Sabrimala Temple Entry Case

Context:

  • Restricted entry of women of a certain age in Sabarimala Temple.
  • The temple prohibits women aged between 10 and 50 from undertaking pilgrimage to Sabarimala — which means women are banned from even making the arduous trek to the shrine.

 

What is happening?

  • The Supreme Court referred to a five-judge Constitution Bench the question whether the fundamental right of women to pray at the place of their choice can be discriminated against solely based “on a biological factor exclusive to the female gender.”
  • Prime issues to be dealt by the constitution bench:
    • Whether the multitude of worshippers of Swami Ayyappa visiting the famous shrine located in Kerala form a separate religious “denomination.”
    • If so, should their privilege to manage their religious affairs yield to the fundamental right of women to practice religion freely.
    • Included whether the restriction is a “permissible practice”
    • Who is the competent authority to decide on whether the restriction comes within the ambit of ‘custom’; and, finally, whether such a ‘custom’ comes under the constitutional principles.
  • Reasons for the restriction: The restriction finds its source in the legend that the Sabarimala temple deity, Swami Ayyappa, is a ‘Naishtika Brahmachari’ and should not be disturbed.

 

1991 Kerala High Court judgement:

  • Supports the restriction imposed on women devotees.
  • It had found that the restriction was in place since time immemorial and not discriminatory under the Constitution.

 

SC view:

  • Tagging a woman’s right to enter the famous Sabarimala temple with her menstrual cycle is unreasonable.
  • There is no concept of private mandirs (temples). Once a temple is opened, everybody can go and offer prayers there. Nobody, man or woman, can be excluded.
  • Sabarimala temple drew funds from the Consolidated Fund, had people coming from all over the world, and thus, qualified to be called a public place of worship.
  • Women and their physiological phenomena are creations of God. If not god, of nature. Why should this (menstruation) be a reason for exclusion for employment or worship or anything?
  • Any religion which excludes women on the basis of their age, sex or menarche is irrelevant.

 

SC Final Verdict:

  • The exclusionary practice of women in the 10-50 age group from the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, violates the rights of women devotees.  
  • Verdict establishes the legal principle that individual freedom prevails over purported group rights, even in matters of religion.
  • State of Kerala had supported the entry of women into the temple, arguing that the “custom” of excluding women violated their rights.

 

What are the issues involved in the case?

  • Gender Discrimination – When everyone is equal in the eyes of God and the Constitution, why are only women banned from entering certain temples?
  • Religion is a personal choice – Our Constitution guarantees an individual the freedom to choose his/her religion. Therefore, praying in a temple/mosque/church or at home must be the choice of the individual.
  • Custom Vs Liberty – The Constitution has provisions to protect the customs and religious practices of the people. At the same time, it guarantees liberty and religious freedom to the individual.
  • Temple as public place Vs religion as private choice – Temple, managed by trusts, are public places. The representatives of the Sabarimala trust say that it has its own customs and traditions which have to be respected. Just like there are rules for other public places.