Last month, the Supreme Court gave its verdict in the Sabarimala Temple case and allowed women of all ages to enter the temple. The five-judge constitutional bench pronounced 4:1 majority verdict, with Justice Indu Malhotra dissenting from other judges. The judgment has received mixed reactions from the people. While some have hailed the judgement as a victory for gender equality and right to life, others are unhappy that the court has failed to preserve Article 25 of the constitution which gives freedom of religion.
A Progressive Judgement
The judges giving the majority decision have in a way upheld equality and individual liberty over the community’s religious freedom. They have dismissed the arguments which said that women of a certain age group, i.e. between the age of 10 and 50 would affect the celibate nature of the deity. Groups supporting the ban on the entry of women had also argued that there are other temples of the same deity where women are allowed and at Sabarimala, the exclusion is only because of the deity’s celibate nature. Hence, it is not a case of gender discrimination. The court didn’t heed to this argument as well, and it is right in doing so.
While it can be agreed that the practice itself might not have been created with the intention of discriminating against women, it is difficult to argue for the survival of such discriminatory practice in the 21st century. Customs and traditions are developed based on the popular beliefs of those times. Hence, what might seem reasonable in a particular period becomes a prejudice in another. The idea of impurity related to menstruation is a thing of the past. Today, when there is scientific evidence suggesting that it has nothing to do with impurity this idea has to be rejected. And the Supreme Court has done that in its recent verdict. It tested the age-old tradition on the basis of today’s versions of equality and freedom. And since the decision leaves the old practices behind and takes a step forward on the road to greater gender equality, the verdict should be hailed as a progressive judgement.
The argument regarding the protection of the deity’s celibacy is unreasonable for two reasons. Firstly, it’s hard to explain how the mere presence of women would hamper the deity’s celibacy. Second, as Justice DY Chandrachud pointed out in his judgement, the ones behind the creation of these customs put the burden of protecting deity’s celibacy on women and hence exclude them from worship. The discontentment with the interference of the court in the customs of religious institutions is also unreasonable because religious freedom cannot become a reason to carry forward outdated traditions. The court is right in intervening to test the constitutional morality of such practices.
Moreover, its wrong to say that the court has taken away religious freedom from the individual as women’s choice of not visiting the temple is still intact. The verdict only empowers the women to choose whether or not they wish to visit the temple. Hence, the court has upheld individual’s religious freedom which again is a progressive step as in modern times there is a tendency among people to move away from the old definitions of religion and define their relationship with god on their terms. Given this tendency the places of god and rules related to them have to be tweaked to suit the modern perspective.
The Dissenting Opinion
Justice Indu Malhotra asserted in her dissenting judgement that what is essential to a religion should be decided by the religion itself. The problem with this is that even essential practices to certain religions can be discriminatory and it’s the duty of the court to scrutinise constitutional morality of such customs so that they can become more egalitarian and inclusive and every individual’s right to practice faith can be upheld.
However, Justice Malhotra’s dissent holds ground to the extent that different sects of the community should have a right to self-determination. Noted columnist Pratap Bhanu Mehta in his column on Indian Express, pointed out that in India the state holds the right to decide to which religion a sect belongs to. This leads to the homogenisation of the diverse community for which religion is a major source of identity. The court should interfere to adjust religious practices and traditions according to modern times, but in the process, it should be cautious that it doesn’t alter their identity. Hence, the court’s assertion that the devotees of Ayyappa do not constitute a separate denomination is problematic because it ignores the plurality of the Indian community, the preservation of which is also essential to the Constitution. The issue of Sabarimala should be looked at separately.
Hence, if we look at the judgement in totality, it has taken into account the arguments of both the sides. The issue of entry in the temple could not have been balanced with anything else. But, the dissenting opinion gives a perspective to the extent to which the state should interfere with religion. The judgement not only promotes equality among genders but also takes a step forward towards creating scientific temperament. Overall, it’s a progressive judgement which will serve as a cornerstone for more policies in the coming times.