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Indian Young Lawyers Association vs The State Of Kerala on 28 September, 2018

1

REPORTABLE

IN THE SUPREME COURT OF INDIA

CIVIL ORIGINAL JURISDICTION

WRIT PETITION (CIVIL) NO. 373 OF 2006

Indian Young Lawyers Association …Petitioner(s)
Ors.

VERSUS

The State of Kerala Ors. …Respondent(s)

JUDGMENT

Dipak Misra, CJI (for himself and A.M. Khanwilkar, J.)

Introduction

The irony that is nurtured by the society is to impose a rule,

however unjustified, and proffer explanation or justification to

substantiate the substratum of the said rule. Mankind, since

time immemorial, has been searching for explanation or

justification to substantiate a point of view that hurts humanity.

The theoretical human values remain on paper.

Signature Not Verified

Digitally signed by
Historically,
CHETAN KUMAR
Date: 2018.09.28
15:49:38 IST

women have been treated with inequality and that is why, many
Reason:

have fought for their rights. Susan B. Anthony, known for her
2

feminist activity, succinctly puts, “Men, their rights, and nothing

more; women, their rights, and nothing less.” It is a clear

message.

2. Neither the said message nor any kind of philosophy has

opened up the large populace of this country to accept women as

partners in their search for divinity and spirituality. In the

theatre of life, it seems, man has put the autograph and there is

no space for a woman even to put her signature. There is

inequality on the path of approach to understand the divinity.

The attribute of devotion to divinity cannot be subjected to the

rigidity and stereotypes of gender. The dualism that persists in

religion by glorifying and venerating women as goddesses on one

hand and by imposing rigorous sanctions on the other hand in

matters of devotion has to be abandoned. Such a dualistic

approach and an entrenched mindset results in indignity to

women and degradation of their status. The society has to

undergo a perceptual shift from being the propagator of

hegemonic patriarchal notions of demanding more exacting

standards of purity and chastity solely from women to be the

cultivator of equality where the woman is in no way considered

frailer, lesser or inferior to man. The law and the society are
3

bestowed with the Herculean task to act as levellers in this

regard and for the same, one has to remember the wise saying of

Henry Ward Beecher that deals with the changing perceptions of

the world in time. He says:

“Our days are a kaleidoscope. Every instant a
change takes place in the contents. New
harmonies, new contrasts, new combinations of
every sort. Nothing ever happens twice alike. The
most familiar people stand each moment in some
new relation to each other, to their work, to
surrounding objects. The most tranquil house,
with the most serene inhabitants, living upon the
utmost regularity of system, is yet exemplifying
infinite diversities.”1

3. Any relationship with the Creator is a transcendental one

crossing all socially created artificial barriers and not a

negotiated relationship bound by terms and conditions. Such a

relationship and expression of devotion cannot be circumscribed

by dogmatic notions of biological or physiological factors arising

out of rigid socio-cultural attitudes which do not meet the

constitutionally prescribed tests. Patriarchy in religion cannot be

permitted to trump over the element of pure devotion borne out

of faith and the freedom to practise and profess one‟s religion.

The subversion and repression of women under the garb of

biological or physiological factors cannot be given the seal of

1
Henry Ward Beecher, 1813-1887 – Eyes and Ears
4

legitimacy. Any rule based on discrimination or segregation of

women pertaining to biological characteristics is not only

unfounded, indefensible and implausible but can also never pass

the muster of constitutionality.

4. It is a universal truth that faith and religion do not

countenance discrimination but religious practices are

sometimes seen as perpetuating patriarchy thereby negating the

basic tenets of faith and of gender equality and rights. The

societal attitudes too centre and revolve around the patriarchal

mindset thereby derogating the status of women in the social and

religious milieu. All religions are simply different paths to reach

the Universal One. Religion is basically a way of life to realize

one‟s identity with the Divinity. However, certain dogmas and

exclusionary practices and rituals have resulted in incongruities

between the true essence of religion or faith and its practice that

has come to be permeated with patriarchal prejudices.

Sometimes, in the name of essential and integral facet of the

faith, such practices are zealously propagated.

The Reference
5

5. Having stated so, we will focus on the factual score. The

instant writ petition preferred under Article 32 of the

Constitution seeks issuance of directions against the Government

of Kerala, Devaswom Board of Travancore, Chief Thanthri of

Sabarimala Temple and the District Magistrate of Pathanamthitta

to ensure entry of female devotees between the age group of 10 to

50 years to the Lord Ayyappa Temple at Sabarimala (Kerala)

which has been denied to them on the basis of certain custom

and usage; to declare Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of

Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965 (for short,

“the 1965 Rules”) framed in exercise of the powers conferred by

Section 4 of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship

(Authorisation of Entry) Act, 1965 (for brevity, “the 1965 Act”) as

unconstitutional being violative of Articles 14, 15, 25 and 51A(e)

of the Constitution of India and further to pass directions for the

safety of women pilgrims.

6. The three-Judge Bench in Indian Young Lawyers

Association and others v. State of Kerala and others2,

keeping in view the gravity of the issues involved, sought the

assistance of Mr. Raju Ramachandran and Mr. K. Ramamoorthy,

2 (2017) 10 SCC 689
6

learned senior counsel as Amici Curiae. Thereafter, the three-

Judge Bench analyzed the decision and the reasons ascribed by

the Kerala High Court in S. Mahendran v. The Secretary,

Travancore Devaswom Board, Thiruvananthpuram and

others3 wherein similar contentions were raised. The Bench took

note of the two affidavits dated 13.11.2007 and 05.02.2016 and

the contrary stands taken therein by the Government of Kerala.

7. After recording the submissions advanced by the learned

counsel for the petitioners, the respondents as well as by the

learned Amici Curiae, the three-Judge Bench considered the

questions formulated by the counsel for the parties and,

thereafter, framed the following questions for the purpose of

reference to the Constitution Bench:

“1. Whether the exclusionary practice which is based
upon a biological factor exclusive to the female
gender amounts to “discrimination” and thereby
violates the very core of Articles 14, 15 and 17 and
not protected by „morality‟ as used in Articles 25 and
26 of the Constitution?

2. Whether the practice of excluding such women
constitutes an “essential religious practice” under
Article 25 and whether a religious institution can
assert a claim in that regard under the umbrella of
right to manage its own affairs in the matters of
religion?

3 AIR 1993 Kerala 42
7

3. Whether Ayyappa Temple has a denominational
character and, if so, is it permissible on the part of a
‘religious denomination’ managed by a statutory
board and financed under Article 290-A of the
Constitution of India out of the Consolidated Fund of
Kerala and Tamil Nadu to indulge in such practices
violating constitutional principles/ morality
embedded in Articles 14, 15(3), 39(a) and 51-A(e)?

4. Whether Rule 3 of the Kerala Hindu Places of
Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules
permits ‘religious denomination’ to ban entry of
women between the age of 10 to 50 years? And if so,
would it not play foul of Articles 14 and 15(3) of the
Constitution by restricting entry of women on the
ground of sex?

5. Whether Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of
Public Worship (Authorization of Entry) Rules, 1965
is ultra vires the Kerala Hindu Places of Public
Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Act, 1965 and , if
treated to be intra vires, whether it will be violative of
the provisions of Part III of the Constitution?”

8. Because of the aforesaid reference, the matter has been

placed before us.

9. It is also worthy to note here that the Division Bench of the

High Court of Kerala, in S. Mahendran (supra), upheld the

practice of banning entry of women belonging to the age group of

10 to 50 years in the Sabarimala temple during any time of the

year. The High Court posed the following questions:
8

“(1) Whether woman of the age group 10 to 50 can be
permitted to enter the Sabarimala temple at any
period of the year or during any of the festivals or
poojas conducted in the temple.

(2) Whether the denial of entry of that class of
woman amounts to discrimination and violative of
Articles 15, 25 and 26 of the Constitution of India,
and

(3) Whether directions can be issued by this Court to
the Devaswom Board and the Government of Kerala
to restrict the entry of such woman to the temple?”

10. The High Court, after posing the aforesaid questions,

observed thus:

“40. The deity in Sabarimala temple is in the form of
a Yogi or a Bramchari according to the Thanthri of
the temple. He stated that there are Sasta temples at
Achankovil, Aryankavu and Kulathupuzha, but the
deities there are in different forms. Puthumana
Narayanan Namboodiri, a Thanthrimukhya
recognised by the Travancore Devaswom Board,
while examined as C.W. 1 stated that God in
Sabarimala is in the form of aNaisthikBramchari.
That, according to him, is the reason why young
women are not permitted to offer prayers in the
temple.

41. Since the deity is in the form of a Naisthik
Brahmachari, it is therefore believed that young
women should not offer worship in the temple so
that even the slightest deviation from celibacy and
austerity observed by the deity is not caused by the
presence of such women.”

And again:

“… We are therefore of the opinion that the usage of
woman of the age group 10 to 50 not being permitted
to enter the temple and its precincts had been made
9

applicable throughout the year and there is no
reason why they should be permitted to offer worship
during specified days when they are not in a position
to observe penance for 41 days due to physiological
reasons. In short, woman after menarche up to
menopause are not entitled to enter the temple and
offer prayars there at any time of the year.”

11. Analysing so, the High Court recorded its conclusions which

read thus:

“(1) The restriction imposed on women aged above 10
and below 50 from trekking the holy hills of
Sabarimala and offering worship at Sabarimala
Shrine is in accordance with the usage prevalent
from time immemorial.

(2) Such restriction imposed by the Devaswom Board
is not violative of Articles 15, 25 and 26 of the
Constitution of India.

(3) Such restriction is also not violative of the
provisions of Hindu Place of Public Worship
(Authorisation of Entry) Act, 1965 since there is no
restriction between one section and another section
or between one class and another class among the
Hindus in the matter of entry to a temple whereas
the prohibition is only in respect of women of a
particular age group and not women as a class.”

Submissions on behalf of the Petitioners

12. Learned counsel appearing for the petitioners have alluded

to the geographical location, historical aspect along with the

Buddhist connection of the Sabarimala temple and the religious

history of Lord Ayyappa. They have, for the purpose of
10

appreciating the functioning of the Sabarimala temple, also taken

us through the history of Devaswom in Travancore. As regards

the statutory backing of the Devaswom Boards, the petitioners

have drawn the attention of this Court to the „Travancore –

Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, 1950‟, Section 4 of the

said Act contemplates a Devaswom Board for bringing all

incorporated and unincorporated Devaswoms and other Hindu

religious institutions except Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple.

