The Author is Sanskriti Rastogi, 2nd-year student of BA LLB (Hons.) from Amity Law School, Noida. She has been keenly interested in Research publications and believes expression of opinions is effective through written works.
The highly captivating case of Indian Young Lawyers Association v State of Kerala, famously known as the Sabrimala temple case is in its bonafide sense considered a landmark case for the interpretation of the Fundamental Rights provided in the Indian Constitution. The immemorial customary practice of prohibiting the women from entering the temple during their menstruating years was challenged and held unconstitutional by the Apex court on 28 September 2018. Presently, a newly appointed judge bench lead by CJI SA Bobde is aiming to settle some underlying significant constitutional questions, before disposal of the review petitions filed after the 2018 judgment by various individuals and organizations.
In 1991, the Kerala High Court passed a judgment in the case of Mahendran v. The Secretary, Travancore, justifying this customary restriction imposed on women aged above 10 years and below 50 years, as constitutional seeing that the custom was prevailing since time immemorial. Following that, a Public Interest Litigation was filed in 2006 by the Indian Young Lawyers Association challenging the customary prohibition. They argued that it was a clear violation of Article 14(Right to equality) and Article 25 (Freedom of religion) of female disciples. After subsequent deliberation, the Supreme Court in a 4:1 majority declared the Sabarimala’s custom as unconstitutional and violative of the fundamental rights of the female disciples primarily laid down in Article 25 and 14. The five-judge bench rejected the submissions of the Travancore Devaswom Board, which argued that Sabarimala custom was protected by Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965, where exclusion of women was allowed if the exclusion is founded on custom. In addition to the striking down of this rule, the apex court also held that the devotees of Lord Ayypan(the deity of Sabrimala Temple) do not constitute a ‘separate religious denomination’.
One of the categorical features of this judgment was the 4:1 majority where the only woman-judge on the bench asserted a dissenting opinion. Justice Indu Malhotra opined that every individual has a separate right to practice their faith according to the profound beliefs and principles of their faith. The fundamental right enshrined in article 25 that gives freedom to practice their religion, is in harmony with the fact of providing the freedom to practice the faith including all its customs and beliefs and equal entitlement of every individual to the same.“It is irrelevant whether the practice is rational or logical. Notions of rationality cannot be invoked in matters of religion by courts,” she observed. Justice Malhotra also expressed her concern that “permitting PILs in religious matters would open floodgates to interlopers to question religious beliefs and practices, even if the petitioner is not a believer of a particular religion or a worshipper of a shrine.”
In this case, the issue of whether the practice or custom is an “essential religious practice” or just a superstition was also examined. In the case of the latter, the constitution cannot provide any protection. On this issue, the respondents (The state of Kerala and Ors.) contended that the manifestation of Lord Ayyapan as a “Naisthik Brahmachari’ ’deity in the Sabrimala temple, bars the allowance of women as it would affect the celibacy of the idol. Any interference on the part of the court on such customs would imply an infringement of their personal laws. Consequentially, Justice Malhotra submitted that the exclusion was neither a discriminatory nor an arbitrary action on part of the authorities who were just following an “essential religious practice”. This dissenting viewpoint was highly appreciated by the devotees of Sabrimala Deity including women devotees as well. Based on this viewpoint, more than 50 review petitions were filed by various organizations and individuals, seeking justice for infringement of their personal laws and religious beliefs.
The current constitutional bench of nine judges is examining the scope and ambit of fundamental rights like freedom of religion, the right to equality and prohibiting discrimination on grounds of gender, etc. This landmark case has struck a chord with all the Indian citizens especially with the people of Kerala. This case not only questions the constitutional validity of the very core fundamental rights endowed by our constitution but also shall play a very robust role in perpetuating objectivity amongst the lawmakers and its interpreters.