New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Friday, in a landmark verdict that gave a boost to gender equality, threw open the doors of Sabarimala temple in Kerala to girls and women of all age groups by lifting the ban on the entry of those between the age of 10 and 50, holding this centuries-old Hindu religious practice is illegal and unconstitutional. The court in the majority verdict said the repression of women under the garb of “physiological factors” cannot be legitimised and patriarchy in religion cannot “trump over” devotion.
A five-judge Constitution bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra in its 4-1 verdict held “the devotees of Lord Ayyappa are just Hindus and do not constitute a separate religious denomination” and the rule that stipulates exclusion of entry of women of the age group of 10 to 50 years, is a clear violation of the right of such women to practise their religious belief.
The top court in its 411-page verdict said the practice of exclusion of women of a particular age group being followed at the shrine cannot be regarded as an essential religious practice as claimed by the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB). The temple barred women of a “menstruating age”– defined as between the ages of 10 and 50–from entering.
“Any rule based on discrimination or segregation of women pertaining to biological characteristics is not only unfounded, indefensible and implausible but can also never pass the muster of constitutionality,” a verdict pronounced by Justice Misra for himself and Justice AM Khanwilkar said.
The views of Justice Misra, who penned his last verdict of a five-judge constitution bench before he demits office on October 2, were shared by Justices RF Nariman and DY Chandrachud. However, the path-breaking three concurring verdicts was not accepted by the lone woman judge, Justice Indu Malhotra, who dissented and said “right to equality conflicts with right to worship of devotees of Lord Ayyappa”. She said the judicial review of religious practices ought not to be undertaken as courts cannot impose its morality or rationality on the form of worship of a deity.
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.
Describing the verdict as “unfortunate”, Rahul Easwar, the president of the Ayyappa Dharma Sena and grandson of a former Sabarimala priest the late Kandararu Maheswararu, said the organisation would file a review petition against the judgement. “Until October 16, the Sabarimala temple is closed. So, we have time.”
The shrine’s head priest Tantri Kandararu Rajeevaru said though the verdict was “disappointing”, the management accepted it. The TDB said it was bound to implement the judgement.
Mariam Dhawale, general secretary of the The All India Democratic Women’s Association, called the verdict another step that would help in bringing equality.
Women activists hailed the judgement though some women in Kerala, who did not want to be identified, said they would not like to offer prayers violating the tradition and Hindu custom.
The CJI, in the lead verdict, said the dualism that persists in religion by glorifying and venerating women as goddesses on one hand and by imposing rigorous sanctions on the other hand in matters of devotion has to be abandoned.
“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 for the simple reason that public morality must yield to constitutional morality,” the CJI said. The verdict further said that in no scenario, it can be said that exclusion of women of any age group could be regarded as an essential practice of Hindu religion.
“Patriarchy in religion cannot be permitted to trump over the element of pure devotion borne out of faith and the freedom to practise and profess one’s religion. The subversion and repression of women under the garb of biological or physiological factors cannot be given the seal of legitimacy,” the CJI said.
He 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 fundamental right claimed by the Thanthris (priests) and worshippers of the institution, based on custom and usage under the selfsame Article 25(1), must necessarily yield to the fundamental right of such women, as they are equally entitled to the right to practice religion, which would be meaningless unless they were allowed to enter the temple at Sabarimala to worship the idol of Lord Ayyappa,” justice Nariman said.
Justice Chandrachud, said that to exclude women from worshipping by allowing the right to worship to men is to place women in a position of subordination, adding that to treat women as children of a “lesser god” is to blink at the Constitution itself.
(With PTI inputs)