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Indian Young Lawyers Association v/s The State Of Kerela: Sabarimala Temple Case

Women in our society have historically faced challenges in achieving equal status and representation in public spaces. However, there have been significant changes and reforms facilitated by court decisions. For instance, in the Shah Bano case, the Supreme Court upheld the rights of Muslim women by addressing the issue of triple talaq. In the case of Dr Noorjehan Safia Niaz vs. State of Maharashtra & Ors., the Supreme Court allowed women to enter the Haji Ali Dargah, marking a significant milestone.

Another noteworthy case, 'Indian Young Lawyers Association vs. State of Kerala and Ors.', centred on the struggle of women to gain entry to the Sabarimala Shrine Temple in Kerala. Sabarimala temple has been a burning topic for decades now. Women have persistently fought for their rights in this matter. The Sabarimala temple, located in the Kerala region, has been a subject of controversy due to the prohibition of women between the ages of 10 and 50 from entering. This tradition has been opposed many times and is considered gender discrimination, but it is also regarded as a matter of belief to the devotees.

The Indian Young Lawyers Association, along with a coalition of five female lawyers, filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking permission for women to enter the innermost chamber of the Sabarimala Temple without any age restrictions. They argued that the existing prohibition on women between the ages of ten to fifty was a violation of their fundamental rights.

The Travancore Devaswom Board defended the temple's stance, asserting that the selective ban on menstruating women is in line with a centuries-old tradition. They contended that Lord Ayyappa's vow to remain celibate for life was the primary rationale behind this restriction. The board also raised the argument that women would face significant physical challenges and austere conditions during the days of celibacy, especially considering the temple's location in the mountains. They regarded the temple as a sacred place for devotees rather than a public facility and invoked the Indian constitution's provision for the preservation of tradition and culture.

In this case, numerous constitutional issues were raised, with petitioners arguing that the provisions restricting women's entry into the temple are unconstitutional as they contravene Articles 14, 15, 17, 25, and 26 of the Indian Constitution.

Following extensive debates and deliberations, the Supreme Court, with a majority decision, deemed the prohibition preventing women from entering the temple as unconstitutional.


The History Of The Temple

The origins of the Sabarimala temple are shrouded in mystery and subject to various theories put forth by different experts. One prevalent narrative ties back to the divine saga of Lord Ayyappa and the Pandya dynasty's expulsion by Thirumala Naicker. Seeking refuge in places like Valliyur, Tenkasi, Shengottah, Achankovil, and Sivagiri, the dynasty gained supremacy in Travancore. Members of the Chempazhanattu Kovil in Sivagiri were granted the right to rule Pandalam by the King of Travancore eight centuries ago, and it was King Rajashekara, foster-father of Lord Ayyappa, who hailed from this lineage.

Rajashekara and his queen faced the sorrow of childlessness and prayed to Lord Shiva for a child. Simultaneously, the demon Mahishasura terrorized the world, granted invincibility by Lord Brahma. Goddess Durga intervened, and Lord Vishnu assumed the form of Mohini, leading to the birth of Lord Ayyappa. King Rajashekara discovered the infant Ayyappa on a hunting trip, fulfilling his long-held desire for a child. Manikandan, as he was named, displayed extraordinary talents, and his divine identity became evident as he grew.

Despite malicious plots and poisoning attempts by the Diwan, Lord Shiva intervened to save Manikandan. The king, deceived by a fake illness, set a trap involving tigress' milk. Manikandan embarked on a journey to obtain the elusive milk and encountered Mahishi's atrocities, defeating her in a fierce battle. Lord Shiva revealed that his divine plan was not yet complete, and upon his return, Manikandan instructed the king to build the Sabarimala temple, marking its location with an arrow. The foundation was laid, and Lord Parasuraman carved the idol of Lord Ayyappa, installed on Makarasankranthi.

Lord Ayyappa decreed a 41-day penance for devotees seeking his darshan, culminating in a pilgrimage involving steep slopes, offerings, and chanting "Saranam." Millions undertake this pilgrimage annually, transcending caste and creed to catch a glimpse of Lord Ayyappa, the Dharmasastha.

