On the 28th of September 2018, the highest court of the land lifted an age-old ban restricting the entry of women belonging to the menstruating age group to the Sabarimala shrine. In a historic judgement, the apex court with a 4:1 majority ruled that the age-old practice violates the rights of the Hindu women. The Supreme Court of India in the landmark judgement mentioned that patriarchy of religion cannot be permitted to trump over faith.
The five-judge bench led by the then Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra quoted in their judgement that there is inequality on the path of approach to divinity and exclaimed that the attribute of devotion to divinity cannot be subjected to the rigidity and stereotypes of gender. He also pointed to the fact that such a restriction is a clear violation of Article 25(A), that is the right to religion. However, the only woman on the bench, Indu Malhotra, was the sole dissenter and noted that matters of deep religious sentiments shouldn’t be interfered by the court. She added that notions of rationality cannot be brought into matters of religion.
All of this dates back to 2006 when Indian Young Lawyers Association escalated the case to the Supreme Court bringing into question the 1991 judgement given by a division of the Kerala High Court which ruled that women between the ages of 10-50 will not be allowed into the temple. The age restriction was suggested by the Travancore Devaswom Board (TBD) that runs the shrine. Bringing to end decades-long legal struggle the judgement set into motion many disagreements and protests by the stakeholders of this judgement.
The devotees of Lord Ayyappa have taken to the streets to express their dissatisfaction of the judgement as they believed this judgement interferes with the vow of celibacy their deity has taken. It is believed that Lord Ayyappa took the vow of celibacy, and one of the eight rules of celibacy states that one should not have contact with women of the reproductive stage, setting into play the century-old tradition.
However, the Kerala State Government led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has accepted the Supreme Court judgement and has promised to implement it, enraging fellow political parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) and the INC (Indian National Congress). The BJP has attacked the State government of hastily implementing the judgement whereas the Congress is treading middle ground by seeking a review petition against the unprecedented judgement.
Between 17th November to 24th December around a dozen women attempted to enter the temple but their attempts turned futile as the devotees of Ayyappa obstructed their path. Even with police protection, they could not enter into the sanctum sanctorum. The women of Kerala took to the streets to express their concern. Around five million women formed a wall of protest in the state as a form of showcasing their anger towards the prevailing situation in the state.
On 2nd January, two women, Bindu (42) and Kanakadurga (44) re-wrote history as they entered the sanctum sanctorum of the Sabarimala temple in Kerala. Soon after, the temple was closed for “purification rituals”. This was followed by statewide protests and the state of Kerala experienced a complete shutdown. The strike was called by Sabarimala Karma Samithi a right-wing organisation, BJP pledged its support to the strike whereas the Congress observed a ‘black day’.
After months of confrontations and disagreements, it is still a matter of debate whether the Supreme Court can interfere with the religious traditions and whether traditional customs should be looked through a lens of equality and civil rights. The case at hand asks important questions about our conversation with the constitution. In a dialogue about public spaces, it raises the question of the boundary of religion under the constitution. The Supreme Court is yet to look at the review petition filed challenging the judgement.