Sabarimala: The verdict and after
by P M Ravindran on 05 Jan 2019 18 Comments

‘Give a man a rope long enough, he will hang himself’ is an old adage. That this could apply equally to institutions has just been proved by the then Chief Justice of India, Dipak Misra, and his male colleagues on the Supreme Court bench that delivered the Sabarimala verdict on 28 Sep 2018. The verdict is in flagrant violation of Article 26 of the Constitution of India which provides for the fundamental right to freedom of religion to all its citizens. This article states as follows:


26. Subject to public order, morality and health, every religious denomination or any section thereof shall have the right -

(a) to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes;

(b) to manage its own affairs in matters of religion;

(c) to own and acquire movable and immovable property; and

(d) to administer such property in accordance with law.


Is there any ambiguity anywhere in the above article? Absolutely not. Justice Rohington Nariman, forming part of the bench, came close to the problem but went on to declare that the devotees of Ayyappa Swami, thronging the hill shrine by the millions, after following some of the toughest rituals for 41 days, are not a denomination (or part thereof). The rituals include fasting, remaining celibate, not shaving ones beard or cutting ones hair, etc. The more religious ones among them do not even sleep on beds or wear footwear during this period. They normally wear black or blue dhotis and matching shirts.


And once they begin these rituals with the donning of a tulsi or similar ‘mala’ (garland) with a pendant having the image of Ayyappa Swami, the devotee is always addressed as Swami (Lord). Women of the permitted age group, below 10 and above 50 years, are similarly called Maalikapurathamma, after the goddess of the temple next to Ayyappa’s, who is believed to be waiting for the day when no new devotee would visit the shrine and Ayyappa would marry her. There are no differences in caste or creed or even religion here. All the above practices of faith clearly distinguish Ayyappa devotees from others and make them eligible for being considered a denomination of their own.


But this is not the only occasion when judges have taken on themselves the task of linguistic experts and redefined English words. The most important and disastrous has been the redefinition of the term ‘Consultation’ used in the proviso to Article 124(2) which states:

Provided that in the case of appointment of a Judge other than the Chief Justice, the Chief Justice of India shall always be consulted (by the President of India)


It is absurd to claim that the one who is consulting is bound by the views of the one who is consulted. But thus was born the Collegium for appointment and transfer of judges of the high courts and apex court and which has been criticized heavily for lack of transparency and even nepotism. An interesting and relevant observation here is that this was conceived and nurtured during the time of P V Narasimha Rao’s government on crutches.


Judges who could not differentiate between the fundamental right to equality (Articles 14 to 18) and fundamental right to religious freedom (Articles 25 to 28) have not only discredited the institution of judiciary but also subverted the rule of law, criminally.


Equally preposterous is the failure of the Sabarimala bench to take cognizance of the breach of the fundamental right to equality evident in Article 25(2)(b) which states as follows:

(2) Nothing in this article shall affect the operation of any existing law or prevent the State from making any law—

(a) regulating or restricting any economic, financial, political or other secular activity which may be associated with religious practice;

(b) providing for social welfare and reform or the throwing open of Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all classes and sections of Hindus.


This is obviously in conflict with Article 15(1) which states explicitly that ‘The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them.’

[For more questionable judicial verdicts please see]


This verdict in the hands of Pinarayi Vijayan, the communist Chief Minister of Kerala, can be likened to an AK-47 in the hands of a serial killer. What has been happening in Kerala after that has been recaptured in some detail in the article ‘Nero fiddled while Rome burnt…’



Here is the gist of what followed after the temple at Sabarimala opened for the pilgrimage season in mid November.


-        Section 144 of IPC was slapped in and around Sabarimala, starting from Erumeli, about 40 kms from the temple. Though it was only for a few days to begin with, it was extended continuously to cover the whole season.


-        Devotees doing naamajapa (chanting the Lord’s name) as a form of peaceful protest against the government’s failure to file a review petition and its eagerness to bring women of dubious intentions and questionable background to the temple were arrested and some even denied bail. The case of BJP leader K. Surendran is one instance. Even as a court would grant him bail, another case would be registered and he would be detained till the court would grant him bail again. This when even the Chief Minister reportedly has four cases pending against him and the Devaswom Minister is an absconder as far as the police version goes!


-        Devotees were not only barred from forming groups but even chanting the usual devotional chants (saranam vili, which helped to endure the strain of trekking through the forest paths)


-        Timings were restricted to harass and deny devotees even the fulfillment of their religious obligations, of which anointing the deity with the ghee brought filled in coconuts is of utmost importance.