13. It has been put forth by them that the aforesaid enactment

has been subject to various amendments over a period of time,

the last amendment being made in the year 2007 vide Amending

Act of 2007 [published under Notification No. 2988/Leg.A1/2007

in K.G. ext. No. 694 dated 12.04.2007] which led to the inclusion

of women into the management Board. The petitioners have also

referred to Section 29A of the said Act which stipulates that all

appointments of officers and employees in the Devaswom

Administrative Service of the Board shall be made from a select

list of candidates furnished by the Kerala Public Service

Commission. It has been submitted by the petitioners that after

the 1950 Act, no individual Devaswom Board can act differently

both in matters of religion and administration as they have lost
11

their distinct character and Sabarimala no more remained a

temple of any religious denomination after the tak over of its

management.

14. As far as the funding aspect is considered, it is contended

that prior to the adoption of the Constitution, both the

Travancore and Tamil Nadu Devaswom Boards were funded by

the State but after six years of the adoption of the Constitution,

the Parliament, in the exercise of its constituent power, inserted

Article 290-A vide the 7th Amendment whereby a sum of rupees

forty six lakhs and fifty thousand only is allowed to be charged

upon the Consolidated Fund of the State of Kerala which is paid

to the Travancore Devaswom Board. It has been asseverated by

the petitioners that after the insertion of Article 290-A in the

Constitution and the consequent State funding, no individual

ill-practice could be carried on in any temple associated with the

statutory Devaswom Board even in case of Hindu temple as this

constitutional amendment has been made on the premise that no

ill-practice shall be carried on in any temple which is against the

constitutional principles.

15. It is urged that since all Devaswoms are Hindu Temples and

they are bound to follow the basic tenets of Hindu religion,
12

individual ill-practice of any temple contrary to the basic tenets

of Hindu religion is impermissible, after it being taken over by

statutory board and state funding in 1971. It is propounded that

for the purpose of constituting a „religious denomination; not only

the practices followed by that denomination should be different

but its administration should also be distinct and separate.

Thus, even if some practices are distinct in temples attached to

statutory board, since its administration is centralized under the

Devaswom Board, it cannot attain a distinct identity of a separate

religious denomination.

16. It is contended that in legal and constitutional parlance, for

the purpose of constituting a religious denomination, there has to

be strong bondage among the members of its denomination. Such

denomination must be clearly distinct following a particular set of

rituals/practices/usages having their own religious institutions

including managing their properties in accordance with law.

Further, the petitioners have averred that religious denomination

which closely binds its members with certain rituals/practices

must also be owning some property with perpetual succession

which, as per the petitioners, the Constitution framers kept in

mind while framing Article 26 of the Constitution and,
13

accordingly, religious denominations have been conferred four

rights under clauses (a) to (d) of Article 26. These rights, it is

submitted, are not disjunctive and exclusive in nature but are

collectively conferred to establish their identity. To buttress this

view, the petitioners have placed reliance on the views of the

views of H.M. Seervai4 wherein the learned author has stated that

the right to acquire property is implicit in clause (a) as no

religious institution could be created without property and

similarly, how one could manage its own affairs in matters of

religion under clause (b) if there is no religious institution. Thus,

for a religious denomination claiming separate and distinct

identity, it must own some property requiring constitutional

protection.

17. The petitioners have pressed into service the decisions of

this Court in Sardar Syedna Taher Saifuddin Saheb v. State

of Bombay5, Raja Bira Kishore Deb v. State of Orissa6,

Shastri Yagnapurushadiji and others v. Muldas Bhundardas

Vaishya and another7 and S.P. Mittal v. Union of India and

others8 wherein the concept of religious denomination was

4 Third Edition, Vol. 1, 1983 pg. 931
5 [1962] Suppl. 2 SCR 496
6 (1964) 7 SCR 32
7 (1966) 3 SCR 242 : AIR 1966 SC 1119
8 (1983) 1 SCC 51
14

discussed by this Court. It is the stand of the petitioners that

some mere difference in practices carried out at Hindu Temples

cannot accord to them the status of separate religious

denominations.

18. The contention of the petitioners is that Sabarimala Temple

is not a separate religious denomination, for the religious

parctices performed in Sabarimala Temple at the time of „Puja‟

and other religious ceremonies are akin to any other practice

performed in any Hindu Temple. It does not have its separate

administration, but is administered by or through a statutory

body constituted under the „Travancore – Cochin Hindu Religious

Institutions Act, 1950‟ and further, as per Section 29(3A) of the

said Act, the Devaswom Commissioner is required to submit

reports to the government, once in three months, with respect to

the working of the Board.

19. They have placed reliance on the decision of this Court in

The Commissioner Hindu Religious Endowments, Madras v.

Shri Lakshmindra Thritha Swaminar of Sri Shirur Mutt9

wherein it was observed thus:

9

[1954] SCR 1005
15

“The contention formulated in such broad terms
cannot, we think, be supported. In the first place,
what constitutes the essential part of a religion is
primarily to be ascertained with reference to the
doctrines of that religion itself. If the tenets of any
religious sect of the Hindus prescribe that offerings
of food should be given to the idol at particular
hours of the day, that periodical ceremonies should
be performed in a certain way at certain periods of
the year or that there should be daily recital of
sacred texts or ablations to the sacred fire, all these
would be regarded as parts of religion and the mere
fact that they involve expenditure of money or
employment of priests and servants or the use of
marketable commodities would not make them
secular activities partaking of a commercial or
economic character; all of them are religious
practices and should be regarded as matters of
religion within the meaning of article 26(b).”

20. As per the petitioners, this Court in Shirur Mutt (supra),

while giving freedom under clauses (a) and (b) of Article 26, made

it clear that what is protected is only the „essential part‟ of

religion or, in other words, the essence of „practice‟ practised by a

religious denomination and, therefore, the petitioners submit that

before any religious practice is examined on the touchstone of

constitutional principles, it has to be ascertained positively

whether the said practice is, in pith and substance, really the

„essence‟ of the said religion.

16

21. The petitioners have also cited the judgment in Durgah

Committee, Ajmer v. Syed Hussain Ali10 wherein

Gajendragadkar, J. clarified that clauses (c) and (d) do not create

any new right in favour of religious denominations but only

safeguard their rights. Similarly, in matters of religious affairs, it

is observed that the same is also not sacrosanct as there may be

many ill-practices like superstitions which may, in due course of

time, become mere accretions to the basic theme of that religious

denomination. After so citing, the petitioners have submitted that

even if any accretion added for any historical reason has become

an essence of the said religious denomination, the same shall not

be protected under Article 26(b) if it is so abhorring and is

against the basic concept of our Constitution.

22. It is also the case of the petitioners that discrimination in

matters of entry to temples is neither a ritual nor a ceremony

associated with Hindu religion as this religion does not

discriminate against women but, on the contrary, Hindu religion

accords to women a higher pedestal in comparison to men and

such a discrimination is totally anti-Hindu, for restriction on the

entry of women is not the essence of Hindu religion. It has also

10
(1962) 1 SCR 383
17

been submitted by the petitioners that even if Sabarimala temple

is taken as a religious denomination, their basic tenets are not

confined to taking of oath of celibacy for certain period of

pilgrimage as all pilgrims are allowed freely in the temple and

there is no such practice of not seeing the sight of women during

this period.

23. Further, mere sight of women cannot affect one‟s celibacy if

one has taken oath of it, otherwise such oath has no meaning

and moreover, the devotees do not go to the Sabarimala temple

for taking the oath of celibacy but for seeking the blessings of

Lord Ayyappa. Maintaining celibacy is only a ritual for some who

want to practise it and for which even the temple administration

has not given any justification. On the contrary, according to the

temple administration, since women during menstrual period

cannot trek very difficult mountainous terrain in the dense forest

and that too for several weeks, this practice of not permitting

them has started.

24. It is averred by the petitioners that though no right is

absolute, yet entry to temple may be regulated and there cannot

be any absolute prohibition or complete exclusionary rule from

entry of women to a temple. For substantiating this view, the
18

petitioners have pressed into service the judgment of this Court

in Shirur Mutt (supra), the relevant portion of which reads thus:

“We agree, however, with the High Court in the view
taken by it about section 21. This section empowers
the Commissioner and his subordinate officers and
also persons authorised by them to enter the
premises of any religious institution or place of
worship for the purpose of exercising any power
conferred, or any duty imposed by or under the Act.
It is well known that there could be no such thing as
an unregulated and unrestricted right of entry in a
public temple or other religious institution, for
persons who are not connected with the spiritual
functions thereof. It is a traditional custom
universally observed not to allow access to any
outsider to the particularly sacred parts of a temple
as for example, the place where the deity is located.
There are also fixed hours of worship and rest for the
idol when no disturbance by any member of the
public is allowed. Section 21, it is to be noted, does
not confine the right of entry to the outer portion of
the premises; it does not even exclude the inner
sanctuary the Holy of Holies” as it is said, the
sanctity of which is `zealously preserved. It does not
say that the entry may be made after due notice to
the head of the institution and at such hours which
would not interfere with the due observance of the
rites and ceremonies in the institution. We think
that as the section stands, it interferes with the
fundamental rights of the Mathadhipati and the
denomination of which he is head guaranteed under
articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution.”

