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Sabrimala Case Summary- Pragya Dixit
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Sabarimala Case Summary

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Case Name:  Indian Young Lawyers Association & Ors vs. The State of Kerala & Ors.

Citation:  Writ Petition(Civil) No 373 of 2006

Parties name:  Indian Young Lawyers Association (petitioner)

Travancore Devaswom Board (respondent)

State of Kerala (respondent)

Pandalam Royal Family (respondent)

Chief Thanthri (respondent)

Bench: Deepak Mishra, A.N. Khanwilkar, Rohintan Nariman, Indu Malhotra, D.Y.   Chandrachud

Sabarimala Temple, devoted to Lord Ayyappa, is a temple of great antiquity. The temple is situated over one of the eighteen mountains spread over the Western Ghats known as Sannidhanam. Situated in the district of Pathanamthitta in Kerala. The faithful believe that Lord Ayyappa’s powers derive from his asceticism, in particular from his being celibate. Celibacy is a practice adopted by pilgrims before and during the pilgrimage. Those who believe in Lord Ayyappa and offer prayers are expected to follow a strict ‘Vratham’ or a vow over a period of 41 days which lays down a set of practices. 

The practise of prohibiting the entry of women and barring their participation in the 41 days penance ‘vratham’ has been observed by the Ayyapan community since time immemorial as claimed by the Thantri of the temple.   The deity at Sabarimala takes the form of a Naishtika Brahmacharya. Along with observing a penance, the followers are supposed to wear black clothes and cut all family ties while observing the ‘vratham’. It is claimed that a deviation from the celibacy and austerity observed by the followers would be caused by the presence of women. Women have not been allowed to be a part of this pilgrimage due to their physiological features, considering them weak and unfit for the arduous journey. Women are also considered to be impure while menstruating according to Hindu traditions and therefore the temple authorities have placed restrictions on the entry of women between the ages 10 and 50 to preserve the temple’s sanctity.

In 1990, S Mahendran filed a  plea in Kerala High Court seeking a ban on women’s exclusion of entry to the temple. But, Kerala High Court upheld the age-old restriction on women of a certain age-group entering the temple. On August 4, 2006, the Indian Young Lawyers Association filed a plea in the Supreme Court seeking to ensure entry of female devotees between the age group of 10 to 50 at the Lord Ayyappa Temple at Sabarimala.  

On September 28, 2018, the Supreme Court passed a verdict that allows entry of women in Sabarimala temple. This judgment addressed various issues before coming to this verdict, the article will further address the issues raised by the petitioners and discussed in the case.

The major issues for which petitioner contended were:

  • Prohibition on women based on biological factors violates Article 14(Right to equality), Article 15, (prohibition of discrimination),  Article 17(untouchability) and any such practice which is actually violative of other mentioned rights cannot be protected by “morality” under Article 25 (freedom to practice and propagation of religion).
  • Does practice of not including women constitute an “essential religious practice” under Article 25 and can a religious institution claim that it comes under the umbrella of right to manage its own affairs in the matters of religion?
  • Whether Ayyappa Temple has a denominational character and, if so, is it permissible on the part of a ‘religious denomination’ managed by a statutory board and financed under Article 290-A of the Constitution of India out of the Consolidated Fund of Kerala and Tamil Nadu to indulge in such practices violating constitutional principles/ morality embedded in Articles 14, 15(3), 39(a) and 51-A(e)? 
  • Does Rule 3 of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules permits ‘religious denomination’ to ban entry of women between the ages of 10 to 50 years? Or if it does then is it violation of Article 14 and 15(1) of the constitution by prohibiting entry of women on the ground of sex? 

These all were the major issues which were dealt with by the court in delivering the judgment. Before moving towards the judgment. Let’s see what was contended by the petitioner and respondents in their arguments.

Petitioners Arguments

The main arguments contended on Petitioner’s behalf were:

It was stated that not allowing women to worship in the temple does not form an essential part of Hindu religion.

Sabarimala is managed by Travancore Devaswom Board which receives public funds, hence it cannot be deemed as separate religious domination. For this court cited the “Shirur Mutt case, in which prerequisites for a religious denomination are given. These are:

 1) Having its own property

 2) Having its distinct identity

 3) Having its own set of followers

 4) Having its own set of beliefs and practises 

 5) Having its own hierarchy of administration with no outside interference and control

These criteria is not fulfilled here completely, hence it can’t be a religious denomination in itself.

