Devotees arrive to pay obeisance at Lord Ayyappa Temple in Sabarimala, Thursday, October 18, 2018. Image Credit: PTI

The “Sabarimala controversy” is at a feverish pitch and social media is spewing out such bizarre rants that one is forced to think a peculiar madness has crept into its populace.

For India has a multitude of challenges — endemic poverty, glaring inequality, malnutrition and 50 million stunted children — yet its citizenry is engaged in hair splitting arguments on a deity’s celibate status.

That having been said, the heat and dust rising from this controversy is ominous.

Within a short time the new guidelines issued by India’s Supreme Court will go into effect and that can lead to a serious law and order problem.

The local state government is scurrying for a short term solution and bracing itself for the confrontation to come.

Sabarimala is a Hindu pilgrimage centre located in the southern state of Kerala. It is linked to one of the largest annual pilgrimages in the world with an estimated 20 million devotees visiting every year.

The shrine at Sabarimala is an ancient temple of Ayyappan and was built in the 12 century A.D. There are some unique features of this temple, its deity, the rituals to be undertaken by its devotees but by far its greatest singularity is that women between the ages of 10 and 50 are barred from worshipping at this temple.

The deity, Ayyappa, is a “Naisthik Brahmachari,” (an eternal celibate) and so it was ordained that allowing menstruating women to enter the shrine would affect the idol’s “celibacy” and “austerity”.

And so to protect the deity, Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965, was enacted — “Women who are not by custom and usage allowed to enter a place of public worship shall not be entitled to enter or offer worship in any place of public worship.”

Ironically the primary enactment unlike the subsidiary Rule 3 (b) was to ensure entry to all Hindus without discrimination. And in 1991, the Kerala High Court upheld the ban in the S. Mahendran v the Secretary, Travancore case.

No one challenged this judgement for 15 years until the India Young Lawyers Association revived the issue in Supreme Court through a PIL contending that Rule 3(b) violates constitutional guarantees of equality, non-discrimination and religious freedom (Articles 14, 15 and 25).

The PIL, filed in 2006, was escalated to the Constitutional bench headed by Justice Dipak Misra, and on September 28, 2018 the court, in a path-breaking 4-1 verdict, said the temple rule violated the right to pray.

Basically the court ruled in favour of two basic principles. One, that the devotees of Sabrimala do not constitute a separate sect or denomination and, two, that barring women from this temple does not constitute an essential religious practice of the religion, Hinduism.

Legal scholars have written extensively on constitutional morality and the essential dichotomy between group rights and individual rights.

In an article titled “The Sabarimala Case Has the Potential to Be a Constitutional Watershed” the writer Satya Prasoon quotes the landmark judgement of Naz Foundation and Shreya Singhal: “Constitutional morality may be understood as the core framework of values and principles like equality, non-discrimination, dignity, rule of law etc, that characterises and justifies the constitution. In the Sabarimala case, there is a very strong presumption that the controversial custom of restricting women offends the value of ‘non-discrimination’ which is the central pillar of that constitutional morality.”

In an op-ed in the Hindu, titled ‘Do all women have a right to enter Sabarimala?’ B.R. Ambedkar is quoted as saying, “Public temples, like public roads and schools, are places meant for public access and so the question of entry is, essentially, a question of equality. The managerial rights of religious authorities under Article 26(b) of the Constitution cannot override the individual woman’s religious freedom guaranteed under Article 25(1).”

Political parties have taken full advantage by stoking this controversy quoting scriptures and old traditions to push their agenda instead of letting a reasoned debate inform the public at large. India has apparently over two million temples strewn all over the country and there are over 100 temples dedicated to Ayyappa and of which only one of them, the Sabrimala, is in the eye of the storm. It does seem an enormous waste of time trying to unravel whether the deity in one such shrine will be offended if women of a specific age group are allowed into the inner reaches of this temple. It is also not clear when exactly this tradition of barring women came into effect, was it from antiquity or from more recent times.

Meanwhile it is worth noting around 280,000 Indians are being held in prison without having been convicted of a crime. India has the third highest under-trial population in Asia. India’s judicial system is creaking under this burden but has the time to determine the celibate status of a deity.

Keeping the faith is apparently more important than saving lives.

Ravi Menon is a Dubai-based writer, working on a series of essays on India and on a public service initiative called India Talks.