25. The judgment of this Court in Sri Venkatramana Devaru

v. State of Mysore and others11 has been cited to submit that a

religious denomination cannot completely exclude or prohibit any
11
(1958) SCR 895 : 1958 AIR 55
19

class or section for all times. All that a religious denomination

may do is to restrict the entry of a particular class or section in

certain rituals. The relevant portion of Devaru (supra) reads as

under:

“We have held that the right of a denomination to
wholly exclude members of the public from
worshipping in the temple, though comprised in Art.
26(b), must yield to the overriding right declared by
Art. 25(2)(b) in favour of the public to enter into a
temple for worship. But where the right claimed is
not one of general and total exclusion of the public
from worship in the temple at all times but of
exclusion from certain religious services, they being
limited by the rules of the foundation to the
members of the denomination, ,then the question is
not whether Art. 25(2)(b) over-rides that right so as
to extinguish it, but whether it is possible-so to
regulate the rights of the persons protected by Art.
25(2)(b) as to give effect to both the rights. If the
denominational rights are such that to give effect to
them would substantially reduce the right conferred
by Art. 25(2)(b), then of course, on our conclusion
that Art. 25(2)(b) prevails as against Art. 26(b), the
denominational rights must vanish. But where that
is not the position, and after giving effect to the
rights of the denomination what is left to the public
of the right of worship is something substantial and
not merely the husk of it, there is no reason why we
should not so construe Art. 25(2)(b) as to give effect
to Art. 26(b) and recognise the rights of the
denomination in respect of matters which are strictly
denominational, leaving the rights of the public in
other respects unaffected.”
(Emphasis is ours)
20

26. After referring to Sections 3 and 4 of the Kerala Hindu

Places of Public Worship (Authorization of Entry) Act, 1965 and

Rule 3 (b) framed thereunder, the petitioners have submitted that

the expression „at any such time‟ occurring in Rule 3(b) does not

lead to complete exclusion/prohibition of any woman. In other

words, if at such time during which, by any custom or usage, any

woman was not allowed, then the said custom or usage shall

continue and to substantiate this claim, the petitioners have

cited the example that if during late night, by custom or usage,

women are not allowed to enter temple, the said custom or usage

shall continue, however, it does not permit complete prohibition

on entry of women. Further, the petitioners have submitted that

any other interpretation of Rule 3(b) would render the said rule

open to challenge as it would not only be violative of the Kerala

Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorization of Entry) Rules,

1965 but also of Article 25(2)(b) of the Constitution read with

Articles 14 and 15.

Submissions on behalf of Intervenor in I.A No. 10 of 2016

27. It has been submitted on behalf of the intervenor that the

exclusionary practice of preventing women between the age of 10
21

to 50 years based on physiological factors exclusively to be found

in female gender violates Article 14 of the Constitution of India,

for such a classification does not have a constitutional object. It

is also the case of the applicant/intervenor that even if it is said

that there is classification between men and women as separate

classes, there cannot be any further sub-classification among

women on the basis of physiological factors such as

menstruation by which women below 10 years and above 50

years are allowed.

28. It has been averred by the applicant/intervenor that as per

Article 14, any law being discriminatory in nature has to have the

existence of an intelligible differentia and the same must bear a

rational nexus with the object sought to be achieved. The object

as has been claimed is to prevent the deity from being polluted,

which, in the view of the applicant/intervenor, runs counter to

the constitutional object of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity

as enshrined in the Preamble to our Constitution. That apart, the

applicant/intervenor has submitted that though the classification

based on menstruation may be intelligible, yet the object sought

to be achieved being constitutionally invalid, the question of

nexus need not be delved into.

22

29. Referring to the decision of this Court in Deepak Sibal v.

Punjab University and another12, the applicant/intervenor has

submitted that the exclusionary practice per se violates the

sacrosanct principle of equality of women and equality before law

and the burden of proving that it does not so violate is on the

respondent no. 2, the Devaswom Board, which the said

respondent has not been able to discharge.

30. It has also been asseverated by the applicant/intervenor

that the exclusionary practice is manifestly arbitrary in view of

the judgment of this Court in Shayara Bano v. Union of India

and others13 as it is solely based on physiological factors and,

therefore, neither serves any valid object nor satisfies the test of

reasonable classification under Article 14 of the Constitution.

31. It has also been put forth by the applicant/intervenor that

the exclusionary practice per se violates Article 15(1) of the

Constitution which amounts to discrimination on the basis of sex

as the physiological feature of menstruation is exclusive to

females alone. In support of the said submission, the

applicant/intervenor has placed reliance upon the judgments of

this Court in Anuj Garg and others v. Hotel Association of

12
(1989) 2 SCC 145
13
(2017) 9 SCC 1
23

India and others14 and Charu Khurana and others v. Union

of India and others15, to accentuate that gender bias in any

form is opposed to constitutional norms.

32. It is also the case of the applicant/intervenor that

exclusionary practice has the impact of casting a stigma on

women of menstruating age for it considers them polluted and

thereby has a huge psychological impact on them which

resultantly leads to violation of Article 17 as the expression „in

any form‟ in Article 17 includes untouchability based on social

factors and is wide enough to cover menstrual discrimination

against women. It has further been submitted by

applicant/intervenor that Article 17 applies to both State and

non-State actors and has been made operative through a Central

legislation in the form of Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955. The

judgment of the High Court in S. Mahendran (supra), in the view

of the applicant/intervenor, is not in consonance with the

provisions of the 1955 Act.

33. Drawing support from the decisions of this Court in

National Legal Services Authority v. Union of India and

14
(2008) 3 SCC 1
15
(2015) 1 SCC 192
24

others16 and Justice K.S. Puttaswamy and another v. Union

of India and others17, the applicant/intervenor has averred that

the exclusionary practice pertaining to women is violative of

Article 21 of the Constitution as it impacts the ovulating and

menstruating women to have a normal social day to day

rendezvous with the society including their family members and,

thus, undermines their dignity by violating Article 21 of the

Constitution.

34. It has also been submitted that the exclusionary practice

violates the rights of Hindu women under Article 25 of the

Constitution as they have the right to enter Hindu temples

dedicated to the public. As per the applicant/intervenor, there is

a catena of judgments by this Court wherein the rights of entry

into temples of all castes have been upheld on the premise that

they are Hindus and similarly, women who assert the right to

enter the Sabarimala temple are also Hindus.

35. The applicant/intervenor has referred to Section 4 of the

Kerala Places of Public Worship (Authorization of Entry) Act,

1965 and Rule 3(b) made under the said section which disentitles

certain categories of people from entering any place of public

16
(2014) 5 SCC 438
17
(2017) 10 SCC 1
25

worship and this includes women who, by custom or usage, are

not allowed to enter a place of public worship. It has further been

submitted by the applicant/intervenor that Rule 3(b) is ultra vires

the 1965 Act and is also unconstitutional for it violates Articles

14, 15, 17, 21 and 25 of the Constitution in so far as it prohibits

women from entering a public temple. The said Rule 3(b), as per

the applicant/intervenor, is not an essential practice protected

under Article 26 of the Constitution for it is not a part of religion

as the devotees of Lord Ayyappa are just Hindus and they do not

constitute a separate religious denomination under Article 26 of

the Constitution as they do not have a common faith or a distinct

name. To substantiate this view, the applicant/intervenor has

drawn the attention of this Court to the judgment in S.P. Mittal

(supra).

36. It has been submitted by the applicant/intervenor that even

if we assume that Sabarimala is a religious denomination, the

exclusion of women is not an essential practice as it does not

satisfy the test of essential practice as has been laid down by this

Court in Commissioner of Police and others v Acharya

Jagadishwarananda Avadhuta and another18.

18

(2004) 12 SCC 770
26

37. Referring to the judgment of this Court in Devaru (supra),

the applicant/intervenor has submitted that the right to manage

its own affairs conferred upon a religious denomination under

Article 26(b) is subject to be rights guaranteed to Hindu women

under Article 25(2)(b). As per the applicant/intervenor, a

harmonious construction of Articles 25 and 26 of the

Constitution reveals that neither Article 26 enables the State to

make a law excluding any women from the right to worship in

any public temple nor does it protect any custom that

discriminates against women and, thus, such exclusion amounts

to destruction of the rights of women to practise religion

guaranteed under Article 25.

38. The applicant/intervenor has also drawn the attention of

this Court to the Convention on Elimination of all forms of

Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the fact that India

is a party to this Convention for emphasizing that it is the

obligation of the State to eradicate taboos relating to

menstruation based on customs or traditions and further the

State should refrain from invoking the plea of custom or tradition

to avoid their obligation. The judgment of this Court in Vishaka
27

and others v. State of Rajasthan and others19 has been cited

to submit that international conventions must be followed when

there is a void in the domestic law or when there is any

inconsistency in the norms for construing the domestic law.

Submissions on behalf of Intervenor in I.A No. 34/2017

39. The intervenor, All India Democratic Women‟s Association,

has filed I.A No. 34/2017 wherein it has submitted that the

meaning of the Constitution cannot be frozen and it must

continuously evolve with the changing times. Further, the

applicant submits that merely because Article 26 does not specify

that it is subject to Part III or Article 25 of the Constitution, it

cannot be said that it is insulated against Part III and especially

Articles 14, 15 19, 21 and 25 of the Constitution. To emphasize

the same, the applicant/intervenor has relied upon the

observations made in Devaru case where the Court has stated

that the rule of construction is well settled that when there are

two provisions in an enactment which cannot be reconciled with

each other, they should be so interpreted that, if possible, effect

could be given to both. The Court observed that applying this

rule of harmonious construction, if the contention of the

19
(1997) 6 SCC 241
28

appellants is to be accepted, then Art. 25(2)(b) will become wholly

nugatory in its application to denominational temples, though, as

stated above, the language of that Article includes them. The

Court further observed that if the contention of the respondents

is accepted, then full effect can be given to Article 26(b) in all

matters of religion, subject only to this that as regards one aspect

of them, entry into a temple for worship, the rights declared

under Article 25(2)(b) will prevail and therefore while, in the

former case, Article 25(2)(b) will be put wholly out of operation, in

the latter, effect can be given to both that provision and Article

26(b) and, hence, it must be accordingly held that Article

26(b) must be read subject to Article 25(2)(b).

Submissions on behalf of Respondent No. 1

40. The State of Kerala, the first respondent herein, as indicated

earlier, had taken contrary stands at different times. An affidavit

was filed on 13.11.2007 which indicated that the Government

was not in favour of discrimination towards any woman or any

section of the society. The said stand was changed in the

affidavit dated 5.2.2016 taking the stand that the earlier affidavit

was contrary to the judgment of the Kerala High Court. On

7.11.2016 on a query being made by the Court, the learned
29

counsel for the State submitted that it wanted to place reliance

on the original affidavit dated 13.11.2007. It is contended by Mr.

Jaideep Gupta, learned senior counsel appearing for the State of

Kerala, that the 1965 Act and the Rules framed thereunder are in

consonance with Article 25(2)(b) of the Constitution. Reference

has been made to Section 3 of the Act, for the said provision

deals with places of public worship to be open to Hindus

generally or any section or class thereof. The concept of

prohibition is not conceived of. It is urged by Mr. Gupta that

there is no restriction in view of the legislation in the field. In

essence, the stand of the State is that it does not conceive of any

discrimination as regards the entry of women into the temple

where male devotees can enter.

Submissions on behalf of Respondent No. 2

41. The respondent no. 2 has submitted that Sabarimala is a

temple of great antiquity dedicated to Lord Ayyappa who the

petitioner avers to be a deity depicting “a hyper masculine God

born out of the union of two male Gods Shiva and Mohini, where

Mohini is Vishnu in a female form.”

