In response to a petition filed by Naushad Ahmad Khan, President of the Indian Young Lawyers’ Association, the Supreme Court of India permitted women in the age-group of 10 to 50 years to enter the Ayyappa temple, at Sabarimala in Kerala.
As per the observations made by the Kerala High Court in 1990, entry of women in the said age-group has been restricted since time immemorial. It must be noted, that while devotees across religious groups pay obeisance to the deity who is known to be a “Naishtik Brahmachari”, the verdict has caused an upsurge of Hindu sentiments across the length and breadth of India for multiple reasons, ranging from violation of the deity’s will to judicial overreach to an assault on age-old practices and traditions of the land.
For every devotee who has expressed her discontent and anger by way of either physical protest or otherwise, it is justified by putting the ‘will of the deity’ before the ‘will of the devotee’. However, for every “devotee” who has decided to ‘use’ the Supreme Court judgement as a hurried excuse to trespass the gates of eternally celibate deity, it is justified by putting the ‘will of the devotee’ before the ‘will of the deity’.
For the conservatives, it is outright funny, for anyone to claim themselves as ‘devotee’ and yet put herself before the ‘devoted’. Understandably, the libertarian argues that the devotee is free to practice her devotion and set boundaries for herself, and not police the ambit of the devotion of another person who is well within her rights to call herself a devotee and enter the temple.
However, it is noteworthy, that the verdict has met with broad scale and unprecedented prolonged resistance from various Hindu groups across India, which coerces one’s common wisdom to dive deeper, depart from the rhetoric and comprehend the situation with a reasonable degree of alternation. The judgement is being perceived by a portion of the populace as a way to meddle with Hindu traditions and homogenise the religion.
The Supreme Court in 1995 had stated that “Hinduism is a way of life”. Therefore, it is only fair to maintain its elasticity and facilitate organic evolution, then bring about coercive metamorphosis. For the followers of a lifestyle whose very tenets are a fine blend of concepts as diverse as polytheism, monotheism, henotheism, pantheism, monism, agnostic, humanism, atheism or non-theism, the idea of merging subsuming infinite tributaries of customs, practices, traditions into a single lane is both, foreign and inadmissible.
Hinduism has never shied from progressing and keeping tab with changing needs of society and mankind. However, this evolution has been gradual, internal and rational. For example, it took Raja Ram Mohan Roy, born to a Vaishnavite father and a Shivaite mother, well versed with Vedas, to campaign against the Sati Pratha. Please note, his objective was not limited to the abolishment of Sati alone; he worked towards a broader goal of women rights and his movement addressed issues like polygamy and property inheritance rights for women. This is in contrast to those groups which are miserably using “right to pray” as a proxy for gender equality.
I am irked by the fact that not a single woman has been able to articulate her case for entering the deity’s premises, apart from repeating the exhausted “gender equality” debate. There is no extended consequence that can be achieved from the mere entry of women into the physical premises of a temple, save that these gender evangelists will embark on a perpetual petition expedition, till the time the cultural fabric is devoid from all sorts of diversity. Also, there no loss of life or property has been recorded on account of the age-old tradition.
Expanding the realm of debate on Sabarimala verdict, one has observed growing discomfort within the practising Hindu community. While one is tempted to discard this as a phenomenon of the far-right, the non-negotiable nature of both, protests and debates around Sabarimala, warrant a weighted approach. We have observed far too many instances of petitioners without zero stakes in the cause, appealing for the Lordship’s attention and this trend has disturbed a lot of us.
Right from appeals to regulate the height of human pyramid during Dahi Handi to selectively restricting the sale of firecrackers during Diwali, but not during New Year, attempts to slowly yet steadily standardize the Hindu way of life are glaring. I will not be surprised if a professional petitioner makes a plea to permit footwear in temples on grounds of plausible skin infection. My fears are in line with the observation made by Justice Malhotra “Present judgment won’t be limited to Sabarimala, it will have wide ramifications. Issues of deep religious sentiments shouldn’t be ordinarily interfered into”.
Repeated efforts and pronouncements that interfere and seek to desecrate age-old customs, for the sake of equality or exercise of rights, will be received with defiance, that will only grow with every passing instance. Consistent interventions by the legal ecosystem may erode the faith of certain social groups in the system, and manifest itself in other unwanted forms, including religious activism, compounded social schisms, and scope for the common man to be flippant about law and order.
For a global participant like India, which is known for its cultural equity, it is very important for decision makers to resist from sounding aloof or foreign. Eagerness for an equal opportunity society cannot come at the cost of diluted diversity or scrubbing off common beliefs, especially when the drivers of change appear to be both, selective and motivated.
Gunja Kapoor is a policy analyst based in New Delhi. She tweets at @gunjakapoor