Sabarimala Temple now open for women of all ages, right to equality upheld: SC’s key observations

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Friday ruled that women of all ages can enter the Lord Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala in Kerala. The historic judgement was delivered by a five-judge Constitution bench of the apex court, headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra and also including Justices R F Nariman, D Y Chandrachud, A M Khanwilkar, and Indu Malhotra. In the 4:1 majority verdict, the top court said not allowing entry of women into the temple amounts to gender discrimination and is violative of the rights of Hindu women.

The Supreme Court was pronouncing its judgement on the entry of women of menstrual age in the Sabarimala shrine. Of the five judges, Justice R F Nariman and D Y Chandrachud concurred with the CJI and Justice A M Khanwilkar, while Justice Indu Malhotra gave a dissenting verdict.

Here are some of the key observations made by the judges:

Chief Justice Dipak Misra

The Chief Justice said that banning entry of women into the shrine is gender discrimination and devotion cannot be subjected to discrimination. Law and society are tasked with the task to act as levellers, CJI Misra said, adding patriarchal notions cannot be allowed to trump equality in devotion.

Chief Justice Misra noted that since religion is a way of life and links life with divinity, the Sabarimala Temple practice of banning the entry of menstruating women violates the rights of Hindu women.

Devotees of Lord Ayyappa do not constitute separate denomination, the CJI said further, adding the practice of exclusion of women of 10-50 age group cannot be regarded as essential religious practice.

“Kerala law denies rights to women on ground of physiological reasons,” CJI Misra said.

Justice RF Nariman

Justice Nariman ruled that Sabarimala temple custom barring entry of women of 10-50 age is not supported by Article 25 and 26 of the Constitution, while striking down Rule 3(b) of Kerala Hindu Places of Worship.

Justice D Y Chandrachud

Justice Chandrachud noted in his verdict that one cannot use religion to deny rights of worship to women. “It is also against human dignity,” he said.

Justice Chandrachud also said that devotees of Lord Ayyappa do not constitute separate religious denominations and prohibition on women due to non-religious reasons is a grim shadow of discrimination going on for centuries.

“Popular notion about morality can be offensive to dignity of others. Any custom or religious practice if violates dignity of women by denying them entry due to her physiology is unconstitutional,” Justice Chandrachud stated.

He said banning women of a particular age group from entering the temple cannot be an essential practice of religion, as such an exclusion is violative of their right to liberty, dignity and equality. “Exclusion of women because she menstruates is utterly unconstitutional,” Justice Chandrachud ruled.

Justice Indu Malhotra

Justice Indu Malhotra, who gave a separate dissenting verdict, observed that it is not for the courts to decide which religious practices are to be scrapped except in issues of social evils like 'Sati'. It is important for maintaining the secular atmosphere in India that issues that have deep religious connotation are not tinkered with.

“Issue in this case is not limited to Sabarimala only. It will have far reaching implications for other places of worships as well,” Justice Malhotra said. She noted that the right to equality conflicts with the right to worship of devotees of Lord Ayyappa.

“Notions of rationality cannot be brought into matters of religion. India has diverse religious practices and constitutional morality would allow anyone to profess a religion they believe,” the judge said.

She noted that the doctrine of equality cannot supersede the fundamental right to worship under Article 25. “Lord Ayyappa’s devotees form a separate religious denomination worthy of protection and it is not for the court to interfere in religious practices even if it appears discriminatory,” Justice Malhotra stated.

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