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Above: Thousands of devotees witness the installation ceremony of the new gold-plated flag mast at the Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala

As the apex court declares that women have as much right to enter the famed hill-top temple as men, the CPI(M)-led government backs the verdict, Hindu outfits call for a referendum and the temple board differs with the government

~By NVR Nair in Thiruvananthapuram

The Supreme Court’s observation that women cannot be prevented from worshipping in the hill shrine of the Lord Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala in Kerala has once again triggered heated discussions among the Hindu community. While the Hindu Aikya Vedi, an umbrella organisation of various Hindu communities in the state owing allegiance to the RSS, wants the government to conduct a referendum among the Hindu women in the state, the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) with a CPI(M) government-appointed dispensation at its helm   is cautious in responding to the issue, indicating that it will prefer a consensus.

While hearing a clutch of petitions, a five-member bench of the apex court headed by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra pointed out that there should be justification for prohibiting the entry of women aged between 10 and 50.

Emphasising the importance of upholding the constitutional rights of women, the apex court pointed out that it was unconstitutional to bar the entry of such women in the temple on the ground that they would menstruate during the mandatory 41-day period of abstinence.

Questioning the logic behind the restriction, the bench of Chief Justice Misra and Justices RF Nariman, AM Khanwilkar, DY Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra said: “Suppose a woman stops menstruating at age of 45, why should she be excluded from entering the temple. There is no rational link of age with prohibition.”

The TDB, tasked with the administration of over 1,200 temples in the state, said the decision to exclude entry of women in the above age group has to do with the maintenance of purity of the deity, Lord Ayyappa. Its counsel, Abhishek Singhvi, said women who are menstruating are kept out for this purpose as it is impossible for them to observe abstinence for 41 days before undertaking the pilgrimage. He added that this practice is followed not only at the Sabarimala shrine but in almost all temples in the country. The TDB stance was completely different from that of the state government, which favoured entry of women to the shrine.

The Court’s observation that the right to enter the temple was not based on a particular law and it was a constitutional right has prompted heated discussions. The Hindu Aikya Vedi wants consensus among Hindu communities.  Responding to the Supreme Court’s observation, Hindu Aikya Vedi state president KP Sasikala said each temple had its own customs and practices and it was important for believers to honour such customs. “The fact that devotees from all across the country come to Sabarimala to offer prayers does not make it mandatory to change the customs and practices of  the temple to suit everyone. If a Keralite goes to the Tirupati temple or Pazhani temple in Tamil Nadu, he or she cannot expect the temple authorities to change the customs  , rituals and practices of the temple to suit the imagination and need of the devotee. One has to respect the customs and practices in a worship place” she said.

Reacting to the Supreme Court’s observation, Prayar Gopalakrishnan, the TDB president during the Congress led government’s tenure, said it was an unfortunate development.  He claimed that the idol of the deity was installed as per specific customs. No government, court or Devaswom Board has the authority to bypass the system, he claimed. He said that in the authentic records sourced from a survey conducted by the British during the period between 1765 and 1836 it had been stated that nobody had the right or powers to change the customs and practices being followed in the Sabarimala hill shrine of Lord Ayyappa. The constitutional bodies should not encroach into the realm of religion in the name of protecting constitutional rights. If it wants to  uphold constitutional rights of the Indian citizens its efforts should not be confined to a particular religion alone, he said.

He also stated that if the Supreme Court wants to effect any change in on-going customs and practices, before passing any judgment, it should seek the expert opinion of Hindu acharyas like the Shankaracharyas of Udupi, Kanchi-kamakodi and other mutts. He alleged that the present Devaswom Board appointed by the LDF government was acting under an agenda with political motives and it had not been conducting the case seriously. “During our tenure we had plans to engage senior lawyers of repute to handle the case in the Supreme Court. But the present dispensation has apparently taken directives from the Leftist government which appointed it to suit its politics, he alleged.

He pointed out that the government and the Devaswom Board had the responsibility to protect the interest of the devotees. The TDB constituted under the Travancore Kochi Hindu Religious Act had the interest in Hindus. He also questioned the logic behind the observation that the temple was a public place. He asked whether the Court could make a similar statement about the worship place of a different religious community.

Taking a stand that the TDB would not resort to a fight with the government or irk the Court by making unnecessary comments  TDB President A Padamakumar told India Legal that  while the government was interested in upholding constitutional rights, the TDB was expected to uphold the sentiments of the devotees and protect the rituals and customs of the temple. He said the TDB would request an opportunity to file a fresh affidavit in the Supreme Court.

“Sabarimala Temple tantri and Pandalam Palace have important roles to play in the affairs of the temple. It was with the concurrence of the tantri and Palace that the customs and rituals of the temple are followed. While the Board is not for conflict with the government it has the view that the government should not meddle with the puja and rituals of the temple. We will try to have a consensus on the issue,” the TDB president said.

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