The Kerala government’s U-turn in the Supreme Court on the issue of women’s entry to Sabarimala brings an old debate back to the table: How the law should deal with what is essentially a matter of faith.
The obvious and easy-to-accept argument would be that faith should be questioned from time-to-time by the law and the people, as a society progresses and turns more liberal. They would cite examples of how we stopped Sati, child marriage and untouchability in Indian society, when society dared to question centuries old social evils. Their argument is very valid.
But, the Sabarimala issue is slightly different and shouldn’t be seen in the same context. To understand this, let’s take a look at what has happened here. All women, regardless of their age, should be allowed to enter Kerala's Sabarimala temple, the LDF government told the Supreme Court on Monday. That's a reversal from the stand of the previous Congress-led UDF government on the issue, but not from the Left’s own view on this mattter.
The Left's stand on this issue has been consistent since 2007.
The then LDF government had said that all women should be allowed to enter Sabarimala. The state government's stance changed when the UDF came to power, which argued otherwise. The LDF has yet again returned to its old stance now.The basic question in the ongoing Sabrimala controversy is this: Should the judiciary or the government be indulging in a matter that has to do with faith and tradition?
The reason: Sabarimala is not a case of caste or colour-based oppression or ostracisation of any particular community from the mainstream. It is also not an institution that has upheld any social evil like Sati or child marriage. The reason why for centuries, the temple has not encouraged women in the age group of 10-50, to enter within its walls is an age-old faith that has been the cornerstone of the very existence of temple.
Faith says that the deity of the temple, Lord Ayyappa, is a brahmachari (a celibate God) and he is averse to the presence of women of the menstruating age group. Women outside this age group can enter the temple and that has been always so.
There is another female deity in the temple called ‘Malikappuram Devi'. As per the centuries-old belief, Lord Ayyappa will marry ‘Malikappuram Devi' the year in which there are no ‘kanni' ayyappans (first-time visitors to the temple). But, such a scenario doesn't occur in reality since every year there are thousands of new devotees thronging Sabarimala.
Although the story of Lord Ayyappan and the associated faith may sound silly to the proponents of gender equality and social reform, the fact is that the very existence of the hill-temple and its relevance is based on this. Sabarimala wasn't created by an Act of the Kerala state Assembly, Parliament or by an order of court, but on the grounds of faith. If faith is not respected, there isn't Sabarimala as we see it today.
There is no end to this debate. But, in the case of Sabarimala, it is better to leave matter of faith to the people who have faith.
The Supreme Court can, of course, pass an order based on the state government's recommendation and let the Sabarimala temple open to all women, but that would ridicule the very faith of people for whom the centre of worship matters. Of course, the world will not end if women enter Sabarimala. But, Sabarimala will then become another tourist-pilgrim centre like many other places, where faith may not have much importance.
In fact, Sabarimala has been one of the most liberal institutions of worship in the country. It doesn't differentiate between people of various religions. Any man (or women outside the 15-50 age group) can enter the temple. There is also no differentiation between people belonging to upper and lower castes. Even the restriction on women has not been necessarily seen as an act of oppression but the willingness of female devotees to respect a faith.
There is no end to the debate around what extent the government and judiciary should intervene in matters of faith, unless there is an angle involving social injustice, oppression or denial or natural justice. Some time ago, a Bihar court had heard a case against Lord Rama on the alleged cruelty towards his wife Sita. The petitioner wondered how in the world a man, a king, known to be just and merciful could be unjust to his own wife that too based on hearsay. (There wasn't any proof for Sita's alleged infidelity when she was sent on 'vanvas'). But, finally when the judge heard the case, the case was dismissed on account of the absence of eyewitnesses and confusion about who should be punished even if Rama was found guilty.
This is precisely what happens when judiciary bids to weigh an issue of faith using tools of modern day justice. This incident is narrated here only as a context to the Sabarimala case. If the SC lets women enter Sabarimala that'll be celebrated a victory by feminists and equal-right activists after Shani Shingnapur and Haji Ali. But what's next? There is no end to things one can ask for in all religions if faith is ignored and law steers the act of devotion.
The Pope can no longer insist then that women can't be Roman Catholic priests like he said a few days ago or the Muslim community cannot insist that women cannot enter mosques. The next will be entry of non-Hindus to temples. As of now, a majority of Kerala temples don't allow non-Hindus to enter — again a matter of faith.
All these acts of faith can be and will be challenged one by one. But, what social reform will we achieve out of all this by breaking a set of rules set and practiced by the devotees?
This will take us back to the very basic question of what is the purpose of religion and centres of worship in religions. These are just mere facilitators to follow certain practices and discipline in those groups cemented by the idea of faith. Till the time these practices aren’t anti-social activities or a form of social evil (like Sati), the law shouldn’t have a problem with these.
The fact is that besides hurting those people who keep a certain faith and respect their age old practices, judiciary's encroachment into matters of faith won't do any help to raise the status of women in the society. In the case of Kerala’s LDF-government, there is a good chance that its move on the Sabarimala issue in the Supreme Court will backfire, even among the non-Hindus in the state.
It is better to leave faith to the devout.