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The Sabarimala case in which apex court on Friday (Sep 28) gave the verdict allowing the women of all ages to enter the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala saw important observations by the five-member constitution bench comprising CJI Dipak Misra, Justice R F Nariman, Justice A M Khanwilkar, Justice D Y Chandrachud and Justice Indu Malhotra. The four majority judges were CJI Dipak Misra, Justice R F Nariman, Justice A M Khanwilkar and Justice D Y Chandrachud. Justice Malhotra was the lone dissenting judge. Here are some of the observations:

CJI Dipak Misra and Justice A M Khanwilkar        

“…The dualism that persists in religion by glorifying and venerating women as goddesses on one hand and by imposing rigorous sanctions on the other hand in matters of devotion has to be abandoned. Such a dualistic approach and an entrenched mindset results in indignity to women and degradation of their status…”

“…The society has to undergo a perceptual shift from being the propagator of hegemonic patriarchal notions of demanding more exacting standards of purity and chastity solely from women to be the cultivator of equality where the woman is in no way considered frailer, lesser or inferior to man…”

“Any relationship with the Creator is a transcendental one crossing all socially created artificial barriers and not a negotiated relationship bound by terms and conditions. Such a relationship and expression of devotion cannot be circumscribed by dogmatic notions of biological or physiological factors arising out of rigid socio-cultural attitudes which do not meet the constitutionally prescribed tests…”

“…Patriarchy in religion cannot be permitted to trump over the element of pure devotion borne out of faith and the freedom to practise and profess one‟s religion. The subversion and repression of women under the garb of biological or physiological factors cannot be given the seal legitimacy. Any rule based on discrimination or segregation of women pertaining to biological characteristics is not only unfounded, indefensible and implausible but can also never pass the muster of constitutionality.”

“Coming to the first and the most important condition for a religious denomination, i.e., the collection of individuals ought to have a system of beliefs or doctrines which they regard as conducive to their spiritual well-being, there is nothing on record to show that the devotees of Lord Ayyappa have any common religious tenets peculiar to themselves, which they regard as conducive to their spiritual well-being, other than those which are common to the Hindu religion. Therefore, the devotees of Lord Ayyappa are just Hindus and do not constitute a separate religious denomination. For a religious denomination, there must be new methodology provided for a religion. Mere observance of certain practices, even though from a long time, does not make it a distinct religion on that account.”

“The right guaranteed under Article 25(1) has nothing to do with gender or, for that matter, certain physiological factors, specifically attributable to women. Women of any age group have as much a right as men to visit and enter a temple in order to freely practise a religion as guaranteed under Article 25(1). When we say so, we are absolutely alive to the fact that whether any such proposed exclusion of women from entry into religious places forms an essential part of a religion would be examined at a subsequent stage.”

“We have no hesitation to say that such an exclusionary practice violates the right of women to visit and enter a temple to freely practise Hindu religion and to exhibit her devotion towards Lord Ayyappa. The denial of this right to women significantly denudes them of their right to worship. We concur with the view of the Amicus Curiae, learned senior counsel, Mr. Raju Ramachandran, that the right guaranteed under Article 25(1) is not only about inter-faith parity but it is also about intra-faith parity. Therefore, the right to practise religion under Article 25(1), in its broad contour, encompasses a non-discriminatory right which is equally available to both men and women of all age groups professing the same religion.”

“Therefore, it can be said without any hesitation or reservation that the impugned Rule 3(b) of the 1965 Rules, 67 framed in pursuance of the 1965 Act, that stipulates exclusion of entry of women of the age group of 10 to 50 years, is a clear violation of the right of such women to practise their religious belief which, in consequence, makes their fundamental right under Article 25(1) a dead letter. It is clear as crystal that as long as the devotees, irrespective of their gender and/or age group, seeking entry to a temple of any caste are Hindus, it is their legal right to enter into a temple and offer prayers. The women, in the case at hand, are also Hindus and so, there is neither any viable nor any legal limitation on their right to enter into the Sabarimala Temple as devotees of Lord Ayyappa and offer their prayers to the deity.”

“The term morality occurring in Article 25(1) of the Constitution cannot be viewed with a narrow lens so as to confine the sphere of definition of morality to what an individual, a section or religious sect may perceive the term to mean. We must remember that when there is a violation of the fundamental rights, the term, morality naturally implies constitutional morality and any view that is ultimately taken by the Constitutional Courts must be in conformity with the principles and basic tenets of the concept of this constitutional morality that gets support from the Constitution.”

“The exclusionary practice being followed at the Sabrimala temple by virtue of Rule 3(b) of the 1965 Rules violates the right of Hindu women to freely practise their religion and exhibit their devotion towards Lord Ayyappa. This denial denudes them of their right to worship. The right to practise religion under Article 25(1) is equally available to both men and women of all age groups professing the same religion.”

“The notions of public order, morality and health cannot be used as colourable device to restrict the freedom to freely practise religion and discriminate against women of the age group of 10 to 50 years by denying them their legal right to enter and offer their prayers at the Sabarimala temple.”

Justice R F Nariman

“…we are clearly of the view that there is no distinctive name given to the worshippers of this particular temple; there is no common faith in the sense of a belief common to a particular religion or section thereof; or common organization of the worshippers of the Sabarimala temple so as to constitute the said temple into a religious denomination. Also, there are over a thousand other Ayyappa temples in which the deity is worshipped by practicing Hindus of all kinds. It is clear, therefore, that Article 26 does not get attracted to the facts of this case.”

