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SC last-minute stay on devadasi ritual

New Delhi, Feb. 13: The Supreme Court today asked the Karnataka chief secretary to take steps to prevent unmarried girls from being forced to become devadasis at a February 13-14 religious event, staying the practice of “dedication” that eventually leaves these temple courtesans vulnerable to abuse.

The court also asked the Centre, the National Commission for Women and Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra to respond to a public interest plea that said similar practices were continuing in these states.

The PIL, which sought suitable guidelines to rid the country of the menace, said hundreds of young girls, all from poor and mostly Dalit families, were being exploited in the name of being dedicated to temple deities.

“It is a very serious matter, you should have come to us earlier,” the three-judge bench told V.K. Biju and Vijay Lakshmi, counsel for the NGO SL Foundation and its president, Sabu Steephen.

The PIL had alleged that devadasis would be dedicated at the event on the intervening night of February 13-14 in front of the Uttangi Durga temple in Karnataka’s Davangere.

Chief Justice P. Sathasivam and Justices Ranjana Prakash Desai and Ranjan Gogoi asked the chief secretary to take necessary steps to prevent the so-called dedication service and directed the court registry to fax a copy of the order to the Karnataka bureaucrat.

Under the devadasi system, girls on attaining puberty are married off to the local temple’s female deity at a ceremony willingly consented to by the parents in most cases, though in some cases local panchayats have been known to use a certain degree of coercion.

After being “married” off and “dedicated” to the deity, the girls are forced to sing and dance before their village chiefs, rich landlords and other influential persons and have often been sexually exploited.

The PIL cited newspaper reports that said that despite the Karnataka Devadasis (Prohibition of Dedication) Act, 1982, the practice continued in the state and also in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra.

“It is clearly indicated in the report(s) that (on) the full moon on Magha month (February 14) an effort is being made to bring hundreds of girls to dedicate them as devadasis....

“The act of dedication of devadasis is a matter of national shame and the same is to be stopped forthwith in all parts of the country,” the PIL said.

The petition alleged that many devadasis, exploited by local landlords and influential men, had been left to fend for themselves and were dying of poverty or sexually transmitted diseases.

It also said all the states mentioned had enacted the Devadasi Prohibition Act in 1982 but no measures had been taken to curb the practice.

The petition, which cited figures from the National Commission for Women, claimed there were 2.5 lakh devadasi girls in the country.