no recognized father. The government has no plan to rehabilitate the Devadasis and their children. In the last 75 years, although legislation has been enacted at various levels to end the Devadasi system, any social evil that has been fueled under the guise of religion cannot be eradicated by legislation alone. For this, the ongoing injustice at the social level, remedying the actual conditions and reaching the root of the problems is necessary. The real tragedy is that in the last seven decades, no effort has been made to get to the root of this social scourge.