Kerala’s Sabarimala temple in south-central Pathanamthitta district is a famous shrine that doesn’t traditionally permit the entry of menstruating women i.e., the age group of 10-50 years on the ground that it is a place of worship. In the past three decades, this custom has evoked random resistance and protest from various segments of society and triggered a long legal wrangle.
The Supreme Court, in a majority opinion of 4:1 on Friday has struck down the rule that disallowed girls and women from entering the Sabarimala temple in Kerala. The verdict was pronounced by constitution bench consisting of Justices R F Airman, A M Khanwilkar, D Y Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra and headed by the Chief Justice of India, Dipak Misra.
Social Exclusion Of Women, Based On Menstrual Status, Is A Form Of Untouchability: Justice DY Chandrachud.
Here’s a timeline of the 20-year-long struggle for women’s entry to the Sabarimala temple:
A look at it:
1991: Kerala High Court upholds an age-old restriction on women of a certain age-group entering Sabarimala temple. A two-judge bench decrees (on April 5) that the prohibition by the Travancore Devaswom Board that administers the hill shrine does not violate either the Constitution or a pertinent 1965 Kerala law. Reason: the ban was for women (even before 1950, as per the testimony of the vintage temple’s chief priest) between the ages of 10 and 50, not as a class.
2006: A famed astrologer conducts a temple-centric assignment called ‘Devaprasnam’, and declares having found signs of a woman’s entry into the temple sometime ago.
2006: Soon, Kannada actress-politician Jayamala claims publicly that she had entered the precincts of Sabarimala in 1987 as a 28-year-old. Even touched the deities inside the sanctum sanctorum as part of a film shoot, she adds, stating this was done in connivance with the priest.
2006: The allegation led the Kerala government to probe the matter through its crime branch, but the case was later dropped.
2008: Kerala’s LDF government files an affidavit supporting a PIL filed by women lawyers questioning the ban on the entry of women in Sabarimala
2016: The India Young Lawyers Association files a PIL with the Supreme Court, contending that Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorization of Entry) Rules 1965 that states “Women who are not by custom and usage allowed to enter a place of public worship shall not be entitled to enter or offer worship in any place of public worship” violates constitutional guarantees of equality, non-discrimination and religious freedom.
November 2016: Kerala’s Left Front government favors the entry of women of all age groups filing an affidavit to the effect.
2018: Supreme Court Chief Justice Dipak Misra, hearing the PIL, questions the temple’s authority to deny entry to a particular section of women.
28th September 2018: A majority opinion of 4:1 held that the custom is unconstitutional and lifted the ban on entry of women of all ages.
The head priest of Sabarimala, Kandaru Rajeevaru, said in his first response: “We are disappointed but accept the Supreme Court verdict on women entry.” However, some members of the temple’s board, its top decision-making body, say they are exploring a possible review petition.
To sum up, Dr. B.R Ambedkar famously said that public temples, like public roads and schools, are places meant for public access and so the question of entry is, essentially, a question of equality. The managerial rights of religious authorities under Article 26(b) of the Constitution of India cannot override the individual woman’s religious freedom guaranteed under Article 25(1). The former is intended to safeguard, not annihilate, the latter.
The verdict has been welcomed with people taking to social media to express their happiness. “What month for empowerment. Triple Talak gone, Adultery not a crime, LGBTQ can live in please and now Sabarimala. Pillars of patriarchy are going down.
“Courts must not interfere with issues concerning deep religious sentiments except in cases like sati, which is clearly a social evil”.
These were the words of dissent by Justice Indu Malhotra, lone woman judge in the bench constituted for Sabarimala verdict. The five honorable justices who delivered the Sabarimala verdict, the only dissenting voice was that of the lady on the bench. Sabarimala is not the only religious place that excludes women. Across India, across religions, women are treated like second-class citizens. Most mosques exclude women. Unfairly, menstruating women are not allowed to enter temples. It’s not as if there is security at the entrance checking if a woman is menstruating or not; it’s the women themselves who prefer to stay out. The same self-regulation could work in Sabarimala too.
Justice Malhotra opined that the right to move the Supreme Court under Article 32 for violation of fundamental rights must be based on a pleading that the petitioners’ personal rights to worship in the temple have been violated.
“To determine the validity of long-standing religious customs and usages of a sect, at the instance of an association/Interveners’ who are “involved in social developmental activities especially activities related to upliftment of women and helping them become aware of their rights, would require this Court to decide religious questions at the behest of persons who do not subscribe to this faith,” she explained.
The view of the majority of the bench of the Supreme Court was that such restrictions on the entry of women between the age of 10-50 years was blatant violation of the Freedom to worship and right to equality under Article 14 of the constitution. Justice Chandrachud mentioned that “Restrictions on women on the basis of menstruation amounts to untouchability”.
On the question whether such restrictions violate article 14, Justice Malhotra pointed out that “in matters of religion and religious practices, Article 14 can be invoked only by persons who are similarly situated, that is, persons belonging to the same faith, creed, or sect. Article 14, she said, needs to be viewed differently in matters of religion and religious beliefs, as it needs to be adjudged amongst the worshippers of a particular religion or shrine, who are aggrieved by certain practices which are found to be oppressive or pernicious.”
She also said, “In a pluralistic society comprising of people with diverse faiths, beliefs and traditions, to entertain PILs challenging religious practices followed by any group, sect or denomination, could cause serious damage to the constitutional and secular fabric of this country.”
Justice Malhotra ruled that Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorization of Entry) Rules, 1965, which restricts the entry of women into the Sabarimala Temple is not ultra vires the Act, noting that the proviso to Section 3 of the 1965 Act carves out an exception in the case of public worship in a temple founded for the benefit of any religious denomination or section thereof. In other words, the proviso made the provision subject to the right of a religious denomination or section to manage its own affairs in the matters of religion.
This judgment has been seen as an important step towards gender equality but will this judgment apply on the other religious communities too? A Pandora box full of questions has been unlocked. Will this judgment act as a catalyst of gender equality in other religious communities? Has Supreme Court exceeded its “Lakshman Rekha” by interfering in the matters of faith? Will only one religion act as a scapegoat in the matters of gender equality and progressiveness? Only time will tell them.
Abhinav Jassal & Anany Upadhyay
Student Reporters- INBA