Sabarimala is an ancient Sastha temple dedicated to Lord Ayappa. It is located in the Periyar Tiger Reserve in the Western Ghat mountain ranges of Pathanamthitta District, Kerala. The temple is open to people belonging to all religions. The pilgrims are required to undertake a 41-day penance to visit the temple.
In 1991, the temple’s custom of prohibiting the women of menstruating age was challenged before the Kerala High Court in S. Mahendran v. The Secretary, Travancore. The custom was upheld by the court as constitutional and justified. In 2006, Indian Young Lawyers Association filed a public interest litigation petition before the Supreme Court challenging the Sabarimala Temple’s custom of prohibiting women of menstruating from entering the temple. The Association argued that the custom violates the rights to equality under Article 14 and freedom of religion under Article 25 of female devotees. The Supreme Court issued notices to the parties on 18th August 2006. After the matter was referred to a three-judge bench on 7th March 2008, it came up for hearing seven years later, on 11th January 2016.
The case was finally referred to a Constitution bench comprising of former CJI Deepak Mishra, Justice R Bhanumathi and Justice Ashok Bhushan. On 28th September 2018, the Constitution Bench comprising of CJI Deepak Mishra, Justice Rhington Nariman, Justice Indu Malhotra, Justice A M Khanwilkar and Justice D Y Chandrachud, delivered the judgment. The court by 4:1 majority ruled that Sabarimala’s exclusion of women violated the fundamental rights of women between the ages of 10-50 years and Rule 3(b) of the Public Worship Rules was unconstitutional.
Justice Indu Malhotra, the sole lady judge in the bench, was the sole dissenting voice that stood for the traditions of the temple. She observed that matters of deep religious sentiment should not be interfered with by the court. She said that the shrine and the deity are protected by Article 25 of the constitution and hence, the court should not interfere unless there is an aggrieved person from that religion or section. Justice Malhotra further observed that the subject of rationality should not be seen in religious beliefs and that there are clear attributes that there exists a section with identifiable characteristics, they constitute religious denomination.
While the case was sub-judice, several women’s groups and NGOs had run a campaign named ‘Ready to wait’, signifying that the women devotees of Lord Ayappan are ready to reach the age of 50 so they can take the pilgrimage for darshan. The NGO People for Dharma, activists Anjali George, Padma Pillai and lawyer J Sai Deepak have been crucial in uniting thousands of devotees and supporters around the world.
Soon after the Supreme court decision in the case was delivered, protests erupted against the decision of the court. Men and women came out on the streets protesting against the interference of the court in the traditions of the temple. A review has been filed in the Supreme Court against the judgment by the Pandalam royal family, the Nair Service Society, the Tanthri or the chief priest of the Sabarimala temple and National Ayyappa Devotees Association.
Despite being aware of the outrage among the devotees against the judgment, the Kerala Chief Minister refused to file a review petition against the court order. He said that he will abide by the decision of the Apex Court and will provide facilities to devotees who wish to visit Sabarimala. The temple priests boycotted the talks called by the Kerala government.
No female devotee of Lord Ayyappa tried to enter the shrine. Two women activists, Kavitha Jakkala (a journalist) and Rehana Fatima (a Muslim), none of whom was a devotee of Lord Ayyappa, tried to enter the shrine amidst full police protection but they were met with resistance of the protesting devotees. Another woman, Mary Sweety, also returned midway as she was stopped by the protesters. The erstwhile royal family of Pandalam asked the head priest to close the doors of the shrine as two women headed for the temple under police protection. Meanwhile, the State Devaswom (religious trusts) minister, Kadakampally Surendran, said that while people of all ages should be allowed to go there, it should not be made into a place where activists come and showcase their power.
The BJP came out strongly in support of Ayappa devotees with the BJP President Amit Shah assuring that the Karyakartas of the BJP will be standing beside the devotees of Lord Ayyappa like a rock in the battle to defend the tradition of Sabarimala. The Congress party which initially welcomed the Supreme Court verdict, later on witnessing the mounting protests by the devotees, took a soft stand and said that while the SC verdict is welcome, traditions at religious places of worship must not be disturbed.
Amidst the growing protests and the coldness of the Communist government towards the devotees, the former TDB president Prayar Gopalakrishnan started the ‘no-donation campaign’ to mark protest over women’s entry in the temple. He urged the devotees to deposit paper pieces with the writing ‘Swami Saranam’ in the offering boxes instead of money. The Communist government crossing the limits of humanity lathicharged the peaceful protesters and arrested thousands of them. Cases were registered against hundreds of peaceful devotees. The Kerala High Court expressed displeasure over the action of the Kerala government.
The Kerala government had beefed up the security at the shrine as the temple reopened on Nov 5 and 6 to ensure the safe entry of women in the temple. However, no woman of the restricted age group entered the temple. The Lord Ayyappa temple’s three-month-long pilgrim season is commencing from November 17 and the state government has reiterated that all devotees would be allowed to offer prayers at the shrine.
As per latest reports, the Supreme Court has admitted all 49 review petitions on the September 28 verdict. An open court hearing to commence on January 22.