Right to equality is not a religious issue. It is a social one. By opposing the 28 September verdict of a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court lifting the decades-old ban on women in the age group of 10 to 50 from entering the Sabarimala Ayyappa Temple in Kerala, the Travancore Devaswom Board, administrator of the temple, State units of the BJP and the Congress, Nair Service Society and a women’s organisation called “Ready to Wait,” have created a piquant situation.

When the temple opened on 17 October for the first time after the landmark Supreme Court judgment, no woman of the disputed age-group could enter the temple because of the violent protest by those opposed to the judgment and inability of the Kerala government to control the situation. The State police may be in sync with the protestors.

The Chief Minister could have sought Central paramilitary forces which he failed to do. The backing of the BJP, RSS and the Congress has greatly encouraged the protestors to carry on. They have formed human walls at the two main entry points to Sabarimala, Pampa and Nilakal, to prevent any woman of doubtful agegroup slipping through and gain entry to the 18 golden steps leading to Ayyappa swamy in his sacred abode.

Although the Marxist-led LDF government of Kerala was committed to ensure the safety and security of all worshippers, it was outwitted by the forces of obscurantism. After the Vaikon satyagraha of 1924-25 and backed by legislation, Hindu temples in Kerala no longer have caste restrictions on entry and worship, but gender discrimination by custom remained, not only in Sabarimala but also in few other Hindu temples.

Sabarimala was a test case of constitutional morality. A Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court settled it once and for all by holding that exclusion of women between 10 and 50 violated the principles of equality enshrined in Articles 14, 15 and 17. In the four to one judgment, all four male members of the Bench, including Chief Justice Dipak Misra (since retired), upheld the right to equality of women, while the lone woman judge, Indu Malhotra, held that faith is irrational and as long as it does not inflict harm on fundamental rights, the court should not intervene.

Justice AM Khanwilker agreed with the CJ while Justices Rohinton Nariman and DY Chandrachud held that the ban on women in the temple was a smear on their dignity. Prohibition of women of menstruating age was a recent custom based on the belief that Swami Ayyappa, the Sabarimala deity, was a natishtik brahmachari (celibate) and did not want to be shaken by the presence of women of that age group. The majority judgment does in no way alter the celibate status of Ayyappa by allowing women of all ages to worship there.

The dissenting judge states, “The issues raised in the present writ petition have far reaching ramifications not only for the Sabarimala temple, but for all places of worship of various religions in this country which have their own beliefs, practices, customs and usages. In a secular polity, issues which are matters of deep religious faith and sentiment must not ordinarily be interfered with by courts.” Judicial review of religious practices, in her opinion, would negate the freedom to practice one’s religion according to his or her faith and beliefs.

Devotees of Sabarimala temple are in no way distinct from the larger Hindu community. Article 25 of the Constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion to all and does not discriminate between men and women.

There are hundreds of Ayyappa temples in Kerala and in other States where women of all ages worship Swamy Ayyappa without shaking his celibacy. Why this exception only to Sabarimala Ayyappa? BJP leader Subramanian Swamy in a tweet describes the standoff as a fight between Hindu Renaissance and Hindu Obscurantism. His appeal to Vishwa Hindu Parishad to side with the rule of law and uphold equality before law has few takers.

Sabarimala is essentially a denominational temple within the Ayappa stream. Situated deep in forest in the mountain ranges of the Western Ghats where tigers roam, it is inaccessible except on foot. Only those who observe abstinence for 41 days and carry irumudi kettu (a twin bundle) with offerings for the deity on one side and the meager necessities for the pilgrim on the other side, on their heads are allowed to climb the final 18 golden steps to the sannithanam (sanctum sanctorum).

“To suggest that women cannot undertake the 41-day abstinence is to stereotype them,” said Justice Chandrachud. The judgment is unequivocal that women of all ages have right of entry. The Supreme Court had not interfered with any of the denominational religious practices of Sabarimaa. Denial of entry to women is not a denominational or an essential practice. Constitutional morality included equality as well as gender justice.

The ban on women entering the sannithanam was formalised only after the Division Bench of the Kerala High Court comprising Justices KS Paripoornan and KK Usha upheld an earlier judgment of the court banning entry of women in the 10 to 50 age group on 24 November 1992 and endorsed the consensus reached at a meeting of DGP C Subrahmaniam, Finance Secretary M Mohan Kumar, Travancore Devaswom Board secretary B Ramachandran Nair and Sabarimala Project chief engineer KG Sadasivan Nair.

The meeting decided to erect notice boards en route to Sabarimala stating that women of the prohibited age group will not be allowed to enter the Ayyappa temple. It was also resolved the Devaswom Board will man the entry points at Pampa and Uppupara to Sabarimala assisted by the police. Women of marginal age entering through Pampa should carry a certificate from the lady doctor attached to the government hospital, Pathanamthitta, and those entering from Uppupara a certificate from the lady doctor attached to the Vandiperiyar government hospital.

All this came into practice with immediate effect. “These customs are meant to be broken,” declared Pinarayi Vijayan, Chief Minister of Kerala. Lord Ayyappa is dharma Sastha. Sastha means teacher. The origins of the Sabarimala Sastha temple are shrouded in mystery. Lord Sastha was born in the royal family of Pandalam in central Travancore.

Legend has it Travancore and the entire State of Kerala was retrieved from the Arabian Sea by Lord Parasurama. The Sastha temple is situated in a spot consecrated by the holy man Sabari who was met there by Lord Rama during his wanderings in search of Sita. Pilgrimage to Sabarimala cannot be undertaken at random because it involves long preparation and appointed timings.

The first day of the Malabar month of Makaram, coinciding with 14 January, is the most important festival day of the temple. It is on his day the largest number of pilgrims gather in Sabarimala. Shortly after dusk Makara Vilakku (Makaram light), a fire lit by the Devaswom Board people on a distant hillock, lits the sky. Pilgrims believe it to be a divine lamp.

Lord Ayyappa is worshipped as Kaliyugavaradan, giver of all boons in this age of Kaliyuga. ‘Ready to Wait’ women who are in the forefront of the agitation against entry to women of all ages to Sabarimala have every right to wait till menopause to enter the temple.

Their freedom is not violated by the 28 September judgment of the Supreme Court. But they have no right to prevent their sisters for the major part of their lives from gaining access to the 18 steps to Sabarimala seeking Swamy Ayyappa’s boons as men are allowed to.

The writer is a veteran journalist and former Director of The Statesman Print Journalism School.