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Sabarimala-The Battleground For Equality v/s Secularism

By Rahul Prasad

This article was originally published in The Economics Society, SRCC and has been published here with permission. 

In the last few months, the Sabarimala temple has come to the limelight, not for the immense peace and spirituality received within the walls of the temple but because of the protests and rallies outside the walls of the temple, following the supreme court verdict on 28th September which opened the temple to all women, indiscriminately.

Sabarimala is a Hindu temple, dedicated to Lord Ayyapan (the son of Vishnu and Shiva). Located in Kerala, it is considered to be one of the most spiritual and holy places in the world with numbers ranging from 20-30 million devotees a year.

Sabarimala, since time immemorial, has been known for two things: one, the religious harmony that it propagates and; two, access to the temple being restricted to only men, girls younger than 10 and women older than 50. In other words, all women of menstruating age are restricted.

There has been a plethora of reasons for the latter, the main being Lord Ayyapan’s celibacy and the belief that women entering and coming to visit him would be a distraction from his path of purity. Other beliefs include Lord Ayyapa promising a female deity he would not marry her until there are no more first-time devotees coming to visit him. Women were not allowed back then, as it was also believed that Sabarimala was controlled by a celibate Buddhist monk and Brahmin priests were believed to have drawn up the temple rules in Kerala based on patriarchal ideologies.

Though the trek through the forest and rocky terrain might have deterred some women, there is still no legitimate proof that women should not be allowed to enter the Temple. It is only after the advent of the recent male-oriented Hindutva, that women were fully restricted.

All this and more came to light when the Association of All India Lawyers filed a PIL asking for equality and entry of all women into the temple. The demands escalated as the number of petitions went on increasing and the Supreme Court finally decided to entertain the issue. After hearing the case for 8 days, the Supreme Court passed the order, allowing women of all ages to enter, with a 4-1 majority, headed by Justice Misra. Ironically, the only dissenter in this decision to attain gender equality was a woman, Justice Indu Malhotra, who said that such issues which are fundamentally about faith and religion should not be interfered with by the courts. She declared that it is for the religious community to decide what practices it wants to follow, citing examples such as the Mata temple in Muzzafarpur, Bihar where men are not allowed to enter and why that hasn’t been challenged yet.

Despite Justice Indu’s challenges, the verdict was passed and the supreme court received much praise for the country was now a step closer to achieving gender equality. Or at least it seemed to be on paper.

The celebrations were short-lived and protests soon started with people taking to public platforms to criticize and showcase their resentment. Women themselves were against the decision, claiming that the respect they have for the Sabarimala Temple and its customs are much more than their need for gender equality.

But verbal distress wasn’t all. People took to the streets. Groups of protesters gathered at the gates of the temple and announced that no woman would be allowed to enter, irrespective of the Supreme Court order. Civil disobedience was now a reality in a state, long known for its peace and high literacy, for the masses, were pushed to their tipping point. At least 13 women have attempted to enter, after the gates of the Temple were opened, however not one prevailed.

“They came. They saw. They tried. But they couldn’t conquer.” A popular newspaper headlines read.

Some women were harassed and pushed away, while others decided to abort their attempt halfway, following intimidation by violent protesters. Finally, however, on the second day of the new year,  two women prevailed, under heavy police protection provided by Kerala, in entering the temple if reports are to be believed. The Sabarimala issue has brought to light, two important questions.

One, should the Supreme Court have the authority to take decisions in matters they understand very little about in terms of the repercussions it will have? And two, how does one resolve the conflict between Article 14 and Article 26 of the Constitution?

The first question brings us to issues like the Jallikattu verdict and the Sabarimala verdict where the supreme court infamously decided to protect rights and bring a modernized mindset to traditions and practices that have lasted for centuries. In political terms, secularism can be broadly defined as the separation of government institutions and the people mandated to represent the state from religious institutions. Therefore, it is the Supreme Court’s duty to identify what is a more secular approach; Interference in religious institutions in order to change orthodox practices harmful to society, therein becoming a sort of religious authority itself. Or, non-interference in order to achieve secularism but at the cost of letting religious institutions develop their own practices which might not always be keeping in mind the principle of ‘greater good’.

As for the second question, the Sabarimala issue brings to us a battle between equality and secularism. Every individual’s Right to Equality (Article 14) against every community’s right to establish, maintain and manage its own affairs in matters of religion (Article 26). The state then has to decide if there is a conflict between the rights of the community and rights of the individual, which one shall be given priority considering the circumstances of each case.

And in this case, the Supreme Court weighed the Right to Equality as being more fundamental than Article 26, the freedom to manage religious affairs.

What one also needs to understand is that people often also have different interpretations of equality. A woman wearing a Burqa in Saudi Arabia may today consider herself equal to the men in her country. But to a man from the US, the wearing of the Burqa could be seen as the objectification of the woman. On a similar note, for us, 21st Century modern thinkers, the Supreme Court decision might be one to applaud, for it brings in a more rational and justifiable solution. But then again, who is to question the Supreme Court which enjoys immense authority with very little accountability, when they take decisions to modernize traditions and practices that have shaped an entire social system, on their interpretation of equality.

The Sabarimala issue is something that won’t fade away soon. A decision that changed the social fabric of an entire community and possibly, a verdict that brings to light numerous unanswered questions. Supreme Court has accepted to review its verdict on Sabarimala. Whatever be the decision, we can expect a lot of sentiments flaring up by it.

Rahul Prasad is a 1st Year student at Shri Ram College of Commerce.

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