42. Thereafter, the respondent no. 2 reiterated the submissions

of the respondent no. 4 pertaining to the observance of 41 days
30

„Vruthum‟ and the fact that the Sabarimala Temple is supposed

to depict „Naishtika Brahmacharya‟. In addition to this, the

respondent no. 2 has also referred to a Ph.D thesis by Radhika

Sekar in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at

Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario in October 1987 titled “The

Process of Pilgrimage : The Ayyappa Cultus and Sabarimala

Yatra” which has established the very raison d’etre for the

existence of the denominational Temple of Sabarimala based

upon deep penance, celibacy and abstinence by all visitors, male

and female. The respondent no. 2 has also drawn the attention of

the Court to the fact that the Sabarimala temple is open only

during specific defined periods, that is, on the Malayalam month

viz. 17th November to 26th December, for the first five days of

each Malayalam month which starts approximately in the middle

of each English calendar month and also during the period of

Makar Sankranti, viz. approximately from January 1 to mid-

January of each year.

Submissions on behalf of Respondent No. 4

43. At the outset, the respondent no. 4 has drawn the attention

of the Court to the history of Kerala in general and Sabarimala in

particular and has highlighted the existence of stone inscriptions
31

which state that the priest Kantaru Prabhakaru had made an

idol consecration at Sabarimala years back and after the

rampage of fire at Sabarimala, it was Kantaru Shankaru who

consecrated the existing idol in Sabarimala. The respondent no. 4

has submitted that the Thantri is the vedic head priest of Hindu

temples in Kerala and the popularity of any temple depends to a

great extent on the Thantri and Santhikkaran (Archaka) who

must be able to induce a spiritual reverence among worshippers

and explain the significance of the Mantras they recite and poojas

they perform.

44. The respondent no. 4 has averred that the custom and

usage of young women (aged between 10 to 50 years) not being

allowed to enter the Sabarimala temple has its traces in the basic

tenets of the establishment of the temple, the deification of Lord

Ayyappa and His worship. As per the respondent no. 4, Ayyappa

had explained the manner in which the Sabarimala pilgrimage

was to be undertaken emphasizing the importance of „Vrutham‟

which are special observances that need to be followed in order to

achieve spiritual refinement, and that as a part of the „Vruthum‟,

the person going on pilgrimage separates himself from all family

ties for 41 days and during the said period either the woman
32

leaves the house or the man resides elsewhere in order to

separate himself from all family ties. Thereafter, the respondent

no. 4 has pointed out that the problem with women is that they

cannot complete the 41 days Vruthum as their periods would

eventually fall within the said period and it is a custom among all

Hindus that women do not go to temples or participate in

religious activities during periods and the same is substantiated

by the statement of the basic Thantric text of temple worshipping

in Kerala Thantra Samuchayam, Chapter 10, Verse II.

45. The respondent no. 4 has emphasized that the observance

of 41 days Vruthum is a condition precedent for the pilgrimage

which has been an age old custom and anyone who cannot fulfill

the said Vruthum cannot enter the temple and, hence, women

who have not attained puberty and those who are in menopause

alone can undertake the pilgrimage at Sabarimala. The

respondent no. 4 has also averred that the said condition of

observance of 41days Vruthum is not applicable to women alone

and even men who cannot observe the 41 days Vruthum due to

births and deaths in the family, which results in breaking of

Vruthum, are also not allowed to take the pilgrimage that year.
33

46. The respondent no. 4 has also drawn the attention of the

Court to the fact that religious customs as well as the traditional

science of Ayurveda consider menstrual period as an occasion for

rest for women and a period of uncleanliness of the body and

during this period, women are affected by several discomforts

and, hence, observance of intense spiritual discipline for 41 days

is not possible. The respondent no. 4 has also contented that it is

for the sake of pilgrims who practise celibacy that young women

are not allowed in the Sabarimala pilgrimage.

47. The respondent no. 4, thereafter, contends that the

prohibition is not a social discrimination but is only a part of the

essential spiritual discipline related to this particular pilgrimage

and is clearly intended to keep the mind of the pilgrims away

from the distraction related to sex as the dominant objective of

the pilgrimage is the creation of circumstances in all respects for

the successful practice of spiritual self-discipline.

48. The respondent no. 4 has also averred that for climbing the

18 holy steps, one has to carry the irumudikettu (the sacred

package of offerings) and for making the pilgrimage really

meaningful, austerities for a period of 41 days have to be

observed and, hence, for a meaningful pilgrimage, it is always
34

prudent if women of the forbidden age group hold themselves

back.

49. The respondent no. 4 further submits that „devaprasanam‟

is a ritual performed for answering questions pertaining to

religious practices when the Thantris are also unable to take

decisions and that „devaprasanams‟ conducted in the past also

reveal that the deity does not want young women to enter the

precincts of the temple. As per the respondent no. 4, the

philosophy involved in evolving a particular aspect of power in a

temple is well reflected in the following mantra chanting during

the infusion of divine power:

“O the Supreme Lord! It is well known that You
pervade everything and everywhere‟ yet I am invoking
You in this bimbhamvery much like a fan that gathers
and activates the all-pervading air at a particular spot.
At the fire latent in wood expresses itself through
friction, O Lord be specially active in this bimbhamas a
result of sacred act.”

50. The respondent no. 4 is of the view that it is the particular

characteristic of the field of power, its maintenance and impact

which the „Devaprasanam‟ deals with and „Devaprasanam‟

confirms that the practice of women of particular age group not

participating in the temple should be maintained.
35

51. To bolster his stand, the respondent no. 4 has also placed

reliance upon the decision of the Kerala High Court in S.

Mahendran (supra) wherein the then Thantri Shri Neelakandaru

had deposed as C.W 6 and he stated that the present idol was

installed by his paternal uncle Kantaru Shankaru and he

confirmed that women of age group 10 to 50 years were not

allowed to enter the temple even before 1950s. The said witness

also deposed that his paternal uncle had instructed him and the

temple officials to follow the old customs and usages.

52. The respondent no. 4 has also drawn the attention of the

Court to the opinion of this Court in Seshammal and others v.

State of Tamil Nadu20, wherein it was observed that on the

consecration of the image in the temple, the Hindu worshippers

believe that the divine spirit has descended into the image and

from then on, the image of the deity is fit to be worshipped and

the rules with regard to daily and periodical worship have been

laid down for securing the continuance of the divine spirit and as

per the Agamas, an image becomes defiled if there is any

departure or violation of any of the rules relating to worship.

53. The respondent no. 4 has also submitted that the deity at

Sabarimala in the form of „Naishtik Brahmachari‟ and that is also
20
(1972) 2 SCC 11
36

a reason why young women are not allowed inside the temple so

as to prevent even the slightest deviation from celibacy and

austerity observed by the deity.

Submissions on behalf of Intervenor in I.A Nos. 12 and 13

54. Another applicant/intervenor has filed I.A Nos. 12 and 13

and his main submission is that this Court may remove the

restriction which bars women between the age group of 10 to 50

years from entering the Sabarimala temple for all days barring

the period between 16th November to 14th January (60 days) as

during the said period, Lord Ayyappa sits in the Sabarimala

temple and Lord Ayyappa visits other temples all across the

country during the remaining days. The applicant/intervenor

further highlights that during the said period, the pilgrims

coming to the temple must strictly follow the rituals which

includes taking a 41 days Vruthum and one of the rituals

pertains to not touching the ladies including daughters and wives

as well. The applicant/intervenor has further submitted that if

the restriction under Section 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of

Worship (Authorization of Entry) Rules, 1965 is allowed to

operate only for the said period of 60 days, it would not amount

to any violation of Articles 14, 15 and 17 of the Constitution and
37

it would also be well within the ambit of Articles 25 and 26 of the

Constitution.

Rejoinder Submissions on behalf of the Petitioners

55. In reply to the contention of the respondent no. 2-

Devaswom Board that the writ jurisdiction does not lie in the

present matter, the petitioners submit that the validity of Section

3(b) could not have been challenged in suit proceedings as the

present writ petition has been filed against the State authorities

and the Chief Thantri who has been impleaded as the respondent

no. 4 is appointed by a Statutory Board; and since now „custom

and usage‟ fall under the ambit of Article 13, they have become

subject to the constitutional provisions contained in Part III

whose violation can only be challenged in writ jurisdiction.

56. Thereafter, the petitioners have submitted that the

respondent no. 2 has merely pressed the theory of intelligible

differentia to justify encircling of women of prohibited age without

elaborating the object sought to be achieved and whether the

differentia even has any nexus with the object and the object of

preventing deflecting of the idol from the stage of celibacy cannot

be achieved from the present classification.

38

57. Further, the petitioners have submitted that the respondent

no. 2 has wrongly stated that the Sabarimala temple is a

religious denomination, for any temple under a statutory board

like a Devaswom Board and financed out of the Consolidated

Fund of Kerala and whose employees are employed by the Kerala

Service Commission cannot claim to be an independent „religious

denomination‟.

58. Besides, the petitioners have contended that several ill-

practices in existence and falling within the ambit of religion as

cited by the respondent no. 2 may not be acceptable today and

the said practices have not come up before this Court and should

not be taken cognizance of. Further, it is the view of the

petitioners that the said practices cannot be held to be the

essence of religion as they had evolved out of convenience and, in

due course of time, have become crude accretions. To prove its

point, the petitioners have cited the examples of the practices of

dowry and restriction of women from entering mosques which,

although had come into existence due to certain factors existing

at the relevant time, no longer apply.

59. Thereafter, the petitioners have contended that if

Sabarimala does not come in the category of religious
39

denomination, then it cannot claim the right under Article 26 and

it would come within the purview of Article 12 making it subject

to Articles 14 and 15 and, hence, the State would be restrained

from denying equal protection of law and cannot discriminate on

the basis of sex. Even if it is concluded that Sabarimala is a

religious denomination, then as per the Devaru case, there has

to be a harmonious construction between Articles 25 and 26 of

the Constitution and, thus, to completely deny women of the age

group of 10 to 50 years from entering the temple would be

impermissible as per the Devaru case. Finally, the petitioners

have submitted that in legal and constitutional parlance, after

coming into effect of the Constitution of India, „dignity of women‟

under Article 51A(e) is an essential ingredient of constitutional

morality.

