Sabarimala temple trust changes its stand on entry of women
The Kerala government’s counsel, while opposing the review of the Supreme Court’s order on Sabarimala, said that the “essential practice of a religion and the essential practice of a temple cannot be confused.”Updated: Feb 06, 2019 23:45 IST
Kerala’s Sabarimala temple administration on Wednesday closed ranks with the state’s Left Front government and pledged to support women of childbearing age worshipping there, in a surprising volte-face from its previous stance, as the Supreme Court took up petitions challenging its September 28, 2018, order throwing open the hilltop shrine to women of all ages.
Women cannot be discriminated against because of biological attributes, the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) told a five-judge Constitution Bench,which reserved its verdict on a bunch of petitions challenging the judgment that ended the practise of barring women aged between 10 and 50 years from entering the 800-year-old temple in the belief that its presiding deity, Lord Ayyappa, was a celibate. Kerala’s Left Front government, which says it is committed to implementing the order, on Wednesday sought the dismissal of the petitions, arguing that peace will “prevail ultimately” in the state despite periodic tension and clashes between right-wing Hindu groups, that want the ban to stay, and the police.
“Article 25(1) equally entitles all persons to practice religion,” senior advocate Rakesh Dwivedi, appearing for TDB, told the bench. “Women cannot be excluded from any walk of life on biological attributes... equality is the dominant theme of the Constitution,” said Dwivedi, adding that people should gracefully accept the apex court verdict.
The board had earlier staunchly opposed a public interest petition filed by the Indian Young Lawyers Association, which wanted female devotees of all ages to be allowed to pray at Sabarimala. The celibate character of Lord Ayyappa at the Sabarimala temple is a unique religious feature that was protected under the Constitution, the board, which oversees the administration of the temple, had maintained.
The top court judgment enraged traditionalists and caused unrest in parts of Kerala, where both the BJP and the Congress opposed the state government’s vow to uphold the verdict.
Protestors thwarted some attempts by women in the taboo age group to enter the shrine until two women, Bindu Ammini and Kanakagurga, in their 40s, escorted by the police, became the first to do so on January 2.
BJP chief Amit Shah expressed solidarity with the protesters and Prime Minister Narendra Modi hit out at the state administration over what he called the “most shameful behaviour by any party and government”.
The bench, headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi and comprising justices RF Nariman, AM Khanwilkar, DY Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra, reserved its judgment after hearing submissions by the state government, TDB, the Nair Service Society — a forum of the influential Nair community that opposes the entry of women — and others. It was hearing 65 petitions, including 54 review pleas.
TDB earlier appeared reluctant to go against the sentiments of a large section of devotees and implement the verdict, which has been hailed as historic and progressive for gender justice.
To be sure, the board comprises nominees of the Kerala government, which says it will ensure police protection
for women who want to visit the temple nestled in the Western Ghats.
Asked if the board’s changed stance was out of pressure exerted by the state government, TDB president A Padmakumar told reporters in Thiruvananthapuram: “The board’s decision was not on the basis of the government stand. We were asked if the board accepts the September 28 decision of the court and we said we accept it, which is natural. There should be no discrimination to anyone in offering prayers, that is the stand we have taken.”
The Pandalam royal family, the custodian of the Sabarimala temple’s jewellery, slammed the board.
“They have toed the line of the Kerala government. When they earlier said they are with the wishes and aspirations of the Sabarimala devotees, it was all a bluff. Today their true colours have surfaced and this means both the government and TDB are out to destroy the customs and traditions of the Sabarimala temple,” the family’s spokesperson, PS Verma, said.
The review petitions broadly argue that the Supreme Court’s verdict on the matter was erroneous, saying it ventured beyond the questions of law and delved into the question of customs. Events after the judgment “clearly demonstrate that an overwhelmingly large number of women are supporting the custom” of prohibiting the entry of women of menstruating age group into the temple, they say.
In the court, the Kerala government said the exclusion of women from temples was not essential to Hindu religion, arguing that many of those who sought a re-look of the judgment did not come up with valid legal points.
“It was argued that on account of the [September 28] judgment, social peace has been destroyed. This is not something which should concern a constitutional court. Peace will prevail ultimately. But a constitutional breach cannot be allowed till that time,” said senior advocate Jaideep Gupta, who appeared for the Kerala government.
Senior advocate K Parasaran, appearing for the Nair Service Society, assailed the majority verdict, saying Article 15 of the Constitution throws open to the public the secular institutions of the country but it doesn’t deal with religious institutions.
The article “throws open all public institutions of secular character for all classes of citizens but the article conspicuously omits religious institutions”, he said.
On September 28 last year, a Supreme Court bench, in a 4:1 majority verdict, said divinity and devotion cannot be subject to the rigidity and stereotypes of gender, adding that the exclusion on the basis of biological and physiological features was unconstitutional and discriminatory because it denied women the right to be treated as equals. Justice Malhotra, the lone woman judge on the bench, dissented and said “notions of rationality cannot be invoked in matters of religion by courts”.
Bindu and Kanakadurga, the two women who entered the shrine in January and prayed there under police protection, told the Supreme Court on Wednesday about their resolve to enter the temple again on its opening on February 12.
“They are facing social exclusion as well as social boycott for just entering the temple as allowed by the Supreme Court in its verdict,” senior advocate Indira Jaising, appearing for the women, said.
“My right of practice and professing any religion is protected under the Constitution. Nothing can stop me from having a darshan of Lord Ayyappa and entering the temple under the law,” she said on her clients’ behalf.
(With inputs from agencies)