The Supreme Court on Friday pronounced its verdict on a clutch of pleas challenging the ban on entry of women between 10 and 50 years of age into the Sabarimala temple in Kerala.
A five-judge constitution bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra had reserved its judgment on August 1 after hearing the matter for eight days.
The bench, which also comprised Justices RF Nariman, AM Khanwilkar, DY Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra, had earlier said that the constitutional scheme prohibiting exclusion has "some value" in a "vibrant democracy".
The top court's verdict would deal with the petitions filed by petitioners Indian Young Lawyers Association and others.
The Kerala government, which has been changing its stand on the contentious issue of women of the menstrual age group entering the Sabarimala temple, had on July 18 told the Supreme Court that it now favoured their entry.
The apex court had on October 13 last year referred the issue to a constitution bench after framing five "significant" questions including whether the practice of banning entry of women into the temple amounted to discrimination and violated their fundamental rights under the Constitution.
The Sabarimala Temple case history
One of the questions referred to the larger bench was, “Whether the exclusionary practice which is based upon a biological factor exclusive to the female gender amounts to ‘discrimination’ and thereby violates the very core of Articles 14, 15 and 17 and not protected by ‘morality’ as used in Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution.”
The management of the Sabarimala temple had earlier told the apex court that the ban on entry of women aged between 10 and 50 years was because they cannot maintain “purity” on account of menstruation.
The second issue referred to the constitution bench is whether the practice of excluding such women constitutes an “essential religious practice” under Article 25 of the Constitution and whether a religious institution can assert a claim in that regard under the umbrella of right to manage its own affairs in the matters of religion.
The constitution bench would also deal with whether the Ayyappa temple has a denominational character and “if so, is it permissible on the part of a ‘religious denomination’ managed by a statutory board and financed under Article 290-A of the Constitution out of Consolidated Fund of Kerala and Tamil Nadu to indulge in such practice violating constitutional principles/morality embedded in Articles 14, 15(3), 39(a) and 51-A(e)”.
The apex court had framed another question as to whether Rule 3 of Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules permits ‘religious denomination’ to ban entry of women between the age of 10 to 50 years.
“And if so, would it not play foul of Articles 14 and 15 (3) of the Constitution by restricting entry of women on the ground of sex,” it had said.
Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965 says that “women at such time during which they are not by custom and usage allowed to enter a place of public worship shall be included in the class of persons who shall not be entitled to offer worship in any place of worship.”
It had also raised the question whether this rule is ultra vires the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Act, 1965 and, “if treated to be intra vires, whether it will be violative of the provisions of Part III of the Constitution.”
Petitioner Indian Young Lawyers Association and others have sought directions from the court to ensure entry of female devotees between the age group of 10 and 50 at the Lord Ayappa temple at Sabarimala.
On November 7, 2016, the Kerala government had informed the apex court that it favoured the entry of women of all age groups in the historic Sabarimala temple.
Initially, the LDF government had taken a progressive stand in 2007 by favouring women’s entry into the temple, which was overturned by the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) dispensation later.
The UDF government had taken a view that it was against the entry of women of the age group of 10-to-50 years as such a practice was being followed since time immemorial.
Three important facts about Sabarimala Temple
The temple is located at the Periyar Tiger Reserve on a hilltop in the Western Ghats of Pathanamthitta district.
The pilgrimage to the temple is one of the largest annual pilgrimages in the world. Over 45–50 million devotees visit the Hindu temple every year.
The Ayyappa temple is open for worship only during Mandalapooja - 15 November to 26 December.
(With inputs from agencies)