The Supreme Court should be congratulated for the considered view taken while reviewing the earlier verdict allowing women entry into the Lord Ayyappa shrine in Kerala’s Sabarimala. Even though the Judges have not overturned their September 2018 verdict allowing entry into the temple to women of all ages, and even though they have sent the matter to a larger Constitution bench in a 3:2 verdict, they must be commended for recognising that the matter is not just about right to equality—which is the right of women to enter a particular place of religious worship—but also about Article 25 of the Indian Constitution, which enshrines one’s right to worship and entertain any religious belief and propagate it. One of the main reasons behind the widespread unhappiness with the September 2018 verdict was the view that it had not taken into consideration the matter of faith, the matter of the devotees’ belief in a certain custom—not allowing women of a certain age entry into the temple in this case—however regressive that may seem to be by many others. As the issue snowballed into a major controversy, with both male and female devotees refusing to let women enter the temple, the state’s ruling Left government sent into the temple a couple of women through the back door and under heavy police cover, thus making a mockery of women’s rights. For there is nothing right about exercising any rights under the cover of darkness, and by using something that can be described as a sleight of hand at best. In this context, it is interesting that the Kerala government, which was mobilising women by the lakhs last year to show the latter’s apparent keenness to invade this “male bastion”, this time has decided to be cautious and plans to insist on court orders from women if they want to enter the temple. Obviously, this is a case of bowing at the altar of political expediency. Even Kerala’s “godless” communist government has started realising how emotive the issue is for the believers in the state and how electoral reverses may be a certainty if the Left takes the matter too far.
In addition, the Supreme Court must also be commended for assuaging the feeling that was growing among a section of the majority community that the highest court was more than keen to meddle in the matter of the majority community’s faith and was not taking into account the fact that all religions prevented women entry into certain places of worship. By recognising this aspect and by sending the case to a larger bench, a course correction has started and perhaps a way towards gender justice as well.
However, as expected, women’s rights activists have not taken too kindly to the latest Supreme Court move. They want unfettered access to Sabarimala, and if in the process faith gets trampled on, so be it. What activists need to remember is that militant activism has no place in civilised society, where dispute resolution should be all about consensus building. “Enlightenment” cannot be force-fed. If there has to be enlightenment, first there has to be awareness, which comes from education. And education, in this case, requires explaining to the believer that with the invention of modern sanitary accessories, the restrictions that were imposed on women of a certain age group in the past need no longer be followed. It will be a tough job, for piercing through centuries of belief is always tough. So in this both the government and the activists need to work hand in hand. But there must be work. There is no credit in trampling upon the belief of the devotee in the name of women’s rights or modernity. Without compassion, without the willingness for accommodation, every right is wrong and modernity is a sham. The Supreme Court should be appreciated for recognising this.