In addition to this popular narrative, some believe that the temple's origin is debatable, with Lord Parshuram being credited for its establishment as one of the five sastha temples. King Rajasekhra Pandian supposedly discovered the real path to the temple in the 12th century AD, overcoming geographical challenges that made reaching the temple difficult in ancient times.

Significance Of The Pilgrimage

The Sabarimala Sree Dharma Sastha temple, distinct from many Hindu temples, opens only during specific periods, including the first five days of each month in the Malayalam calendar and the 'mandalam' and 'makaravilakku' festivals, typically spanning mid-November to mid-January. This pilgrimage site hosts one of the world's largest gatherings, drawing millions, mainly from southern Indian states. Pilgrims, particularly during the bustling festivals, observe a rigorous 41-day vow of abstinence or 'vratham,' involving specific rituals, dress codes, and dietary restrictions. Though not mandatory for all, this 'vratham' is a significant pilgrimage aspect.

In 1991, a High Court verdict restricted women aged 10 to 50 from trekking to the temple, a decision overturned by the Supreme Court recently. Pilgrims, irrespective of sects or backgrounds, commit to a 40-day fast, celibacy, and various rituals, easily identified by their distinctive attire and accessories.

The temple, with its sacred steps symbolizing different aspects of spirituality, stands as a major annual pilgrimage destination, attracting devotees from diverse backgrounds. Lord Parshuram himself installed the idol of Lord Ayyappa, adding to the temple's significance.

The First Refutes

The challenge to the exclusion of women was initially raised at the Kerala High Court. In 1991, in the case of S. Mahendran v The Secretary, Travancore, the court upheld the constitutional and justifiable nature of the exclusion, citing its long-standing custom. The court concluded that the practice did not violate the Rights to Equality and Freedom of worship for women devotees.

The issue of restricting women from entering the temple was brought before the Kerala High Court in 1991 through the case of S. Mahendran v Secretary, Travancore Devaswom Board. The division bench of the Kerala High Court sided with the plaintiffs, affirming that the restrictions had existed since time immemorial, and that the Travancore Board's prohibition did not contravene the Indian Constitution or the relevant Kerala Law of 1965.

Facts And Issues Of The Case

In 2006, the entrenched practice of barring women from entering the Sabarimala Temple faced a legal challenge when five young lawyers from the Indian Young Lawyers Association filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court. They argued that the tradition violated the Right to Equality under Article 14, deeming it derogatory to women's dignity.

Additionally, they contended that the exclusion breached the Freedom of Religion guaranteed by Article 25, asserting equal entitlement for all individuals to the freedom of conscience and the right to practice their religion. Managed by the Travancore Devaswom Board, the temple defended the exclusion as an essential religious practice, particularly for women aged 10 to 50, in line with the deity's celibate nature.

The legal challenge contested Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorization of Entry) Rules, 1965, seeking permission for women aged 10 to 50 to enter, challenging historical restrictions based on notions of menstruation and ritual purity.

Key issues presented before the honorable court are as follows:
  1. Does the restriction on the entry of menstruating women into the Sabarimala Temple contravene the Right to Equality, the Right against discrimination, and the prohibition of untouchability?
  2. Are the devotees of Lord Ayyappa considered a distinct religious denomination, thereby possessing the right to autonomously manage their religious affairs?
  3. Can the exclusion of women be categorized as an 'essential religious practice' protected under Article 25?
  4. Does Rule 3 of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorization of Entry) Rules empower a 'religious denomination' to prohibit the entry of women aged 10 to 50?
  5. Do the provisions in the Public Worship Rules, permitting such customs, conflict with the overarching legislation that prohibits discriminatory practices?

Judgement Of The Case

On September 28, 2018, a Supreme Court 5-judge Bench issued its verdict on the Sabarimala Temple Entry case. The majority, in a 4:1 decision, declared the temple's practice of excluding women as unconstitutional, asserting that it infringed upon the fundamental right to freedom of religion under Article 25(1) for female worshippers. The Bench invalidated Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship Rules, 1965, which permitted the exclusion of women based on custom, deeming it unconstitutional.

