Indian Young Lawyers Association v. The State of Kerla

INDIAN YOUNG LAWYERS ASSOCIATION V. THE STATE OF KERALA

Author: Sankalpita Pal

Case Details

  • Court Name- Supreme Court of India
  • Citation- (2019) 11 SCC 1; 2018 (8) SCJ 609
  • Decided On- 28.09.2018
  • Hon’ble Judges/Coram- JusticesDipak Misra, A.M. Khanwilkar, Rohinton Fali Nariman, Dr. D.Y. Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra.

Fact Matrix

Backdrop of Sabarimala Temple

Sabarimala Temple is dedicated to Lord Ayyappa. It is a Hindu shrine. It is located in the Periyar Tiger Reserve which is in the Western Ghats of Kerala. Sabarimala Temple is a huge pilgrimage attraction. Travancore Dewaswom Board is a statutory body which manages this shrine.

Timeline of the Case

  • 1991- This year was the onset of the long constitutional injustice as the Kerala High Court expressly prohibited the entry of women during their “menstruating years” between ages 10 to 50 from entering the shrine. The court’s flawed reason was put forth clearly. The Prohibition on the entry of women to the shrine was an established age-old custom. This custom survived the test of time and therefore became a well-established norm. However, only the Tantri or the priest is empowered to decide on traditions.
  • 2006- The Indian Young Lawyers Association challenged this unreasonable prohibitory verdict by filing a Public Interest Litigation. They challenged it on the ground of the fact that this custom was violative of major Constitutional provisions. This case was referred to as a 5 judge bench led by Justice Dipak Misra. He was the Chief Justice of India at the time.
  • 2018- lifted the ban and ruled that women of all age groups can’t be hindered from entering the Sabarimala shrine in Kerala. Thus, marking the end of an unreasonable and outdated tradition. Case propounded through a 4:1 ratio.

Issues in Brief

  1. Whether the exclusionary practice against the female gender amounts to “discrimination”? Whether the same leads to violation of Articles 14, 15, and 17?
  2. Reinterpretation of “essential religious practice” under Article 25. Whether a religious institution assert a claim on the right to manage its own affairs in the matters of religion?
  3. Whether Ayyappa Temple has a denominational character? Whether it is hit by Article 290-A of the Constitution of India or not?
  4. Whether Rule 3 of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules permits ‘religious denomination’ to ban entry of women between the age of 10 to 50 years?
  5. Whether Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorization of Entry) Rules, 1965 is ultra vires the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Act, 1965 and, if treated to be intra vires, whether it will be violative of the provisions of Part III of the Constitution?

Rules/ Provisions

This case comment will be dealing with all the major Constitutional provisions involved along with other statutes and rules directly impacting it only. The major provisions involved are:

  • Articles 14, 15 and 17 of the Constitution of India
  • Article 25 and 26 of the Constitution of India
  • Article 290-A of the Constitution of India
  • Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorization of Entry) Rules, 1965.

Analysis

The Sabarimala judgment is a testament to the question of how far can customs override laws. The decision is given by the Kerala HC in 1991 in the case of S. Mahendran v. The Secretary, Travancore Devaswom Board, Thiruvananthpuram, and Ors[1]where similar contentions as this case was raised. In 2017 a three-judge bench was appointed to look into the Sabarimala issue. This bench analyzed the reasons put forth by the Kerela Government in order to justify their Ban. They also analyzed as to why the Kerala HC in 1991 accepted the contrary stand taken by the Government. The Kerala High Court justified their decision on the lines that the court is simply respecting the religious and historical beliefs. The Kerala High Court explained the following:

  • It was believed that the deity in Sabarimala is different from other deities and is in the form of “Naisthik Bramchari”. Therefore, it is believed that a menstruating woman offering prayers to such a deity would cause deviation from celibacy and austerity which is observed by the deity.
  • It is a prevalent custom practiced since time immemorial and thus should be respected without any judicial or statutory interference.
  • The restriction imposed by the Devaswom Board is not violative of Articles 15, 25, and 26 of the Constitution of India.
  • Such restriction is also not violative of Section 3(b) of Hindu Place of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Act, 1965 since there is no restriction on either Section of people or their class among the Hindus in the matter of entry to a temple. The prohibition is only in respect of women of a particular age group and not women as a class.[2]

Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorization of Entry) Rules, 1965 lays down that “Places of public worship to be open to all sections and classes of Hindus unless otherwise, any religious denomination exercises their right to manage its own affairs in matters of religion”

It is evident that only separate religious denominations can have discretion as who can offer prayers on the basis of custom. Therefore it was due to this legal justification backed by impositions made by customs women was not allowed to enter Sabarimala shrine.

This rule when applied to the position of Sabarimala Temple violates the four founding principles of the Constitution: liberty, equality, justice, and fraternity. They are the basic features of the Indian Constitution and are profoundly mentioned in the Preamble as well.

Violation of Article 15 and Article 25(1)

This rule is directly hit by Article 15(1)[3] and Article 25(1)[4] as it discriminates against women on the basis of their sex only. The intent behind Article 25(1), in its broad contour, was to encompass a non-discriminatory right which is equally available to both the sexes of all age groups professing the same religion. Article 15(1) awards the same right.

Public order, morality, and health as used under Article 25(1) cannot be used as a way to superficially conceal unreasonable restrictions on the freedom to freely practice religion.

The followers of Lord Ayyappa cannot be considered as a separate religious denomination

The protection provided under Article 26(b)[5] cannot be sought in this case as discrimination in the entry of women to temples is neither a ritual nor a ceremony associated with the Hindu religion. Therefore, it is not an essential practice of this religion at all. Justice Indu Malhotra on the other hand supported the Respondents on this very point. She explained since the exclusionary practice by the Sabarimala Shrine is an age-old custom and an essential practice, the respondents are justified.

The Petitioners in this case also took the support of landmark cases such as Sardar Syedna Taher Saifuddin Saheb v. State of Bombay[6], Raja Bira Kishore Deb v. State of Orissa[7]; Shastri Yagnapurushadiji and Ors. v. Muldas Bhundardas Vaishya and Anr[8] and S.P. Mittal v. Union of India and Ors[9]. In all these cases the Apex Court discussed the concept of separate religious denomination. According to the petitioners, the Sabarimala Shrine doesn’t have a single characteristic of a separate religious denomination. Therefore, they argued that ‘mere difference in practices carried out at Hindu Temples cannot accord to them the status of separate religious denominations”.[10]

Former C.J.I Dipak Misra and Justice A.M. Khanwilkar said- The Prohibitory practice on women being followed at the Sabarimala temple by virtue of Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorization of Entry) Rules, 1965 Rules violates the right of Hindu women to freely practice their religion and exhibit their devotion towards Lord Ayyappa.

Violation of Article 17

Gender Bias is always opposed by constitutional principles. The exclusionary practice which is the core issue in this case also casts an impact with regard to creating unreasonable stigma on menstruating women. There is a clear violation of Article 17[11]which abolishes untouchability in any form. Thus, Article 17 also covers menstrual discrimination against women as it creates an unhealthy psychological impact.

Respondent’s Stance

On the other hand, the Respondents justified their ban on the basis of custom (essential practice) and that women can’t observe 41 days of penances. According to the custom observance of 41 days of penances was mandatory for undertaking a pilgrimage to the Sabarimala shrine. It was not physiologically feasible for women to complete the 41 days of penances owing to their biological mandate (the menstruation cycle). Women are required to take rest during that period of time. Therefore, this ban was put in the first place.

Violation of Article 21

Our Constitution has tried to provide a panacea to gender bias and the idea of impurity of menstruating women by incorporating principles of equality, dignity, and personal liberty. The fact that the entry of women of menstruating age is prohibited from entering the Sabarimala shrine is against a woman’s dignity as well as personal liberty.

This point could be further explained through the cases National Legal Services Authority v. Union of India and Ors[12] and Justice K.S. Puttaswamy and Anr. v. Union of India and Ors[13]. This exclusionary practice pertaining to women is violative of Article 21 and directly impacts their social well being.

