Indian Young Lawyers Association v. State of Kerala [2019 11 SCC 1]

The Supreme Court ruled that discrimination or segregation which refers to the biological characteristics is considered to be constitutionally invalid because it violated women’s dignity, freedom, and autonomy as under Article 21.

Bench – Dipak Misra, R.F. Nariman, D.Y. Chandrachud, A.M. Khanwilkar and Indu Malhotra.

Facts – The case revolved across the Sabarimala shrine in Kerala,that is a Hindu temple devoted solely to God Ayyappan. Women of menstruating age, i.e. between 10 and 50 years old, were not permitted to gain entry to the temple because the it was devoted to a chaste God, and it was believed that women of menstruating age would be an affront to the Temple’s significance of celibacy.

This separation was warranted by ancient tradition, which was justified by Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Worship Act, 1965. It supplied for the alienation of women during such times as they are not permitted by custom to access a place of public worship.

In the case of S. Mahendran vs. The Secretary, Travancore Devaswom Board, Thiruvananthapuram and Ors., the Kerala High Court ruled that such a limitation did not violate women’s fundamental rights as per the provisions of Constitution. The case was eventually heard by a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court.

Issues – 

  • Whether an exclusivist practise premised on a biological factor distinctive to the female gender constituted “discrimination” and thus infringed Articles 14, 15 and 17 without being shielded by “morality” as defined in Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution or not?
  • Whether the practise that exclude women formed an “essential religious practise” under Article 25 or not?
  • Whether a religious institution has the authority to claim in this context under the right to manage its affairs about religious matters or not?
  • Whether Ayyappa Temple had a doctrinal character, and was it acceptable for a ‘religious denomination’ controlled by a statutory body and funded by the Consolidated Fund of Kerala and Tamil Nadu to breach constitutional morality?
  • Whether Rule 3(b) of the KHPW Rules, 1965 was ultra vires the KHPW Act and in violation of fundamental rights under the Constitution or not?

Judgment – In a 4:1 majority decision, the Supreme Court ruled that constraints on entry of women between the ages of 10 and 50 into the Sabrimala shrine were constitutionally questionable and invalidated Rule 3(b) of the KHPW Act. The Court also issued instructions to guarantee the safety of female pilgrims trying to enter the shrine.

The Court ruled that worshippers of Lord Ayyappa shall not establish a completely seperate religious denomination but were component of the Hindu fold, and that in the utter lack of scriptural or text-based substantiation rationalising the practise, women’s alienation could not be called an essential religious practise.

The court ruled that Rule 3(b) was deemed to be ultra vires the KHPW Act’s goal of reforming and opening public Hindu places to all people. The Court also ruled that Rule 3(b) of the KHPW Rules was violative of the fundamental rights enshrined under Part III of the Indian Constitution and hence unconstitutional.

Furthermore, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud noted that social isolation of women associated with physiological characteristics such as menstrual status was similar to a form of untouchability, predicated on conceptions of “purity and pollution,” which provided to stigmatise people, and could not be warranted in the scheme of constitutional morality, aside from being expressly forbidden under Article 17. In terms of the right to privacy, he believed that a woman’s menstrual status was an inherent part of her privacy. He also believed that enforcing exclusionary disorders based on menstrual status infringed women’s integrity, as protected by the Constitution.

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