Why The Sabarimala Judgment Should Worry Freedom-Loving Liberals

Published: October 21, 2018 16:41 IST

By any standards, the stories emerging from the environs of Sabarimala Temple are extraordinary. Women journalists are being attacked for daring to cover the story; the priests are threatening to shutter the temple; Kerala cops are escorting women dressed in riot police gear to the door of the temple; the Communist Party of India is holding press conferences to discuss faith; the local Congress is aligning itself with the RSS; one of the women activists in the forefront of the agitation had her house in Kochi vandalised; and the BJP is openly celebrating, hoping that this will be the turning point in its decades-long attempt to gain a foothold in Kerala politics.

The principles at stake seem clear. First, that people should not be barred from exercising their right to worship on the basis of their caste or their gender. And second, that a legal directive - in this case, the Supreme Court judgment opening the doors of Sabarimala to all women - must be enforced. Nobody can dispute these principles. And so I support the struggle of women activists to enter Sabarimala. We all should, if we believe that India deserves to be a modern country. 

And yet there is, especially to those who care about individual rights, something disturbing about this entire process. The "tradition" that bars many women from entering the temple is not of any great age, but even so, it has settled into the complex of beliefs held by worshippers of the temple's deity, Ayyappa. The Supreme Court has held that these beliefs are not protected. They are not, by implication, "essential" to the worshippers' faith. This is the first place we should start to worry; courts should not decide what is and is not essential to faith. They may have before - but that does not make it any less disturbing that they have. Suppose next that they decide that a temple at Ayodhya is "essential" to Hinduism, but that a mosque there is not "essential" to Islam? That would be no guide to settling a dispute over the ownership and control of a piece of land.


Kerala's Sabarimala temple opened its doors to women of all ages on October 17.

Unquestionably, religious sanctions that forbid women or Dalits or others from equal access to worship are wrong. But when we use the law to try and force religion to enter the modern world, we are going down a dangerous path. Because, I fear, in a clash between law and religion at this particular, dangerous, moment in our history, it is not certain which will win. There is an older, better method to deal with such exclusions, one in which Kerala has in the past specialised: social change, moral pressure, and religious reform. We have the right to choose to disbelieve, and to demand change. We have the right to worship elsewhere. These are the ways in which we must enforce change. I believe, as Dr Ambedkar did, that merely opening the doors of places of worship, through government action or otherwise, is not an answer to structural or religious discrimination. If the aim is equality, then it must be equality in the eyes of doctrine. Anything less is insufficient. Purge discrimination from religion, Dr Ambedkar told Mahatma Gandhi when he sought the former's support for the temple entry laws in the 1930s, or "not only will the Depressed Classes reject the temple entry, they will also reject the Hindu faith".

It is the right to reject faith that the framer of the Constitution insisted upon, and it is that right we should strengthen and support. This is not to say that the Hindutva objections to the Supreme Court judgment are right. There are many basic errors of logic or reasoning at their heart. On the one hand, it is argued that "this is only one temple", that it has special rituals and worshippers there have unique beliefs that should be protected. On the other hand, it is argued that anyone - such as the Lingayats in Karnataka - who stress their differences from the customs and practices that Hindutva-vadis have declared "orthodox" are mistaken. This error is a natural consequence of the attempt to redefine a complex, naturally evolving system of contradictory and overlapping beliefs into something homogenous. If you want some temples to have the same rights that the constitution ascribes for good reason to minority faiths in order to protect cultural diversity, then you must also accept that their worshippers are de facto minorities in India.

There is yet another basic error here. Many argue - as I do - that the right to offend the religious is central to the right to free expression. Several on the Hindu right say this too, on the assumption that they will then have additional opportunities to insult and offend Muslims. But if so, then the right to free expression and worship means that people cannot be forbidden from expression or worship in a manner that other people may view as sacrilegious. If the Supreme Court believes that Sabarimala should be opened to all, even if some consider that sacrilegious, then it should also have read down any and all statutes - such as Article 295A of the Indian Penal Code - that prevent free speech about religion.

Even beliefs one disagrees with strongly deserve protection under the law, as long as they do not interfere with civil rights. Triple talaq, and many other aspects of religious personal laws in India, may infringe on civil rights and thus deserve to be read down. But it is far less persuasive to argue that religious restrictions on entry or behaviour in a particular place of worship violate civil rights. My rights as a citizen there consist of the right to reject that belief, and criticise it - but little more.

After all, on the street, I can go bareheaded, and I should roundly reject as infringing on my rights any requirement that I cover my head. But should I approach the courts and demand that the Golden Temple respect my right to not cover my head? I think not.


Protests are on to support the centuries-old ban on the entry of women of reproductive age into the temple

One problem, of course, is that the Indian state has inherited or acquired many rights of ownership or management over religious places of worship, including major Hindu temples. This is fundamentally unjust. It violates secular principles doubly - first, it differentiates between some beliefs and others, in that some worshippers are free to make their own rules and others must petition the state or a quasi-state body. And second, it means that the state must busy itself with religious principles and management, which is not what a secular state should be doing. The idea behind state involvement in such religious trusts may be to protect the interests of all worshippers, but in fact, it endangers secularism itself, because the Indian state is now also serving a religious function. If the temple trust in Sabarimala was not headed by a Kerala ruling party functionary, this would have different political implications that it does now.

Religious reform should indeed, of course, be a political issue - but not one that pits worshippers against the state. Instead, it should be played out as disputes between worshippers of one belief and other. This is also the realm of politics - just not of the state. Because the state is involved, we allow fundamentalists to believe that capturing the state is the only way to protect their religion. This is why, of course, that the BJP is happy about developments in Sabarimala: it reinforces their incorrect claim that Hindus are under threat unless there the secular Indian state becomes a Hindu Rashtra.

We have the right to protest and criticise the traditions of places like Sabarimala. Let us focus on protecting those rights. We have to tolerate religious and cultural diversity, but do not need to accept those practices we deem exclusionary. Organise against Sabarimala's priests and the ex-ruling family that determines its practices. Protest exclusionary doctrine. But don't drag the state into a battle over religion. That opens the door to a religious state.

(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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