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  • The SC's position on Sabarimala is correct

    Posted On January 20, 2019

    By Karan Thapar

    Rahul Gandhi’s recent admission that he’s changed his position on the Sabarimala issue and can now see “validity in both arguments” raises an interesting question: is he being honest or simply politically convenient if not lazy? The truth is I know several other people who also find it difficult to take a firm stand on one or other side of this debate. In a sense that’s true of me as well.

    The Supreme Court’s position is that this is an issue of individual rights and its unconstitutional to bar women between the ages of 10 and 50 from entering the temple. As Justice Chandrachud put it: “The right of a denomination must be balanced with the individual rights of each of its members. It would be impossible to conceive of the preservation of liberal constitutional values while at the same time allowing group rights to defy those values.”

    If courts can intervene and lift the bar on female entry into the Haji Ali Dargah or the Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra it would be inconsistent not to do the same in Sabarimala. More importantly, ours is not an age that will accept differences in rights on grounds of gender. The curtain of history has fallen, firmly and irrevocably, on such thinking.

    However, there is another viewpoint. Belief and tradition are intrinsic parts of faith and they’re not easily susceptible to rational scrutiny. After all, women cannot become priests in the Catholic Church nor do they pray alongside men in Sunni mosques. More pertinently, there are several hindu temples where the entry of men is either not allowed or restricted. There are at least three in Kerala but they also exist in Assam, Bihar, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. So why can’t Sabarimala maintain a tradition it believes is intrinsic to its deity’s status as a naishtika brahmachari?

    Now the answer to two further questions might help determine whether inability or unwillingness to take a clear stand on these two views is a reflection of honest thinking or political convenience and laziness.

    First, how well established is the tradition that bars the entry of women? There are credible reports that suggest it only stretches back to the middle of the last century. T. K. A. Nair, the former principal secretary to Dr. Manmohan Singh, says his mother visited the temple whilst she was still having children. The Maharani of Travancore visited in 1939-40 when she was in her 40s. And a 1991 judgement of the Kerala High Court mentions that the Tantri confirmed that the temple permitted women during non-pilgrimage periods. So how hallowed and unbreakable is this tradition if it’s of relatively recent origin?

    Perhaps the second question is more pertinent. Do we, as a liberal progressive society, have a moral duty to re-evaluate traditions and practices in the light of what we deem to be progressive and correct? If the answer is yes then, surely, barring women of menstruating age is no longer acceptable. Like old and now repealed laws on adultery and homosexuality the bar on women must give way to modern morality and thinking.

    As you’ve perhaps spotted, I can see the arguement on both sides but I don’t believe they have equal validity. Even if I only do so by a somewhat tortuous process, I would eventually decide in favour of the Supreme Court’s position. We need to keep moving forward. If we accept Sabarimala as a unique exclusion we will, in fact, be stepping back in time.

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