Polity and Governance

The Sabarimala Issue

The Sabarimala Issue
The Sabarimala legend Located in the Pathanamthitta district of Kerala, the Sabarimala temple is one of the most visited Hindu pilgrimage sites in India. The presiding deity is Lord Ayyappan, who is worshipped as a ‘Naishtika Bramhachari’ or a celibate for life. The Travancore Devaswom Board that manages the temple prohibits women belonging to the menstruating age (from the age of 10 to 50) from entering the temple since that would disturb the holy celibacy of the deity. According to lore, it is believed that Maalikapurathamma (a goddess worshipped in a shrine on the way to Sabarimala) had asked Lord Ayyappan to marry her, but he had declined because he was destined to go to the forest and live the life of a sage. However, he had said he would marry her when no first devotee (or Kanni Ayyappan) comes to the shrine. It is believed that when the God gets married to the Goddess, women would be allowed into the temple. The Sabarimala conflict is a perfect example of a conflict between the sovereign and the sacred in the context of India. Background In 1991, the ban was challenged in the Kerala High Court (S. Mahendran v. The Secretary, Travancore). The Court upheld the ban and ruled that it was constitutional and justified. The Young Lawyers Association filed a PIL before the Supreme Court in the year 2006, challenging this exclusionary custom, arguing that the custom violates the right to equality under Article 14 and the freedom of worship under Article 25. This matter was referred to a three-judge Bench on 7th March 2008 and on 11th January 2016, it came up from hearing. Supreme Court verdict The case was referred to a Constitutional Bench on 20th February 2017 and on 28th September 2018, in a judgment hailed as “historic”. The five-judge constitution bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra, in its 4:1 verdict, proclaimed that banning the entry of women into the shrine is gender discrimination and the practice violates the rights of Hindu women. Justice Indu Malhotra was the sole dissenter. The court observed that it can’t be oblivious to the fact of the case that a section of women is disallowed owing to physiological causes. The CJI said, “devotion cannot be subjected to discrimination and patriarchal notion cannot be allowed to trump equality in devotion.” Reception of the verdict The verdict was received by a divided audience. While the liberal left and crusaders of equal rights and opportunities for women reveled at the historic judgment, saying that it was a victory for feminism over patriarchal notions, a lot of people felt that the judgment was a threat not only to secularism in India but also to a long-standing and revered custom. They claimed that the entry of women into the temple had nothing to do with the issue of gender equality but meant upholding religious traditions and norms. The Travancore Devaswom Board heavily relied on Article 26 of the Constitution, which guarantees a religious denomination the right to manage its own internal religious affairs. The custom is also secured by Section 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorization of Entry) Rules, 1956, which allows the exclusion of women from public places of worship, provided that the exclusion is based on custom. In the Supreme Court, the majority ruled that the devotees of the deity do not form a religious denomination and thus are not protected by Article 26. The exclusion of women from the temple is not an essential religious practice in Hinduism and thus the ban that prohibited the entry of women within the age group of 10-50 years was declared unconstitutional. There were widespread protests on 17th October 2018 when the temple was opened for the first time since the Supreme Court verdict. Some women of menstruating age tried to enter the temple, but they were turned down and sent back by the police after the protests turned violent. Many female journalists were assaulted by protestors. Two women – Bindu (42) and Kanakadurga (44) – dressed in black attire entered Sabarimala on 2nd January 2019, creating history. After this incident, however, the shrine was closed for “purification” as two women had entered the shrine. The central debate of the Sabarimala conflict revolves around ideology and tradition versus equality, a debate so sensitive at its core that taking a definitive stand means giving up either one’s religious or one’s social views. On 6th February 2019, the Travancore Devaswom Board announced that they were willing to uphold the verdict of the Supreme Court since all practices have to follow the rule of equality.
Source: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/fifty-member-womens-group-expected-to-arrive-at-sabarimala-tomorrow/article25806995.ece

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