At the Dwarka temple where Kumari Selja was allegedly asked about her caste, its committee members said Wednesday they do not as a practice ask that question of general visitors. It is those who wish to offer puja whom priests ask about their caste, they said.
“There is no such practice prevalent, nobody asks about the caste of any visitor,” district collector H K Patel, also chairman of Devasthan Samiti that manages the temple, said in reply to a question.
Paresh Zakharia of Dwarka town, one of the seven members of the temple committee, qualified his answer. “There is no rule or practice of asking visitors about their castes in the temple,” Zakaria said. “But based on certain factors, pandas single out persons who they think will be able to spend money on performing puja. They ask about the address and caste of such visitors to know their gotra (family roots) to decide who among the pandas will lead the puja.”
Pandas have divided gotras among themselves and, Zakaria said, no panda will lead a puja for a person of a gotra not assigned to him. “Even Mukesh Ambani (chairman of Reliance Industries) has a fixed gor (panda). Nobody but the man assigned will lead a puja for Mukesh Ambani,” Zakharia said.
Asked about such practices, the collector said that if the pandas ask about caste, the temple committee has nothing to do with it as the pandas are not committee employees.
Rajya Sabha member Parimal Nathwani, also vice-president of the temple committee, said asking about caste is “customary”. “One would wish she (Selja) had raised her voice at that time in case she had any issue at Dwarka,” Nathwani wrote on his Facebook page. “Raising it now in a different context and pretext was uncalled for. I tend to reiterate that asking caste by Tirth Pandas is essentially to find out the gotra while performing any pooja or ritual. It is never intended to humiliate or insult someone. It is customary and certainly not derogatory.”
Selja responded to this in New Delhi. “I would like to say that, maybe, people are not very clear about caste and gotra. I am,” she said. “Many times, at the time of offering prayers, the pujaris ask you about your gotra because they say it when they offer prayers, not caste. I am talking about caste.”
Nathwani uploaded a copy of Selja’s remarks in the visitors’ book on February 22, 2013 — the same as the one that Arun Jaitley brandished in Parliament Wednesday. “She, in fact, praised and lauded Dwarka if what she wrote in the visitors’ book in her own handwriting is any clue,” Nathwani posted.
Turshar Sripal, a Dalit leader in Junagadh, said, “Pandas ask the surname first, then caste name and sometimes even religion. I wish people were asked about their nationality first, then caste and surname.”