Court: The Supreme Court of India
Bench: Justice Dipak Misra, Justice A.M Khanwilkar, Justice R.F Nariman, Justice Indu Malhotra, Justice D Y Chandrachud
Petitioner: Indian Young Lawyers Association & Ors.
Respondent: The State of Kerala & Ors
Citation: Writ Petition (Civil) No. 373 of 2006
Historically, women have always been victims of the patriarchal nature of our society. Ranging from being denied basic rights like education to being the subject of constant sexist remarks made against them, women have time and again been shown an inferior place in our society. It has been a never-ending struggle to find equality and respect among the community for women. A groundbreaking judgement relating to women was the “Indian Young Lawyers Association & Ors. vs The State of Kerala & Ors.” which is popularly known as the Sabarimala Temple Case. The temple had been under the radar for a long time for not allowing women of menstruating age i.e women between the age of 10 and 50 inside to worship. In 2018, a 5 judge bench with a 4:1 majority declared this ban unconstitutional for violating the fundamental right for equality. Ironically the only dissent came from the woman judge. This particular judgment will go down as one of the most controversial judgements by the higher judiciary as it raised the question as to what extent can the judiciary interfere in the religious matters of a particular community. Such was the controversy with regards to this judgement that even now after being declared unconstitutional the State has not been able to apply the rules in fear of massive protest and violence.
Background and Facts
The Sabarimala temple is a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Ayyappan which is located at the Periyar Tiger Reserve in the Western Ghat mountain ranges of Pathanamthitta District. It is one of the largest annual pilgrimages in the world with an estimated 45-50 million devotees visiting every year. The Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) manages the temple. The deity i.e. Lord Ayyappan who is worshiped is a ‘naishtika brahmachari’ (eternal celibate). As a result “purity” is of key importance for the worshippers to visit the temple. The devotees need to follow a 41 days austerity period i.e a “ Vratham period” before they visit the temple. During this period, one is expected to follow a strict Lacto vegetarian diet, maintain celibacy, non-consumption of alcoholic beverages among other things. Women who menstruate are considered to be “impure” according to the Hindu traditions and are as a result not allowed to enter the temple to preserve the celebate environment of the temple and in respect to the deity. The ban has been followed extremely rigidly throughout these years to the point that physical violence has occurred in an attempt to not let women enter inside.
The first petition was filed in 1990 by S. Mahendra in the Kerala High Court challenging this ban. The judges, Justice K. Paripoornan and Justice K. Balanarayana Marar maintained the ban on women’s entry, stating that the priests of the temple had the right to decide on the traditions of the temple. Later in 2006, six women filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court alleging that the ban is in violation of their fundamental right to equality and they also questioned the constitutional validity of Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965, which authorises restriction on women of “menstruating age”. Before proceeding further it is essential to look at the provisions or laws involved during the discussion of this case.
Article 14: Article 14 of the Constitution of India provides for equality before the law or equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.
Article 15: Article 15 prohibits discrimination against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth, or any of them.
Article 25: Article 25 states that subject to public order, morality, and health and to the other provisions of this Part, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion
Article 26: Freedom to manage religious affairs Subject to public order, morality, and health, every religious denomination or any section thereof shall have the right
- to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes;
- to manage its own affairs in matters of religion;
- to own and acquire movable and immovable property; and
- to administer such property in accordance with law
Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry)Rules, 1965: It states that “Women at such time during which they are not by custom and usage allowed to enter a place of worship”
- Whether the restriction of women in the temple leads to the violation of fundamental rights granted by the Constitution?
- Whether the Sabarimala temple or Lord Ayyappan is a denomitable character entitled to formulate rules of religious practice under Article 26 of the Constitution?
- Whether this practice of not allowing women fall under the “essential practices” in the Hindu religion?
Evaluation of case:
Arguments in the favour of allowing women in the temple:
The primary argument stated that women cannot be called “impure” on the basis of menstruation which is a natural biological process within women. Thus the petitioners claimed that the argument calling menstruating women impure in itself is derogatory and not the right parameters to restrict entry inside the temple. As a result, this ban leads to the violation of Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution which guarantees equal treatment for all and in this case, there has been unfair discrimination on the basis of gender. The petitioners also claimed that the provisions under the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship Rules, 1965 were arbitrary and constitutionally invalid as they lead to the violation of fundamental rights guaranteed under Articles 14, 15, 25, and 26 of the Constitution. A noteworthy point in this argument was that the Sabarimala temple was not a separate entity and followed the same traditions and practices as any other Hindu temple, thus, if women are allowed in the other temples why not in Sabarimala.
Arguments against the entry of women into the temple:
The temple authorities argued that such rules exist to respect the Lord and these traditions are not a new practice but have existed in the same way ever since inception. They further claimed that this is not in any way gender discrimination because there exist many Hindu temples where men are not allowed entry, e.g.: the Brahma temple in Pushkar. Further, they went on to say that this cannot be called a violation of Article 14 because the ban on entry is on women of a specific age group not all women as a class.
The five-judge bench in a 4:1 majority declared that the ban was in violation of the fundamental rights that are entitled to each citizen of the country and thus unconstitutional. Further, the Apex Court struck down Rule 3 (b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship Act for being discriminatory. Thus following the verdict, women were allowed to enter the temple without any restriction for the same as the Court held that “devotion cannot be subject to gender discrimination”
Analysis of Judgement
The lone dissenting voice of the bench was Justice Indu Malhotra who said that by giving the judiciary the authority to decide on religious customs would be a violation of Article 26 of the Constitution which allows freedom to manage religious affairs. Thus, the court should not be interfering in this matter and let the rightful authorities decide the rules. She also held that the rule of rationality does not apply in the case of religious matters and they should be dealt with according to the customs and traditions to uphold secularism that is guaranteed by the Constitution. The other four judges stuck to their point stating that since the Sabarimala temple or Lord Ayyappan is not a separate entity, who fall under the Hindu traditions the ban cannot be considered a part of the essential practices of the religion if the same rules are not binding on other temples. Justice Chandrachud further went on to say that the ban was in place to preserve the “virginity” of the temple and to say that their entry inside would disturb the same leads to stigmatisation of women and should not in any way be encouraged.
This case led to a major debate on how the judicial system seems to encroach on religious matters which is not permissible by the Constitution. Over the past few years, the Supreme Court has emerged as a beacon of hope to the citizens with the numerous times the court has interfered in matters through judicial activism. In this case while the intentions of the Court are to prevent discrimination and rightly so however during this it failed to consider the point of view from the religious angle. The main argument about Lord Ayyappan not being a separate deity fails to consider that in the Hindu religion where there are numerous forms of deities that are worshipped, the Ayyappan idol in the Sabarimala temple is indeed a “separate” identity because it is the only temple where he exists in the ‘naishtika brahmachari’ form. According to the Hindu mythology, it was his desire to be spared of the presence of women of a certain age and this constitutes the core belief (Pratyasha Rath) of this faith. The relevant exclusion, in this case, should be respected and not be termed as gender discrimination or social exclusion.
While the Supreme Court has every right to make decisions based on moral and rational beliefs it should not be forgotten that religion is an exception to these rules. If the Constitution promises fundamental rights of equality it also is based on the concept of secularism. In the socio-legal activism practiced by the Supreme Court, it should not forget to respect the religious freedom that the Constitution grants to each citizen too. As Justice Indu Malhotra has rightly stated if the Court starts to judge what is essential to a practice of religious freedom on the basis of the right to equality the Court will be flooded with litigation matters.
This case analysis has been written by Shruti Gala. She is a first year BBALLB(H) student at Bennett University.