In Yogendra Nath Naskar v. Commissioner of income-tax, Calcutta[14] it was held that a deity or an idol is also a legal person. This does not mean that the deity has all the necessary rights. Merely, because the deity has been granted limited and original rights as a juristic person under statutory law does not mean that the deity necessarily has constitutional rights. Therefore, in such cases as the Sabarimala one, an idol can sue and also be sued.[15]

Violation of Article 14

Lastly, this prohibitory action by the Sabarimala Administration is violative of Article 14[16] of the Indian Constitution. The discrimination of women on the basis of a specific age group is not a reasonable classification.

Supporting the above point the petitioners also relied on Deepak Sibal v. Punjab University and Anr[17]  and Shayara Bano v. Union of India and Ors[18] and explained that the exclusionary practice violates the sacrosanct principle of equality of women and equality before the law.[19]

The classification on the basis of age group under question is solely based on physiological factors and, therefore, doesn’t serve a valid object. Most importantly it doesn’t satisfy the test of reasonable classification interpreted under Article 14 which holds one of the major fundamental rights in our Constitution.

Conclusion

Altogether the law interpreted under this case is a good law. After 12 years of the litigatory struggle, women have found their rightful freedom, equality, and dignity as under Article 14, 15, 21, and 25 of the Indian constitution. The Sabarimala judgment is testamentary of the Apex Court’s impeccable patience and clear judicial interpretation of laws in the interest of the general public good. Vices and unreasonable stigma will always exist in society but it is the law that can provide cure to such unreasonableness.

Customs cannot override the law. The fabric of law cannot be crumpled for the sake of obstructive social stigma.

Women have been discriminated not only on the basis of biological factors but also due to orthodox ill practices of the Hindu religion. The constitution of India prescribes non-discriminatory rights to all citizens regardless of status, age, sex, caste, creed, gender, etc. Only positive discrimination is allowed on the basis of the interpretation principle of reasonable classification. Judicial activism has played an important role in this case. The Indian Judiciary has once again proved its open judicial mind and that the blind and technical application of outdated laws leads to unjust actions and prohibitions. The legislature now needs to ensure that there is no unreasonable controversy between religious practices and fundamental rights. Any such Controversy needs to be abrogated through religious reforms.


[1]S. Mahendran v. The Secretary, Travancore Devaswom Board, Thiruvananthpuram and Ors, AIR 1993 Ker 42

[2] Ibid Para 44- Conclusion of the Kerala High Court

[3] Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth; Article 15 under Constitution of India.

[4] Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion; Article 25(1) under Constitution of India.

[5] Freedom to manage religious affairs; Article 26 under Constitution of India.

[6] Sardar Syedna Taher Saifuddin Saheb v. State of Bombay, AIR 1962 SC 853

[7] Raja Bira Kishore Deb v. State of Orissa, (1964) 7 SCR 32

[8] Shastri Yagnapurushadiji and Ors. v. Muldas Bhundardas Vaishya and Anr, (1966) 3 SCR 242/ AIR 1966 SC 1119

[9] S.P. Mittal v. Union of India and Ors (1983) 1 SCC 51

[10] Para 17 of the judgment of Indian Young Lawyers Association v. The State of Kerala, (2019) 11 SCC 1

[11] Abolition of Untouchability- Article 17 under Constitution of India.

[12] National Legal Services Authority v. Union of India and Ors, (2014) 5 SCC 438

[13] Justice K.S. Puttaswamy and Anr. v. Union of India and Ors, (2017) 10 SCC 1

[14] Yogendra Nath Naskar v. Commissioner of income-tax, Calcutta, 1969 AIR 1089, 1969 SCR (3) 742

[15] Pramatha Nath Mullick v. Pradyuman Kumar Mullick, (1925) 27 BOMLR 1064

[16] Equality before law- Article 14 under the Constitution of India

[17] Deepak Sibal v. Punjab University and Anr, (1989) 2 SCC 145

[18] Shayara Bano v. Union of India and Ors, (2017) 9 SCC 1

[19] Supra note 10, Para 29

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