The Sabarimala tension, explained

The ongoing furore over the entry of women into Sabarimala temple, which dominated front pages this week, tells us a lot about Indian polity: the controversy and contradictions surrounding Supreme Court judgements; the clash of individual and religious rights; political parties prioritising political gains over the maintenance of law and order.

What: The doors of the Sabarimala temple in Kerala dedicated to Lord Ayyappa were closed for women of a “menstruating age” — those between the ages of 10 and 50.

Why: to preserve the strict celibate (“abstaining from marriage and sexual relations”) nature of the deity. Allowing women of menstruating age would interfere with the essential religious practice, devotees say.

The controversy: People opposed to the practice argue that “prohibition of women’s entry to the shrine solely on the basis of womanhood is derogatory” while supporters say that “Sabarimala has some unique customs and systems. The uniqueness is the soul of every temple” and that must be respected. (The Hindu)

The legal challenge to the exclusion of women in the 10-50 age group from the Sabarimala temple in Kerala represented a conflict between the group rights of the temple authorities in enforcing the presiding deity’s strict celibate status and the individual rights of women to offer worship there. (The Hindu)

R Jagannathan, Editorial Director of Swarajya, argues that differentiated practice is not always discrimination.

If Sabarimala is about a celibate God and giving priority to male-bonding in worship, it is not a tradition that should be easily discarded. It’s like setting up a gym or club specifically for one gender, with limited rights for the other….Reason: a specific practice in a specific temple or dargah or mosque cannot be said to be totally unfair if it is not the general practice everywhere. What should be called out is consistent discriminatory practices across temples or mosques, not the oddball institution with has an idiosyncratic tradition. (Swarajya)

The Supreme Court verdict: In the last week of September, the Supreme Court struck down the ban and decided that women of all age groups can enter the Ayyappa temple.** In a 4:1 majority ruling, the court said that the temple practice violates the rights of Hindu women and that banning entry of women to shrine is gender discrimination.

(In the past two years, courts have unlocked the gates of Shani Shingnapur temple and Haji Ali mosque for women.)

What happened this week: This Wednesday, the doors of the temple were opened for the first time after the SC judgement. However, “females who tried to make it to the shrine met a wall of resistance in the form of regular devotees, who turned them away, intimidated journalists and clashed with the police.” (Business Standard)

The politics: “Given the situation, the Supreme Court verdict will have practical value only if there is political consensus,” G Pramod Kumar argued in the Indian Express. Both the BJP and the Congress have politicised the issue to corner the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Kerala state government.

The BJP and the Congress opposed it and said that the decision by the Constitutional Bench should be challenged. The two parties had a logically absurd argument: they said that they respected the Supreme Court verdict, but the traditional rituals and the sentiments of the devotees also needed to be respected. While the government was duty-bound to defend the Constitution, the BJP and Congress were bent upon reaping political capital from the issue. (Indian Express)

The big picture: We go to courts to resolve disputes. We argue, we make our case and then leave it to the judiciary to decide. Not all will agree with a court’s ruling. And that’s okay.

In the Sabarimala case, this divide runs deeper. As the NYT noted:

…the dispute is about something much broader than access to a temple: whether Supreme Court rules can be enforced in a spectacularly diverse country of 1.3 billion people, where progressive court orders issued in New Delhi are abstract, or optional, in rural parts of India, and communities are intensely organized around religion. (New York Times)

If one wants to fight the judgement, they should follow constitutional procedures by filing a review/appeal. The law will stay so unless overturned by another ruling. But until that happens, for the society to function, the decision should be accepted as the law of the land. Violence, no.

Aggrieved parties have already sought a review of the Supreme Court verdict. They must desist from taking the issue to the streets and whipping up passions around it. (Indian Express)

This is why I find the cognitive dissonance surrounding Supreme Court decisions so damning. When convenient, people say things like “The SC has decided this. How can you argue against that? Are you wiser than the court?”. When the court decides against their stated position, the same people look down on the court.