Justice D Y Chandrachud

“The Court must lean against granting constitutional protection to a claim which derogates from the dignity of women as equal holders of rights and protections. In the ethos of the Constitution, it is inconceivable that age could found a rational basis to condition the right to worship. The ages of ten to fifty have been marked out for exclusion on the ground that women in that age group are likely to be in the procreative age. Does the Constitution permit this as basis to exclude women from worship? Does the fact that a woman has a physiological feature – of being in a menstruating age – entitle anybody or a group to subject her to exclusion from religious worship? The physiological features of a woman have no significance to her equal entitlements under the Constitution. All women in the age group of ten and fifty may not in any case fall in the ‘procreative age group’. But that to my mind is again not a matter of substance. The heart of the matter lies in the ability of the Constitution to assert that the exclusion of women from worship is incompatible with dignity, destructive of liberty and a denial of the equality of all human beings. These constitutional values stand above everything else as a principle which brooks no exceptions, even when confronted with a claim of religious belief. To exclude women is derogatory to an equal citizenship.”

“Human dignity postulates an equality between persons. The equality of all human beings entails being free from the restrictive and dehumanizing effect of stereotypes and being equally entitled to the protection of law. Our Constitution has willed that dignity, liberty and equality serve as a guiding light for individuals, the state and this Court. Though our Constitution protects religious freedom and consequent rights and practices essential to religion, this Court will be guided by the pursuit to uphold the values of the Constitution, based in dignity, liberty and equality. In a constitutional order of priorities, these are values on which the edifice of the Constitution stands. They infuse our constitutional order with a vision for the future – of a just, equal and dignified society. Intrinsic to these values is the anti-exclusion principle. Exclusion is destructive of dignity. To exclude a woman from the might of worship is fundamentally at odds with constitutional values.”

“It was briefly argued that women between the ages of ten and fifty are not allowed to undertake the pilgrimage or enter Sabarimala on the ground of the ‘impurity’ associated with menstruation. The stigma around menstruation has been built up around traditional beliefs in the impurity of menstruating women. They have no place in a constitutional order. These beliefs have been used to shackle women, to deny them equal entitlements and subject them to the dictates of a patriarchal order. The menstrual status of a woman cannot be a valid constitutional basis to deny her the dignity of being and the autonomy of personhood. The menstrual status of a woman is deeply personal and an intrinsic part of her privacy. The Constitution must treat it as a feature on the basis of which no exclusion can be practised and no denial can be perpetrated. No body or group can use it as a barrier in a woman’s quest for fulfilment, including in her finding solace in the connect with the creator.”

“We have held that the devotees of Lord Ayyappa do not constitute a religious denomination and the Sabarimala temple is not a denominational temple. The proviso has no application. The notifications which restrict the entry of women between the ages of ten and fifty in the Sabarimala temple cannot stand scrutiny and plainly infringe Section 3. They prevent any woman between the age of ten and fifty from entering the Sabarimala temple and from offering prayers. Such a restriction would infringe the rights of all Hindu women which are recognized by Section 3. The notifications issued by the Board prohibiting the entry of women between ages ten and fifty-five, are ultra vires Section 3.”

“In any case, the exclusion of women from the Sabarimala temple effects both, the religious and civic rights of the individual. The anti-exclusion principle would disallow a claim based on Article 25 and 26 which excludes women from the Sabarimala Temple and hampers their exercise of religious freedom. This is in keeping with over-arching liberal values of the Constitution and its vision of ensuring an equal citizenship.”

“The social exclusion of women, based on menstrual status, is a form of untouchability which is an anathema to constitutional values. Notions of “purity and pollution”, which stigmatize individuals, have no place in a constitutional order.”

“In any event, the practice of excluding women from the temple at Sabarimala is not an essential religious practice. The Court must decline to grant constitutional legitimacy to practices which derogate from the dignity of women and to their entitlement to an equal citizenship.”

“Hindu women constitute a ‘section or class’ of Hindus under clauses (b) and (c) of Section 2 of the 1965 Act. Rule 3(b) of the 1965 Rules enforces a custom contrary to Section 3 of the 1965 Act. This directly offends the right of temple entry established by Section 3. Rule 3(b) is ultra vires the 1965 Act.”

Justice Indu Malhotra

“The Respondents and the Intervenors have made out a plausible case that the Ayyappans or worshippers of the Sabarimala Temple satisfy the requirements of being a religious denomination, or sect thereof, which is entitled to the protection provided by Article 26. This is a mixed question of fact and law which ought to be decided before a competent court of civil jurisdiction.”

“The limited restriction on the entry of women during the notified age group does not fall within the purview of Article 17 of the Constitution.”

“In the present case, women of the notified age group are allowed entry into all other temples of Lord Ayyappa. The restriction on the entry of women during the notified age group in this Temple is based on the unique characteristic of the deity, and not founded on any social exclusion. The analogy sought to be drawn by comparing the rights of Dalits with reference to entry to temples and women is wholly misconceived and unsustainable.”

“All forms of exclusion would not tantamount to untouchability. Article 17 pertains to untouchability based on caste prejudice. Literally or historically, untouchability was never understood to apply to women as a class. The right asserted by the Petitioners is different from the right asserted by Dalits in the temple entry movement. The restriction on women within a certain age-band, is based upon the historical origin and the beliefs and practises of the Sabarimala Temple.”

“In the present case, the character of the temple at Sabarimala is unique on the basis of centuries old religious practises followed to preserve the manifestation of the deity, and the worship associated with it. Any interference with the mode and manner of worship of this religious denomination, or sect, would impact the character of the Temple, and affect the beliefs and practises of the worshippers of this Temple.”

“The practise of celibacy and austerity is the unique characteristic of the deity in the Sabarimala Temple. Hindu deities have both physical/temporal and philosophical form. The same deity is capable of having different physical and spiritual forms or manifestations. Worship of each of these forms is unique, and not all forms are worshipped by all persons.”

Kindly click on the link below to read the full judgment:                         


—India Legal Bureau

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