This Case Summary is written by Pratyaksha Roy, a student at Army Institute of Law, Mohali
The “Sabarimala Case” i.e., Indian Young Lawyers Association v. State of Kerala, is a landmark judgement pronouncing the exclusion of women in the age group of 10 to 50 years from worshipping in the Sabarimala temple as unconstitutional. The Constitutional bench struck down the age-old discriminatory practice by lifting the legal ban prohibiting women of menstruating age from worshipping in the famous Hindu temple.
BACKGROUND OF THE CASE
The Writ Petition in the present case was filed before the Supreme Court under Article 32 of the Constitution of India on behalf of six women, members of the Indian Young Lawyers’ Association, who sought the Court’s intervention to dismantle a ban on the entry of women aged 10 to 50 years into the Sabarimala temple on the ground that it violated their fundamental rights, particularly Articles 14, 15, 19, 21 and 25.
The case was taken up by a 5-judge bench compromising of the CJI Dipak Misra, Justices A.M. Khanwilkar, R.F. Nariman, D.Y. Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra.
This legal ban was initially in force by way of subordinate legislation in the form of successive notifications issued in 1955 and 1956, but was eventually given judicial recognition and protection as a “usage” by the Kerala High Court in the case of S. Mahendran v. Secretary, Travancore Devaswom Board.
In the landmark judgement, the Bench unanimously (J. Indu Malhotra dissenting) decided in separate but concurring judgements to strike down the archaic exclusionary practice debarring women of procreative age from worshipping in the Sabarimala temple and declared it unconstitutional in nature and thereby, allowed the entry of women, irrespective of their age, into the temple on the grounds that the ban violated their fundamental right of Freedom of Religion guaranteed under Article 25 of the Constitution.
Also, the provision restricting entry of women in the state legislation i.e., Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship Act, 1965 was declared ultra vires to Sections 3 and 4 of its parent Act, and was therefore, struck down and deemed unconstitutional.
The Respondents in the present case had submitted three major reasons in order to justify the continued exclusion of women from worshipping in the temple:
- On the basis of menstruation-related pollution-
The exclusion of women in the present case was based upon a religious custom known as Vratham, which is a 41-day period of penance, involving the observance of purity of thought, word and deed by the devotee.
According to the respondents, women could not observe Vratham on the account of their monthly bleeding, which, according to them, is a period of bodily uncleanliness, and since no devotee was allowed to worship without having observed this ritual, therefore, menstruating women were not allowed to enter the temple and offer their prayers to the deity.
It is was held by the court that women too, could observe Vratham.
Menstruation did not mean that there was existence of sexual thoughts or presence of sexual activity; in fact, menstruation can be referred as the sole source of procreation.
- On the basis of the celibate nature of the deity-
The deity residing in the Temple, i.e., Lord Ayyappa is in the form of Naishtika Brahmacharya, that means, he has taken the vow of celibacy.
Shri Swami Sivananda defines the true meaning of being a celibate or brahmacharya, which is, self-restraint, particularly, mastery or perfect control over the sexual organ or freedom from lust in thought, word and deed.
Therefore, merely being in the presence of women does not mean that the vow of celibacy will be broken, it would rather be said to be broken if the individual even so much as indulges himself in profane ideations, either in the presence or absence of women. The emphasis is on the restraint by the Brahmachari, rather than on the removal of all the temptations.
- On the basis of the trek on the holy hills of Sabarimala-
It was argued that women cannot partake on the trek as it was strenuous in nature. To which, the Court rightfully enunciated that such a belief was “deeply rooted in a stereotypical (and constitutionally flawed) notion that women are the “weaker” sex.” Such an approach was therefore contrary to the constitutional guarantee of equality and dignity to women.
Regardless of the rationale that had been used for long to justify the interminable subjugation, oppression and exclusion of women devotees of Sabarimala from being able to freely practice their religious autonomy, it can inviolably be extrapolated that the practice was founded on beliefs surrounding misogyny, patriarchy and an overall perception of females being the weaker sex.
The following judgement shall be assessed thoroughly on three major parameters:
- Religious Denomination-
Article 26 of the Indian Constitution deals with the rights guaranteed to the religious denominations in our country. In order for a group or set of individuals to be called a ‘religious denomination’, it must satisfy three requirements
- It must be collection of individuals who have a system of belief or doctrine which they regard as conducive to their spiritual well-being-
In order to constitute a religious denomination, there must be new methodology provided for a religion. It was held that the mere observance of certain distinctive practices, even though they might have been in usage from a long time, did not make it a distinct religion on that account. Since there was nothing on record to show that the devotees of Lord Ayyappa had any common religious tenets peculiar to themselves, which they regarded as conducive to their spiritual well-being, other than those which are common to the Hindu religion. Therefore, the devotees of Lord Ayyappa were pronounced to be Hindus and not a separate religious denomination.