  • It was also argued that it was believed and there is evidence of women being allowed at the Temple during the time of Travancore king, so it cannot be deemed as a customary practise running since time immemorial.
  • It was contended on behalf of petitioners that instead of religious contentions the ban was based more on the basis of certain practical physiological dimensions like inability of women to pass a difficult path of forests and mountains over a period of 41 days arduous journey. These reasons are preposterous.
  • It was also argued that considering women impure because they menstruate and they can’t be touched at that time is discrimination against them on the basis of their sex and practicing of untouchability which is strictly forbidden under our Fundamental Rights.
  • Also, Article 25 gives women the freedom to practice their religion too.
  • Restriction of women because of the celibate character of the lord Ayappa is demeaning to the women.
  • The rule 3 laid down by the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules is violative of Fundamental Rights.

Respondent’s argument

  • These restrictions can’t be challenged as they are on the basis of religion and traditions of the deity of the temple.
  • It was argued that Lord Ayappa in the temple is a celibate and should be treated as a person. And as a person, Lord Ayappa’s Right to Privacy under Article 21 should be protected.
  • It was argued that the entry of women of the age 10-50 years of age, which is their menstruating age, is in contrast with the celibate nature of the Lord Ayappa.
  • It was also contended that it is not physiologically possible for women to seek 41-day penance.
  • It was contended that this prohibition is the very crux of their belief and forms an essential part of this religion. 
  • It was also contended by them that Article 15(2) is not applied to religious institutions.

Judgment

The court by considering and deliberating over every important factor delivered a judgment in favour of the petitioner in a 4:1 majority. The court’s reasoning is discussed below.

Majority views on all the issues

  • Justice DY Chandrachud in his judgment stated that restricting only women from the right to worship signifies the subordination of women. He further comments that the exclusionary practise which is based on ‘physiological factors’  that are non-religious in nature, suggesting that women cannot keep the ‘vrutham’ and take part in the pilgrimage is to stigmatize and stereotype them and therefore is a form of social discrimination. The reason because menstruate for their exclusion is unconstitutional, says Chandrachud. Justice Mishra declared any rule which differentiates and undermines women’s dignity shall be struck down as violative of Article 14 and 15. The judges holding the majority opinion considered this exclusion of women as discriminatory under Article 25 which equally grants all the people irrespective of their sex, right to freely practise religion. The petitioners, especially women NGO “Happy to bleed ”brings in question ‘Article 17’ has also been talked about. Article 17 proscribes untouchability in any form and the exclusion of women from religious places and practices because they menstruate and are considered impure during that time is no less than a form of discrimination than exclusion of oppressed castes as untouchables. This approach held by the judges broadens the ambit of Article 17 and stresses that the Constitution should not become an instrument for the perpetuation of patriarchy.
  • The respondents submitted that since celibacy is the foremost requirement for all the followers, women between the ages of ten and fifty must not be allowed in Sabarimala. Justice Chandrachud’s view on this contention was that if a practice of religion is essential to a religion, it rules out the process of testing the practice for Constitutional morality. This could lead to the perpetuation of an immoral and unconstitutional practice to exist in the name of religious freedom. Thus it is more important that “The test instead of considering whether the practice is essential or not, it should consider whether the practice is constitutional or not”.At the threshold, Chandrachud J. found that the Respondents had failed to establish that the exclusion of women from Sabarimala is either an obligatory part of religion or has been consistently practiced over the years. This is because no scriptural or textual evidence has been shown to back up this practice, and it is not possible to say that the very character of Hinduism would be changed if women were to be allowed entry into Sabarimala (paragraph 123). This practice appeared to have been commenced only in 1950, and therefore can’t be called as the ageless practice running since time immemorial and can’t be held as an “essential religious practice”.
  • Under article 26, a separate denomination requires a system of distinctive beliefs, a separate name, and a common organisation. The Sabarimala Temple’s public character (where all Hindus, and even people from other faiths) can go and worship, along with other temples to Lord Ayappa where the prohibition of women does not apply, leads the two judges to hold that it does not constitute a separate “denomination.” Misra CJI and Khanwilkar J. then hold that the fundamental rights chapter applies to the Temple, as it is governed by a statutory body (the Devaswom Board). It gets state funding under Article 290-A of the Constitution. The religious ceremonies at Sabarimala Temple are not distinct from any other Hindu temples. Devotees of Lord Ayyappa do not form separate religious denominations, Justice Chandrachud said and added that any custom or religious practice if violates the dignity of women by denying them entry due to her physiology is unconstitutional.  
  • Rule 3 of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship(Authorisation of Entry) 1965 have been found in direct contradiction with the proviso of its parent act. Section 3 of the 1965 Act prohibits discrimination against “any class” of Hindus. Judges Misra, Nariman and Chandrachud buttressed that women between the ages 10 and 50 did form a “class” of Hindus and as discussed earlier the exclusionary practise amounts to ‘discrimination’ on the ground of sex. The exclusion of women is destructive of their dignity and is fundamentally at odds with the constitutional values. Therefore, rule 3(b) of the said act is ultra vires with the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship(Authorisation of Entry) Act 1965.Moreover,  Justice Nariman holds it directly contrary to Article 15(1) and strikes it down along with Justices Misra, Khanwilkar and Chandrachud. Equality in all matters, including religious matters and right to worship and opportunity, gives true meaning to the liberty of belief, faith and worship were ascertained by this judgment.

