Sabarimala verdict: Religion should be left to the faithful, but SC has full authority to protect fundamental rights
In the aftermath of the Sabarimala verdict, it is important to ask: Since when did religion become more significant than the rule of law in the country?
In the Supreme Court's judgment allowing the entry of women of all ages into the Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala, Justice Indu Malhotra hit the nail on the head when she noted in her dissenting verdict: "Notions of rationality cannot be invoked in matters of religion by courts."
Perhaps nothing in the world today is as abstract as the concepts of faith and religion. It is only a matter of time when religion comes into conflict with something as rational as the fundamental rights of the people guaranteed by the Constitution of India.
While Justice Malhotra was also spot on when she stated that "the Court cannot impose its morality or rationality with respect to the form of worship of a deity," what happens when religion or an oppressive religious practice denies a person his or her fundamental right?
The Supreme Court is the guardian of the fundamental rights of the people. In fact, this primary function of the apex court is enshrined in Article 32 of the Constitution. And since the Supreme Court is also the custodian of the Constitution, it would be ignoring two of its most important duties if it let religion dictate rights.
The apex court is, thus, duty-bound to not let anything — whether it be an oppressive law passed by the State or a discriminatory practice mandated by religion — interfere with fundamental rights of the citizens.
In other words, the court must interfere in matters of religion when religion interferes in matters of fundamental rights.
However, it has been argued in other articles sympathising with Justice Malhotra's dissenting verdict that in the Sabarimala temple case, no fundamental right had been violated in the first place.
Even the respondents in the case argued that the practice of not allowing women between 10 and 50 years of age (in other words, of a menstruating age) is based on preservation of the celibate nature of the deity in the temple and is not associated with any hatred against women or disgust towards menstruation.
Justice DY Chandrachud in his judgment responded in the most articulate way to this argument: "The assumption in such a claim is that a deviation from the celibacy and austerity observed by the followers would be caused by the presence of women. Such a claim cannot be sustained as a constitutionally sustainable argument."
"Its effect is to impose the burden of a man's celibacy on a woman and construct her as a cause for deviation from celibacy."
"This is then employed to deny access to spaces to which women are equally entitled. To suggest that women cannot keep the Vratham is to stigmatize them and stereotype them as being weak and lesser human beings."
Thus, it is either naive or sly to suggest that the celibacy argument is not sexist at all. These are part of the same kind of arguments used by misogynists in the country to put the blame of sexual assault on the victim. A dangerously similar argument was used by Hindu Makkal Katchi to blame women's entry into Sabarimala for the Kerala floods.
To suggest that the mere presence of young women will harm the celibate nature of the deity not only reduces the identity of women to mere sexual objects but also insults the intelligence of the deity Himself by suggesting that He cannot handle the burden of His own celibacy, which, as Justice Chandrachud so aptly pointed out, rests on Him.
It has also been argued that the outrage over this issue was not needed because women can pray in other temples of Lord Ayyappa, in which they were already allowed entry.
But the Sabarimala temple issue was never one of the number of temples women can visit. It was an issue of the very identity of a woman, which was being denigrated by a discriminatory practice. "Prohibition of women’s entry to the shrine solely on the basis of womanhood and the biological features associated with womanhood is derogatory to women," Kaleeswaram Raj had pointed out in The Hindu.
Of course, the deity also has rights. But even if Justice Chandrachud's opinion that a deity does not have constitutional rights is ignored, the fact is that the women of this country have the same rights. And their rights are more important. The existence of any deity is based on belief, whereas it is a fact that women exist in this country.
The day beliefs become more important than facts is the day one can say goodbye to the rule of law in a society.
It was also argued that this verdict shows that religion is being nationalised. First off, ironically enough, the apex court's verdict removes state control from matters of religion in this particular case. "The ban on menstruating women entering the temple was enforced under Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules 1965 which was framed under the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Act, 1965," this Firstpost article points out.
Secondly, interference of the State in matters of faith is sometimes required when religion encourages or even directly leads to social evils. Asking religious bodies to take care of the evils in their own religious practices is like asking a corrupt organisation to check its own corruption.
Justice Malhotra was also spot on when she said that this case will have far-reaching implications for other places of worship. It should.
Religion is anything but perfect. It has its benefits but also its flaws which encourage all kinds of social evils. The Sabarimala verdict will only encourage intervention by judiciary in cases where religion crosses a line and interferes with human rights.
Religion can be as sacred as the rule of law in a civilised, democratic society but with certain caveats. It should not interfere with the very edifice of social framework where men and women are equal.
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