On Friday the Supreme Court of India in a landmark judgment overruled a decision by Kerala high court from 1991; which had barred women of ages between 10 and 50 to enter the Sabarimala temple in Kerala since.
Sabarimala, a Hindu pilgrimage located in Pathanamthitta District of Kerala is one of the largest annual pilgrimages of the world. The number of devotees visiting this shrine is estimated to be 40-50 million every year.
The temple devoted to Ayyappa is in existence since 12th century and every year, a large number of pilgrims flock to offer their homage to Ayyappa wearing black or blue dress with sandal smeared on forehead.
The judgment, which came in 1991 from Kerala high court, instructed the state government to use police force even when required to ensure women of the said age should be restricted from entering the temple.
The significance of such a discrimination based on age of women is of course menstruation, or women of age considered to be before the age of menopause and after puberty.
The regressive tradition which lasted up to two decades nearly was ended by a panel of 5 headed by Chief Justice Dipak Mishra and including Justices Rohinton Fali Nariman, AM Khanwilkar, DY Chandrachud, and Indu Malhotra.
Chief Justice Dipak Mishra stated that the temple rule violated women’s right to equality and right to worship.
Justice DY Chandrachud called the custom as a form of ‘untouchability’ which cannot be allowed under the constitution. He said, “Article 17 certainly applies to an untouchability practices in relation to lower castes, but it will also apply to the systemic humiliation, exclusion and subjugation faced by women”.
“The social exclusion of women based on menstrual status is a form of untouchability which is an anathema to constitutional values” he added.
Furthermore, on that same issue he continued, asserting, the practice of excluding women from the temple at Sabarimala is not essential religious practice and the court must declined to grant constitutional legitimacy to practices which derogate from the dignity of women and to their entitlement to an equal citizenship.
Therefore, the notions of ‘purity and pollution’ that stigmatize individuals have no place in constitutional order.
The other Justices on the board Rohinton Fali Nariman, AM Khanwilkar were also unanimous in their view that the practice of barring women devotees illegal, unconstitutional and arbitrary.
However, Justice Indu Malhotra, the lone women judge on the bench penned a dissenting verdict, asserting, the Ayyappa do belongs to a separate religious denominations and the ban on the entry of some women in the temple is an essential part of their religion.
She stated that “In a secular polity, issues which are matters of deep religious faith and sentiment must not ordinarily be interfered with by courts.
On the contrary, the bench said that it is an essential part of the Hindu religion to allow Hindu women to enter a temple as devotees.
Finally, the Supreme Court struck down the age-old rule that disallowed girls and women in the 10-50 age group from entering the Sabarimala temple in Kerala.
Sabarimala is one of the largest Hindu pilgrimage centers visited by 50 million devotees every year.
Let’s take a ride on the timeline of the events before rule was struck down:
- 1990—S Mahendran files a plea in Kerala High Court seeking ban on women’s entry to the temple.
- 1991—the practice was first challenged, when the Kerala HC held that the practice was constitutional.
- 2006— After years, a petition challenging the ban of entering women devotees was filed in the Supreme Court by Indian Young Lawyers Association on the grounds that the rule violates the freedom to follow and propagate religion, listed in Article 25 of Indian Constitution; and the custom of banning women entry violated the right to equality under Article 14.
- 2007– LDF government files affidavit supporting PIL questioning ban on women’s entry.
- Jan, 2016 – 2 judge bench of SC questioned on the age-old practice.
- Feb, 2016 – The UDF took U-turn and told to SC that ‘It is the duty bound to protect the right to practice the religion of these devotees’.
- Oct, 2017— The case is referred to a SC Constitution Bench.
- July, 2018—5-judge Constitution bench started hearing the matter.
- September 28, 2018 – The Supreme Court allows women of all age groups to enter the temple, rules custom of barring women is violative of Article 25 (Clause 1) and Rule 3(b) of Kerala Hindu places of worship.