The Constitution, Women and Religion: A Tension-Filled Love Triangle

– Riya Nagendra, II B.A English


The Supreme Court’s Sabarimala verdict has been one of the most hotly discussed issues in the past month, so anyone who played Diwali Party Conversation Topics Bingo, ticked that one right off. It is quite an interesting affair to discuss because there are so many ways to look at the issue.

There is, first of all, the very obvious approach to the debate – that the reason behind the temple’s rule is blatantly sexist and is built upon a precedent that portrays women as wicked seductresses for merely existing as fertile beings. Religion, being such a huge influence in the lives of most people, has to keep up with the times. The verdict acknowledges and enforces this.

It does also, however, set another dangerous precedent (like a terrible exchange offer – one bad precedent for another) at a point in time when the government is overly keen on matters of religion. How far can constitutional machinery interfere with matters of religion? Consider that not all judges may be as progressive and logical in their reasoning as the five judge bench that considered the Sabarimala case and the prospect of an iffy judge and an overzealous ruling party is not an alluring one.

There were two things that I was sure of in my head when the verdict initially came out. One, that Sabarimala was rather like a private club that is free to set its own rules – just like any other club that has a members-only policy, or sets a dress code, the temple has its own restrictions on entry.

It seems I was not quite right about this. Sabarimala temple is run by the Travancore Devasvom Board, an affiliate authority of the Kerala government. Which means the temple is a government institution, not a private club; this why the Supreme Court was even allowed to address the issue in the first place. Sabarimala was legally classified as a “state”, that is, a body at least partially funded by the government, while also being a legitimate organisation in and of itself. The judiciary’s purpose is to ensure that fundamental rights are protected in government bodies, and four out of five judges on the bench agreed that allowing women into the temple would fulfil this. There is still a large debate about whether a secular government should be able to amend religious tradition, if it is not a dire social evil (like Sati, for example), but attempting to qualify various degrees of societal evil is a very subjective slippery slope.

Since the verdict, there have been a mass of protests at the temple, making it very difficult for women pilgrims to enter the temple, or even for women journalists to report around the area. As a democracy, we should be all for protests, but obviously peaceful ones, where protesters do not physically and verbally abuse the people they do not agree with it.

While the government has a duty to enforce the verdict of the Supreme Court, there has been some dissent from certain ends of the political spectrum, and this stance makes things very clear for voters participating in the 2019 elections, just like the recent renaming of some cities. Some politicians claim to remain neutral, but whether this alleged neutrality is a political gambit to preserve their vote bank, or a serious thoughtful consideration of events is anyone’s guess.

All in all, the journey from the verdict to the present, much like a woman’s pilgrimage to Sabarimala has been a messy one, and finally the only question on everyone’s mind is, “Where will it all end?”

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