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This article is written by Gauraw Kumar, a 2nd-year student of BVP-New Law College, Pune. This article covers a very important case of 2018 “Indian Young Lawyers Association vs State of Kerala and Ors.” popularly known as “Sabarimala Case” and tries to explain its facts, history, issues and judgement of the case.

Introduction

Women in our society have always struggled for equal status and representation in public spaces. But, the situation is changing now and various reforms have come through the judgements of the Courts. Like in Shah Bano case, the Supreme Court has protected the rights of Muslim women from the practice of triple talaq. In the case of Dr Noorjehan Safia Niaz vs. State Of Maharashtra & Ors., the Supreme Court has allowed entry of women inside Haji Ali Dargah.

Now, the case of ‘Indian Young Lawyers Association vs. State of Kerala and Ors.’ involved women’s struggle for getting the entry in Sabarimala Shrine Temple located in the State of Kerala. Women have done a lot of struggle for the protection of their rights. The Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala region in Kerala has been controversial for provision of restricting women of menstruating age (10-15 years of age) to enter into Sabarimala Temple, Kerala. In this case, there were many issues raised in which it was argued by petitioners that provisions related to the restriction of women entry in Temple are unconstitutional as it violates Article 14, 15, 17, 25, 26 of the Indian Constitution.

Finally, the Supreme Court held that women of all age groups can enter Sabarimala shrine Temple as everyone has a right to worship and it is the constitutional and fundamental right of everyone given in Article 25 and 26 of the Indian Constitution.

There are differences in Constitutional ideals and social reality. There is a wide gap between provisions given in the Indian Constitution and the reality of society. In this case, the Supreme Court has tried to bridge the gap between both.

Summary of Facts

  • There is a Hindu Temple dedicated to Ayyappan named Sabarimala shrine in the State of Kerala. It is a temple located at Sabarimala inside the Periyar Tiger Reserve in ‘Pathanamthitta’ district of Kerala.
  • The Sabarimala shrine, which is one of the most famous temples in Kerala, had restricted women (of menstruating age) from entry.
  • Several women tried to enter the Temple but could not because of threats of physical assault against them.
  • A group of five women lawyers had moved the Apex Court challenging the decision of the Kerala High Court which upheld the centuries-old restriction, and ruled that only the “Tantrik (Priest)” was empowered to decide on traditions.

Identification of Parties (including the name of the judges)

In 1990, S Mahendra filed a petition, alleging that young women were visiting Sabarimala Temple. The verdict of the same came in 1991 where Justice K. Paripoornan and K. Balanarayana Marar of Kerala High Court held that women of ages 10 to 50 years old are banned from offering worship at Sabarimala Temple and stating that such restriction is not from today, it was from accordance with usage prevalent for a very long time. The High Court also directed the Government of Kerala to enforce the order to ban entry of women in Temple with the help of Police Force. The Court observed as:

Such restriction of women entry is not violative of Article 15, 25 and 26 of the Indian Constitution and also the provisions of Hindu Place of Public Worship Act, 1965. As there is no restriction between two classes or sections of society but the restrictions are only for women of particular age group.

In 2006, Members of the Indian Young Lawyers Association (consisting six women), filed a petition in the Supreme Court to lift the ban to enter into Sabarimala Temple against women between the ages of 10 and 50. They forwarded arguments that this ban was a violation of their constitutional rights and also questioned the validity of provisions given in Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship Rules Act,1965 which supported it.  

Petitioner(s): Indian Young Lawyers Association; Dr Laxmi Shastri; Prerna Kumari; Alka Sharma; Sudha Pal.

Respondent(s): The State of Kerala; Travancore Devaswom Board; Chief Tanthri of Sabarimala Temple; District Magistrate of Pathanamthitta; Nair Service Society; Akhil Bhartiya Ayyappa Seva Sangham; Ayyappa Seva Samithi; Ayyappa Pooja Samithi; Dharma Sanstha Seva Samajam; Akil Bhartiya Malayalee Sangh; sabarimala Ayyappa Seva Samajam; Kerala Kshetra Samarak Shana Samithi; Pandalam Kottaram Nirvahaka Sangham; sabarimala Custom Protection Forum

Petitioner’s Lawyers: R.P. Gupta; Raja Ramachandran (Amicus Curiae); K. Ramamoorthy (Amicus Curiae).

Respondent’s Lawyer: Jaideep Gupta; Liz Mathew; Venugopal, (Travancore Devaswom); V.Giri, (State of Kerala); Rakesh Dwivedi; K. Radhakrishanan.

In this case, there were 5 judges constitutional bench includes Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, Justice A M Khanwilkar, Justice R F Nariman, Justice D Y Chandrachud and Justice Indu Malhotra.

Issues before the Court

There were mainly three issues raised in this case:

  • Whether this restriction imposed by the temple authorities violates Articles 15, 25 and 26 of the Indian Constitution?
  • Whether this restriction violates the provisions of Kerala Hindu Place of Public Worship Act, 1965? 
  • Whether the Sabarimala Temple has a denominational character?

Arguments by Parties on Issues

There were many arguments passed by both parties on these issues. These are the following:

Arguments in favour of women entry

The arguments given in favor of women entry by the petitioners were- Menstruation is not impure, and that women should have equal rights to enter the Sabarimala Temple. A criticism claims that we cannot consider women are impure based on menstruation and it is gender discrimination. The Chief Minister of Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan, said that his party (Left Democratic Front) has always supported gender equality and we provide facilities and protection for women. This practice also violates Article 14 (Equality before Law) of the Indian Constitution as discrimination on the basis of a specific age group of women is not reasonable discrimination.

