SC bench to decide on Sabarimala ban

The Supreme Court today referred to a five-judge constitution bench the question whether the ban on female devotees aged 10 to 50 at the famed Sabarimala temple in Kerala violates the women's fundamental rights.

By R. Balaji
  • Published 14.10.17
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The Sabarimala temple

New Delhi, Oct. 13: The Supreme Court today referred to a five-judge constitution bench the question whether the ban on female devotees aged 10 to 50 at the famed Sabarimala temple in Kerala violates the women's fundamental rights.

The controversial custom has been in vogue for centuries on the ground that the entry of women who are in the reproductive age could vitiate the strict celibacy practised by the presiding deity, Ayyappa.

The constitution bench will decide questions such as:

• Whether the practice amounts to "discrimination" and thereby violates Articles 14 (equality), 15 (non-discrimination) and 17 (abolition of untouchability); and whether it is protected by Articles 25 (freedom of religion) and 26 (freedom to manage religious affairs).

• Whether the temple has a denominational character and, if so, whether a religious denomination that is managed by a statutory board and receives grants from the Consolidated Fund of Kerala and Tamil Nadu can follow such a practice.

Kerala High Court had backed the curbs on the ground that they were "in accordance with the usage prevalent from time immemorial".

A lawyers' forum, Indian Young Lawyers Association, and several women's groups have challenged the curbs as unconstitutional, while the temple management has argued that the custom is part of Hindu religious practices, protected under Article 25.

Kerala's Marxist government had initially supported the practice but later changed its stand in court and opposed the tradition.

The bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices R. Banumathi and Ashok Bhushan, which had earlier heard extensive arguments, today said that since the matter related to various constitutional rights, a constitution bench should judge it.

State minister for temple affairs Kadakampally Surendran welcomed the move, saying the Left government would stick to its policy against any gender discrimination.

Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan said he would wait to read the ruling before commenting.

The temple authorities too welcomed the decision since the bench would examine whether the practice, enforced under Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965, was protected under Articles 25 and 26.

"Our feeling is that the honourable Supreme Court took into account our affidavit that pleaded for referring the matter to the constitution bench since this is an issue about the fundamental rights of worshippers," temple board president Prayar Gopalakrishnan said.

Congress leader Pandalam Sudhakaran, however, suggested the curbs owed to the terrain, which he said once involved a 40km trek up and down that took three weeks.

"The original reason for not allowing women of a certain age to enter was that the temple was located in a dense forest with wild animals," he said. "Of course, things have changed now with a motorable road for quite some distance before the trek begins."

Apart from the ban on women aged 10 to 50, people are welcomed to the temple irrespective of caste and religion. Playback singer K.J. Yesudas, a Catholic, is a regular visitor.

The pilgrims first pray at the mosque of Vavarswami or Vavar (Malayalam for Babar) in Erumeli, several kilometres ahead of the Ayyappa shrine.

There is no agreement whether Vavar was a warrior or a saint from Arabia. "But Vavar is still respected by everyone who treks to the hill shrine," Sudhakaran said.

Additional reporting by K.M. Rakesh