By Prarthana Mitra
A five-judge Supreme Court bench led by Chief Justice Dipak Misra delivered a key judgement regarding women’s right to pray in this country, allowing the entry of female devotees of Lord Ayyappa into the Sabarimala temple in Kerala. Women of all ages can now enter the temple premises; women from the ages of 10-50 had been barred from the temple premises until now.
Here’s what happened
In July, the top court had ruled that denying women entry to the temple was against the constitutional mandate, but reserved its final verdict after the temple board voiced their disappointment. The Travancore Devaswom Board, which deems it mandatory for women pilgrims and devotees to carry documents to verify their age, submitted arguments claiming women won’t be able to participate in certain gruelling rituals, like the 41-day penance.
The bench had been tasked with examining the legality of the ban based “on a biological factor (i.e., menstruation) exclusive to the female gender.”
“Once you open it [temple] for public, anybody can go,” Justice Misra had remarked in July, on the draconian rule to ban women of ‘menstruating age’ from the temple. Observing that women have just as much right to pray as men, the CJI also said such prohibitions tantamount to discrimination, firmly concluding, “Where a man can enter, a woman can go.”
Justice Misra reiterated that point on Friday, saying that women’s rights cannot be subverted under the pretext of taboos founded on physiological phenomena.
The unreasonable rule
Senior advocate Indira Jaising had said in her closing arguments, “There is nothing in health, morality or public order that prevents a woman from entering and offering worship in a temple opened for the public…The prohibition in Sabarimala is discrimination not just on gender but sex. Menstruating women are viewed as polluted.”
One of the biggest pilgrimage destinations in India, the Sabarimala Temple authorities consider the exclusion of women of menstruating age an essential religious practice. But on Friday, the bench ruled that since devotees of Lord Ayappa fall under Hindus, there cannot be separate rules for people belonging to the same religious denomination.
What the bench said
Although the top court bench, comprising Justices R.F. Nariman, A.M. Khanwilkar, D.Y. Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra in addition to Justice Misra, had previously and unanimously observed a glaring loophole in the taboo, Justice Malhotra, the only woman on the panel, on Friday dissented with the majority verdict, declaring that Sabarimala worshipers constitute a separate religious denomination and they are entitled to continue with their essential practices even if that requires women of menstruating age to be banned from entering the premises.
Justice Chandrachud said the court cannot grant legitimacy to religious practices that derogate women, even as spokespersons of the temple board voiced their decision to file a review petition. Chandrachud also said, “To treat women as children of lesser god is unconstitutional.” Justice Nariman upheld women’s right to pray saying that the ban directly violates Article 26 of the Indian Constitution.
Justice Malhotra claimed that India has diverse religious practices and it is not for the court to interfere with religious practices, even if it may appear discriminatory. She justified her stance with the potential implications of such unfettered constitutional morality on other religions. Justice Malhotra said that issues that are deeply ingrained in religion ought not to be tampered with lest they damage the secular atmosphere of the nation.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.