Supreme Court uplifts ban on women entering Sabarimala temple

A five-judge Constitution bench of the Supreme Court in its latest verdict uplifted the ban on women from entering Sabarimala temple in Kerala. Today’s historic judgment was rooted in gender justice as aptly put by Justice Chandrachud, a member of the Bench who stated, “religion cannot be used as cover to deny rights of worship to women and it is also against human dignity. Prohibition on women is due to non-religious reasons and it is a grim shadow of discrimination going on for centuries.”

Facts of the case

Sabarimala temple situated in Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala is dedicated to Lord Ayyappa and is managed by Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB). The temple is governed by the provisions of Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965 which restricts the entry of women of menstruating age to the temple. A group of women lawyers from Kerala found the provisions prejudicial and went to Supreme Court in 2016 when Kerala High Court had upheld Rule 3(b) stating, “tantri (priest) was empowered to decide on traditions.”

Supreme Court Advocate Indira Jaising representing the advocate-petitioners observed, “the restrictions went against Articles 14, 15 and 17 of the Constitution. The custom is discriminatory in nature and stigmatised women, women should be allowed to pray at the place of their choice.” The Congress government of Kerala initially was against allowing women worshippers entering Sabarimala temple but in 2016 the government changed its stance and through their representative, Advocate Jaideep Gupta intimated the Court that “it would support the entry of women of all ages to the temple.”

The temple management Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) had contended that women between the ages of 10 and 50 are barred from entering the temple since women of menstruating age are always barred from performing religious rituals according to centuries-old traditional beliefs which consider women are impure during this time period. Lord Ayyappa is considered naishtikabrahmachari (eternal celibate) and hence one cannot enter his abode in an impure state. The devotees are only allowed to enter after they have observed a 41-day celibacy for the purification of their body and women are disallowed from entering since they cannot perform this purification ritual.

Court ruling

The 5 judges Constitution Bench of the Apex Court comprising of Chief Justice of India, Dipak Mishra and Justices R F Nariman, A M Khanwilkar, D Y Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra heard the case and finally delivered their verdict on Friday, 28 September 2018. The top court ruled in 4:1 majority in favour of the petitioners with Justice Indu Malhotra being the only dissenting voice.

Justice Indu Malhotra in her dissenting verdict reiterated, “the religious practices cannot be solely tested on the basis of Article 14. Issues of deep religious sentiments should not be ordinarily be interfered by the Court.” CJI while delivering the judgment observed, “patriarchal rules have to change, and that patriarchy in religion cannot be allowed to trump right to pray and practise religion. Any rule based on biological characteristics cannot pass muster of constitutional test.”

In concurrence with CJI, Justice Rohinton Nariman simply stated, “the custom of barring women is violative of Article 25(1). Rule 3(b) of Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965 needed to be struck down. Fundamental Rights under PART III of Constitution is essential for the transformation of a society.”

The claim of TDB that Sabarimala devotees are a separate religious denomination governed by the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965 found support in Justice Malhotra’s ruling when she wrote in her verdict “worshippers of Sabarimala temple constitute a separate religious denomination” which was also struck down in today’s ruling when CJI Dipak Mishra declared, “Ayyappa devotees do no constitute a separate religious denomination. Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965, violate the right of Hindu women to practice religion. The practice of age restrictions on women entry to Sabarimala temple cannot be treated as essential practice.”

Justice Chandrachud called the practice “derogatory” for women in his ruling as it denies “dignity to women. To suggest that women cannot undertake the 41-day vratham is to stereotype them. To treat women as children of lesser God is to blink at Constitutional morality.”

Impact of the judgment

TDB spokesperson, A Padmakumar was not pleased with the today’s ruling and stated their intention of going “for a review petition after getting support from other religious heads.” The Pandalam royal family who are the temple custodians called the verdict “disappointing.” Tantri Kantararu Rajeevaru of Sabarimala temple was visibly upset and expressed his disappointment but stated that his family will abide by the Court ruling.

The verdict was received with mixed reviews amongst people. Mostly young people expressed their happiness that a centuries-old regressive practice meant to deny women their equal rights has finally come to an end. But some others agreed with Justice Malhotra that “notions of rationality cannot be invoked in matters of religion. It was not up to the court to decide which religious practices should be struck down, except in issues of social evil like ‘Sati’.”

Radhika Sekar, anthropologist and author of the book The Sabarimala Pilgrimage and Ayyappan Cults mentioned “myths and legends of Ayyappan are not found in the major Puranic texts. The main sources of the myths and legends are in the folk songs of Kerala and Coorg. But, barring in Sabarimala, there appears to be no restriction on the presence of women at any Ayyappan shrine.”

Social scientist, Rajan Gurukkal have other reasons to worry regarding women visiting Sabarimala temple and argues “aspects more central to worship than any tradition are bimba shuddhi (purity of the idol) and prasaada shuddhi (purity of the abode). The temple authorities have failed to observe these as the pilgrim rush.” He points out “commercial interests, have wreaked havoc on the shrine and its larger ecosphere. It can have major ecological and socio-legal implications. An ecologically sensitive landscape already far surpassed in carrying capacity cannot take another substantial load.” It is safe to assume only time can tell whether today’s landmark judgment can really bring justice and equality in all aspects of modern women’s lives. The patriarchal notions of controlling every aspect of a woman’s life and her choices is heavily reflected in observance of this tradition that uses divine wrath in trying to control and subvert a woman’s independence and her rights to life and dignity as enshrined in Article 21. The verdict, no doubt, a step towards right direction and has unshackled women’s rights from the morass of centuries-old regressive religious views which still holds natural bodily functions like menstruation as conditions binding her from pursuing her faith.