SC denies review plea, temple board’s U-turn & more: Looking back (and forth) at Sabarimala

The Travancore Devaswom Board which manages the Sabarimala temple in Kerala surprised even the state government on when it did a sharp U-turn and came out in support of the Supreme Court lifting the ban on women’s entry into the shrine last year.

A Constitution Bench led by Chief Justice of India Ranjan and comprising Justices RF Nariman, AM Khanwilkar, DY Chandrachud Indu Malhotra, presided over the long-awaited hearing on a batch of 65 petitions demanding that the apex court’s verdict reviewed.

Several Hindu outfits including Nair Service Society (NSS) and priests associated with the temple made their cases challenging the authority of the Supreme Court to intervene in core religious traditions.

The Kerala government steadfastly countered the review petition, seeking a dismissal of these writs. “Touchstone of our Constitution is ‘you will not discriminate or exclude’,” senior advocate Jaideep Gupta submitted for the State, adding that courts are empowered to set aside religious practices that strike at the root of fundamental rights the dignity of women.

At the end of the day-long clash, the Bench was dissatisfied and observed that there was no ground for review, reserving its final on the pleas for later.

Here’s what happened

The majority judgement in September 2018 had barred the exclusion of menstruating women from Sabarimala temple on grounds that it directly violated the codes of equality, and treated women as the children of a “lesser God”. It concluded that discrimination on the basis of a biological phenomenon was akin to untouchability, an abolished social evil.

Ever since the fateful verdict, the temple town has been the site of massive violence led by self-appointed guardians of the shrine’s century-old tradition to keep women of menstruating age (10-50 years) away from it.

Comprising mostly of right-wing mobs, these protestors claimed that the resident deity Lord Ayappa was an eternal celibate implying that women of child-bearing age would pollute Sabarimala’s and that the apex court’s verdict was directed against the core values of Hinduism—arguments that found a place in the review petitions on Wednesday as well.

Here’s what AM Singhvi said

“Hinduism is the most diverse religion on planet Earth. And here, you want to allow only practices or customs which are ‘universally ethical’ to all Hindus? Is it possible? Surely, that’s not the right approach to take in such a diverse religion?” asked prominent Congress leader and senior advocate AM Singhvi, who appeared for the former chairman of the temple board.

Singhvi went on a critical rampage against the SC , saying,
“In Hindu religion, god is worshipped in different manifestations… Devotees have to worship in sync with characteristics of that manifestation to attain salvation.”

Character of deity rule, says chief priest

Main review petitioner Rajeevaru Kandararu, who is the temple’s chief , argued that “every devotee has a fundamental right to worship in a temple in a manner which is in sync with the character of the deity”.

“The Sabarimala deity, unlike in other Ayyappa temples, has the peculiar character of a Naishtika Brahmachari. The essential religious nature of the Sabarimala deity is affirmed and perpetuated by the offerings/pujas conducted in the temple. All this rests on this unique character of the deity. Exclusion of women of a certain age is nothing moral or immoral,” his counsel argued.

That’s how NSS pleaded as well

Nair Service Society represented by veteran lawyer K. argued that the SC verdict needs to be reviewed on grounds that the exclusionary rule in vogue for centuries at Sabarimala temple was not based on gender or but on religious faith in and the character of the deity.

What have such views led to in the last few months?

Despite vehement opposition from the Kerala government, miscreants continued to wreak havoc for three months, preventing scores of women from climbing the 18 sacred steps by resorting to intimidation and vandalism, openly violating the Supreme Court and law enforcement’s orders. Female journalists and activists were also forced to retreat despite being accompanied by the police.

The issue soon devolved into a political slugfest between Chief Minister Pinaryi Vijayan’s government, which was doing its best to uphold the court’s order, and the opposition encouraging the protestors to prolong the standoff. Months passed and the temple doors opened to let in pilgrims at least thrice since the verdict, but women still failed to enter – despite Section 144 being declared in the district.

After BJP, Congress and the ruling CPI(M) started trading verbal blows against each other, on November 13 last year, the apex court agreed to hear the pleas seeking the review of its verdict in open court in January this year but categorically refused to stay the judgment.

In the new year, two women of the controversial age group made history by entering the shrine in the dead of the night for the first time, but certain events followed which have led people to question the nature of this victory.

Travancore Devaswom Board packed a surprise

The protesters were abetted by the temple authorities, who shut down the temple on numerous occasions in defiance of the SC verdict, and even accused the state government of turning the district into a battlefield by deploying heavy security personnel.

The board’s pronouncement this week, therefore, marks a sharp reversal and offers a much-needed respite in the state that has witnessed exceeding polarisation over the issue.

At Wednesday’s hearing on the review petitions against the SC order, the temple authorities told the Kerala High Court that it is high time that a particular class not be discriminated on the grounds of “biological attributes.”

“Article 25 (1) equally entitles all persons to practise religion,” senior advocate Rakesh Dwivedi, appearing for the TDB, told the bench.

What Indira Jaising said

Senior advocate Indira Jaising represented Bindu (44) and Kanakadurga (42), the two women who fought the odds to enter the Sabarimala premises but were subsequently ostracised by their in-laws and even subject to death threats, for exercising their legal right to worship. Jaising interpreted the original SC ruling as the land’s highest court urging its citizen to take their fundamental duty, as laid under Article 51A (h) of the Constitution, very seriously, ie., to “develop scientific temper, humanism, of and reform.”

In her submission, she states, “It hurts a woman very, very deeply to say she is polluted because she menstruates. The hurt caused by such discrimination goes to the heart of the Constitution.”

Two other women, Reshma (33) and Shanila (29), have also filed similar petitions, claiming they were heckled and forced to discontinue their pilgrimage by aggressive mobs as recently as January 19.

“There are thousands of women waiting for Darshan at Sabarimala and are awaiting the final outcome of the review when this court would be pleased to hear and finally decide. The applicants may be permitted to intervene and make their submissions before this court when the Review Petitions are heard by this court, in order to oppose the Reviews,” they submitted to the bench.

Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius

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