  • This restriction violates Article 15, 25 and 26 of the Indian Constitution:

Article 15 deals with “prohibition on the ground of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth”. Here, this practice involves violation of Article 15 as discrimination to enter the temple was based on ‘sex’.

Article 25 deals with “freedom of conscience and free profession, propagation and practices of religion”. Here, this practice involves violation of Article 25 as it prevents women from freedom of practice of religion.

Article 26 deals with “freedom to manage religious affairs”. Here, this practice clearly violates the provision of Article 26.

  • The provisions in Kerala Hindu Place of Public Worship Act, 1965 which support restriction to women’s entry in the temple is unconstitutional as it violates Article 14, 15, 25 and 26 of Indian Constitution.
  • One of the arguments from the side of the petitioner that the Lord Ayyappa temple was not a separate religious denomination for Article 26 because the religious practices performed in Sabarimala Temple at the time of ‘puja’ and other religious ceremonies are not different from other religious practices performed in other Hindu Temples.

Arguments against women entry

The arguments given against women entry by Respondent- Such religious practices are not so old as it is a tradition to respect God/Goddess of Temple. Men are also restricted to enter and worship in several temples, for example, Bramha temple, Pushkar.

  • There is no violation of Article 15, 25 and 26 of the Indian Constitution as the restriction is only in respect of women of a particular age group and not women as a class. If the practice of restriction to the entry of women is made for women as a class, then only it will violate the above-mentioned Articles of the Indian Constitution.
  • The provisions in Kerala Hindu Place of Public Worship Act, 1965 also support this restriction.

Judgement (Ratio decidendi and Obiter Dictum)

Ratio decidendi

‘Ratio decidendi’ is the rule of law on which judicial decision is based. It is legally binding.

On 28th September 2018, the Court delivered its verdict in this case by 4:1 majority which held that the restriction of women in Sabarimala Temple is unconstitutional. It held that the practice violated the fundamental rights to equality, liberty and freedom of religion, Articles 14, 15, 19(1), 21 and 25(1). It struck down Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship Act as unconstitutional. Rule 3(b) allowed for Hindu denominations to exclude women from public places of worship, if the exclusion was based on ‘custom’.

The Apex Court has allowed entry of women of all age groups to the Sabarimala Temple, and held that “Devotion can not be subjected to Gender Discrimination.”

Obiter dictum

‘Obiter dictum’ is a judge’s expression of opinion uttered in court or in a written judgement, but not essential to the decision and therefore not legally binding as a precedent.

In this case, the Court ruled thus:

“We have no doubt in saying that such practice infringes the right of women to enter a temple and freely practice Hindu religion”.

“Devotion can not be subjected to Gender Discrimination”.

Hon’ble Chief Justice of India stated in his Judgement that religion is a way of life linked to the dignity of an individual and patriarchal practices based on the exclusion of one gender in favour of another could not be allowed to infringe upon the fundamental freedom to practice and profess one’s religion.

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Critical Analysis of the Judgement

The lone woman on the bench, Justice Indu Malhotra, dissented.

Chief Justice Dipak Misra, Justice R F Nariman, Justice A M Khanwilkar and Justice D Y Chandrachud constituted the majority.

Chief Justice of India Hon’ble Dipak Misra while reading out portions of the judgement written for himself and Justice A M Khanwilkar said that women are not lesser or inferior to men. Religious patriarchy cannot be allowed to triumph over belief. Biological reasons (such as menstruation) can not be accepted in freedom for faith. Religion is basically a way of life.

The Judgement of the Chief Justice of India also held that Ayyappa devotees will not constitute a separate religious denomination. Rule 3(b) of the Kerala  Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorization of Entry), Rules 1965 which prohibited entry of women in Sabarimala, was also struck down as being unconstitutional.

The separate but concurring opinion of Justice Nariman held that “Anything destructive of individuality in anachronistic of Constitutionality. To treat women as people of lower status blinks at the Constitution itself”. It was held that Ayyappas do not constitute a separate religious denomination.

Justice Chandrachud in his separate but concurring opinion held that the idea behind the ban was that the presence of women will disturb virginity, and that was placing the burden of men’s virginity on women. This stigmatises and stereotypes women, he observed.

Justice Indu Malhotra, in her lone dissent, held that issues of deep religious sentiments should not be ordinarily be interfered by the Court. The Court should not interrupt in this matter unless if there is any resentful person from that section or religion. The notion of rationality should not be seen in religious matters. She also held that shrine and the deity are protected by Article 25 of the Indian Constitution.

Case Description and Status

The Apex Court has declared that the practice of restricting women of a specific age group in their ‘menstruating years’ from entering Sabarimala Temple is unconstitutional.

Current Status of case: There are review petitions filed challenging the judgement pending.

Conclusion

Freedoms related to religion are essential elements for the functioning of democracy in a country like India. As we know, Constitutional ideals and Social reality are very different from each other but it is also necessary to reduce the differences as much as possible for the smooth and proper functioning of society. In the case of ‘Indian Young Lawyers Association vs. State of Kerala & Ors’, Apex Court has tried to bridge the gap between constitutional ideals and social reality.


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