The Court presented four distinct opinions, composed of Chief Justice Misra, Justice Nariman, Justice Chandrachud, and Justice Malhotra. Justices Nariman and Chandrachud aligned with Chief Justice Misra's perspective. Justice Indu Malhotra, however, dissented from the majority opinion.

Chief Justice Mishra's Opinion

In a groundbreaking ruling, Chief Justice Dipak Misra, alongside Justice Khanwilkar, delivered a momentous verdict addressing gender-based discrimination within religious practices, specifically addressing the case of the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala. The longstanding tradition at the temple, barring women aged 10 to 50 under the premise of the celibate nature of the deity, Lord Ayyappa, came under scrutiny.

Chief Justice Misra, representing the majority, initiated the judgment by shedding light on societal tendencies to impose unjust rules and subsequently seek justifications. He underscored the historical context of gender inequality and delved into the societal reluctance to view women as equal partners in the pursuit of divinity and spirituality. The Chief Justice argued against rigid gender stereotypes that restrict devotion to divinity, deeming the dualistic approach in religion, where women are both venerated as goddesses and subjected to stringent restrictions, incompatible with principles of equality.

The judgment called for a perceptual shift away from patriarchal norms, emphasizing the need for evolving attitudes. Chief Justice Misra positioned law and society as instruments tasked with leveling the playing field, echoing the sentiment that every moment brings new harmonies and contrasts in the kaleidoscope of life.

The focus then shifted to the specifics of the Sabarimala Temple case. The petition sought directions against various entities, including the government, the Devaswom Board of Travancore, the Chief Thanthri of the temple, and the District Magistrate of Pathanamthitta, to permit the entry of female devotees aged 10 to 50. Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorization of Entry) Rules, 1965, justifying the exclusion of women based on custom, was challenged as unconstitutional.

Recognizing the gravity of the issues at hand, the Chief Justice sought assistance from Amici Curiae. The questions referred to a Constitution Bench centered on whether the exclusionary practice amounted to discrimination, constituted an essential religious practice, and if the temple had a denominational character justifying such practices.

Considering the historical background of the Sabarimala Temple, the judgment argued against its classification as a separate religious denomination. State funding and statutory boards overseeing its practices and administration eroded any distinct denominational identity. The court emphasized that religious denominations must exhibit a strong bond among members, distinct practices, and separate administration to claim a unique identity.

Citing precedents like the Shirur Mutt case, the Chief Justice asserted that the essence of religious practices must be protected under Article 26(b) of the Constitution. However, practices against the basic principles of the Constitution would not receive constitutional protection.

The judgment firmly rejected the notion that the exclusion of women was an essential religious practice, stating that it undermined the core principles of Articles 14, 15, and 17. The court held that gender-based discrimination in matters of entry to temples was not a ritual or ceremony associated with the Hindu religion and went against the principles of equality.

Ultimately, Chief Justice Misra declared Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorization of Entry) Rules, 1965, unconstitutional, as it violated the Constitution and contradicted the intent of the parent Act. The court upheld the petitioners' right to worship without discrimination based on gender and emphasized the importance of evolving societal perceptions and legal standards. This verdict marked a significant step in dismantling gender-based barriers in religious practices.

Justice Nariman's Opinion

Justice Rohinton Nariman played a pivotal role in a landmark case addressing the prohibition of women aged 10 to 50 from entering the Sabarimala Temple, offering a concurring opinion that delved into the intricate relationship between fundamental rights and religious practices. This case posed significant questions at the crossroads of individual rights and religious freedoms, as the Sabarimala Temple, though open to the public, imposed restrictions on women based on religious customs.

Justice Nariman's inquiry centered on whether this exclusionary practice violated women's rights under Article 25 of the Constitution, examining the nuanced interplay between fundamental rights and religious freedom. Drawing from precedent judgments, he referenced the Nar Hari Sastri case, asserting that once a temple is acknowledged as a public place of worship, the right of entry for worship becomes inherent, not contingent on customs.

Turning to the Shirur Math case, Justice Nariman highlighted its significance in establishing that a religious denomination could fall within the expression "religious denomination." This case outlined tests for determining such status and emphasized that religious freedom safeguarded both beliefs and acts conducted in pursuit of those beliefs. The judgment clarified the distinction between essential religious practices and secular activities, allowing state regulation of the latter only under specific conditions.