Dissenting views of Justice Indu Malhotra:

  • Justice Indu Malhotra was the only judge who gave a dissenting opinion and the only woman on the bench. She forced her opinion that Article 25 guarantees to every individual the right to freely profess, practise and propagate their faith, in accordance with the tenets of their religion’ and the exclusionary practise was in accordance with the tenets of the ‘Ayappan’ community, therefore is not violative of Article 25. Further, she said that the Ayappan community is a  separate religious denomination or sect which is protected under Article 26 to manage its own religious affairs. She said that this matter is an amalgamated question of both fact and law and should be decided before a competent court of civil jurisdiction. Justice Malhotra opined that courts do not have power to intervene in religious personal matters and unless very dire religious practices should not be viewed with rationality. She ruled that Rule 3(b) of the 1965 Rules is not ultra vires Section 3 of the 1965 Act but just an exception for the benefit of the religious denomination. She stated that Judicial review of religious practises should not be taken care of by the court as it is outside the ambit of the court to rationalize religion.

The issues of this judgment brought the attention towards various major concerns and they were all togetherly dealt in a different manner by the Supreme Court. The court in its judgment tried to deal with them all. There were many issues dealing with different Fundamental Rights and most important of them are : 

  • Women’s Rights
  • Religion, Equality and Constitutional Morality
  • Sabarimala prejudices, misconceptions and ignorance. 

Women’s Rights

The entire issue revolves around the barring of women aged between 10 – 50 years, into the temple and this practice is violative of Fundamental Rights and freedom of women. The issue is not only about the rights enshrined in the Constitution for the women but it spreads much farther than this. It also concerns women’s dignity and self-respect. This discrimination forms the very basis of this entire debate. This very tradition is against the spirit of Articles 14, 15, 17 and 25. This tradition not only shows them unequal to men in the eyes of the society, discriminates with them and takes away their right to practice their religion but it also violates their Right to Privacy granted to them under Article 21 of the constitution, as it involves involuntary disclosure of their menstruating details. These acts are not only constitutionally invalid but are also morally corrupt and demeaning. India which is a land where on the one hand we say that we worship our women in our houses and temples and claim them goddesses and on the other, we even refuse to recognize their Fundamental Human Rights and make them feel socially outcast, there is no surety that in following these two contradicting paths where are we leading ourselves but there is one thing sure that this path is nowhere leading us towards a developed future which is desired by all.

Religion, Equality and Constitutional Morality

The issue once again brings in the picture the issue of religion and equality. Here court took an example from an earlier Bombay High Court judgment, in which entry to women in Shani Mandir was allowed and it was upheld that women also have equal rights of worship. Court here in the Sabarimala issue has tried to bring in the same nexus to deliver the judgement. Article 25(2) has been invoked and justice is done. The Supreme Court of India has never denied and has always the rights conferred by Article 25 to its citizens of freely practicing their religion the way they want but this right does not permit religion to become unequal and arbitrary. Religion, when become overpowering, arises a need for its check on the parameters of Constitutional morality.

Constitutional morality is adherence to the basic principle of the constitution on which the heart and soul of the constitution is based. It does not only include the principles mentioned in the constitution but it also includes the implicit ideas of Human Rights which are though not specifically mentioned but forms the essence of morality. 

