The Supreme Court has asked India to look ahead, not behind

Judiciary vs Sabarimala Regressive views and orthodoxy will not lead to progress in Indian society
Voices Sabarimala Tuesday, April 12, 2016 - 14:46

The Supreme Court of India has asked the petitioners in the Sabarimala case whether tradition was bigger than the Constitution. “What right does (the) temple have to forbid women from entering any part of the temple, please argue on (the) bedrock of Constitution” the apex court observed orally. It further asked why the Sabarimala Board discriminates against women when the Vedas, Upanishads do not discriminate between men and women.

With these questions the move towards ensuring justice for all as enshrined in the Indian Constitution gets a fillip. In the immediate context, it means entry for women into the Sabarimala Ayappa Temple which bars women of menstruating age to enter the place of worship. In the same breath, the apex court’s observations also mean regressive practices by Islam and Christianity – the two other major religions in India – must be discussed threadbare and done away with. In real terms it would mean equal access to women at Haji Ali in Mumbai and other shrines and places of worship that keep women out.

The issue first hit the headlines when India’s highest legal body questioned the ban on the entry of menstruating women in the Sabarimala Ayappa temple. The court was hearing a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by the Young Lawyers Association seeking entry for all women in the shrine.  Kerala’s ruling UDF government said last February it wants to protect the centuries-old tradition after Chief Minister Oomen Chandy said the government would not interfere in religious matters. Left leaders in the state also welcomed the SC observations last February when it gave the Temple Board six weeks’ time to reply on the matter.

Apart from the absence of political will, there are several excuses being placed before the public in the name of tradition and centuries-old practices principally that this is an attack on the religious rights and internal governance of temples. Religious rights are important and it is imperative that in a robust democracy like India, such rights are protected. But religion, especially Hinduism has shown through centuries and that can change, absorb and assimilate changes. Challenge, especially intellectual challenge is what propels thought and progress in societies and Hinduism has a rich tradition of reform. Religious rights that are based on discriminatory practices need to be reformed.

Second, it is being asked if the liberal establishment will step forward and call for reforms in other religions as well. The nature of the ‘liberal’ beast in recent times has been to go hammer and tongs against orthodoxy in Hinduism while being mealy-mouthed about regressive practices in other religions especially Islam.  It is our view that if India is truly a responsible democracy, all sections of the society have to come together to pull in the direction of justice and equality. Hindus, as the majority religion have an added responsibility, but not at the cost of logic. Hindus can show the way for a better Indian society. 

Finally, the argument that even men are not allowed in certain temples so why must women be is facetious. This is a typically chauvinistic argument the basis of which is it could be worse, so stop complaining. This in essence is what women are being told – it could be worse. Indian women are challenging the notion that the absence of dissent is consent and they are fighting the good fight.

We understand the sanctity of the garba-graha or the sanctum sanctorum in a Hindu temple where men are also not allowed to enter. We understand the difference between a church and a chapel and their respective roles as places of worship. We are also aware of the difference between a mosque and a dargah. The question we ask is – who made these rules, for whom and with what effect? Is it just an accident or the will of god that these rules systematically discriminate against women?

It is unfortunate that courts have to be involved in a conversation which essentially belongs to people and their settings instead of courtrooms. Laws and law-making bodies kick in only when justice is denied as is happening now. The road ahead will be difficult and messy because political parties in India pander to minority sentiments. The absence of a uniform civil code – which no political party will even discuss, much less call for – does not make justice just. It is a matter of no small irony that steeped in Hindu orthodoxy people now stand with regressive elements in other religions when it comes to gender justice and women’s rights.  Historically, no right has been handed over to people on a platter and some groups have traditionally led others in clearing the space from bigotry and patriarchy. India’s Hindus have to come together and lead without fear or favour.

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