Stating that the "law and society are tasked with the task to act as levelers", CJI Misra said that "dualistic approach against women degrades the status of women"
In a landmark judgment, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court on September 28 lifted the ban on the entry of women aged 10-50 inside the 800-year-old Sabarimala temple in Kerala.
The bench, comprising Chief Justice of India (CJI) Dipak Misra and Justices RF Nariman, AM Khanwilkar, DY Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra, delivered a 4:1 verdict.
Justice Indu Malhotra was the only dissenting member on the bench. The judgment was delivered by CJI Dipak Misra on behalf of Justice Khanwilkar and himself.
Stating that "law and society are tasked with the task to act as levelers", CJI Misra said "dualistic approach against women degrades the status of women".
"Women are not lesser or inferior to man," CJI Misra said, adding that the patriarchy of religion cannot be allowed to trump over faith. "Biological or physiological reasons cannot be accepted in freedom for faith," the Chief Justice said.
Concurring with the CJI's judgment, Justice Nariman stuck down Rule 3(b) of Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965, which prohibited the entry of women of the aforementioned ages inside the temple.
"To treat women as the children of a lesser God is to blink at the Constitution," Justice DY Chandrachud said, while pronouncing the judgment. "The fact that women have a physiological feature of menstruating has nothing to do with her right to pray," he said.
Justice Indu Malhotra, in her dissenting judgment, said the court should not interfere in issues of "deep religious sentiments".
"The Sabarimala shrine and the deity is protected by Article 25 of Constitution of India and the religious practices cannot be solely tested on the basis of Article 14," Justice Malhotra said, adding that the issues raised in the case will also impact "several other places of worship".
Justice Malhotra also stated that the worshippers of Sabarimala temple do not constitute a separate religious denomination.
Rahul Eeshwar, who is one of the 24 respondents in the case, said they will file a review petition. "We feel that the petition will be answered positively. It is our Constitutional right," he told the press after the verdict.
A look at the Sabarimala case
While the Kerala government had opposed the entry of women in 2016, it told the Supreme Court at the hearing this year that it was in favour of allowing women to pray at the temple.
Advocate Jaideep Gupta, representing the state government, said it would support the entry of women of all ages to the temple.
During the hearing, the apex court had observed that "what applies to a man applies to a woman" as well and that "once you open it for public, anyone can go".
The bench had also said that a "woman's right to pray was not dependent on any law but it is a Constitutional right".
"Your (intervener) right to pray being a woman, is equal to that of a man and it is not dependent on a law to enable you to do that," observed Justice Chandrachud. Justice Nariman had observed that "menstruation is not impure."
The management of the Sabarimala temple had earlier told the Supreme Court that the ban on the entry of women was because menstruation prevented them from maintaining "purity".
In 2006, the Indian Young Lawyers Association filed a plea in the apex court, seeking to scrap Rule 3 (b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965, which restricted the entry of women inside the temple.
The plea sought the reversal of a 1991 judgment by the Kerala High Court, which had concluded that restriction on women inside the temple was an "essential religious practice" that qualified as a custom.
The apex court took up the case for hearing in January 2016. In October 2017, a three-judge bench comprising CJI Dipak Misra, Justice R Banumathi and Justice Ashok Bhushan, had referred the matter for consideration to a Constitution bench.
The three-judge bench had framed five "significant" questions to be considered by the higher bench, including whether the practice of banning women from entering the Sabarimala temple violated their fundamental rights and amounted to discrimination.
The higher bench had reserved its judgment in the case on August 2.
The temple management had contended in court that they are allowed to frame the rules and that the state should not interfere since an Ayyappa devotee form a denomination.
Advocate Indira Jaising, who was representing the petitioners, had said the restrictions went against Articles 14 (equality before law), 15 (prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth) and 17 (abolition of untouchability) of the Indian Constitution.
Jaising had argued that the custom is discriminatory in nature and that it stigmatised women.
During the course of the hearing, CJI Misra had pointed out that since the Sabarimala temple drew funds from the Consolidated Fund, and had people coming from all over the world, it was qualified to be called a "public place of worship."
The Kerala government, under the Left Democratic Front (LDF), had filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court in 2008, stating that imposing a restriction on entry of women was discriminatory and that it should be discontinued.
In 2016, however, the United Democratic Front (UDF) government told the court that it was duty-bound to protect the centuries-old tradition.In July this year, the LDF government restated that gender discrimination should be done away with and that it favors the entry of all women to the temple, irrespective of their age.