First published under the same title on ABP Live on 18 November 2018 (IST).
Nearly two months after the Supreme Court on September 28 ruled by a majority of 4-1 to allow women of menstruating age to enter the temple at Sabarimala, the battle-lines appear to have been firmly drawn. The dispute has been represented largely as one which pits tradition against modernity, religious conservatism against liberalism, patriarchy against women’s equality, and faith against science. A former Justice of the Supreme Court, Markandey Katju, has stated quite unequivocally that “regarding the Sabarimala verdict, either one can agree with it or disagree with it – there is no middle ground.”
A protest on the re-opening of the Sabarimala Temple on 17 October 2018, around 20 days after the Supreme Court’s verdict of September 28.
But is that really so? That someone of Katju’s standing thinks so illustrates the predictably circumscribed nature of public discourse, and is also a stark reminder of the fact that we have become increasingly incapable of recognizing the imperative of moral ambiguity. A court is obviously burdened with the necessity of delivering a judgment that has the force of law, but it is open to every individual to consider an issue from every perspective. The Jaina doctrine of anekantavada, or many-sidedness, suggests that, in nearly every case of this kind, every position is partially right and partially wrong.
Let us consider first the perspective of those who are convinced that matters of faith and religious tradition cannot be legislated. This view is not without merit, and indeed one might reasonably argue that even social equality cannot be achieved primarily through legislation. If there is no widespread social acceptance of a proposed or legislated reform, the law will not only be ineffective and resented, but it may also have the effect of aggravating social tensions and, oddly enough, obfuscating the problem. Legislation against the giving and taking of dowry was passed in India over four decades ago, but such legislation never had widespread acceptance; moreover, once the legislation was passed, some people supposed that the problem had been ‘resolved’. The Indian Constitution states that discrimination against Dalits is a punishable offence, but atrocities against Dalits have scarcely diminished—and, if they did, it would surely not be on account of any new-found respect that the upper castes have developed for the lower castes. As Gandhi famously declared at his trial in 1922 on charges of sedition, “Affection cannot be manufactured by the law.”
There are yet other arguments that have been advanced against the Supreme Court’s decision, some by liberals and centrists who have declared their opposition on the grounds that the Court’s decision furnishes the RSS with the opening that it had been looking for in Kerala. This objection is only of marginal interest and is in fact quite erroneous in some respects: not only has the RSS been making inroads into Kerala for some time, but what Sabarimala brings to the fore is the problem not of religious mobilization but rather the consolidation of social conservatism. It has also been argued that Kerala is a matrilineal society, with an extraordinarily high female literacy rate, and that many women, perhaps a majority, are themselves opposed to opening the doors of Sabarimala to females between the ages of 10-50. Some elements of this view, however, cannot be sustained. The anthropological and empirical fact of matriliny in Kerala notwithstanding, the indubitable fact is that Kerala records one of the highest rates of violence against women in India, and the percentage of women in the workforce is an abysmal 25%.
The arguments in support of the Supreme Court’s decision are, as I have already hinted, many. To suggest that progressive legislation is often ineffective is not to say that legislation cannot be a tool for social reform. Those who advocate for change are under no illusion that, under a regime of liberalism and social equality, we will all start loving each other. But there is a much stronger argument. It is claimed that by “tradition” women of menstrual age have never been permitted in the temple and that the prohibition on their entry is “centuries-old”. Quite to the contrary, the restriction on their entry was first enacted into law by the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965, and the Kerala High Court in its decision of 1991 unfortunately, and quite erroneously, argued that the restriction “is in accordance with the usage prevalent from time immemorial.” This is what historians have described as “the invention of tradition”. The Supreme Court’s decision takes note, quite explicitly, of the presence of women worshippers between the ages of 10-50 in the temple on many previous occasions.
There is, finally, the most pertinent set of considerations. The devotees and protestors who have been gathered to obstruct the implementation of the Supreme Court’s decision argue that the reigning deity, Lord Ayappa, is celibate and the presence of females of menstruating age is an affront to his dignity and violates his asceticism. The trope of the male ascetic and saint being tempted by women is, shall we say, as old as Indian civilization. There is, further, the supposition that menstruating women are polluting. These twin arguments have long offered a pretext both for the suppression of women and even for suggesting that women do not have the same reservoirs of spirituality as men. We may ask why there is no comparable narrative tradition of holy women being tempted by men, and equally whether it might not be the case that contemporary Indian society has not come to terms with the fact of women’s sexuality. What can we say about a society that has little faith in its women, and, ironically, in its gods?