New Delhi, Sep 28 (PTI) The repression of women under the garb of “physiological factors” cannot be legitimised and patriarchy in religion cannot “trump over” devotion, the Supreme Court ruled Friday as it threw open the closed gates of the historic Sabarimala temple for women of all age groups. Also Read - Good News! India's Oldest Covid-19 Survivor, Wife Discharged in Kerala

Penning his last verdict of a five-judge constitution bench, Chief Justice Dipak Misra, who would demit office on October 2, rejected the vehement submissions of the Travancore Devaswom Board, which runs the temple, and ruled that the devotees of Lord Ayyappa are “exclusively Hindus” and do not constitute a “separate religious denomination”. Also Read - Speaking in Fluent Bengali, Shashi Tharoor Requests Migrant Workers to Remain In Kerala | Watch

The historic verdict, which would add force to clamour for equality for women of other religions, extensively dealt with Article 25 (1) which was referred to by the Temple Board and the devotees in support of the practice of barring entry of girls and women between the menstrual age of 10 and 50 years. Also Read - No Door Delivery of Liquor in Kerala: High Court Stays Govt Decision

Sabarimala is a prominent Hindu temple which attracts tens of millions of pilgrims every year. The hill-top shrine remains open only for a little over four months in a year and the approach is through a forested area that involves an arduous 5-km trek from the Pampa river base camp.

In a landmark verdict, the apex court Friday lifted a ban that prevented such girls and women from entering the famous Sabarimala temple in Kerala, holding this centuries-old Hindu religious practice as illegal and unconstitutional.

The CJI, who wrote 95 page-verdict for himself and Justice A M Khanwilkar, said that on the ground of public order, morality and health, women cannot be barred from practising and professing the faith. Observing that historically women have been treated with inequality, the majority verdict said “in the theatre of life, it seems, man has put the autograph and there is no space for a woman even to put her signature.” “There is inequality on the path of approach to understand the divinity. The attribute of devotion to divinity cannot be subjected to the rigidity and stereotypes of gender,” the CJI said. The views of Justice Misra were shared by Justices R F Nariman and D Y Chandrachud.

The CJI rejected the plea that the Temple Board was protected under Article 26 (freedom to manage religious affairs) as the devotees formed a separate religious denomination.

“There is no identified group called Ayyappans. Every Hindu devotee can go to the temple. We have also been apprised that there are other temples for Lord Ayyappa and there is no such prohibition. Therefore, there is no identified sect.

“Accordingly, we hold, without any hesitation, that Sabarimala temple is a public religious endowment and there are no exclusive identified followers of the cult,” the court said.

The CJI said that Article 25(1) would become a “dead letter” if women are excluded from practising their right to worship and set aside the Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965.

“The right to practise religion under Article 25(1) is equally available to both men and women of all age groups professing the same religion,” Justice Misra said.

“The impugned Rule 3(b) of the 1965 Rules, framed under the 1965 Act, that stipulates exclusion of entity of women of the age group of 10 to 50 years, is a clear violation of the right of Hindu women to practise their religious beliefs 93 which, in consequence, makes their fundamental right of religion under Article 25(1) a dead letter,” Justice Misra added.

The CJI dealt with the aspect of morality which can be used for putting restrictions under Article 25 (1) and said it cannot be viewed with a “narrow lens” to confine the definition of morality exclude an individual or a section from practising religion.

“The notions of public order, morality and health cannot be used as colourable device to restrict the freedom to freely practise religion and discriminate against women of the age group of 10 to 50 years by denying them their legal right to enter and offer their prayers at the Sabarimala temple,” Justice Misra said.

The CJI said that the practice of excluding women of the age group of 10 to 50 years “cannot be regarded as an essential part of religion” and hence cannot be protected.

The fundamental right of Freedom to Practice Religion is a gender-neutral right and has nothing to do with the physiological factors like menstruation in the present case, the verdict said.

“Women of any age group have as much a right as men to visit and enter a temple in order to freely practise a religion as guaranteed under Article 25(1).

“The denial of this right to women significantly denudes them of their right to worship,” Justice Misra said.

The court noted that the Kerala government had taken contrary stands at different times. In 2007, the then LDF government favoured the entry of all women inside the shrine. But in February 2016, the then UDF government took a u-turn and supported the Temple Board.

This stand was again changed in November 2016, by the current LDF government.

This is published unedited from the PTI feed.