Today, a five judge bench of the Supreme Court decided to refer a bundle of cases to a larger seven judge bench: the Sabarimala Temple case, petitions relating to entry of women into mosques as well as the matter of female genital mutilation within the Dawoodi Bohra community.
At first sight, these might appear like similar issues, all related to the common theme of dignity and rights of women. They are not.
One of the things that has been missing from the public discourse surrounding Sabarimala Temple has been moral clarity. So here is my humble effort to explain things, carved into a simple Q & A format.
Isn’t it wrong that Sabarimala Temple denies entry to women (of certain ages)?
That is not for us to decide. That is for the management of the temple to decide in consultation of devotees of Ayyappa.
But still, isn’t it always discriminatory to admit people of one sex and not another?
Let’s make this simpler. Suppose that Sabarimala were not a temple but a school exclusively for boys. Or for that matter, a school exclusively for girls. Would you still call it discrimination? Would you still ask the state to intervene and make sure that the Sabarimala school admits students of all sexes?
Shouldn’t the state act to end discrimination in public spaces?
The Indian Constitution does allow for an ‘activist state’ : where the state intervenes to ensure social justice and dignity for all.
However, a temple is not a public space in the same way as a public park or even a privately owned shopping mall. This is intuitively clear to all. For example, beef is legal in Kerala. If you think of a temple as a public space similar to a park, then should it be legal to eat beef inside the temple? What if someone wanted to enter the temple wearing a shirt carrying abusive slogans against the gods? Can they be denied entry for that?
I believe most people would agree that the temple should be allowed to ban beef eating within its premises.
The truth is that the status of Hindu temples in India is based on a tricky compromise between religion and state. The state takes over the temple and in return agrees to respect religious sentiments in the running of temple affairs.
So the state should never intervene just because a temple says they have a tradition? What if they try to deny entry to Dalits?
The question is under what circumstances should the state intervene. When there is a systemic social injustice that denies dignity to a group of people, the state should intervene and set it right.
Denying temple entry to Dalits has a long and painful history in our country. If a temple tried to deny entry to someone based on caste, the state should intervene and act against them immediately.
The Sabarimala case is exactly the opposite. It is *one* temple with one specific tradition grounded in ancient faith.
How is the Sabarimala case different from women seeking entry to mosques?
Because women are uniformly denied entry to mosques. This is a systemic injustice that is happening everywhere. State intervention is needed to correct this.
In the case of Sabarimala, this is one temple making a choice based on a specific tradition. There is no history of Hindu women being denied entry to temples as a general rule.
If Sabarimala is allowed to uphold its tradition, why not triple talaq?
Again, triple talaq is a systemic injustice that humiliates women, which could affect almost any Muslim woman anywhere.
Sabarimala is one temple in one corner of Kerala.
The reality is that, once you strip away the rhetoric and agendas, the Sabarimala Temple issue is quite simple. The matter has been unnecessarily caught up in the rhetoric of gender justice. At the heart of all this is just one temple in one place with a specific tradition. The existence of this temple and this tradition causes no systemic harm or humiliation to anyone. If you do not like the tradition, you don’t have to be in their face with your business. You can always go to the hundreds of thousands of other Hindu temples all around the country. No harm done.