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The majority judgment
The instant writ petition preferred under Article 32 of the Constitution seeks issuance of directions against Government of Kerala, Devaswom Board of Travancore, to ensure entry of female devotees between the age group of 10 to 50 years to the Lord Ayyappa Temple at Sabarimala which has been denied to them on the basis of certain custom and usage; to declare Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship Rules, 1965 framed in exercise of the powers conferred by the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship Act, 1965 as unconstitutional being violative of Articles 14, 15, 25 and 51A(e) of the Constitution of India.
- Having stated that the devotees of Lord Ayyappa do not constitute a religious denomination within the meaning of Article 26 and that Sabarimala Temple is a public temple by virtue of the fact that Section 15 of the 1950 Act vests all powers of direction, control and supervision over it in the Travancore Devaswom Board which, in our foregoing analysis, has been unveiled as “other authority‟ within the meaning of Article 12, resultantly fundamental rights including those guaranteed under Article 25(1) are enforceable against the Travancore Devaswom Board and other incorporated Devaswoms including the Sabarimala Temple.
- Now adverting to the rights guaranteed under Article 25(1), be it clarified that Article 25(1), by employing the expression “all persons” demonstrates that the freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practise and propagate religion is available, though subject to the restrictions delineated in Article 25(1) itself, to every person including women.
- By allowing women to enter into the Sabarimala temple for offering prayers, it cannot be imagined that the nature of Hindu religion would be fundamentally altered or changed in any manner. Therefore, the exclusionary practice, which has been given the backing of a subordinate legislation in the form of Rule 3(b) of the 1965 Rules, framed by virtue of the 1965 Act, is neither an essential nor an integral part of the Hindu religion without which Hindu religion, of which the devotees of Lord Ayyappa are followers, will not survive.
- Nobody can say that essential part or practice of one's religion has changed from a particular date or by an event. Such alterable parts or practices are definitely not the 'core' of religion where the belief is based and religion is founded upon. It could only be treated as mere embellishments to the non-essential part or practices.
- This view of ours is further substantiated by the fact that where a practice changes with the efflux of time, such a practice cannot be regarded as a core upon which a religion is formed. There has to be unhindered continuity in a practice for it to attain the status of essential practice.
The Devaswom Board had accepted before the High Court that female worshippers of the age group of 10 to 50 years used to visit the temple and conduced poojas in every month for five days for the first rice feeding ceremony of their children.
- Therefore, there seems to be no continuity in the exclusionary practice followed at the Sabarimala temple and in view of this, it cannot be treated as an essential practice.
- In view of our aforesaid analysis, we record our conclusions in seriatim:
(i) Devotees of Lord Ayyappa do not have common religious tenets peculiar to themselves, which they regard as conducive to their spiritual well-being, other than those which are common to the Hindu religion. Therefore, the devotees of Lord Ayyappa are exclusively Hindus and do not constitute a separate religious denomination.
(ii) Article 25(1), by employing the expression 'all persons', demonstrates that the freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practise and propagate religion is available, though subject to the restrictions delineated in Article 25(1) itself, to every person including women.
(iii) The exclusionary practice being followed at the Sabrimala temple by virtue of Rule 3(b) violates the right of Hindu women to freely practise their religion and exhibit their devotion towards Lord Ayyappa. This denial denudes them of their right to worship. The right to practise religion under Article 25(1) is equally available to both men and women of all age groups professing the same religion.
(iv) The impugned Rule 3(b) of the 1965 Rules, that stipulates exclusion of entry of women of the age group of 10 to 50 years, is a clear violation of the right of Hindu women to practise their religious beliefs which, in consequence, makes their fundamental right of religion under Article 25(1) a dead letter.
(v) The term 'morality' occurring in Article 25(1) cannot be viewed with a narrow lens so as to confine the sphere of definition of morality to what an individual, a section or religious sect may perceive the term to mean. The term public morality in Article 25 has to be appositely understood as being synonymous with constitutional morality.
(vi) The notions of public order, morality and health cannot be used as colourable device to restrict the freedom to freely practise religion and discriminate against women of the age group of 10 to 50 years by denying them their legal right to enter and offer their prayers at the Sabarimala temple.
(vii) The practice of exclusion of women of the age group of 10 to 50 years being followed at the Sabarimala Temple cannot be regarded as an essential part as claimed by the respondent Board.
(viii) The exclusionary practice being followed at the Sabarimala Temple cannot be designated as one, the non-observance of which will change or alter the nature of Hindu religion. Besides, the exclusionary practice has not been observed with unhindered continuity as the Devaswom Board had accepted before the High Court that female worshippers of the age group of 10 to 50 years used to visit the temple and conducted poojas in every month for five days for the first rice feeding ceremony of their children.
(ix) The exclusionary practice which has been given the backing of a subordinate legislation in the form of Rule 3(b) is neither an essential nor an integral part of the religion.
(x) Rule 3(b) is ultra vires both Section 3 as well as Section 4 of the 1965 Act, for the simple reason that Section 3 being a non-obstante provision clearly stipulates that every place of public worship shall be open to all classes and sections of Hindus, women being one of them, irrespective of any custom or usage to the contrary.
(xi) Rule 3(b) is also ultra vires Section 4 of the 1965 Act as the proviso to Section 4(1) creates an exception to the effect that the regulations/rules made under Section 4(1) shall not discriminate, in any manner whatsoever, against any Hindu on the ground that he/she belongs to a particular section or class.
(xii) The language of both the provisions, that is, Section 3 and the proviso to Section 4(1) of the 1965 Act clearly indicate that custom and usage must make space to the rights of all sections and classes of Hindus to offer prayers at places of public worship. Any interpretation to the contrary would annihilate the purpose of the 1965 Act and incrementally impair the fundamental right to practise religion guaranteed under Article 25(1). Therefore, we hold that Rule 3(b) is ultra vires the 1965 Act.
- In view of the aforesaid analysis and conclusions, the writ petition is allowed.
(Dipak Misra) (A.M. Khanwilkar) September 28, 2018
The dissenting judgment
- The summary of the aforesaid analysis is as follows:
(ii) The equality doctrine enshrined under Article 14 does not override the Fundamental Right guaranteed by Article 25 to every individual to freely profess, practise and propagate their faith, in accordance with the tenets of their religion.
(iii) Constitutional Morality in a secular polity would imply the harmonisation of the Fundamental Rights, which include the right of every individual, religious denomination, or sect, to practise their faith and belief in accordance with the tenets of their religion, irrespective of whether the practise is rational or logical.
(iv) The Ayyappans or worshippers of the Sabarimala Temple satisfy the requirements of being a religious denomination, or sect thereof, which is entitled to the protection provided by Article 26.
(v) The limited restriction on the entry of women during the notified age-group does not fall within the purview of Article 17 of the Constitution.
(vi) Rule 3(b) of the 1965 Rules is not ultra vires Section 3 of the 1965 Act, since the proviso carves out an exception in the case of public worship in a temple for the benefit of any religious denomination or sect thereof, to manage their affairs in matters of religion.
- In light of the aforesaid discussion and analysis, the Writ Petition cannot be entertained.
(INDU MALHOTRA) September 28, 2018
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