Supreme court verdict: Sabarimala temple #42

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'Supreme court has been at the forefront in reformation of religion in India'. Discuss in light of the recent Kerala’s Sabarimala temple Supreme court judgement.

Why in news?

  • In a recent judgement the Supreme Court allowed women, irrespective of their age, to enter Kerala’s Sabarimala temple.

What is the verdict?

  • In a 4-1 majority, the court struck down provisions of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965.
  • The Rules banned women between the age of 10 and 50 from entering the Sabarimala temple, a practice in place for centuries.
  • The judgment came over a clutch of petitions challenging the ban, which was upheld by the Kerala High Court.

What is the SC’s rationale behind the verdict?

  • The Constitution protects religious freedom in two ways:
  1. protects an individual’s right to profess, practise and propagate a religion
  2. assures protection to every religious denomination to manage its own affairs
  • The Sabarimala temple case represented a conflict between –
  1. the group rights of the temple authorities in enforcing the presiding deity’s strict celibate status
  2. the individual rights of women in 10-50 age group to offer worship there
  • The Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) had argued that they form a denomination and hence be allowed to make rules.
  • The court instead ruled that Ayyappa devotees do not constitute a separate religious denomination.
  • It held that prohibition on women is not an essential part of Hindu religion, and hence the court can intervene.
  • The judgement establishes the principle that individual freedom prevails over professed group rights, even in matters of religion.
  • The judgement relooks at the stigmatisation of women devotees based on a medieval view of menstruation as symbolising impurity and pollution.
  • So much so, exclusion based on the notion of impurity is a form of untouchability.
  • Also, the argument that women of menstruating age could not observe the 41-day period of abstinence failed to make sense.
  • The court noted that any rule based on segregation of women pertaining to biological characteristics is unconstitutional.

What was the dissenting Judge’s remark?

  • Justice Malhotra was the lone woman on the bench who had a dissenting view.
  • She noted that what constitutes essential religious practice is for the religious community to decide and not the court.
  • Notions of rationality cannot be brought into matters of religions.
  • Balance needs to be struck between religious beliefs on one hand and Constitutional principles of non-discrimination and equality on the other.
  • She also stated that the present judgment would not be limited to Sabarimala but will have wide ramifications.
  • So issues of deep religious sentiments should not be ordinarily interfered into by the Court.

What makes the Sabarimala case unique?

  • Ayyappan of Sabarimala is worshipped as a celibate god.
  • Pilgrims are expected to practice celibacy and abstinence during the 41-day vratam (pious observances).
  • Sabarimala stands out among Kerala’s temples spaces for its accommodation of all devotees irrespective of religion and caste.
  • It has thus helped the shrine administrators to evade the rights test – in this case, that of women of a particular age group.
  • The unique and site-specific tradition also kept it outside the purview of the historic temple entry protests.
  • The Travancore Devaswom Board is thus likely to file a review petition after securing support from other religious heads.

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Hemant Bhatt

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