Bhakti Pasrija Sethi’s fight to allow women of all ages to enter Sabarimala is far from over. For 12 long years she battled for the cause, but with the National Ayyappa Devotee Association filing a petition against the landmark Supreme Court verdict, allowing women to enter the temple, her work is cut out for her again.
When asked whether she's fed up of dealing with this case after all these years, Bhakti, the General Secretary of the Indian Young Lawyers Association says that she is not. Bhakti tells TNM, “This issue is a debate and a discussion, so we are ready to discuss it with them and convince them, however long it takes to make them realise. Finally we want them to be convinced that this was something that was wrong, and a woman’s entry should not be banned into a temple.”
After speaking about her experiences fighting this case at a panel discussion at the We The Women conference held on Sunday at the Lalit Ashok Hotel in Bengaluru, she walks TNM through what made her decide to file the review petition so many years ago.
“It started in 2006. There were news reports and an article by Barkha Dutt, about a south Indian actor named Jayamala who went to the temple of Lord Ayyappa in 1987. But this confession came out in 2006 from her side. She said she visited the temple 20 years ago, and after that there was a lot of hue and cry that the temple became “impure”, and a purification ceremony was held because a woman went into the temple! This was very undignified. I felt it was hurting the dignity of women at large,” Bhakti says.
“This case struck me both as a Hindu woman and as a lawyer, because I myself am a devotee. I go to a temple everyday. May be because I was a lawyer I could analyse it from a Constitutional standpoint,” she says.
Bhakti tells TNM about some of the extreme difficulties the Indian Young Lawyers Association faced through the course of this case, and in particular, the opposition that Naushad Ahmed Khan, the president of the Association, faced because he’s a Muslim.
“I did not receive any threatening messages personally, but the president of our organisation, Naushad, did. Let me clarify one thing. It was not he who initiated this matter. He just happened to be the president. I don’t know where these rumours are cooked up from, that a Muslim person is behind it. He was receiving a lot of threats, a lot of phone calls, and was trolled everywhere basically. He had to move an application in the SC and received police protection also. But he had nothing to do with this matter. I decided to file this petition – me and my other friends, Prerna Kumari, Sudha Pal, Lakshmi Shastri, and Ravi Prakash Gupta, who has fought our case and was a big influence in this matter. In fact it was he who encouraged us to file this petition,” Bhakti explains.
Bhakti says it was not her intention to wage a war of any kind, but that she merely wanted to spark a discussion. She believes that the latest judgement from the SC goes a long way in clearing up what she sees as misconceptions about the Hindu religion.
“What’s happening now is people are giving superstitions the name of religion. Hindu religion is very inclusive,” she says.
She also thinks that women can observe the purification rituals traditionally required to be observed before entering Sabarimala temple. “I’m not saying you don't follow the rituals of the 41 day purity maintenance. In that period, you have to abstain from all the worldly things, and maintain a spiritual frame of mind. Menstruation doesn't make a woman impure. If a woman is menstruating, she’s not impure, it doesn't mean she can’t abstain from worldly things. So why there should be a ban?” she asks.
Bhakti believes that temple entry should be the choice of individual believing women, and that circumstances have changed since the ban on women entering the temple was first put in place, making them irrelevant today. “Actually, as Justice Chandrachud has mentioned in the judgement, initially women were allowed there. After that, because it was a long stretch in those days, and infrastructure was not much developed, it was a long 41 day journey, where one had to travel through forests where wild animals were there. But things have changed now. There’s a motorable road which takes you very close to the temple, and from there, the distance is only 8 km. Male devotees also go through that road, on vehicles. So now that reason is no longer relevant. This a practical difficulty, that has taken the colour of superstition now, this is not religion,” she says.
Bhakti also says she was surprised at the scale and vehemence of the protests that have taken place against the SC’s judgement in this case. When asked what she would like to say to the women who have themselves taken to the streets in protest against this case, she says, “They should think about what they are doing. They’re told something and they start believing it, why don't they just think of the larger picture. This is not about menstruation, this is not about periods, this is about something more: it’s about their dignity. Their dignity is more important. They should introspect.”