New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Friday paved the way for entry of women of all ages into the Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala in Kerala.
The five-judge constitution bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra, in its 4:1 verdict, said that banning the entry of women into the shrine is gender discrimination and the practice violates rights of Hindu women.
The CJI said religion is a way of life basically to link life with divinity.
While Justices R F Nariman and D Y Chandrachud concurred with the CJI and Justice A M Khanwilkar, Justice Indu Malhotra gave a dissenting verdict.
Justice Malhotra dissents
Justice Malhotra, the lone woman judge in the bench, passed a dissenting judgement and said that issues which have deep religious connotation should not be tinkered with to maintain secular atmosphere in the country.
She was of the view that it is not for courts to determine which religious practices are to be struck down except in issues of social evil like 'Sati'.
Justice Malhotra said right to equality conflicts with right to worship of devotees of Lord Ayyappa.
She said the issue in this case was not limited to Sabarimala only. It will have far reaching implications for other places of worships.
The court passed four sets of separate judgements on a clutch of pleas challenging ban on the entry of women of menstrual age in Kerala's Sabrimala temple saying law and society are tasked with the task to act as levellers.
The CJI said devotion cannot be subjected to discrimination and patriarchal notion cannot be allowed to trump equality in devotion.
He said devotees of Lord Ayyappa do not constitute a separate denomination.
The CJI said practice of exclusion of women of 10-50 age group cannot be regarded as essential religious practice and Kerala law denies rights to women on ground of physiological reasons.
Justice Nariman said the Sabarimala temple custom barring women of 10-50 age is not backed by Article 25 and 26 of the Constitution.
Custom of barring women is violative of Article 25 (Clause 1) and Rule 3(b) of Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (authorisation of entry) Rules, 1965 is struck down by Justice Nariman.
Justice Chandrachud said religion cannot be used as cover to deny rights of worship to women and it is also against human dignity.
He said prohibition on women is due to non-religious reasons and it is a grim shadow of discrimination going on for centuries.
Devotees of lord Ayyappa do not form separate religious denominations, Justice Chandrachud said and added that any custom or religious practice if violates dignity of women by denying them entry due to her physiology is unconstitutional.
He said the popular notion about morality can be offensive to dignity of others and exclusion of women because she menstruates is utterly unconstitutional.
Justice Chandrachud held that exclusion of women is violative of right to liberty, dignity and equality and said banning women of a particular age group is not essential practice of religion.
Justice Malhotra said notions of rationality cannot be brought into matters of religion and India has diverse religious practices and constitutional morality would allow anyone to profess a religion they believe.
She said equality doctrine cannot override fundamental right to worship under Article 25.
Kerala govt welcomes verdict
Kerala Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran welcomed the Supreme Court's verdict and said the "historic" judgement was the culmination of a long-drawn legal battle.
It was for the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) to implement the verdict and to ensure protection to the women visiting the hill shrine of Lord Ayyappa, the minister said.
The LDF government has favoured the entry of women into the Ayyappa temple.
The state government's stand is not just for the Sabarimala temple, but in all places of worship no discrimination should be shown to women, Surendran said.
Sabarimala chief priest Tantri Kandararu Rajeevararu termed the verdict disappointing. Travancore Devaswom Board President A Padmakumar said that the Supreme Court's verdict will be studied in detail and further course of action will be decided after that.
Padmakumar said the board had informed the court that they wanted to continue with the existing ritual practices, but now they have no other option but to implement the verdict.
Shashi Kumar Varma, Pandalam Royal family member said the verdict was "painful" for the family.
"Every temple has its own tradition and ritual practices and the same has now changed with a court verdict," he said.