Rejoinder Submissions on behalf of Intervenor in I.A No. 10
of 2016

60. The applicant/intervenor has submitted that the law

relating to entry into temple for darshan is separate and distinct

from the law relating to management of religious affairs. The

former is governed by Article 25 and the latter is governed by

Article 26. Further, the applicant/intervenor has pointed out that

even those institutions which are held to be denominations and
40

claim protection under Article 26 cannot deny entry to any

person for the purpose of darshan and the ex facie denial of

women between the age group of 10 to 50 years violates Articles

14, 15, 21 and 25 of the Constitution.

61. Thereafter, the applicant/intervenor has averred that the

question whether Sabarimala is a denomination or not is

irrelevant for the reason that even if it is concluded that

Sabarimala is a denomination, it can claim protection of only

essential practices under Article 26(b) and denial of entry to

women between the age of 10 to 50 years cannot be said to be an

essential aspect of the Hindu religion. Further, the

applicant/intervenor has also averred that Sabarimala does not

satisfy the test of religious denomination as laid down in S.P.

Mittal (supra).

62. The applicant/intervenor has also submitted that the

respondents, by referring to the practice as a custom with

aberrations, have themselves suggested that there has been no

continuity in the applicability of the said custom and that it has

also been established in the evidence before the High Court that

women irrespective of their age were permitted to enter the

Sabarimala for the first rice feeding ceremony of their children
41

and it is only since the last 60 years after the passing of the

Notification in 1955 that women between the age of 10 to 50

years were prohibited from entering the temple. The

applicant/intervenor has also pointed out that even if the said

practice is considered to be a custom, it has to still pass the test

of constitutional morality and constitutional legitimacy and the

applicant/intervenor has relied upon the decision of this Court in

Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal Nala Sangam and others v.

Government of Tamil Nadu and others 21 wherein it was

observed:

“48. Seshammal vs State of T.N., (1972) 2 SCC 11] is
not an authority for any proposition as to what an
Agama or a set of Agamas governing a particular or
group of temples lay down with regard to the question
that confronts the court, namely, whether any
particular denomination of worshippers or believers
have an exclusive right to be appointed as Archakas to
perform the poojas. Much less, has the judgment
taken note of the particular class or caste to which the
Archakas of a temple must belong asprescribed by the
Agamas. All that it does and says is that some of the
Agamas do incorporate a fundamental religious belief
of the necessity of performance of the poojas by
Archakas belonging to a particular and distinct
sect/group/denomination, failing which, there will be
defilement of deity requiring purification ceremonies.
Surely, if the Agamas in question do not proscribe any
group of citizens from being appointed as Archakas on
the basis of caste or class the sanctity of Article 17 or
any other provision of Part III of the Constitution or
even theProtection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 will not be
21
(2016) 2 SCC 725
42

violated. What has been said in Seshammal
[Seshammal v. State of T.N., (1972) 2 SCC 11] (supra)
is that if any prescription with regard to appointment
of Archakas is made by the Agamas, Section 28 of the
Tamil Nadu Act mandates the trustee to conduct the
temple affairs in accordance with such custom or
usage. The requirement of constitutional conformity is
inbuilt and if a custom or usage is outside the
protective umbrella afforded and envisaged by Articles
25 and 26, the law would certainly take its own
course. The constitutional legitimacy, naturally, must
supersede all religious beliefs or practices.”

63. In reply to the contention of the respondents that the basis

for exclusion of women is that women cannot observe the 41 days

Vruthum and also on the ground that Ayyappa is a celibate God,

the applicant/intervenor has submitted that the meaning of

celibacy is the abstinence from sex and the respondents by

suggesting that women cannot practice Vruthum which requires

abstinence from sex are stigmatizing women and stereotyping

them as being weak and lesser human beings than men. Hence,

the classification, in view of the applicant/intervenor, is not

based on intelligible differentia.

64. The applicant/intervenor has also submitted that

menstruating women and untouchables are being treated as

similar in terms of entry to temple and, hence, the custom in

dispute amounts to „untouchability‟.

43

65. The applicant/intervenor has, thereafter, drawn the

attention of the Court to the fact that although the respondents

aver that they do not intend to discriminate on the basis of

gender, yet the Court has to test the violation of the fundamental

rights not on the basis of intention but the impact of the

impugned action. The applicant/intervenor has stated that the

respondents have wrongly placed reliance upon the decision in

T.M.A. Pai Foundation and others v. State of Karnataka and

others22 as in the present case, the issue is not one pertaining to

the rights of minorities but concerning the unconstitutional acts

of the majority.

66. The applicant/intervenor has also submitted that the age-

old practice of considering women as impure while they are

menstruating amounts to untouchability and stigmatizes them as

lesser human beings and is, therefore, violative of Articles14, 15,

17 and 21 of the Constitution.

Submissions of learned Amicus Curiae, Sr. Advocate Mr. Raju
Ramchandran, assisted by Mr. K. Parameshwar

67. It is submitted on the behalf of learned Senior Advocate Mr.

Raju Ramchandran, that the Sabarimala Sree Dharma Sastha

Temple, Kerala is a public temple being used as a place of

22
(1995) 5 SCC 220
44

worship where members of the public are admitted as a matter of

right and entry thereto is not restricted to any particular

denomination or part thereof. As per the learned Amicus, the

public character of the temple gives birth to the right of the

devotees to enter it for the purpose of darshan or worship and

this universal right to entry is not a permissive right dependent

upon the temple authorities but a legal right in the true sense of

the expression. To advance this view, the learned Amicus has

relied upon the decisions of this Court in Deoki Nandan v.

Murlidhar and others23 and Sri Radhakanta Deb and

another v. Commissioner of Hindu Religious Endowments,

Orissa24.

68. As regards the nature of the right claimed by the petitioners

herein, learned Senior Advocate, Mr. Raju Ramchandran, the

learned Amicus, has submitted that it is the freedom of

conscience and the right to practise and profess their religion

which is recognized under Article 25 of the Constitution of India.

This right, as per the learned Amicus, encompasses the liberty of

belief, faith and worship, pithily declared as a constitutional

vision in the Preamble to the Constitution of India.

23

AIR 1957 SC 133
24
(1981) 2 SCC 226
45

69. Learned Senior Advocate Mr. Raju Ramchandran, the

learned Amicus, submits that the right of a woman to visit and

enter a temple as a devotee of the deity and as a believer in

Hindu faith is an essential aspect of her right to worship without

which her right to worship is significantly denuded. Article 25

pertinently declares that all persons are „equally‟ entitled to freely

practise religion. This, in view of the learned Amicus, implies not

just inter-faith but intra-faith parity. Therefore, the primary right

under Article 25(1) is a non-discriminatory right and is, thus,

available to men and women professing the same faith.

70. Further, it has been put forth that the constitutional intent

in keeping the understanding of untouchability in Article 17

open-textured was to abolish all practices based on the notion of

purity and pollution. This Article proscribes untouchability „in

any form‟ as prohibited and the exclusion of menstruating

women from religious spaces and practices is no less a form of

discrimination than the exclusion of oppressed castes. After

referring to Section 7(c) of the Civil Rights Act, 1955, which

criminalizes the encouragement and incitement to practise

untouchability in „any form whatsoever‟ and the Explanation II

appended to the said Section, the learned Amicus has submitted
46

that untouchability cannot be understood in a pedantic sense

but must be understood in the context of the Civil Rights Act to

include any exclusion based on the notions of purity and

pollution.

71. It is also the view of the learned Amicus that the phrase

„equally entitled to‟ in Article 25(1) finds resonance in Section 3(a)

of the Civil Rights Act, 1955 which criminalizes exclusion of

people to those places which are “open to other persons

professing the same religion or any section thereof, as such

person” and prevention of worship “in the same manner and to

the same extent as is permissible to other persons professing the

same religion or any section thereof, as such persons”. That

apart, the learned Amicus has drawn our attention to Section

2(d) of the 1955 Act which defines „place of public worship‟ to

mean, inter alia, „by whatever name belonging to any religious

denomination or any section thereof, for the performance of any

religious service‟ and, therefore, the Amicus submits that a

temple is a public temple and irrespective of its denominational

character, it cannot prevent the entry of any devotee aspiring to

enter and worship.

47

72. After placing reliance on the decision of this Court in K.S.

Puttaswamy (supra), the Amicus has submitted that the

exclusionary practice in its implementation results in involuntary

disclosure by women of both their menstrual status and age

which amounts to forced disclosure that consequently violates

the right to dignity and privacy embedded in Article 21 of the

Constitution of India.

73. It has also been submitted by the Amicus Curiae that

Article 25(2)(b) is not a mere enabling provision but is a

substantive right as it creates an exception for laws providing for

social reform or throwing open of Hindu religious institutions of a

public character to all classes and sections of Hindus and

thereby embodies the constitutional intent of abhorring

exclusionary practices. Further, referring to the judgment of this

Court in Devaru (supra), the learned Amicus has submitted that

Article 25(2)(b) does not merely seek to prevent exclusionary

practices on the basis of caste only, for the rights under Part III of

the Constitution must be given a broad meaning and any

exception must be given a narrow construction.

74. Further, it has been submitted by the learned Amicus that

the exclusionary practice in the present case cannot be justified
48

either on the grounds of health, public order or morality for the

term „morality‟ used in Article 25 or 26 is not an individualized or

sectionalized sense of morality subject to varying practices and

ideals of every religion but it is the morality informed by the

constitutional vision. The judgments of this Court in Adi Saiva

Sivachariyargal Nala Sangam (supra), Manoj Narula v.

Union of India25 and National Legal Services Authority

(supra) have been pressed into service by the Amicus to

accentuate that any subjective reading of the term „morality‟ in

the context of Article 25 would make the liberty of faith and

worship otiose and the exclusion of women as in the present case

is a matter of institutional practice and not morality.

75. The Amicus has also cited the judgments of this Court in

Acharya Jagadishwarananda Avadhuta (supra) to submit

that in order to claim protection of the doctrine of essential

religious practices, the practice to exclude women from entry to

the Sabarimala temple must be shown by the respondents to be

so fundamental to the religious belief without which the religion

will not survive. On the contrary, no scriptural evidence has

25
(2014) 9 SCC 1
49

been led by the respondents herein to demonstrate that the

exclusion of women is an essential part of their religion.

