The Kerala government has done well to submit before the Supreme Court that it is for allowing women of all age groups to enter the Sabarimala shrine. It is a reversal of the position adopted by the previous Congress-led government which, before the assembly election in 2016, submitted an affidavit in favour of prohibition against a section of women. The current view reverts to a 2007 affidavit, also filed by a CPM-led government, that supported the reformist position. The court will have the final say on the matter, but it is important that the elected government weighed in on the side of the view that sees the restriction as a discriminatory practice. Its impact is likely to extend beyond the Sabarimala case.
The custom in Sabarimala that prohibits women of a certain age group from visiting the shrine claims its sanctity from the conception of the deity, Lord Ayyappa, as a celibate and notions of ritual pollution. This custom is site specific and is not followed in other Ayyappa temples. There is limited historical evidence to tell us when the custom came into being and opinion is divided over whether the custom is central to the worship of the deity. The reformist view is the practice is just another reflection of the patriarchy that pervades all aspects of social life, including religious traditions and customs. The traditionalists argue that the custom is an essential part of the worship at the shrine, which needs to be upheld over the fundamental right to equality.
It is necessary to privilege rights over customs and traditions, even in matters of faith, if a society wants to be counted as modern and egalitarian. Customs and traditions are often social prejudices cloaked in a religious garb. They need to be tested against modern notions of civilised conduct and those that fail the test should be abandoned. The Kerala government’s new affidavit in court acknowledges this elementary principle of governance.