-        Devotees were even denied spaces to rest after the grueling trek from Pamba. The police even kept the area wet so that no devotee could even sit after leaving Pamba till they returned to Pamba.


-        Even toilet and drinking water facilities were not provided.


-        Union Minister, Alphonse Kannanthanam, who visited Sabarimala to review the facilities provided, had to admonish the officials for not even spending a rupee from the Rs 100 crore provided by the Central Government exclusively for providing amenities in Sabarimala, post the floods.


-        Union Minister Pon Radhakrishnan, a devotee of Ayyappa Swami, was shocked at the rude behavior of even the Superintendent of Police deployed at Nilakkal and the matter is being processed for breach of privilege by the Lok Sabha. The same police who refused to let the minister’s escort vehicles to Pamba, had actually driven some women activists in their own vehicles and taken them up to the premises of the shrine.


-        The gross violation of human rights in Sabarimala forced the High Court of Kerala to deploy a team of two retired judges and a serving DG of Police at Sabarimala to monitor and report whatever was happening there.


-        A few transgenders were allowed to worship at the temple without any resistance from the devotees.


-        Having failed to take women of restricted age group to the shrine during the first part of the season which ended on December 27, 2018 the government started striking conciliatory notes. That it was deceit would be revealed later.


Meanwhile, the Chief Minister announced a Vanitha Mathil (wall of women) from Kasargod to Thiruvananthapuram. The decision was announced in a meeting of some Hindu organizations chaired by Pinarayi Vijayan himself.  Media reports suggest that the idea was that of the Chief Minister and it was thrust on the participants, most of whom were quick to dissociate from the effort. This wall (January 1, 2019) was advertised to have the following objectives:

-        to prevent Kerala from becoming a lunatic asylum

-        to uphold the values of reformers and

-        to ensure gender equality.

-        The flex boards that went up on roadsides would easily have covered the length of the proposed wall twice over. Apart from the flex boards, the graffiti defaced most public walls.


But from the beginning, critics rightly pointed out that this was a ploy to impress the apex court when the revision petitions of Sabarimala were taken up on Jan. 23, 2019. The participants in the program were to be presented as supporters of women’s entry in Sabarimala. While in the Legislative Assembly, the Chief Minister asserted that the government was not involved and no expenditure was being incurred by the exchequer, it filed an affidavit in the Kerala High Court stating that it was a project for women’s empowerment and that the government had earmarked Rs 50 crores for it.


Thereafter began the threats, arm twisting and fleecing of all government employees and social security beneficiaries like workers of Kudumbasree, Asha workers, NREGS employees, old age pensioners and even flood victims, to participate in the Wall and also contribute to the expenditure. Even the explicit orders of the Kerala High Court banning compulsion on anyone to participate, and participation of children below 16 years, were thrown to the winds. The Chairperson of the Child Rights Commission even went to the extent of declaring that the court order was an infringement on the rights of children. It is learnt that somebody has filed a contempt of court petition against him in the High Court.


The anti-climax had two parts. First, the Chief Minister, on the eve of Jan. 1, 2019, admitted that the wall was in support of women’s entry in Sabarimala. Most of those who participated, either voluntarily or under compulsion, did not know this, as is evident from reports available on YouTube and social media.


Second, after lulling devotees with conciliatory statements, the citizens of Kerala woke up on Jan. 2, 2019 to the shocking news that two women, Bindu and Kanakadurga, who had failed to breach the tradition earlier, had visited the shrine in disguise in the wee hours of the day, around 03.45 a.m. These women had reportedly been under care of the Marxists for some days and been coached and trained on how to reach the shrine. They were taken to the shrine with police personnel accompanying them as devotees. A few suspicious devotees were informed that they were transgenders.


The Chief Minister himself broke the news that women of the restricted age group had reached the temple. This was confirmed by the media with video clips of the two women running through the forecourt of the Sannidhanam and standing in front of the sanctum sanctorum going viral. The Thantri and Pandalam royal family had repeatedly said they would close the temple if women entered and customs were breached.


Many devotees, feeling devastated at the violation of their faith, returned without darshan and without fulfilling the pilgrimage after the anointing the deity with the ghee brought filled in coconuts. It was sad to see the sorrow and helplessness of simple souls seeking some peace in their daily existence through acts of faith.


Somehow, the Supreme Court verdict managed to rent the souls of devotees and to provide solace to none.



Please also see


‘Our constitutional fault lines’


 ‘A question of judicial equality’


‘Courting Controversies’


‘Survival by blackmail or art of governance’

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