Thus it is necessary for a Fundamental Right to work within the dimension of Constitutional Morality. In this case, Article 25 has been interpreted widely and the principle of equality has been upheld. It has been stated that Article 25 provides equal rights to both males and females to practise their religion as they wish. Thus, hereby keeping in check the morality too. The practise of women exclusion does not form a part of essential practise as if it is not followed it does not harm any important tenet of the faith on the other hand if it is followed it violates the sanctity of the half the section of our society and make them stand unequal, which is both unconstitutional and immoral. Hence the Supreme Court has tried its best to keep a balance between the three(religion ,equality and constitutional morality) and has delivered which has widened the interpretation of Articles in a way that conforms with equality and constitutional morality which are the basic tenets of our democracy.

Sabarimala prejudices, misconceptions and ignorance

The Sabarimala issue is not just a constitutional issue or any other problem which infringes the law, it is much more than that. The exclusion of women from the temple is based on a long-running belied and prejudice which has led to a long build ignorance towards this right of the woman. The court has changed the law, has made it woman-friendly and has guaranteed protection under the constitution. But it just doesn’t change the prevailing situation as the dogmas which are set there in the mentality of the people are a result of a practice which has been running for a very long time. The reason of this very practice was never to term a woman ‘impure’, the practice was based on the idea that in those days there were no better facilities available for women and it was difficult for them to manage with the poor sanitation facilities outside, the fear catching infection and falling sick made it advisable for the ladies to stay at home and take a rest for a few days. The other rationale behind the practice could be the oath of celibacy, which was taken by Lord Ayappa. Though it is totally agreed that idea may not be adopted with the aim of discriminating against the woman but over a period of time, it has turned into something else. It has taken a way of excluding and outcasting woman and has turned into a social evil which has become rudimentary. The talk which we have now is not concerned with faith and belief but it is more about self-esteem and pride in the particular sections of the community. The male and orthodox sections of the society do not want women to enter the temple and females, on the other hand, consider it as a matter of pride and now, even more, when SC has granted them their right to enter the temple. The fight should be here for the Constitutional Rights not for some prejudiced opinion resulting out of some misconception. What I believe is that in order to break down the social shackles one has to move ahead of the individual and group gains and should look into the problem with a constitutional perspective and should work together to break the social prejudices and granting women what they deserve as an equal citizen of this society without harming the sanctity of the faith.

Sabarimala 2019 review Petition

In 2018, when SC had declared through its judgment that any woman of any age is allowed to access the Sabarimala temple. The judgment agitated a larger section of the society as it tampers with their religious belief and sentiments which were running since time immemorial. So the judgment created unrest among the male section, right-wing and religiously staunch people and it was not much welcomed by them, so they resorted to filing review petitions in the Court.

The Petition was filed against the 2018 judgement of the Supreme Court and the main question of contention here was that does Supreme Court’s scope is wide enough to interpret and intervene in the matters of religion and faith. Petitioners here contended that the worship in temple is based on the celibate character of the deity. Constitutional morality is purely a subjective test, and it shouldn’t be used in interpretation of faith. It affects their Right to practice their religion on their own. The concept of untouchability which was brought in the 2018 judgment was said to be erroneous because this concept was applied to the context without due deliberation and consideration. The court thus decided to keep the review petitions on hold and also stayed with the 2018 order which granted women the right to enter the temple until a larger bench decides this issue as this issue of women’s entry to the Sabarimala temple is not restricted but there are other similar issues in line which also gets affected by this judgment. So the best is to not deliver any judgment on it as of now. The court also showed disappointment in the way people reacted and not welcomed the judgment. People instead of following it, agitated and discarded it completely to the way it undermined the dignity of the Honourable Supreme Court. Court on this opined that it is the right provided to the citizens of the country that if they are not satisfied with the ruling of the court they can file review but meanwhile it is the duty of every citizen to follow and accept whatever the rules are laid down by the court as Supreme Court is created by our Constitution to protect and safeguard itself and it is the duty of respect its dignity.

Conclusion

This judgment comes as a landmark judgment especially during a time when the country is religiously divided. India is a country where religion plays a very crucial role in shaping society. The judgment is a progressive one and set an example that the orthodoxy, superstition, and patriarchy would never undermine the spirit of constitutional morality. Though while looking into the petitions court has agreed to consider different matters concerned to it in the future but it again upheld the same principle and did not take away women’s rights which were given to them in 2018 ruling. The Supreme Court has thus shown that the basic essence of equality and morality is above any other principle and will be upheld always and forever above all.


Pragya Dixit

Pragya Dixit

Author

Pragya has incredible writing and research skills and you will never miss a flow in her writings. Her favourite leisure activity is singing and theatrics. She is also a poetess and a very humble person. In other words, she is as bright as a new penny. For any clarifications, feedback, and advice, you can reach her at [email protected]

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