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Conflict of Law and Religion - Analysis of Sabrimala Case

– Adyasha Kar

The conflict of law and religion, though ancient, has a strong presence in India. The Sabrimala verdict documents one such conflict. The judgement found, not only the judges who pronounced it but also the nation, divided into a larger debate of law and religion. 

The petitioners sought entry of women of all ages to the Sabarimala Temple where, the presiding deity, Lord Ayyappa is worshipped as a Naishtik Brahmachari.The petitioners challenged the constitutional validity of Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of entry) Rules, 1965 from which emanated the restriction of not allowing women aged 10-50 into the temple.  Section 3 of the parent act, the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of entry), 1965provided for opening of Hindu places of worship to all sections and classes of Hindus while the proviso reserved the right of religious denominations to manage their own affairs. 

The presence of women in the temple,being considered to deviate the deity from his state of celibacy, the assertion that women would not be able to undertake the ritual of Vrutham formed the major grounds of the denial of entry to women of menstruating age.  The ritual of Vrutham is mandatory for pilgrimage to the Sabarimala Temple and includes leading the life of a Brahmachari and distancing oneself from one’s family for a period of 41 days preceding the pilgrimage. 

It is the case of the petitioners that the impugned practice is violative of women’s freedom of conscience and the right to freely practice, profess and propagate religion under Article 25 of the Constitution. At the same time, women are being discriminated against, which is violative of Article 14 of the Constitution which embodies the principle of equality before law. The petitioners have also argued that women are being treated as untouchables, which is contradictory to Article 17 of the Constitution which provides for abolishment of untouchability. The practice is also contrary to Article 15 of the Constitution which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, among other grounds. The respondents, in this case, have sought defence under Article 25 of the Constitution stating the practice to be essential in nature, so as to afford protection under the aforementioned Article. The respondents also claim that the devotees of Lord Ayyappa constitute a religious denomination and retain the freedom to manage their own affairs in matters of religion. 

A conflict of rightswas the result of both the parties endeavouring to enforce their rights under Article 25(1). The same was highlighted by Justice Nariman, in his concurring judgment, and he concluded that the right of the respondents emanating from custom and usage,“must yield to the fundamental right of such women, as they are equally entitled to the right to practice religion, which would be meaningless unless they were allowed to enter the temple.”

The respondents asserted on the right to be supreme in the management of its own affairs by pressing upon Article 26 of the Constitution. It cannot be denied that the case largely weighed in the favour of the appellants, owing to the fact that the worshippers lacked the attributes of a religious denomination. The majority judgment found that the worshippers are Hindus in general and hence had no right whatsoever under Article 26. Since Hinduism does not envisage exclusion of women’s right to worship, the exclusionary practice fell short of being considered as essential by the majority.

The larger question that now remains is whether the outcome would have been different if the devotees of Lord Ayyappa constituted a religious denomination. The sole dissent of Justice Indu Malhotra found the worshippers of Lord Ayyappa to constitute a separate religious denomination and the custom of not allowing entry to women aged 10-50 years, a practice essential to the religious traditions of the Sabarimala Temple. Justice Indu Malhotra also held the restriction to be essential to the worship of Lord Ayyappa as a Naishtik Brahmachari.

Justice Indu Malhotra read the impugned restriction with the context of the practice of Vrutham, while the majority judgment held exclusion on the basis of physiological characteristics to be discriminatory, reducing women to untouchables by contemplating concepts of pollution and purity. However, we find here a strong assumption that the dissenting opinion agrees with – the inability of women to undertake the practice of Vrutham owing to presumed physiological shortcomings. This assumption is essential as much as it contributes to the uniqueness of the religious tenants associated to the Sabarimala Temple. It is the practice of vrutham that qualifies a devotee for pilgrimage to the temple. As argued, women failing to undertake the practice owing to their menstrual cycle, cannot fulfil the basic requirements of vrutham, hence not being eligible for pilgrimage. This argument rests on general assumption and does not even slightly contemplate the possibility of a woman to undertake vrutham.

It seems like there exists ideological differences when it comes to determining the role, the court has to play in resolving the conflict between law and religion. Article 25(2)(b)empowers the government to make laws that provide for social welfare and reform or throwing open of Hindu religious institutions. However, the interpretation is not simple. Justice Indu Malhotra considered it as an enabling provision that empowered the legislature to enact laws to dispel religious practices that are pernicious and oppressive in natureand she strongly affirmed that judicial review of religious practices ought not to be taken by courts of law since it would “negate freedom to practice one’s religion with one’s beliefs and faith.”On the contrary, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud viewed Article 25(2) to be reformatory in nature, in consonance with the constitutional objective to provide “justice to those who are victims to traditional belief systems founded in graded inequality” and guarantee to “protect the dignity of all individuals who have faced systematic discrimination, prejudice and social exclusion”.

It is a conflict between preservation and reformation. The dissenting judgment sought to preserve the religious tenets unique to the temple. But Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, in his concurring judgement, questions if the Constitution would anymore be meaningful if it upholds the entitlement to do what is derogatory to women.Truly enough, if ancient practices, often endeavoured to be vehemently justified for the sake of preserving them are left untouched and unchanged, what then would be the value of constitutional liberties. Would then, social inequalities ever be levelled?

Moreover, the dissenting judgment presents a literal reading of Articles 25 and 26, considering it to be subject to only public order, morality and health; not to Part III. The dissenting opinion further reads the word ‘morality’ in Article 25 as well as Article 26 as morality of the Court which is subjective. It is for the same reason that the Court must abstain from scrutinising a religious issue on the touchstone of morality, states the dissenting judgment. But the majority judgement by CJI Deepak Misra, states that ‘morality’ refers to constitutional morality and encapsulates within it all that our Constitution stands for. The majority judgement embodies a purposive reading of the provisions ensuring that different articles within part III of the Constitution do not turn against one another.

The concurring judgment of Justice D.Y. Chandrachud further provides thatby the order of prioritisation, the right to religious freedom is to be “exercised in a manner consonant with the vision underlying the provisions of part III.Hence, the exclusion of women from religious worship is subordinate to constitutional values of liberty, dignity and equality.”


The conflict within law and religion survives, within the judgment, within the laws and within the society. The same provisions and facts have been interpreted, primarily, in two different ways for the majority to allow the entry of women of all ages to the Sabarimala Temple, holding the impugned rule to be ultra vires and the dissent to uphold the exclusionary practice. When conflicts exist within the law, subjectivity assumes a greater role and subjectivity seldom accompanies certainty.

The delivery of the Sabarimala verdict saw a turmoil. The practical value that the judgment has rendered is doubtful, for women activists are being stopped to enter the temple even now.The Sabarimala Verdict has failed to remain the final word. A review is underway in the Supreme Court, clubbed with various other issues that deal with the classic conflict of religion and law, that is to be heard by a larger bench. 

It makes one wonder how effective reformatory judgments are when people themselves are not willing to allow such reformation. Nevertheless, it is essential for the Court to not bow down to the strong convictions of religion. It is indispensable for the courts to acknowledge what is right and to uphold what the Constitution protects.


1. Indian Young Lawyers Association &Ors. v. State of Kerala &Ors 2018 SCC OnLine SC 1690.
2. Elizabeth Seshadri, The Sabrimala Judgment: Reformative and Disruptive, (The Hindu Centre, 5 October 2018)