76. After referring to Section 3 of the Kerala Hindu Places of

Public Worship (Authorization of Entry) Act, 1965 which makes a

place of worship open to all sections and classes, Mr. Raju

Ramchandran, learned senior counsel, is of the view that the said

Section is nothing but a statutory enunciation of rights embodied

under Article 25(2)(b) and similarly, the emphasis on the word

„like‟ in Section 3 is the statutory reflection of the phrase „equally‟

found in Article 25(1). That apart, it is the case of the learned

Amicus curiae that the expression „section‟ or „class‟ in Section

2(c) of the 1965 Act must necessarily include all sexes if Section

3 is to be in consonance with a woman‟s right to worship under

Article 25 and in consonance with Article 15. As per the learned

Amicus, women between the age of 10 to 50 years are a section

or class of Hindus who are within the inclusive provision of

Section 3 and the proviso to Section 3 brings in the right

conferred in Article 26, for the inter-play between Section 3 and

the proviso must be governed by how Articles 25(2)(b) and 26 are

reconciled by the judgment of this Court in Devaru (supra).
50

77. It have been asseverated by Mr. Raju Ramchandran, learned

senior counsel, that Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of

Public Worship (Authorization of Entry) Rules, 1965 is ultra vires

Sections 3 and 4 of the 1965 Act, for the reason that it protects

„custom and usage‟ which may prohibit entry when Section 3

expressly overrides custom and usage. The said rule, in view of

the learned Amicus, discriminates against women when Section 4

makes it clear that rules made under it cannot be discriminatory

against any section or class. It is submitted that the power

entrusted under the 1965 Act to make rules, inter alia, for due

observance of religious rights and ceremonies is for the

furtherance of a devotee‟s right to worship under Article 25,

whereas to the contrary, Rule 3(b), by saving „custom and usage‟,

militates against the very purpose of the 1965 Act which is to

protect the right to worship guaranteed under Article 25.

78. It has also been pointed out that there is another Rule,

similar to Rule 3(b), in the form of Rule 6(c) framed under the

1950 Act, which was relied upon by the High Court and this Rule

6(c) has not been assailed by the petitioners in the present writ

petition, but in view of the learned Amicus, this Rule 6(c) would
51

also be unconstitutional for the same reason that Rule 3(b) is

unconstitutional.

79. The burden to prove that the devotees of Lord Ayyappa form

a denomination within the meaning of Article 26, as per the

learned Amicus, is on the respondents, which they have failed to

discharge as none of the three tests for determination of

denominational status, i.e., (i) common faith, (ii) common

organization and (iii) designation by a distinctive name, have

been established by the respondents. Further, the Amicus has

submitted that the decision of the Kerala High Court in S.

Mahendran (supra) does not indicate finding of a denominational

status.

80. It is also submitted by the learned Amicus that Devaswom

Board in its counter affidavit before the Kerala High Court in S.

Mahendran (supra), had asserted, as is reflected vide para 7 of

the judgment, that there was no such prohibition against women

entering the temple and that there was no evidence to suggest

any binding religious practice and, likewise, the High Court, in its

judgment vide para 34, found the exclusionary practice as just a

usage and not a religious custom or essential religious practice.
52

81. The learned Amicus also averred that even if we are to

assume that the devotees of Lord Ayyappa constitute a separate

denomination, the rights conferred under Article 26 being subject

to the constitutional standard of morality, exclusion of women

from entry would violate this standard of morality for a

denomination‟s right to manage its affairs in matters of religion

under Article 26(b) is subject to Article 25(2)(b) as has been

succinctly explained by this Court in Devaru (supra) by

observing thus:

“And lastly, it is argued that whereas Article 25 deals
with the rights of individuals, Article 26 protects the
rights of denominations, and that as what the
appellants claim is the right of the Gowda Saraswath
Brahmins to exclude those who do not belong to that
denomination, that would remain unaffected by Article
25(2)(b). This contention ignores the true nature of the
right conferred by Article 25(2)(b). That is a right
conferred on “all classes and sections of Hindus” to
enter into a public temple, and on the unqualified
terms of that Article, that right must be available,
whether it is sought to be exercised against an
individual under Article 25(1) or against a
denomination under Article 26(b). The fact is that
though Article 25(1) deals with rights of individuals,
Art. 25(2) is much wider in its contents and has
reference to the rights of communities, and controls
both Article 25(1) and Article 26(b).”
53

Submissions of learned Amicus Curiae, Senior Advocate Mr.
K. Ramamoorthy

82. It has been asseverated by learned Senior Advocate Mr. K.

Ramamoorthy, learned Amicus curiae, that in all prominent

Hindu temples in India, there had been some religious practices

based on religious beliefs, which are essential part of the Hindu

religion as considered by people for a long time. It has been

submitted that the devotees of Lord Ayyappa could also be

brought within the ambit of religious denomination who have

been following the impugned religious practice which has been

essential part of religion.

83. Mr. K. Ramamoorthy, learned senior counsel, has submitted

that the petitioners herein have not disputed that the impugned

religious practice in Sabarimala temple is not a religious practice

based on religious belief for several centuries, rather the

petitioners have only argued that such a practice is violative of

Article 25 of the Constitution. It is also submitted by Mr. K.

Ramamoorthy that in any of the judgments cited by the

petitioners, the question never arose as to what the religious

practice on the basis of religious belief is and, accordingly, the

question as to whether religious practices based on religious
54

beliefs in all prominent temples in India are violative of

Articles14, 15, 17, 21 and 25 of the Constitution is to be

considered herein.

84. It has been put forth by Mr. K. Ramamoorthy that the

protection of Articles 25 and 26 are not limited to the matters of

doctrine or belief, rather they extend to acts done in pursuance of

religion and, therefore, contain a guarantee for rituals,

observations, ceremonies and modes of worship which are

integral parts of religion. It has been submitted that what

constitutes an essential part of a religious practice is to be

decided with reference to the practices which are regarded by a

large section of the community for several centuries and,

therefore, would have to be treated as a part of the religion.

85. It has also been averred that Ayyappa temple by itself is a

denomination as contemplated under Article 26 having regard to

the nature of worship and the practices followed by the temple

and similarly, the devotees of Ayyappa temple would also

constitute a denomination who have accepted the impugned

religious practice based on religious belief which has been in

vogue for several centuries unbroken and accepted by all sections

of Hindus.

55

86. It has been submitted that it is too late in the day to

contend that religious practice based on religious faith, adhered

to and followed by millions of Hindus for so long in consonance

with the natural rights of men and women is violative of

fundamental rights. It is also the case of the Amicus Mr. K.

Ramamoorthy that to project such a religious practice as being

contrary to natural law is a shock to the judgment of the

community, as calling such a religious practice contrary to

fundamental rights amounts to offending the common sense and

wisdom of our ancestors in faithfully following the command of

the divine. Further, no group or individual can force other

Hindus to follow their view in the domain of religious faith.

87. As regards the challenge raised by the petitioners against

Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship

(Authorization of Entry) Rules, 1965, it is asseverated by Mr. K.

Ramamoorthy that the question which arises is whether the

State Government, with reference to such a religious practice,

could make a rule so that the general public would know the

denominational character of the temple and the religious practice

followed by the temple.

56

Followers of Lord Ayyappa do not constitute a religious
denomination

88. Article 26 of the Constitution of India guarantees to every

religious denomination 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. However, these rights are

subject to public order, morality and health.

89. The important question that emerges is as to what

constitutes a religious denomination. The said question has been

the subject matter of several decisions of this Court beginning

from Shirur Mutt (supra) wherein the Court observed thus:

“As regards Article 26, the first question is, what is
the precise meaning or connotation of the expression
“religious denomination” and whether a Math could
come within this expression. The word
“denomination” has been defined in the Oxford
Dictionary to mean ‘a collection of individuals
classed together under the same name: a religious
sect or body having a common faith and
Organisation and designated by a distinctive name.
It is well known that the practice of setting up Maths
as centres of the logical teaching was started by Shri
Sankaracharya and was followed by various teachers
since then. After Sankara, came a galaxy of religious
teachers and philosophers who founded the different
sects and sub-sects of the Hindu religion that we
find in India at the present day. Each one of such
57

sects or sub-sects can certainly be balled a religious
denomination, as it is designated by a distinctive
name, -in many cases it is the name of the founder, –
and has a common faith and common spiritual
organization. The followers of Ramanuja, who are
known by the name of Shri Vaishnabas, undoubtedly
constitute a religious denomination; and so do the
followers of Madhwacharya and other religious
teachers. It is a fact well established by tradition that
the eight UdipiMaths were founded by
Madhwacharya himself and the trustees and the
beneficiaries of these Maths profess to be followers of
that teacher. The High Court has found that the
Math in question is in charge of the Sivalli Brahmins
who constitute a section of the followers of
Madhwacharya. As article 26 contemplates not
merely a religious denomination but also a section
thereof, the Math or the spiritual fraternity
represented by it can legitimately come within the
purview of this article.”

90. In S.P. Mittal (supra), the challenge was with regard to the

validity of the Auroville (Emergency) Provisions Act, 1980 as

being violative of Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution. Sri

Aurobindo postulated the philosophy of cosmic salvation and

along with the disciples found the Aurobindo Society for

preaching and propagating the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and

The Mother through its centres in India as well as abroad. After

the death of Sri Aurobindo, the Mother proposed an international

cultural township, Auroville, in the then Pondicherry. The society

received funds as grants from the Central Government, State
58

Government and other organizations in India as well as from

outside India for development of the township at Auroville. Upon

the death of the Mother, the Government started receiving

complaints about the mismanagement of the society and,

accordingly, enacted the Auroville (Emergency) Provisions Act,

1980. The Supreme Court, by a majority of 4:1, ruled that neither

the society nor the township of Auroville constituted a religious

denomination, for the teachings and utterances of Sri Aurobindo

did not constitute a religion and, therefore, taking over of the

Auroville by the Government did not infringe the society‟s right

under Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution.

91. The Court referred, inter alia, to the MoA of the society along

with Rule 9 of the Rules and Regulations of Sri Aurobindo Society

which dealt with membership and read thus:

“9. Any person or institution for organisation either
in India or abroad who subscribes to the aims and
objects of the Society, and whose application for
membership is approved by the Executive
Committee, will be member of the Society. The
membership is open to people everywhere without
any distinction of nationality, religion, caste, creed or
sex.”

