THE SABARIMALA DEBATE: CONFLICT OF LAW AND RELIGION

Law is one of the most important aspects of civilized society, It is a set of rules and regulations created by the sovereign; One of the major characteristics of law is growth. Everything changes and so does society and its needs, hence laws are changed over time. Religion is a particular system of faith and worship. It has been there since time immemorial with humanity. To an individual religion is something very close to his/her personal life. The Constitution of India recognizes the importance of religion to an individual and hence has provided the individual with the right to freedom of religion as a fundamental right under article 25 of the Constitution.

But what happens, when religion comes in the way of law provided by the sovereign? What is the exact nature of the relationship between Law and Religion?

The petitioners sought entry of women of all ages to the Sabarimala Temple where, the presiding deity, Lord Ayyappa is worshipped as a Naishtik Brahmachari. The petitioners challenged the constitutional validity of Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship Rules, 1965 from which emanated the restriction of not allowing women aged 10-50 into the temple.  Section 3 of the parent act, the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship 1965 provided for opening of Hindu places of worship to all sections and classes of Hindus while the proviso reserved the right of religious denominations to manage their own affairs. 

The presence of women in the temple, being considered to deviate the deity from his state of celibacy, the assertion that women would not be able to undertake the ritual of Vrutham formed the major grounds of the denial of entry to women of menstruating age.  The ritual of Vrutham is mandatory for pilgrimage to the Sabarimala Temple and includes leading the life of a Brahmachari and distancing oneself from one’s family for a period of 41 days preceding the pilgrimage. 

It is the case of the petitioners that the impugned practice is violative of women’s freedom of conscience and the right to freely practice, profess and propagate religion under Article 25 of the Constitution. At the same time, women are being discriminated against, which is violative of Article 14 of the Constitution, which embodies the principle of equality before law. The petitioners have also argued that women are being treated as untouchables, which is contradictory to Article 17 of the Constitution, which provides for abolishment of untouchability. The practice is also contrary to Article 15 of the Constitution, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, among other grounds. The respondents, in this case, have sought defense under Article 25 of the Constitution stating the practice to be essential in nature, so as to afford protection under the aforementioned Article. The respondents also claim that the devotees of Lord Ayyappa constitute a religious denomination and retain the freedom to manage their own affairs in matters of religion. 

A conflict of rights was the result of both the parties endeavoring to enforce their rights under Article 25(1). Justice Nariman, highlighted in his concurring judgment, and he concluded that the right of the respondents emanating from custom and usage, “must yield to the fundamental right of such women, as they are equally entitled to the right to practice religion, which would be meaningless unless they were allowed to enter the temple.”

The sole dissent of Justice Indu Malhotra found the worshippers of Lord Ayyappa to constitute a separate religious denomination and the custom of not allowing entry to women aged 10-50 years, a practice essential to the religious traditions of the Sabarimala Temple. Justice Indu Malhotra also held the restriction to be essential to the worship of Lord Ayyappa as a Naishtik Brahmachari.

Justice Indu Malhotra read the impugned restriction with the context of the practice of Vrutham, while the majority judgment held exclusion on the basis of physiological characteristics to be discriminatory, reducing women to untouchables by contemplating concepts of pollution and purity. 

Article 25(2)(b) empowers the government to make laws that provide for social welfare and reform or throwing open of Hindu religious institutions. Justice Indu Malhotra strongly affirmed that judicial review of religious practices ought not to be taken by courts of law since it would “negate freedom to practice one’s religion with one’s beliefs and faith.” On the contrary, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud viewed Article 25(2) to be reformatory in nature, in consonance with the constitutional objective to provide “justice to those who are victims to traditional belief systems founded in graded inequality” and guarantee to “protect the dignity of all individuals who have faced systematic discrimination, prejudice and social exclusion”.

The dissenting judgment sought to preserve the religious tenets unique to the temple. But Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, in his concurring judgement, questions if the Constitution would anymore be meaningful if it upholds the entitlement to do what is derogatory to women. 

The dissenting opinion further reads the word ‘morality’ in Article 25 as well as Article 26 as morality of the Court, which is subjective. It is for the same reason that the Court must abstain from scrutinizing a religious issue on the touchstone of morality, states the dissenting judgment. But the majority judgement by CJI Deepak Misra, states that ‘morality’ refers to constitutional morality and encapsulates within it all that our Constitution stands for. The majority judgement embodies a purposive reading of the provisions ensuring that different articles within part III of the Constitution do not turn against one another.

The concurring judgment of Justice D.Y. Chandrachud further provides that by the order of prioritisation, the right to religious freedom is to be “exercised in a manner consonant with the vision underlying the provisions of part III. Hence, the exclusion of women from religious worship is subordinate to constitutional values of liberty, dignity and equality.”

It was, Justice Malhotra’s dissent and Justice Chandrachud concurrence, which defines the actual relationship between Law and Religion at its best. J.Malhotra was focused on the part that religion has its own significance and hence it should be immunized to a certain aspect from constitution, whereas J. Chandrachud was of the opinion that religion holds control over social aspects of the individual as well and hence cannot be immunized from the constitution. Religion, no matter how important was never meant to override the constitution.

Aishwarya Says:

I have always been against Glorifying Over Work and therefore, in the year 2021, I have decided to launch this campaign “Balancing Life”and talk about this wrong practice, that we have been following since last few years. I will be talking to and interviewing around 1 lakh people in the coming 2021 and publish their interview regarding their opinion on glamourising Over Work.

If you are interested in participating in the same, do let me know.

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We are also running a series Inspirational Women from January 2021 to March 31,2021, featuring around 1000 stories about Indian Women, who changed the world. #choosetochallenge

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