Court Should Let Faith Reform Itself
Intervene only when basic rights are abused
Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. This is not a bad rule to go by when it comes to matters spiritual and temporal. That said, when there is an apparent overlap between Caesar’s and God’s affairs, some balanced judgement is called for to decide the rules of which realm should apply. At present, the courts are deciding at least three cases in which the constitutional guarantee of gender equality is at odds with the claims of faith. The practice of triple talaq, by which a Muslim man can divorce his wife by the simple expedient of pronouncing talaq — even by Skype or a text message — three times is one. The entry of women to Haji Ali in Mumbai and to the Sabarimala temple in Kerala are the other two. Except when basic temporal rights are violated, the courts should leave religious reform to evolve from within.
The Constitution guarantees equality and the freedom to profess, practise and propagate any faith. Whether the content of a religion is democratic or not is not for the state to decide, but if its practice violates any citizen’s temporal rights, the state has the duty to quash that violation. Thus, caste discrimination might have religious sanction but violates the right to equality and so is impermissible. The same principle would militate against the practice of triple talaq. But when it comes to intra-faith gender discrimination that does not violate temporal rights, should the state interfere? Specifically, should the court order the ordaining of women Catholic bishops, that men and women pray together in mosques or that Akshardham swamis welcome female presence? Just as it does not make sense for the court to pronounce on the legality of Krishna’s marriage to 16,008 wives, it does not make sense for the court to intervene in the internal customs of faiths.
That men, and not just women, should fast for their spouse’s longevity would be a legitimate demand within the faith, but not for the court to order. There is space for social reform outside the state’s ambit and the courts should leave that well enough alone.