Sabarimala: Truth Untold, a Case Study

India, notable for its rich diversity and plurality, has been known to be an egalitarian society. With the right to equality enshrined in the Indian constitution, the discrimination based on caste, class, gender and religion, has seemingly obsolete in the modern era. Nevertheless, the blatant injustice suffered by the marginalized sections in the hands of the patriarchal world unveils the fact that inequality is still a palpable truth in the so-called “progressive” society.

Right from the segregation on wages among men and women at work to the denial of access to women to certain places of worship, inequality lingers around the nook and corner of the society. Apparently, the religious institutions which ought to have ensured impartiality among the people explicitly created a barrier discriminating the opposite sexes. Sticking to the age-old customs and traditions, the vehement opposition of religious heads towards the entry of women in certain religious places like Sabarimala in Kerala foregrounds the breach of fundamental rights manifested in the Indian constitution.

The restriction regarding the entry of women aged between 10 and 50 in the hill shrine of Lord Ayyappa at Sabarimala in Kerala traces back to the time immemorial. But the constraint became a law, following the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by a devotee on the ground that Lord Ayyappa was celibate and the entry of women belonging to the aforementioned age group should be prohibited to prevent the deviation of the idol from celibacy. In 1991, Kerala High court issued directions preventing the entry of women in the particular age group.

In the year 2006, another PIL was filed by the Indian Young Lawyers Association in the Supreme Court against the rules and regulations provided by the Travancore Devaswom Board, the authority which controls Sabarimala Temple and the State Government. This was based on the fact that the regulations which restrict the entry of women in Sabarimala violate the right to equality (Article 14 and 15) and the right to freedom of religion (Article 25) of women (Lawyers Collective). The State governments which ruled over the years took contradictory stands with the government under United Democratic Front supporting the prohibition whereas Left Democratic Front opposing it.

Recently, the controversy regarding the prohibition was brought into the spotlight with the change of stance by the State Government deviating from the additional Affidavit filed by the previous government which advocated the ban. The Supreme Court has reserved the decision on whether the Constitution Bench has to be instituted or not. Meanwhile, the Travancore Devaswom Board, Ayyappa Dharma Sena and Ayyappa Devotee Associations vigorously oppose the current stance of the State government which favours the entry of women in the temple. The questionable aspect lies in the constitutional provision regarding the religious freedom which is highlighted in the Article 26 (A). It reads, “Subject to public order, morality and health, every religious denomination or any section thereof shall have the right to manage its own affairs in matters of religion”. The ambiguity regarding the extent to which religious denominations can exercise its power on matters like the entry of women in temples is evident in the provision which is essentially used by the people supporting the ban.

Though the ban regarding the entry of women belonging to the age group 10-50 is widely reported by the media, it can be noted that majority of the media doesn’t go beyond what have been fed to them. The media has quoted the statements by the Supreme Court and the opinions on both sides verbatim but it failed to analyse the real issue. The media did not even carry the real reasons behind the practice that was imposed centuries ago.

The age group on which prohibition is imposed clearly denotes the physical condition which is during when the women menstruate during her lifetime. This can be directly linked to the notion of “purity” that prevails in the mindset of the patriarchal world. The concept of “impurity” with respect to the menstruation provokes the conservative society to discriminate women as they attain the age of puberty. This preconceived notion regarding menstruation is what reflected in the prevention of entry of women in the temple. However, the majority of the media reports that have been taken for the study had not mentioned this fact.

As the tradition belonged to the bygone era when the transportation and the travel through the forest were difficult, it appears to be senseless to hold the same tradition when the times have changed. The restriction on menstruating women on earlier times was primarily due to the fear of the attack of wild animals while traveling through the hilly region. But, as the times have changed, the restriction which was meant for the safety of women has turned into a prohibition.

Some of the media appear to have been supportive of the restriction on women. The article by Dinesh Unnikrishnan appeared in First post (dated Nov 8, 2016) says:

Sabarimala is not a case of caste or colour-based oppression or ostracisation of any particular community from the mainstream. It is also not an institution that has upheld any social evil like Sati or child marriage. The reason why for centuries, the temple has not encouraged women in the age group of 10-50, to enter within its walls is an age-old faith that has been the cornerstone of the very existence of temple.

Faith says that the deity of the temple, Lord Ayyappa, is a brahmachari (a celibate God) and he is averse to the presence of women of the menstruating age group. Women outside this age group can enter the temple and that has been always so.

Similarly Rahul Easwar, president of Ayyappa Dharma Sena who wrote an analysis on the issue in Hindustan Times (dated Nov 8, 2016) points out: “The deity in a temple is a legal entity who is a perpetual minor, according to Indian law, the Constitution and dozens of Supreme Court verdicts. The deity has rights like you and me.”

But both the articles did not look upon the breach of the constitutional right of women. What mirrors in these write-ups is their inability to perceive the concept of God. By the personification of God, what Easwar conveniently ignored is the perception of God that is often beyond human understanding. Further, when he writes, “Article 25 and dozens of Supreme Court judgments protect the right to faith, temples and deities”, he forgets the fact that right to equality is as important as the right to faith.

The article by Satya Prasoon which appeared in The Wire (dated Nov 7, 2016) throws light into important constitutional provisions. It clearly states:

According to Article 25(2) (b), the state has the overriding power to bring a legislation to provide for social reform or throwing open of Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all classes and sections of Hindus. This power can be used to reform all retrograde aspects of religious practice and customs, especially in matters of temple entry.

Article 25(2) (b) is living proof that the constitution-makers were quite wary of unfair, discriminatory practices within religious customs and committed to purging them.

The social media campaign #ReadyToWait which supports the ban on women did not really substantiate the logic behind their stance. Padma Pillai, the campaigner simply says that the deity “prefers” it.

Charmy Harikrishnan in her article which appeared in Economic Times (dated Sept 4, 2016) observes that the restriction was just 25 years old. When she says, “The queen of Travancore is also reported to have visited the temple in 1940 when she might have been just 45”, it is evident that the recent restriction is nothing but a curb inflicted upon the women by the orthodox patriarchy.

The reportage on Sabarimala issue has not taken into account several factors including the causes that led to the restriction. Except for a few media, others tend to support the prohibition. As the people have a tendency to follow the bandwagon, the media too, haven’t really taken the initiative to make them understand the violation of fundamental rights in the name of religion. The people who advocated the ban made use of the vagueness in the Article 26 of the Indian constitution. Further, even the women consider the discrimination faced by them as a part of tradition and the media appears to be supporting it.

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