- It must be a common organisation-
The temple was dedicated to the public at large and represented truly, the plural character of society. Everyone, irrespective of religious belief, was allowed to worship the deity. The absence of a common spiritual organisation, which is a necessary element to constitute a religious denomination, was absent in the present case.
- Designation of a distinctive name-
Although the respondents had tried to establish that the pilgrims coming to visit the Sabarimala temple, being devotees of Lord Ayyappa, were addressed as ‘Ayyappans’ and, thereby, the third condition in order to constitute a religious denomination was satisfied. However, this argument was outrightly rejected by the Court on the grounds that there was no officially recognized group called ‘Ayyappans’.
Since the collective of individuals were unable to satisfy the judicially-enunciated requirements to be declared as a religious denomination, therefore the devotees of Lord Ayyappa were held, as per majority, not to be a separate religious denomination and were thereby divested of their right to legally exclude women between the ages of 10 to 50 years from worshipping in the temple. Further, it was held that the temple’s denominational right to manage its own internal affairs, under Article 26(b), was now subject to the State’s social reform mandate under Article 25(2)(b).
- Essential Practice-
Over the years, the Supreme Court has developed multiple criteria against which it decides what practices are ‘essential’ to various religions. In the Sabarimala temple case, the Court went on to declare that the exclusion of women was a non-essential practice based on the following grounds:
- For the want of textual and scriptural evidence in support of such a contention-
The unavailability of any texts, scriptures and doctrines acknowledging the exclusionary practice of prohibiting women from entering the temple certainly acted as an impediment to the court in the evaluation of the veracity of the exclusionary practice against such texts, scriptures, and doctrines. The Court thereby proceeded to examine whether the regulation or abolition of the practice in question would alter the ‘fundamental character’ of the religion itself.
Justices Dipak Misra and A.M. Khanwilkar very profoundly deduced that the exclusion of women from sacred spaces was not a fundamental part of Hinduism and held:
“In no scenario, it can be said that exclusion of women of any age group could be regarded as an essential practice of Hindu religion and on the contrary, it is an essential part of the Hindu religion to allow Hindu women to enter into a temple as devotees and followers of Hindu religion and offer their prayers to the deity.”
- Such exclusion of women was an altered practice that had changed with time-
Another indispensable criterion involved in discerning the essentiality of the practice was ascertaining whether the practice was homogenous i.e., whether it was practiced by the entire religious community with perpetuity. However, in the present case it was admitted by the Respondents that “prior to the passing of the Notification in 1950, women of all age groups used to visit the Sabarimala Temple for the first rice feeding ceremony of their children.”
For any practice to be conceived as central to the pursuit of a religion, it must first be established that the said practice is unalterable as well as popular in nature; it is essential that both criteria are fulfilled. With respect to the restriction on the entry of women into places of worship, even though the practice was widespread and popular, it was dismissed as unessential since it had been altered.
- The practice violated the fundamental right of all women to practice religion-
Since menstruation was a process strictly exclusive to the female gender, thus discriminating on the basis of menstruation amounted to discrimination against all women thereby violating their fundamental right to practice religion. Women of any age group had as much right as men to visit and enter a temple in order to freely practice a religion, as guaranteed under Article 25(1).
It was against the basic constitutional values of dignity, liberty and equality-
While determining the essentiality of a practice, the courts examined whether by granting constitutional protection to the practice in question and by affixing it with the label of an ‘essential’ practice to the concerned religion, the Indian state’s vision of a society based on principles of equality, liberty and fraternity would be compromised. This further led to a debate on ‘Constitutional Morality’, which shall be discussed in the next point.
- Constitutional Morality-
The term ‘morality’ occurring in Article 25(1) of the Constitution in the present case was taken to mean ‘Constitutional Morality’.
Restricting the entry of women into a temple either on the ground that they menstruate or that their entry would inevitably cause deviation to the celibacy of the temple’s deity, violates the “internal morality” of the Constitution as it is a threat to the notion of equality and dignity underscored by the Constitution. Such a restriction can only be valid in a society where women are seen as innately lesser beings, who should not enjoy dignified lives. The Constitution lifts us away from such a society and pushes toward an equality that is both formal and substantive.
Moreover, one of the laudable findings made by Justice Chandrachud in the present case, is on ‘untouchability’. Adhering to usage in Article 17, untouchability of ‘all forms’, the judge deviated from the previous Supreme Court judgments that confined the concept of untouchability to caste-based exclusions and rather identified it with the notions of “purity and pollution” as the sustaining force of untouchability and found it to be against the tenets of dignity and constitutional morality. He held that Article 17 is a powerful guarantee against exclusion and cannot be read to exclude women against whom social exclusion of the worst kind had been practiced and legitimized on notions of “purity and pollution”.
The Sabarimala judgment was a watershed moment in the history of affirmative action as it greased the wheels of social integration and breathed life into feminist jurisprudence. The Supreme Court adopted a reformist and interventionist approach by upholding human dignity and equal entitlement to worship for all individuals.