The Supreme Court has ruled that women, of all age groups, can enter Sabarimala temple in Kerala. The apex court in a 4:1 majority said that the temple practice violates the rights of Hindu women and that banning entry of women to shrine is gender discrimination. A five-judge Constitution bench, headed by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, said that the provision in the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965, which authorised the restriction violated the right of Hindu women to practice religion.
The bench, led by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra and comprising Justices R F Nariman, A M Khanwilkar, D Y Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra, had reserved its judgment in the case on August 2 this year.
The temple, dedicated to Lord Ayyappa, is one of the most famous temples in Kerala. The Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) manages the temple. It is likely that the ruling will have an impact on all temple and their customs across the state.
What is the Sabarimala case?
A group of five women lawyers has challenged Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965, which authorises restriction on women “of menstruating age”. They moved the apex court after the Kerala HC upheld the centuries-old restriction, and ruled that only the “tantri (priest)” was empowered to decide on traditions.
Senior Advocate Indira Jaising, who represented the petitioners, said the restrictions went against Articles 14, 15 and 17 of the Constitution. She argued that the custom is discriminatory in nature and stigmatised women, and that women should be allowed to pray at the place of their choice.
Temple board in favour of barring women from entering Sabarimala
The temple management has contended in court that they are allowed to frame rules for the shrine without the state’s interference as the Ayyaoppa devotees form a denomination—a body with a definite identifiable character. They also said that it wasn’t discriminatory as the tradition was born from the belief that the deity is a ‘naishtika brahmachari’ (eternal celibate).
Meanwhile, women devotees who ran the #Readytowait campaign opposed the petition as well. The campaign had sprung up in response to #RightToPray. They argued that only women of a certain age are barred from entering the temple and that it is okay to wait till 50 to enter the holy shrine. They also argued that the petitioners were confusing diversity of Hinduism with discrimination.
Kerala govt’s stance
While the Kerala government had opposed the entry of women in 2016, it told the SC during the hearing this year that it was in favour of allowing women to pray at the temple. Advocate Jaideep Gupta, representing the state government, said it would support the entry of women of all ages to the temple.
Some observations by the SC during hearing
During the hearing, the apex court observed that “what applies to a man applies to a woman” as well and that “once you open it for public, anyone can go”. The bench also said that a “woman’s right to pray was not dependent on any law but it is a Constitutional right”.
“Your (intervener) right to pray being a woman, is equal to that of a man and it is not dependent on a law to enable you to do that,” observed Justice D Y Chandrachud. Justice Nariman had observed that “menstruation is not impure.”
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