Sabarimala verdict: SC has ensured continued controversy by seeking to modify religious practices through judicial decree
Shifting sands points to the fact that a greater resistance against the Supreme Court verdict is brewing.
The Supreme Court constitutional bench verdict allowing women of a menstruating age the right to access the shrine of Lord Ayyappa in Sabarimala Temple, has run into a popular backlash. This wasn’t unexpected, given the fact that the 4:1 majority verdict sought to modify religious practices through judicial decree.
The judges were motivated by Constitutional morality, but the apolitical and widespread protests reinforce the notion that courts cannot ram through social progress by passing verdicts that militate against religious sentiments. Not only is that unnecessary in the case of a constantly evolving ‘religion’ such as Hinduism, but force-feeding libertarian principles can have the opposite effect. Judicial encroachments in realms of faith may push pluralistic and tolerant people to harden their stance.
In this regard, the opinion of Justice Indu Malhotra, the sole dissenting judge in the 4:1 verdict, is enlightening. “What constitutes essential religious practice is for the religious community to decide, not for the court. India is a diverse country. Constitutional morality would allow all to practice their beliefs. The court should not interfere unless if there is any aggrieved person from that section or religion.”
But the Sabarimala verdict does greater damage. The court assumes the role of a Papal authority and seeks to test religious customs on the touchstone of ‘progressiveness’. For instance, Justice DY Chandrachud’s judgment—that concurs with the majority verdict—interprets the wish of Lord Ayyappa (to be spared the presence of women of a certain age due to his state of permanent celibacy) as reflective of patriarchal mores that seek 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.”
The problem with this approach is that it misreads the nature of Hinduism. As a religion, Hinduism reflects the dynamic relationship between the faithful and the deity. This relationship—not any written word, codes or mantras—is essential to the practice of Hinduism. The dynamism is reflected in the belief that worshipping a deity involves respecting his/her wishes, personality traits and manifestations. Lord Ayyappa in his ‘naishtik brahmachari’ avatar may not wish to be visited by women of a menstruating age but there are other shrines of Lord Ayyappa where no such rules apply.
Similarly, as former Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju wrote in his piece for Daily O, many shrines in India practice similar restrictions on women (and even men) based on the deity’s preferences. “The Kartikeya temple in Pushkar, Rajasthan, does not permit entry to women, as Kartikeya, like Ayyappa, is a celibate,” Katju wrote. He added: “There are some temples debarring men. For example, Atukkal temple in Kerala which debars men during sankranti-pongal, and Bhagawati Ma temple in Kanya Kumari.”
So, should we get a judicial decree to overturn each of these practices and force a monotheistic belief on a pluralistic philosophy? If we apply normative principles of modernity on these practices, the essential contract between the deity and faithful breaks down. It forces Hinduism to take on the hues of an Abrahamic religion where practices will acquire a uniformity instead of being based on the unique relationship that each faithful has with his/her deity.
Justice Malhotra hints at this calamitous conclusion though she arrives here from a legal corner. In her judgment, she wrote, “The respondents claim the right to worship in the Sabarimala Temple under Article 25(1) in accordance with their beliefs and practices as per the tenets of their religion. These practices are considered to be essential or integral to that temple. Any interference with the same would conflict with their right guaranteed by Article 25(1) to worship Lord Ayyappa in the form of a ‘Naishtik Brahmachari’.”
She minces no words in pointing out that this is judicial overreach. “Judicial review of religious practices ought not to be undertaken, as the court cannot impose its morality or rationality with respect to the form of worship of a deity. Doing so would negate the freedom to practice one’s religion according to one’s faith and beliefs. It would amount to rationalising religion, faith and beliefs, which is outside the ken of Courts.”
The vociferous protests that have broken out all over the state point to the problem the judgment has run into. For many Lord Ayyappa devotees (including and especially women) the verdict is not a treatise in gender justice but a negation of their religious belief. The pushback has been mighty and spontaneous though political parties, as is their wont, have sought to cash in on popular sentiment.
There have been four petitions filed in the Supreme Court seeking a review of the verdict. Among the petitioners, the Nair Service Society and People for Dharma submitted that “to deny a religious denomination status to Sabarimala Temple and Lord Ayyappa’s devotees merely because they did not conform to Abrahamic notions of religious denominations ‘is to defeat the very object of the absence of a definition and to Abrahamise the core of the Hindu faith, which is unconstitutional’,” according to media reports.
On 2 October, thousands gathered in the town of Pandalam, and thousands more in Thiruvananthapuram to lodge their protest against the Supreme Court verdict. The gatherings, representing various Hindu organisations, featured a substantial number of women and youth. One of them, Sreelekha from Ambala in Alappuzha district, was quoted as saying by The News Minute: “We don’t want to go the temple. We have been taking the yearly vow along with the men in our family who go to Sabarimala. We will do whatever we should do.”
The protests grew louder with each passing day. A few days later on 6 and 7 October, Kerala witnessed statewide protests. According to another report in The News Minute, “Kerala was witness to many such protest marches across various districts like Kottayam, Ernakulam, Alappuzha, Kannur, Thiruvananthapuram and Thrissur.”
The BJP utilised the opportunity to call for a bandh in Pathanamthitta, the district where the temple is situated. According to the report, the protest marches saw the participation of “hundreds of women”. The devotees vowed “to go to any extent to safeguard the beliefs of the religion and the temple.” Reports also emerged of attempted self-immolation.
The conduct of political parties offers the most accurate assessment of the mood on the ground. On 28 September, the Congress welcomed the Supreme Court verdict as “progressive”. Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala said: “There can be no discrimination to worship on the basis of gender or otherwise. A welcome and progressive move towards gender equality by Supreme Court in Sabarimala. As society evolves, so should our religious beliefs and laws.”
A few days later on 5 October, the Congress launched a protest march against the Sabarimala verdict and demanded that the state government file a review petition in Supreme Court to reverse the decision. The Congress’ position is opportunistic. Yet, it reinforces the necessity of political parties to remain attuned with popular sentiment to retain their relevance. These shifting sands points to the fact that a greater resistance against the Supreme Court verdict is brewing. The court declined an urgent hearing of the plea, but rest assured: We haven’t heard the last of this controversy.
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