The tug of war between the power of the state and the rights of the people is at the heart of a constitutional democracy. Today’s verdict from the Honorable Supreme Court, delivered through majority judgement, demands that women of all ages should be permitted to enter the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala, the ancient abode of Lord Ayyappan.
This verdict immediately raises many important questions, each having to do with the boundaries of state power and the limits of religious autonomy. Can a temple, or any other place of worship, be forced to carry out practices that they sincerely believe to be against their religion?
In this case, the Sabarimala Temple had religious objections to the entry of women aged between 10 and 50 years of age. As Hindus, you and I may have a lively debate regarding the propriety of that, but there is no doubt about what the temple authorities wanted.
If a temple is to be treated as a public place, how far does this argument go? The Constitution of India gives equal rights to all people, irrespective of gender or religion. Does this mean that a Hindu temple is also obligated to admit non-Hindus? How about discrimination on the basis of food habits? Several Hindu temples do not allow non-vegetarian food. Would that also be considered illegal?
How about forms of dress? Several houses of worship impose certain dress codes, both on men and women. Do we need to follow those or not? What if somebody were to try to enter a temple wearing a shirt covered with abusive slogans against Hindu gods? If a temple is to be treated as a public space, must they submit to such forms of Freedom of Expression or not?
There are many Indian states such as Bengal or Karnataka or Kerala, where cow beef is not banned. If a temple is to be treated as a public space such as a park, does it mean that Krishna temples in Bengal or Karnataka should be forced to allow beef consumption on their premises?
And here is the simplest question of all: if a temple is a public space, how can it sponsor any religion at all? Isn’t India supposed to be a secular state? So shouldn’t there be an outright ban on temples?
Hopefully, you have answered “No” to at least some of these questions. Or at the very least, they have made you think. And question the idea of blindly applying laws governing public spaces to a religious group who want nothing more than to run their temple according to their religious beliefs.
At stake here is the basic principle of what the state can and cannot interfere with. Generally speaking, the state cannot interfere with your property. If you own a house, you can choose who to invite to your house. The Constitutional Right to Equality in Article 14 in no way implies that every Indian is equally entitled to live inside your house. The same principle more or less applies to communally owned property, such as a temple.
Most modern democracies believe in the right to bodily autonomy. This means that we own our bodies and can do what we want with them. Basic rights such as freedom of speech, thought, expression, religion, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the right to peacefully petition our government, etc all follow almost directly from this.
The recent Supreme Court judgement decriminalizing homosexuality was built essentially on the same foundation. The fact that we citizens own our bodies.
However, it is also clear that these rights are not absolute. The state can and does interfere with them in exceptional circumstances or matters of compelling public interest. Here are some simple examples:
(1) When the country is at war, the state may seize your property to serve the war effort. Such as commandeering vehicles and airplanes or using your privately owned land for troop training or deployment.
(2) While we do have the right to do what we want with our bodies, this right does not extend to consuming a drug such as heroin. Here the compelling public interest of saving the nation from ruin prevails over our personal right.
(3) Ending widespread systematic discrimination could be seen as a compelling public interest. Such as the practice of untouchability which is expressly forbidden by our Constitution. The United States similarly used the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to end the systematic exclusion of black Americans.
(4) The protection of particularly vulnerable members of the citizenry, especially children, is a matter of compelling public interest. For example, the reprehensible cultural/religious practice of female genital mutilation is forbidden by law in most democratic countries. Incidentally, our Supreme Court is still dithering on whether female genital mutilation in the Shia Dawoodi Bohra community should be outlawed in India.
(5) Taxation. The very existence of the state, running the military, funding schools, hospitals, roads, railways is seen as a compelling public interest. This is what allows the state to take away a portion of our what we earn as taxes.
In each of these instances, the compelling public interest is obvious. If there were no taxes, the Indian state would cease to exist. As a civilized country, we have to protect our baby girls from genital mutilation. And the systematic exclusion of so-called ‘untouchables’ from places of businesses and worship is an extreme injustice that needed to end.
The question is whether the case of Sabarimala Temple can really be put in the category of compelling public interest. This was in no way a form of systemic exclusion, this was a practice at *one* temple, based on what the devotees of Lord Ayyappan consider to be the celibate oath of their living god. Every Hindu temple is unique in its beliefs in some way. This was a singular matter of *one* temple. The very opposite of systemic.
And guess what? There absolutely are Hindu temples and rituals which are women only, with men not allowed. This is part of the inherent plurality of the Hindu way of life. Every Hindu temple is believed to house a living god, who is worshipped as per their preferences. And given the extreme diversity within the Hindu way, there is no question of systemic exclusion of anybody. Just like all across this nation, we have people of various persuasions, beliefs and tastes.
It is my personal belief that the heavy, homogenizing hand of the state has come down upon Sabarimala Temple today, depriving Lord Ayyappan’s devotees of their choices in life and stripping away a bit of the plurality in the Hindu firmament. This is my personal belief. And in no way does my personal belief take away your choices in your life.
Abhishek Banerjee is a math lover who may or not be an Assistant Professor at IISc Bangalore.