This case is popularly known as the Sabarimala Temple case. This case was a PIL filed against gender discrimination in the famous Ayyappa Temple located in Sabarimala in the state of Kerala. The women aged between 10 to 50 were not allowed in this temple which was held discriminatory against the women and a violation of their right to equality. The court held this practice of not allowing women as violative of their fundamental rights and allowed the entry of women of all age groups into the temple.
Background and Summary of the Case:
The Ayyappan Hindu temple located in Sabarimala inside the Periyar Tiger reserve in the state of Kerala is one of the most famous Hindu Temples in India. The Temple does not allow the women of Menstruating age i.e., age group 10 – 50 to enter the shrine of the temple. This was felt discriminatory based on gender ad violative of their rights. Hence a PIL was filed by a group of women lawyers named the Indian Young Lawyers Association.
- If the section 3(b) of Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorization of Entry) rules was violative of articles 14 and 15?
- Whether the practice of not allowing women based on a custom an essential religious practice?
- The petitioners argued that Section 3(b) of Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorization of Entry) rules and the practice of not allowing women inside the temple shrine is violative of articles 14, 15, and 25 (Right to equality, Prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, religion, caste or place of birth and right to profess or practice religion respectively). They also said the practice of not being touched by women during their menstrual period was against article 17 prohibition of untouchability.
- The respondents on the other side argued that according to articles 25(b) and 26 of the Indian constitution the community had the right to manage its affairs and the state had the liberty to make laws on religious matters. And they also argued that they were not discriminating against women as a class but were only restricting women of a certain age group.
The court in this case with a majority of 4:1 held the practice of not allowing women into the temple shrine as a violation of fundamental rights and section 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorization of Entry) rules act as ultra vires to the Indian constitution and allowed the entry of women of all age groups into the temple. The most interesting thing about this judgement was the dissenting judgement given by the only female judge on the bench Justice Indu Malhotra. Her argument for her dissenting judgement was that the petitioners, in this case, were not directly affected and what is an essential practice needs to be decided by the religious community, not by the court. She said that there are other Ayyappan temples where women are allowed and the ban in this temple was because of the deity, not social exclusion. She also said that there should not be judicial review for religious practice as it would intervene or violate an individual’s freedom to practice or profess religion and religious practices according to their faith and beliefs.
This case is one of the landmark cases which upheld the rights of women, but in cases related to religious matters, there are always some questions raised regarding the power of courts to decide the religious matter as it is a matter of faith and beliefs which change from person to person. The extent of interference of courts in religious matters in a country that is secular and has given freedom and fundamental right to profess a religion or faith according to their wish is a matter of question that cannot be defined precisely. There are many cases related to religious matters in which the court has interfered. It is harder for a court to decide the matters which are religious and which would directly or indirectly lead to infringement on either of the parties. The second thing I have noticed from this case and a few similar cases is that people usually hold customs and traditions as their strong points of argumentation. Customs indeed form an important part of religion as it is a matter of personal faith. Many customs are being practised for several years till today. The problem here is people use customs as an excuse even for some evil practices such as the practice of Sati. So, it is necessary to understand what customs can be considered relevant even today which needs to be decided by the courts along with the help of religious leaders with progressive thinking.
- What is the extent to which courts can interfere in religious matters?
Religious matters are usually critical. This is because some fundamentalists with the thinking consider their beliefs as superior and above everything often create issues and problems by manipulating a group or community. Also, faith and belief are matters of an individual’s choice and differ from one individual to the other. What may seem right to one, may not be right to another but this does not include the practices which are evil or against humanity or law. Hence it is difficult to define the extent to which courts can interfere in religious matters. The court should always try to deliver the decisions in such a way the religious sentiments of the majority of people aren’t hurt by considering the religious scriptures along with their actual purpose. The court always first tries to convince and make the religious leaders understand the issues and the effective solutions as people would listen to them more than the court. The extent to which courts can interfere in religious matters can never be defined as it depends and varies from situation to situation. But the interference can be made up to the extent which would balance the religious sentiments and justice.
- Can Customs be an excuse for every religious practice?
The Customs indeed are an important part of religious practices based on individual faiths and beliefs. But customs cannot be used as an excuse for every religious practice even though they are evil. The customs which have reasoning behind them and have a strong religious base can be considered if they are considered to be good for humanity and society. For analyzing and discriminating customs as right and wrong, the court should look into the historical facts and religious scriptures and should also involve religious leaders with progressive thinking. There should be a brief analysis of facts and historical aspects for a clear distinction of customs. The court should try to look if the customs are relevant today and to what extent relevant and also into the motive of the customs which are being practised. This would make the discrimination of customs easier for their usage and validity in the cases.
The case though was a landmark one and a stepping stone toward gender equality and upholding women’s rights have remained more in words than in practice. Though the judgement was given to allow women in the temple, they were not allowed even post judgement. The women were treated the same way as they were treated earlier. There was not much change brought. The reason for this is the thinking of the people which is hard to change. Hence to achieve success in such matters the change in the thinking of the people is the very basic thing required to bring about a change in the society. The conversion of regressive thinking into progressive thinking would solve many of the issues without the court’s interference. Hence the court in such cases should first try to make the main religious leaders of the religion understand the progressive approach and also the issue and the impact of the solution. This is because the people tend to listen to the religious leaders more than others in religious matters.
Author(s) Name: Syed Owais Khadri (CMR University)
The Kerala Hindu places of public worship (authorisation of entry) act, 1965, s. 3
Indian Constitution, 1950, art. 25
Supra note 1