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Supreme Court allows women entry into Sabarimala temple: 'Law and society to act as levellers,' says CJI Dipak Misra

The Supreme Court on Friday ruled that women will be allowed entry into Lord Ayyappa's Sabarimala temple in Kerala. The apex court allowed women access to the iconic temple, with the constitutional bench headed by CJI Dipak Misra saying that the rules put in place by the temple administration violated Articles 14 and 25 of the Constitution.

The verdict, in the 27-year-old case, was to decide whether women aged 10 to 50 (the typical duration of time when a woman menstruates) should be allowed to enter the temple of the deity who has been 'celibate'.

The case was last heard by a five-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra and including Justices Rohinton Fali Nariman, AM Khanwilkar, DY Chandrachud, and Indu Malhotra. The apex court had reserved its verdict in the matter on 8 August after hearing it for eight days. However, the bench mentioned the provisions under Article 25 and 26 (Freedom to practice religion) of the Constitution and observed that a person can only be restrained on the grounds of "public health, public order, and morality".

Senior lawyer AM Singhvi, appearing for the Travancore Devaswom Board which is said to have the legal authority to manage the 800-year-old Sabarimala temple's administration, had argued that the practice was a bonafide one as it originated from the deity itself. Lord Ayyappa was a celibate for life, a 'Naishtika Brahmacharya', the defence argued, and that the age-old practice is based on the belief of the devotees.

The bench told Singhvi that it was the duty of the Devaswom Board to establish that the practice of banning women of a certain age group was the essential and integral part of the religious practice.

Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

Sabarimala case hearing in July

In the hearing of 19 July, the apex court had questioned the rationale behind banning the entry of women in the 10-50 age group into the temple in Kerala, saying menstruation may begin before the age of 10 and menopause may hit women much earlier. The court was apparently not in agreement with the plea of the Devaswom Board that women of that age group were barred as they cannot observe purity and "penance" for a period of 41 days, a condition for undertaking the pilgrimage.

The Kerala government had earlier told the court that it supported the entry of women of all age groups into the shrine. The apex court had observed that the fundamental right of freedom to practice religion is provided to "all persons" by the Constitution and women have the right to enter and pray like men at the shrine.The bench had also termed as "absurd" the notification of the board banning entry of women in the 10-50 age group.

The apex court had on 13 October last year referred the issue to a Constitution bench after framing five "significant" questions including whether the practice of banning entry of women of that particular age group into the temple amounted to discrimination and violated their fundamental rights under the Constitution.

The Supreme Court in its judgment on Friday is expected to address the issue of Article 25's provisions which have been raised by the defence, and hotly contested by women's rights activists. It will give its opinion on whether or not the temple management can argue that banning the entry of women is an essential religious practice for them, and hence gets protection under the Article.

In July, advocate K Parasaran, appearing for the Nair Service Society, had also mentioned that the court consider provisions under Article 26 (b), which provides the right to every religious denomination to "manage its own affairs in matters of religion".

On 26 July, advocate J Sai Deepak made headlines with his assertion of Lord Ayyappa as his "client". He said, "The temple has asserted its rights, women have asserted their rights, but no one has asserted the rights of the deity inside Sabarimala."

The case was reserved by the bench on 1 August, with Amicus curiae K Ramamurthy arguing that the apex court should steer clear of interfering with the religious practises which have been in vogue for centuries.

According to reports, the Sabarimala custom of not allowing entry to women is protected by Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorization of Entry) Rules, 1965. The 'Public Worship Rules' allow the exclusion of women from public places of worship, if the exclusion is based on 'custom'.

Timeline of the case

The practice was first challenged in 1991, when the Kerala High Court held that the practice was constitutional.

In 2006, Indian Young Lawyers Association filed a PIL before the Supreme Court challenging the custom on the grounds that the custom of banning women entry violated the right to equality under Article 14 and freedom of religion under Article 25 of female worshipers.

Ultimately in October 2017, the apex court referred the case to a constitutional bench.

Kerala government's stand

During the hearing of the case in July this year, the state government expressed that it supported the entry of women, which in turn had out Travancore Devaswom Board in a spot.

"The state government supports the entry of women. The state is not opposing," senior advocate Jaideep Gupta told the bench.

According to reports, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) government in 2015 had filed an affidavit in the apex court supporting the entry of women of all age group inside the temple. Later the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, in 2017, made the U-turn and opposed the entry of women.

With inputs from agencies


Updated Date: Sep 28, 2018 11:01 AM

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