The Supreme Court of India recently lifted the age-old restriction on old women on entering the Sabrimala temple of Kerala. It considered the practice as discriminatory in nature which violates the rights of Hindu women. Judgement was passed by 4:1 verdict with majority in support of allowing Hindu women of all age in the temple. Ironically the dissenting verdict came from Justice Indu Malhotra, a women from Hindu background. Justice Malhotra commented that the petition does not deserve to be entertained as the court shouldn’t intervene in religious matters except in issues of social evils like sati custom.
The above paragraphs highlights the fact that this is a fundamentally complicated matter in itself. Should the Supreme Court intervene in religious matters of a faith in a secular country? Should a house of worship follow discriminatory gender practices? Should a government get involved in the religious issue?
A lot has been debated on the above questions by the Justices themselves. One of them remarked that banning women from a place of worship is discriminatory and does not amount to a religious tradition. While the other termed it as a form of patriarchy. Justice Malhotra was of the opinion that it violates the rights of Hindus prescribed in section 25 of the constitution that guarantees freedom to practice religion.
Defendants of the tradition said that it was a religious tradition based on the story of Lord Ayappa, deity of the temple. They said that Lord Ayappa was a celibate and women were not allowed to enter the temple because it would make the Lord unconformable. Only women of menstruate-able age are not allowed. They also claimed the tradition to be older than centuries.
While the petitioners called for the removal on ban, stating that such practise are unconstitutional and discriminatory to women.
Protests were organised in front of the Sabrimala by people against the practice and they were vindicated when the verdict came out in their favour. The government has agreed to implement the judgement. Opponents of the verdict also mentioned how there are temples in India which restrict the entering of men based on religious legends.
Meanwhile the same verdict has sparked unrest and protests in Kerala from large number of men and women who have come out on the streets against the verdict. Matter has also taken up communal flavour in nature, leading various religious organisations to file petitions against the practices of other religions.
Supreme Court by intervening in the religious matters in a secular country like ours, has opened a Pandora’s Box for itself. Rationality cannot be applied in the matter of faith. As religion is largely patriarchal in nature which the court wishes to remove from the religion. All religions have deity or god who have masculine qualities. Will the Supreme Court also mandate equal worship of male and female deities in Hinduism? Will it next ask the Catholic Church to not segregate nuns and monks based on gender? Or ask the Jain monks to wear robes in public places? Finally should Supreme Court decide what constitutes a part of religion and what not?
We first need to make changes in our society before implementing reforms that we want to bring, as forcing them down the throats will only lead to resistance and unrest. Better education among masses will help in gaining support for the reforms. The best reforms are implemented when they come from within the society. Our Executive needs to take action so that progressive laws are made and Education must remain the priority of every government.
I support the decision of the Supreme Court as it as the final say in the matter. But it must verify if this custom was started as a form of discrimination or as tradition based on the story of Lord Ayappa by using the service of history experts. It will make it clear how and when the practice started.
Finally, I support that women should and must have equal rights to that of men. Petitioners for equal rights needs for focus on issues of more importance like gender imbalance, discrimination against women in workplace and sexual harassment. The fact that women still form a miniscule part of our Justice system tells a lot about our society. We need to change that, real issues such as this will truly lead to women empowerment, which I believe is the objective of the petitioners.
- Sumit Chauhan