A Prayer for Jus­tice

BHAKTI PAS­RIJA SETHI, 40; PRERNA KU­MARI, 40; SUDHA PAL, 46; LAXMI SHAS­TRI, 60 Sabari­mala case pe­ti­tion­ers

India Today - - COVER STORY - —Shelly Anand

It was in July 2006 that five women ad­vo­cates—Bhakti Pas­rija Sethi, Prerna Ku­mari, Sudha Pal, Laxmi Shas­tri and Alka Sharma— filed a pub­lic in­ter­est lit­i­ga­tion (PIL) in the Supreme Court against the 800-year-old prac­tice of not let­ting women of ‘men­stru­at­ing age’—be­tween 10 and 50 years—en­ter the Sabari­mala tem­ple. What trig­gered the PIL was the in­ci­dent in which Kan­nada ac­tor Jaya­mala ad­mit­ted that she had vis­ited the tem­ple in 1987 as a 28-year-old, in re­sponse to which a pu­rifi­ca­tion cer­e­mony was per­formed at the tem­ple. Ac­cord­ing to ad­vo­cate Bhakti Pas­rija Sethi, who at the time of fil­ing the PIL was the sec­re­tary-gen­eral of the In­dian Young Lawyers’ As­so­ci­a­tion, “The in­ci­dent came as a shock. We all thought the same: when a man vis­its the tem­ple, it does not get im­pure, so how does it be­come im­pure when a woman vis­its it? We dis­cussed the in­ci­dent and felt it was undig­ni­fied to­wards women and de­cided to file the pe­ti­tion.” Sethi, who is cur­rently vice-pres­i­dent of the Women Lawyers’ As­so­ci­a­tion in the Supreme Court, adds, “De­vo­tion can’t be sub­jected to gen­der bias. Ban­ning en­try of women in­side the tem­ple is a form of un­touch­a­bil­ity and vi­o­la­tion of Ar­ti­cle 17. If a woman feels she can go and wants to go, why should she be de­barred?”

Echo­ing a sim­i­lar sen­ti­ment, ad­vo­cate Prerna Ku­mari, who filed as an in­de­pen­dent pe­ti­tioner, says, “I didn’t have much idea about this tra­di­tion be­ing fol­lowed at the Sabari­mala Tem­ple nor any con­nec­tion with the women of Ker­ala at the time of fil­ing the pe­ti­tion. But I took this in­ci­dent as a case of gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion. And we were rep­re­sent­ing women at large.” Hail­ing the Supreme Court ver­dict that al­lows women to en­ter the Sabari­mala Tem­ple as a his­toric judg­ment, Ku­mari, now the sec­re­tary-gen­eral of the Women Lawyers’ As­so­ci­a­tion in the Supreme Court, says, “I felt putting a ban on the en­try of women in­side the tem­ple was a vi­o­la­tion of their con­sti­tu­tional rights and of Ar­ti­cles 14 and 15.”

The case, which first came up for a hear­ing, in Au­gust 2006 had 24 re­spon­dents. Both Sethi and Ku­mari feel that the is­sue of al­low­ing women to en­ter the tem­ple is one of re­li­gious free­dom, gen­der equal­ity and fe­male au­ton­omy. But at the same time they re­it­er­ate that the pe­ti­tion was not filed in or­der to change re­li­gion or to shake up some­thing. “It was a healthy de­bate, a dis­cus­sion, not a fight. It was a de­bate de­lib­er­ated by the Supreme Court and a num­ber of in­ter­ven­tion ap­pli­ca­tions have been filed,” says Sethi. Elab­o­rat­ing fur­ther, she says, “A tem­ple can’t be­come im­pure by the en­try of a per­son. It is a su­per­sti­tion. God never told any­one that if a woman comes, the tem­ple gets im­pure. It is more about the dig­nity of the per­son and in­di­vid­ual dig­nity is very im­por­tant. And I stand for dig­nity.”

The ver­dict is a clear in­di­ca­tion that mis­guided be­liefs, su­per­sti­tions and no­tions will no longer hold. The apex court judg­ment is a step in that di­rec­tion and a wel­come one.

Prerna Ku­mari (left) and Bhakti Pas­rija Sethi

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