Examining the Ratilal Panachand Gandhi case, Justice Nariman underscored guarantees under Article 25, including freedom of conscience and the right to profess, practice, and propagate religion. Article 26, according to him, dealt with the right of religious denominations to establish and maintain institutions, subject to defined restrictions. He emphasized the delicate balance required between protecting religious denominations' autonomy and allowing state regulation for broader welfare and social reform.

Addressing the challenge of defining "religion," Justice Nariman acknowledged its complexity, emphasizing that religion encompasses not just beliefs but also outward acts, rituals, observances, and ceremonies. Applying these principles to the Sabarimala case, he questioned the exclusion of women based on age and alleged custom, arguing against curtailment of the right to worship and freedom of religion without compelling reasons related to public order, health, or morality.

He also rendered women's right under Article 25 meaningless, finding sufficient evidence to declare it unconstitutional. Striking down Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules of 1965, his judgment significantly contributed to the evolving jurisprudence on the intricate balance between religious freedom and individual rights in India, emphasizing the imperative to protect individual rights while respecting religious practices' autonomy.

Justice Chandrachud's Opinion

Justice D Y Chandrachud, in a concurring opinion, declared this exclusion unconstitutional, citing violations of autonomy, liberty, and dignity. He rejected the argument that morality under Articles 25 and 26 could undermine fundamental rights, emphasizing that the Ayyappans lacked religious denomination status, rendering the exclusion non-essential.

Chandrachud asserted that women's physiological traits should not affect constitutional entitlements, dismissing menstruation as irrelevant. Furthermore, he expanded the definition of untouchability under Article 17, preventing exclusion based on purity notions.

On the petitioner side, arguments focused on the lack of religious denomination status for Ayyappans, the non-essential nature of the exclusionary practice, and the violation of constitutional principles. Indira Jaising contended that gender-specific physiological factors violated constitutional articles and constituted a form of untouchability.

Amicus Curiae Raju Ramachandran emphasized a woman's right to worship, discrimination under Article 15(1), and privacy violation. Senior counsels argued against the exclusion, challenging its constitutionality and rejecting the idea of Sabarimala devotees as a separate religious denomination.

On the respondent side, arguments supported the exclusion, citing constitutionality, intelligence of differentia, denomination rights under Article 26, and protection under Rule 3(b) of the 1965 Rules. Singhvi contended that the exclusion wasn't gender-based, and Article 17 was inapplicable. Parasaran argued for the custom's constitutional permissibility, and Radhakrishnan asserted it was an essential religious practice. Giri and Sai Deepak argued for the deity's constitutional rights, essential practice, and denomination status.

The legal discourse also delved into the doctrine of essential religious practices, tracing its origins in the Commissioner, Hindu Religious Endowments, Madras v Sri Lakshmindra Thirtha Swamiar of Shirur Mutt case. This doctrine, shaped through subsequent cases, emphasizes the autonomy of religious denominations in managing their affairs while protecting practices essential to their faith.

However, the courts, as seen in cases like Durgah Committee, cautioned against protecting practices rooted in superstition or secular activities merely dressed in religious garb.

The passage highlights the evolution of the essential practices doctrine in cases like Qureshi and Saifuddin, seeking a balance between religious freedom and preventing protection of practices unrelated to essential religious tenets. It underscores the court's role in determining what qualifies as an essential religious practice, considering scriptures and community views.

The case also explores Article 17, which addresses untouchability, emphasizing its constitutional promise of equality and justice. The discussion traces the historical background of Article 17 and its role in eradicating the age-old practice of untouchability, aligning with the framers' vision for social transformation.

The case involves a complex interplay of constitutional articles, religious practices, and gender discrimination, with both sides presenting detailed legal arguments to support their positions. The court's decision ultimately declared the exclusionary practices unconstitutional, aligning with the Constitution's commitment to individual dignity, equality, and justice.

Justice Indu Malhotra's Dissenting Opinion
Justice Indu Malhotra delivered a dissenting opinion. She held that the Sabarimala Temple fulfils the necessities for being considered a separate religious denomination. She contended that constitutional morality in a secular polity like India requires a 'harmonisation' of numerous contending claims to fundamental rights.

