Last week, the Supreme Court declared that it would hear a public interest litigation (PIL) on whether women of menstrual age can be denied the right to enter the Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala, Kerala. The bench, in its observation to the Kerala government and the temple authorities, remarked that “unless >you have a constitutional right, you cannot prohibit entry [to women].”
In 1993, the Kerala High Court had held that the Travancore Devaswom Board, the authority that manages the Sabarimala temple, could restrict access to women who were in the 10-50 age group. It had concluded that the “restriction imposed on women aged above 10 and below 50 from trekking the holy hills of Sabarimala and offering worship at Sabarimala Shrine is in accordance with the usage prevalent from time immemorial,” and that “such restriction imposed by the Devaswom Board is not violative of Articles 15, 25 and 26 of the Constitution of India.” This is the position that the Supreme Court will revisit early next month in the context of arguments of gender equality and fundamental rights. In doing so, it will yet again wade into the paradoxical waters of a secular state making religious policies.