After so referring, the Court opined thus:

59

“The only condition for membership is that the
person seeking the membership of the Society must
subscribe to the aims and objects of the Society. It
was further urged that what is universal cannot be a
religious denomination. In order to constitute a
separate denomination, there must be something
distinct from another. A denomination, argues the
counsel, is one which is different from the other and
if the Society was a religious denomination, then the
person seeking admission to the institution would
lose his previous religion. He cannot be a member of
two religions at one and the same time. But this is
not the position in becoming a member of the Society
and Auroville. A religious denomination must
necessarily be a new one and new methodology must
be provided for a religion. Substantially, the view
taken by Sri Aurobindo remains a part of the Hindu
philosophy. There may be certain innovations in his
philosophy but that would not make it a religion on
that account.”

92. The Court in S.P Mittal (supra) reiterated and concurred

with the definition of „religious denomination‟ which was also

accepted in Shirur Mutt (supra) and observed as under:

“The words ‘religious denomination’ in Article 26 of
the Constitution must take their colour from the
word ‘religion’ and if this be so, the expression
‘religious denomination’ must also satisfy three
conditions:

(1) It must be a collection of individuals who
have a system of beliefs or doctrines which
they regard as conducive to their spiritual
well-being, that is, a common faith;

(2) common organisation, and

(3) designation by a distinctive name.”

60

93. In the case of Nallor Marthandam Vellalar and others v.

Commissioner, Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment

and others26, the question that arose before the Court was

whether the temple at Nellor owned by the Vellala Community of

Marthandam constituted a „religious denomination‟ within the

meaning of Article 26 of the Constitution. It was argued in this

case that the Vellala Community observed special religious

practices and beliefs which are integral part of their religion and

that the front mandappam of the sanctorium is open to access

only to the members of their community and no one else and

outsiders can offer worship from the outer compound. The Court

held that the temple at Nellor owned by the Vellala Community of

Marthandam did not constitute a religious denomination as there

was no evidence to prove that the members of the Vellala

Community had common religious tenets peculiar to themselves

other than those which are common to the entire Hindu

community and further, the Court, following the principle laid

down in S.P. Mittal (supra), observed:

“It is settled position in law, having regard to the
various decisions of this Court that the words

26
(2003) 10 SCC 712
61

“religious denomination” take their colour from the
word `religion’. The expression “religious
denomination” must satisfy three requirements – (1) it
must be collection of individuals who have a system of
belief or doctrine which they regard as conducive to
their spiritual well-being, i.e., a common faith; (2) a
common organisation; and (3) designation of a
distinctive name. It necessarily follows that the
common faith of the community should be based on
religion and in that they should have common
religious tenets and the basic cord which connects
them, should be religion and not merely
considerations of caste or community or societal
status.”

94. As is decipherable form the above decisions of this Court,

for any religious mutt, sect, body, sub-sect or any section thereof

to be designated as a religious denomination, it must be a

collection of individuals having a collective common faith, a

common organization which adheres to the said common faith,

and last but not the least, the said collection of individuals must

be labeled, branded and identified by a distinct name.

95. Though, the respondents have urged that the pilgrims

coming to visit the Sabarimala temple being devotees of Lord

Ayyappa are addressed as Ayyappans and, therefore, the third

condition for a religious denomination stands satisfied, is

unacceptable. There is no identified group called Ayyappans.

Every Hindu devotee can go to the temple. We have also been

apprised that there are other temples for Lord Ayyappa and there
62

is no such prohibition. Therefore, there is no identified sect.

Accordingly, we hold, without any hesitation, that Sabarimala

temple is a public religious endowment and there are no

exclusive identified followers of the cult.

96. Coming to the first and the most important condition for a

religious denomination, i.e., the collection of individuals ought to

have a system of beliefs or doctrines which they regard as

conducive to their spiritual well-being, there is nothing on record

to show that the devotees of Lord Ayyappa have any common

religious tenets peculiar to themselves, which they regard as

conducive to their spiritual well-being, other than those which

are common to the Hindu religion. Therefore, the devotees of Lord

Ayyappa are just Hindus and do not constitute a separate

religious denomination. For a religious denomination, there must

be new methodology provided for a religion. Mere observance of

certain practices, even though from a long time, does not make it

a distinct religion on that account.

Enforceability of Fundamental Rights under Article 25(1) against
the Travancore Devaswom Board

97. Having stated that the devotees of Lord Ayyappa do not

constitute a religious denomination within the meaning of Article

26 and that Sabarimala Temple is a public temple by virtue of the
63

fact that Section 15 of the 1950 Act vests all powers of direction,

control and supervision over it in the Travancore Devaswom

Board which, in our foregoing analysis, has been unveiled as

„other authority‟ within the meaning of Article 12, resultantly

fundamental rights including those guaranteed under Article

25(1) are enforceable against the Travancore Devaswom Board

and other incorporated Devaswoms including the Sabarimala

Temple. We have also discussed the secular character of the

Indian Constitution as well as the broad meaning assigned to the

term religion occurring in various Articles of the Constitution

including Article 25(1).

98. Now adverting to the rights guaranteed under Article 25(1)

of the Constitution, be it clarified that Article 25(1), by employing

the expression „all persons‟, demonstrates that the freedom of

conscience and the right to freely profess, practise and propagate

religion is available, though subject to the restrictions delineated

in Article 25(1) itself, to every person including women.

99. It needs to be understood that the kernel of Article 26 is

„establishment of a religious institution‟ so as to acclaim the

status of religious denomination. Whereas, Article 25(1)

guarantees the right to practise religion to every individual and
64

the act of practice is concerned, primarily, with religious worship,

rituals and observations as held in Rev. Stainislaus v. State of

Madhya Pradesh and others27. Further, it has been held in

Shirur Mutt (supra) that the logic underlying the constitutional

guarantee regarding „practice‟ of religion is that religious

practices are as such a part of religion as religious faith or

doctrines.

100. The right guaranteed under Article 25(1) has nothing to do

with gender or, for that matter, certain physiological factors,

specifically attributable to women. Women of any age group have

as much a right as men to visit and enter a temple in order to

freely practise a religion as guaranteed under Article 25(1). When

we say so, we are absolutely alive to the fact that whether any

such proposed exclusion of women from entry into religious

places forms an essential part of a religion would be examined at

a subsequent stage.

101. We have no hesitation to say that such an exclusionary

practice violates the right of women to visit and enter a temple to

freely practise Hindu religion and to exhibit her devotion towards

Lord Ayyappa. The denial of this right to women significantly

denudes them of their right to worship. We concur with the view
27
(1977) 1 SCC 677
65

of the Amicus Curiae, learned senior counsel, Mr. Raju

Ramachandran, that the right guaranteed under Article 25(1) is

not only about inter-faith parity but it is also about intra-faith

parity. Therefore, the right to practise religion under Article 25(1),

in its broad contour, encompasses a non-discriminatory right

which is equally available to both men and women of all age

groups professing the same religion.

102. Though not in reference to men or women, yet in the context

of any Hindu worshipper seeking entry in a temple which is a

public place of worship for Hindus, the observations of the

Supreme Court in Nar Hari Shastri and others v. Shri

Badrinath Temple Committee28 are quite instructive wherein

the Court opined thus:

“It seems to us that the approach of the court below
to this aspect of the case has not been quite proper,
and, to avoid any possible misconception, we would
desire to state succinctly what the correct legal
position is. Once it is admitted, as in fact has been
admitted in the present case, that the temple is a
public place of worship of the Hindus, the right of
entrance into the temple for purposes of ‘darshan’ or
worship is a right which flows from the nature of the
institution itself, and for the acquisition of such
rights, no custom or immemorial usage need be
asserted or proved…..”
And again:

28

AIR 1952 SC 245
66

“The true position, therefore, is that the plaintiffs’
right of entering the temple along with their Yajmans
is not a precarious or a permissive right depending
for its existence upon the arbitrary discretion of the
temple authorities; it is a legal right in the true sense
of the expression but it can be exercised subject to
the restrictions which the temple committee may
impose in good faith for maintenance of order and
decorum within the temple and for ensuring proper
performance of customary worship. In our opinion,
the plaintiffs are entitled to a declaration in this
form.”

103. Another authoritative pronouncement in regard to the

freedom to practise a religion freely without with any fictitious

and vague constraint is the case of Acharya

Jagadishwarananda Avadhuta (supra), wherein the Court

observed thus:

“The full concept and scope of religious freedom is
that there are no restraints upon the free exercise of
religion according to the dictates of one’s conscience
or upon the right freely to profess, practice and
propagate religion save those imposed under the
police power of the State and the other provisions of
Part II of the Constitution. This means the right to
worship God according to the dictates of one’s
conscience. Man’s relation to his God is made no
concern for the State. Freedom of conscience and
religious belief cannot, however, be, set up to avoid
those duties which every citizen owes to the nation;
e.g. to receive military training, to take an oath
expressing willingness to perform military service
and so on.”

104. Therefore, it can be said without any hesitation or

reservation that the impugned Rule 3(b) of the 1965 Rules,
67

framed in pursuance of the 1965 Act, that stipulates exclusion of

entry of women of the age group of 10 to 50 years, is a clear

violation of the right of such women to practise their religious

belief which, in consequence, makes their fundamental right

under Article 25(1) a dead letter. It is clear as crystal that as long

as the devotees, irrespective of their gender and/or age group,

seeking entry to a temple of any caste are Hindus, it is their legal

right to enter into a temple and offer prayers. The women, in the

case at hand, are also Hindus and so, there is neither any viable

nor any legal limitation on their right to enter into the

Sabarimala Temple as devotees of Lord Ayyappa and offer their

prayers to the deity.

105. When we say so, we may also make it clear that the said

rule of exclusion cannot be justified on the ground that allowing

entry to women of the said age group would, in any way, be

harmful or would play a jeopardizing role to public order,

morality, health or, for that matter, any other provision/s of Part

III of the Constitution, for it is to these precepts that the right

guaranteed under Article 25(1) has been made subject to.

106. The term „morality‟ occurring in Article 25(1) of the

Constitution cannot be viewed with a narrow lens so as to confine
68

the sphere of definition of morality to what an individual, a

section or religious sect may perceive the term to mean. We must

remember that when there is a violation of the fundamental

rights, the term „morality‟ naturally implies constitutional

morality and any view that is ultimately taken by the

Constitutional Courts must be in conformity with the principles

and basic tenets of the concept of this constitutional morality

that gets support from the Constitution.

