Since the beginning of society, man has been expected to follow certain ‘rules’ for the smooth development and functioning of society. On one hand there were judicial laws meant for keeping order in society; on the other hand, there were certain religious virtues required for the overall development of the individual. These values were ingrained within us due to ‘customs and traditions’ via systems like family, religion, etc. These religious values have been followed so rigorously since centuries that today, for many, defying or changing them is considered unacceptable. These religious and constitutional laws have often been at loggerheads with each other on many occasions.
One such example is the September 2018 judgment regarding the Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala region of Kerala, a famous pilgrimage site for Hindus. Every year, thousands of people, undertake the holy trek to the hill temple located in Pathanamthitta district. It has been the norm for centuries that only men partook in this event.
This was as per the legend that the temple deity Ayyappa followed celibacy (Naishtika Brahmachari), whose penance should not be disturbed by the entry of women worshippers of menstruating age. In 1991, the Kerala High Court, officially, banned the entry of women aged 10 to 50 from entering this temple citing that, ‘it was in accordance with the usage prevalent from time immemorial’.
Fight against the unjust discrimination begins
Since the myth could not be logically justified, the prejudiced ruling was challenged in 2006 by a group of women lawyers on the grounds that banning women from entering a public place of worship was discriminatory and against freedom of equality (article 14) and religion (article 25). In January 2016, the case reached the Supreme Court of India after Young Lawyers Association filed a Public Interest Litigation.
Finally, in September 2018, A five-judge constitution bench headed by Chief Justice Deepak Mishra heard the matter and in a long-awaited verdict, a 4-1 judgment declared it ‘unconstitutional and discriminatory’.
Justice Chandrachud delivered a judgment concurring with the majority, stating, “Religion cannot be a cover to deny women the right to worship. To treat women as children of a lesser God is to blink at Constitutional morality.” He had said, that exclusion of any kind especially based on a biological attribute, amounted to a practice of untouchability, an abolished social evil.
In 1991, the majority of the population welcomed the Sabarimala verdict as it was in consonance with their beliefs. However, with time people’s belief system changed, they started questioning the logic behind many of these customs and challenged them in court. Such rulings stigmatize a basic physiological process and discriminate them on stereotypical assumptions that menstruation symbolizes impurity.
Many including orthodox upper-class locals, reinforced equality opposed the judgment of September 2018. Justice Indu Malhotra, the only female and dissenting judge said, “What constitutes essential religious practice is for the religious community to decide, not for the Court”. Those who have asked to review the judgment have agreed with her opinion, and have challenged the authority of the Supreme Court’s interference with a centuries-old belief. The myriad of orthodox locals dissenting judgment belong to the upper castes and are also majority voters. Due to this even bipartisan parties like the BJP and Congress, who were initially in support of the judgment now sing a different tune, to appease to their influential voters.
Even the sufferer dissents
The women, who were victims of this unfair dogmatism opposed to this verdict as it was against a faith that had been embedded in them for centuries. A group of women supported and initiated the ‘Ready to Wait’ movement, which encouraged women to wait until 50 to enter the Sabarimala temple. These conservative views are conformed to a small section of society while the rest of the community has embraced the verdict.
Laws are meant to be in conformance with the society prevalent at that time since they are not only required for smooth functioning but also to endorse the rights of all of its citizens. Many of these antiquated religious customs are not suitable for the current environment, which lay heavy importance on subjects like diversity and equality. Such decisions reaffirm the transformative character of the constitution and re-emphasize its central motive to inculcate a more inclusive society for its diverse population.