She held that the Sabarimala Temple is safeguarded under Article 26(b) to deal with its internal affairs and is not dependent upon the social reform mandate under Article 25(2)(b), which applies only to Hindu denominations, and said that the Court must regard a religious denomination's right to deal with their internal affairs, whether or not their practices are rational or sensible.

Note that Article 26, denominational freedom of religion, is subject to 'public order, morality, and health'. Justice Malhotra held that 'morality' (constitutional morality) must be perceived with regards to India being a pluralistic society. She stated that the state must respect the freedom of individuals and orders to practice their faith.

Justice Indu Malhotra said the right to equality clashed with the right to worship of devotees of Lord Ayyappa and the god of the Sabarimala temple; furthermore, the doctrine of equality cannot abrogate the fundamental right to worship under Article 25 of the Constitution.

The issues brought up in this case have serious and unprecedented ramifications for different religions professed throughout the country. which has ended up being valid as the nine-judge bench constituted will also hear the issues of religious practices in association with women belonging to Islamic and Zoroastrian religions.

She held that Rule 3(b) does not remain in conflict with its parent Act, the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship Act. She stressed that the standard 'carves out an exception in the case of public worship'. She held that the rule was predictable under Article 26(b) of the Constitution.

The Sabarimala verdict holds profound significance in India's religiously divided landscape, marking a pivotal moment in the clash between entrenched religious customs and the pursuit of equality. In a society deeply influenced by traditional norms, the Supreme Court's decision stands out for its bold and humane assertion of Constitutional Morality as the paramount moral compass.

Despite strides in women's rights, societal views, often rooted in a patriarchal framework, persist in subjugating women based on gender and sexuality. The verdict adeptly addresses the tension between fundamental rights and age-old traditions, emphasizing that customs conflicting with constitutional principles must be scrutinized, particularly when they curtail the rights of a specific group.

The ruling underscores the Constitution's supremacy, safeguarding fundamental rights like equality and freedom of religion. While traditions are integral to society, those endangering constitutional tenets due to inherent biological differences warrant reevaluation. Judicial decisions should chart a course toward substantive equality, recognizing disparities and securing individual liberties, particularly for women.

The analysis applauds the Court's stance but highlights the need for nuanced consideration, acknowledging the delicate balance between faith and constitutional morality. Justice D.Y. Chandrachud's rationale on untouchability and essential religious practices is deemed accurate, yet a more comprehensive examination of the factual context is urged to ensure just outcomes, avoiding inadvertent infringements on the right to freedom of conscience.

The way I see it India is a land rich in traditions and culture, setting it apart with its diversity. Its ancient rituals and customs contribute to its uniqueness on the global stage. One such custom is the prohibition of women of menstruating age from entering the renowned Sabarimala Temple in Kerala.

The ban, rooted in the celibacy vow of the deity Lord Ayyappa, does not infringe upon anyone's right to equality or freedom of worship under Article 25. Customs with longstanding existence should prevail over individual rights, particularly when the ban is based on age due to the menstruating cycle, supported by scientific evidence suggesting potential health risks and energy imbalances during menstruation.

The challenge to traditional practices often stems from modernization, demanding scientific justification and often neglecting the cultural and spiritual significance of these customs. The education system, labeling them as mythology, contributes to this disconnect. Yet, every old custom holds meaning, shaping our heritage.

If challenging the ban on women at Sabarimala is deemed unconstitutional, similar prohibitions on men in temples like Kamakhya Devi Temple, Mata Temple in Bihar, Kumari Amman Temple in Kanyakumari, Attukal Bhagavathy Temple in Kerala, and Brahmaji Temple in Rajasthan should face the same scrutiny.

However, it is crucial to approach these matters cautiously. Challenging such customs risks undermining the very fabric of our culture, which forms the foundation of our nation. These traditions have been followed for thousands of years for a reason, and questioning their sanctity and validity, driven by modernization or westernization, should be done with extreme caution. Upholding the importance of these customs without unnecessary improvisation is essential for preserving the essence of our cultural heritage.


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