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The Triumph Of Constitution Over Religion : The Sabarimala Judgement - Deepanshi Jain & Ritika Gupta

Updated: Nov 23, 2021

Considered to be one of the most divine and sacred place of worship by Hindus THE SABARIMALA TEMPLE, devoted to Lord Ayyappa is today one of the most widely discussed topics in legal field as it marks the victory of equality over religion and the triumph of morality against discrimination. Sabarimala is one of the most prominent Hindu shrine of Lord Ayyappa located in Kerala. Since time immemorial, millions of devotees from all around the globe visit this historical temple constructed in 11 century to offer their prayers to the holy incarnation of Lord Ayyappa. For this, they need to perform 41 days of celibacy. Celibacy includes not to shave, cut hair and nails, not involving in sexual activities, to apply sandal paste on forehead. But women can’t perform these celibacy because of menstrual cycle. Thus, the temple barred the entry of women belonging to menstrual age because of the pseudoscientific belief that menstruation is an impure phase in a woman's life. These customary beliefs soon turned as a form of discrimination against women under the cover of religion.[1]

It was argued that Lord Ayyappa is bhramchari i.e. the god of celibacy and the presence of women of menstrual age would interfere with his meditation and holiness.

The first legal step taken in this context was in in the year 1990 when S. Mahendra filed the petition in Kerala High Court claiming women’s entry to temple. However, the high court upheld the age old belief of restricting the women entry in temple belonging to the age group of 10 to 50 years. With the passage of time many feminist groups raised their voice to support women’s right to permit them to enter the premises of the holy SABRIMALA TEMPLE and finally it was on September 2018 when the Supreme Court took a historic decision and turned down the patriarchal religious belief legalize the entry of women of all age group in the temple. This decision was taken when a P.I.L was filed in the Supreme Court in 2006 by Indian Young Lawyers Association[2] challenging temples beliefs. The 5 judge bench gave a 4:1 verdict and overruled the Kerala High Court Decision on the ground that it violated Article 14 of the Constitution which guarantees right to equality, Article 17 of the Constitution which prohibits Untouchability and disclosure of identity of menstrual women, also infringed the right to privacy guaranteed in the Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.[3] The only women in the bench Justice Indu Malhotara gave a dissenting judgement and held that Customs and Traditions could not be brought into the constitutionality ambit and every person and group of person have a freedom to practice and propagate their religious belief and right to manage the religious affairs as held in Article 25 and Article 26 of the constitution and it should be left to the religious head to decide their religious affairs and argued that courts should not interfere with the religious beliefs of the devotes. The other judges opinioned that religion cannot be used as a veil to deny the right of worship of women and thus created inequality, the exclusion of women based on their menstrual cycle and the ideology of purity did not withstand the 4 basic pillars JUSTICE, EQUALITY, PRIVACY and LIBERITY guaranteed by the Constitution.

The valleys of Pathananthitta district have witnessed a widespread protest and agitation after the Sabarimala temple opened the gates for menstrual women for the first time. On one side the women devotes were trying to enter the temple, the other female devotees showed their resentment to the Supreme Court’s verdict and even tried to restrict their entry.

Considering the massive agitation of people the Supreme Court in a 3:2 verdict had referred the plea to a large bench. The review petition gives the devotees a new hope and opportunities to have the verdict partially overturned.

Sabarimala has still continued to be the apple of discord. Woman’s entry to Sabarimala still remains a challenge. When on December 2, 2019 two woman tried to enter place of worship the temple had to remain close for its purification. In this modern era where women’s seems to hold a predominating position in every sphere it is inhumane to consider them as inferior or impure to anyone. Menstrual taboo is still treated as a curse on women even after knowing that its signifies her ability to conceive and give birth. Everyone who thinks women are impure during their menses don’t forget it is the same impurity they survive for 9 months inside their womb to give birth to the new offspring. The main issue is not an entry, but equality. The religious exclusion has a public character, and that it is not just an story of a holy shrine but one of the civil rights and material and symbolic equality. The court should look beyond the denial of freedom of religion to women but also of equal access in public sphere. It will put the fundamental pillars of constitution to new challenge and interpretation. India is trapped in a vicious cycle where the people who have solemnly resolved to abide by the rules of constitution have to redefine the new definition of faith and religion. When equality and secularism come into conflict a democratic socialist state should put equality first and seeing the current developments in the country on matters of religion and faith, it becomes essential for the judiciary to device out a methodology to deal with reformation of religion through judicial intervention.

[1] Satya Prasoon, The Sabarimala Case has the Potential to be a constitutional watershed, The Wire (Nov.7, 2016), [2] Young Lawyers Association & Ors. v State of Kerala & Ors. SC (2018). [3] Ankitesh Ojha, #Sabarimala dissent from the dissent of Justice Indu Malhotra: New Boundaries for Article 14? The Leaflet (Oct.22, 2018), new-boundaries-for-article-14/.

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