THE Travancore Devosam Board that controls Kerala’s Sabarimala temple surprised the nation when it told the Supreme Court on Wednesday that it supports the entry of women of all ages at the famous hill shrine. The board has opposed any review of the top court’s September order that opened the temple doors to menstruating women between the ages of 10 and 50. The submission was made by the board before the five-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, which was hearing more than 60 petitions, a majority of which wanted the apex court to review the verdict. The board’s submission was totally in contrast to its earlier stand opposing the entry of women of menstruating age. The protagonists of ban had pleaded before the apex court that the celibate nature of the presiding deity, Lord Ayyappa, supports exclusionary practices and that devotees going to Sabarimala cannot question the customs and have to accept it. The Kerala government too told the apex court that there was no need for review of the September verdict pleading that though customs and religious practices are fundamental rights but if they are in conflict with the Constitution they have to go.
Hardcore devotees of Ayyappa prevented women who tried to enter the temple following the Supreme Court verdict. Chaotic scenes were witnessed as some women tried to make their way to the temple. Despite massive opposition at least two women in the banned age group managed to sneak into the temple with the help of security forces. These two women have since been facing boycott from the community. Justice D Y Chandrachud in his order in the Sabarimala case had described barring of women from temple as untouchability. And the ‘purification’ of the temple after the entry of two women proved that there was indeed an element of untouchability in the exclusion of women. Our Constitution has explicitly abolished untouchability. Though many women who tried to enter the temple had to turn back in view of furious agitation by men, the Kerala government claimed that at least 50 women entered the temple.
Though many male bastions have fallen since Independence and women have made inroads in many spheres they are still held as outcast by male chauvinists in the garb of faith in several areas. Gender justice has not fully evolved in the country even though our Constitution is committed to it. Many still hold court orders in matter of faith as infringement of religious customs which have been in practice for long. Though every Indian pledges to abide by Constitution, they do not accept court orders based on constitutional principles. Though India has taken big strides in education, science and technology, many Indians have been blindly following some practices. Time has come that we should not aim just at formal equality but try to achieve substantive equality. The distinction between faith and tradition is artificial and gender justice requires reforms in both. People of all denominations have to appreciate the constitutional vision of gender justice and work towards bringing reforms in the mindset. The enlightened sections in every religious community must fight the forces that are hell bent on retaining the ancient customs and practices.
It has been claimed by sections of hardcore devotees that since Lord Ayyappa led a life of celibacy, women in the menstruating age should not enter the temple dedicated to him as it would be a violation of his virtuous mission. However, there is no conclusive proof that women were barred to the temple in the past. It is said that the practice to bar women was introduced at some point in history, whose reasons are not clear. Thus exclusion of women in Sabarimala is not such an ancient tradition as is made out to be. It has been said that a queen of Travancore visited the temple as late as 1939, which indicates that women were not barred from entry. This fact and a reevaluation of the contemporary social reality might have forced the Devosam board to change its stand and support women’s entry into the temple. The governments should wake up to reality and exercise their executive powers to ensure that gender equality is established in all spheres of social life. Court orders must be implemented in letter and spirit. The hardcore male devotees of Lord Ayyappa must do deep rethinking and accept that it is unjust to keep out women who are in reproductive age as they would not have been there without women like them.