Paying obeisance to a deity is each individual’s own choice and in a deeply religious country like India it is rather a spiritual experience in itself. Moreover the rights related to religion are considered sacrosanct and are protected by the constitution. Religion is a deeply personal choice and unless a person is allowed to freely profess his religion, the fact that it is a fundamental right stands in jeopardy.
The Sabrimala Sree Dharma Sastha temple is located on a hilltop amongst eighteen hills and is surrounded by dense vegetation of the Periyar Tiger reserve. This temple is considered one of the holiest by Hindus. The chief deity of the temple is lord Ayyappa who is believed to be Hariharaputra born of the union of Vishnu (in the form of Mohini) and lord Shiva. Ayyappa is considered to be a celibate god i.e. Nastika Brahamchari. For the traditionally minded people who form the majority, entry of women who are in the stage of menstruation could surely act as a potential distraction for the deity. Not only this, the entire pilgrimage is entangled in certain orthodox trends. There are set time periods to visit the temple and the pilgrims are expected to follow a certain set of rules if they wish to undertake this pilgrimage. The pilgrims are required to undergo a 41 days long period of pious life and abstention from meat and sexual intercourse. Therefore, it stands evident that the Sabrimala pilgrimage is indeed an arduous one involving the mental and physical aspect both.
The present issue hits right at the two most fundamental issues forming the bedrock of Indian constitution – equality and secularism. Since many years females in the age group of 10 – 50 years who are menstruating were debarred from entering the sanctum sanctorum. The reason in believed to be that Lord Ayyappa being the Barahmchari deity would be distracted by the entry of females in the said age group and the piousness of the shrine would stand negated. The case came up before the supreme court and it attracted attention from all walks of life and even internationally especially in the background of the me too movement which has taken the world by a storm and put height an issues related to discrimination against women. The judgement delivered by a bench of 5 judges was reflective of the general conception of the judges that merely on the basis of a biological process to which females are subjected their exclusion from the temple cannot be justified as was so done till date by section 3 (b) of the Kerala Hindu places of public worship authorisation of entry act , 1965 and was supported by the Travancore Devaswom board which is one of the stakeholders in this case. The dissecting opinion delivered by justice Indu Malhotra , on the other hand, states that interference with customary practices or beliefs of particular religion should not be undertaken by courts. Despite this, according to the judgement the present situation stands clear that females of all age groups shall be allowed entry into the shrine. But the judgement has also gathered criticism along with the praise that the judgement is a step in the right direction which gains to uphold the rights of women. The implementation of the judgement is being challenged by different groups and till date there has been no consensus between the stakeholders and government over the future course of action.
This is an opportunity for the people to come together and recognise the perspective of the Supreme Court which has treaded a very risky path in giving this sensitive judgement. No doubts that it is a customary practice but when the customs begins to become irrational and arbitrary, they hit at the core concept of equality. Exclusion of females in a certain age group becomes ‘class’ exclusion and negates the right to equality to women. Arbitrariness in any form jeopardizes the principle of equality. Exclusionary practices if followed for a long period of time as has been done presently only tend to weaken the fabric of a society which can then out to be harmful its people.