107. In Manoj Narula (supra), this Court has reflected upon the

predominant role that the concept of constitutional morality

plays in a democratic set-up and opined thus:

“The principle of constitutional morality basically
means to bow down to the norms of the Constitution
and not to act in a manner which would become
violative of the rule of law or reflectible of action in
an arbitrary manner. It actually works at the
fulcrum and guides as a laser beam in institution
building. The traditions and conventions have to
grow to sustain the value of such a morality. The
democratic values survive and become successful
where the people at large and the persons-in-charge
of the institution are strictly guided by the
constitutional parameters without paving the path of
deviancy and reflecting in action the primary
concern to maintain institutional integrity and the
requisite constitutional restraints. Commitment to
the Constitution is a facet of constitutional morality.”
69

108. That apart, this Court, in Government of NCT of Delhi v.

Union of India and others29, observed thus:

“Constitutional morality in its strictest sense of the
term implies strict and complete adherence to the
constitutional principles as enshrined in various
segments of the document. When a country is
endowed with a Constitution, there is an
accompanying promise which stipulates that every
member of the country right from its citizens to the
high constitutional functionaries must idolize the
constitutional fundamentals. This duty imposed by
the Constitution stems from the fact that the
Constitution is the indispensable foundational base
that functions as the guiding force to protect and
ensure that the democratic setup promised to
the citizenry remains unperturbed.”

109. Elaborating further, in Navtej Singh Johar and others v.

Union of India and others30, this Court observed:

“The concept of constitutional morality is not limited
to the mere observance of the core principles of
constitutionalism as the magnitude and sweep of
constitutional morality is not confined to the
provisions and literal text which a Constitution
contains, rather it embraces within itself virtues of a
wide magnitude such as that of ushering a
pluralistic and inclusive society, while at the same
time adhering to the other principles of
constitutionalism. It is further the result of
embodying constitutional morality that the values of
constitutionalism trickle down and percolate through
the apparatus of the State for the betterment of each
and every individual citizen of the State.”

29
(2018) 8 SCALE 72
30
(2018) 10 SCALE 386
70

And again:

“115. The society as a whole or even a minuscule
part of the society may aspire and prefer different
things for themselves. They are perfectly competent
to have such a freedom to be different, like different
things, so on and so forth, provided that their
different tastes and liking remain within their legal
framework and neither violates any statute nor
results in the abridgement of fundamental rights of
any other citizen. The Preambular goals of our
Constitution which contain the noble objectives of
Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity can only be
achieved through the commitment and loyalty of the
organs of the State to the principle of constitutional
morality”

110. The right guaranteed under Article 25(1) has been made

subject to, by the opening words of the Article itself, public order,

morality, health and other provisions of Part III of the

Constitution. All the three words, that is, order, morality and

health are qualified by the word „public‟. Neither public order nor

public health will be at peril by allowing entry of women devotees

of the age group of 10 to 50 years into the Sabarimala temple for

offering their prayers. As regards public morality, we must make

it absolutely clear that since the Constitution was not shoved, by

any external force, upon the people of this country but was

rather adopted and given by the people of this country to
71

themselves, the term public morality has to be appositely

understood as being synonymous with constitutional morality.

111. Having said so, the notions of public order, morality and

health cannot be used as colourable device to restrict the

freedom to freely practise religion and discriminate against

women of the age group of 10 to 50 years by denying them their

legal right to enter and offer their prayers at the Sabarimala

temple for the simple reason that public morality must yield to

constitutional morality.

Whether exclusionary practice is an essential practice as per
Hindu religion

112. We have, in the earlier part of this judgment, determined

that the devotees of Lord Ayyappa, who though claim to be a

separate religious denomination, do not, as per the tests laid

down by this Court in several decisions, most prominent of them

being S.P. Mittal (supra), constitute a separate religious

denomination within the meaning of Article 26 of the

Constitution. This leads us to a mathematical certainty that the

devotees of Lord Ayyappa are the followers of Hindu religion.

Now, what remains to be seen is whether the exclusion of women

of the age group of 10 to 50 years is an essential practice under
72

the Hindu religion in the backdrop of the peculiar attending

circumstances attributable to the Sabarimala temple. For

ascertaining the said question, we first need to understand what

constitutes an essential practice for a particular religion which

has been the subject matter of several decisions of this Court.

Article 25 merely protects the freedom to practise rituals,

ceremonies, etc. which are an integral part of a religion as

observed by this Court in John Vallamattom and another v.

Union of India31. While saying so, the Court ruled that a

disposition towards making gift for charitable or religious

purpose can be designated as a pious act of a person, but the

same cannot be said to be an integral part of any religion.

113. The role of essential practices to a particular religion has

been well demonstrated by Lord Halsbury in Free Church of

Scotland v. Overtoun32 wherein it was observed:

“In the absence of conformity to essentials, the
denomination would not be an entity cemented
into solidity by harmonious uniformity of
opinion, it would be a mere incongruous heap
of, as it were, grains of sand, thrown together
without being united, each of these intellectual
and isolated grains differing from every other,
and the whole forming a but nominally united
while really unconnected mass; fraught with

31
(2003) 6 SCC 611
32
(1904) AC 515
73

nothing but internal dissimilitude, and mutual
and reciprocal contradiction and dissension.”

114. This Court, in Shirur Mutt (supra), for the first time, held

that what constitutes an essential part of a religion will be

ascertained with reference to the tenets and doctrines of that

religion itself. The Court had opined thus:

“In the first place, what constitutes the essential
part of a religion is primarily to be ascertained
with reference to the doctrines of that religion
itself.”

115. In Mohd. Hanif Quareshi v. State of Bihar33, this Court

rejected the argument of the petitioner that sacrifice of cow on

Bakr-id was an essential practice of Mohammedan religion and

ruled that it could be prohibited by the State under Clause 2(a) of

Article 25.

116. Similarly, in State of West Bengal and others v.

Ashutosh Lahiri and others34, this Court, while approving the

judgment of the High Court, observed that the State of West

Bengal had wrongly invoked Section 12 of the West Bengal

Animal Slaughter Control Act, 1950 on the ground that

exemption of slaughtering healthy cows was required to be given

33
AIR 1958 SC 731
34
AIR 1995 SC 464
74

for the Muslim community. While holding so, the Court opined

thus:

“…before the State can exercise the exemption
power under Section 12 in connection with
slaughter of any healthy animal covered by the
Act, it must be shown that such exemption is
necessary to be granted for sub-serving an
essential religious, medicinal or research
purpose. If granting of such exemption is not
essential or necessary for effectuating such a
purpose no such exemption can be granted so
as to by-pass the thrust of the main provisions
of the Act.”

117. In Durgah Committee, Ajmer and others v. Syed

Hussain Ali and others35, the Court, although speaking in the

context of Article 26, warned that some practices, though

religious, may have sprung from merely superstitious beliefs and

may, in that sense, be extraneous and unessential accretions to

religion itself and unless such practices are found to constitute

an essential and integral part of a religion, their claim for

protection as essential practices may have to be carefully

scrutinised; in other words, the protection must be confined to

such religious practices as are an essential and an integral part

of the religion and no other.

118. The Court, in this case, has excluded such practices from

protection which, though may have acquired the characteristic of
35
AIR 1961 SC 1402
75

religious practices, are found, on careful scrutiny, to be an

outcome of some superstitious beliefs which may render them

unessential and not an integral part of the religion.

119. In Acharya Jagadishwarananda Avadhuta and others

v. Commissioner of Police, Calcutta36, popularly known as the

first Ananda Marga case, this Court held that Tandav dance in

processions or at public places by the Ananda Margis carrying

lethal weapons and human skulls was not an essential religious

rite of the followers of Ananda Marga and, therefore, the order

under Section 144 Cr.PC. prohibiting such processions in the

interest of public order and morality was not violative of the

rights of the Ananda Marga denomination under Articles 25 and

26 of the Constitution more so when the order under Section 144

Cr.PC. did not completely ban the processions or gatherings at

public places but only prohibited carrying of daggers, trishuls

and skulls which posed danger to public order and morality.

120. In N. Adithayan v. Travancore Devaswom Board and

others37, the Court very succinctly laid down as to what should

be the approach of the court for deciding what constitutes an

essential practice of a religion in the following words:

36

(1983) 4 SCC 522
37
(2002) 8 SCC 106
76

“The legal position that the protection under
Article 25 and 26 extend a guarantee for rituals
and observances, ceremonies and modes of
worship which are integral parts of religion and
as to what really constitutes an essential part of
religion or religious practice has to be decided
by the Courts with reference to the doctrine of a
particular religion or practices regarded as parts
of religion…”

(Emphasis is ours)

121. In Commissioner of Police and others v. Acharya

Jagadishwarananda Avadhuta and others (supra), being the

second Ananda Marga case, the Court has elaborately discussed

the true nature of an essential practice and has further laid down

the test for determining whether a certain practice can be

characterized as essential to a particular religion in order to

guarantee protection under the Constitution. The Court has

opined:

“The protection guaranteed under Articles 25
and 26 of the Constitution is not confined to
matters of doctrine or belief but extends to acts
done in pursuance of religion and, therefore,
contains a guarantee for rituals, observances,
ceremonies and modes of worship which are
essential or integral part of religion. What
constitutes an integral or essential part of
religion has to be determined with reference to
its doctrines, practices, tenets, historical
background etc. of the given religion. (See
generally the Constitution bench decisions in
The Commissioner v. L T Swamiar of Srirur
Mutt 1954 SCR 1005, SSTS Saheb v. State of
Bombay 1962 (Supp) 2 SCR 496, and
77

Seshammal v. State of Tamilnadu :

[1972]3SCR815 , regarding those aspects that
are to be looked into so as to determine whether
a part or practice is essential or not). What is
meant by ‘an essential part or practices of a
religion’ is now the matter for elucidation.
Essential part of a religion means the core
beliefs upon which a religion is founded.

Essential practice means those practices that
are fundamental to follow a religious belief. It is
upon the cornerstone of essential parts or
practices the superstructure of religion is built.
Without which, a religion will be no religion.
Test to determine whether a part or practice is
essential to the religion is – to find out whether
the nature of religion will be changed without
that part or practice. If the taking away of that
part or practice could result in a fundamental
change in the character of that religion or in its
belief, then such part could be treated as an
essential or integral part. There cannot be
additions or subtractions to such part. Because
it is the very essence of that religion and
alterations will change its fundamental
character. It is such permanent essential parts
is what is protected by the Constitution. Nobody
can say that essential part or practice of one’s
religion has changed from a particular date or
by an event. Such alterable parts or practices
are definitely not the ‘core’ of religion where the
belief is based and religion is founded upon. It
could only be treated as mere embellishments to
the nonessential part or practices.”

122. In the light of the above authorities, it has to be determined

whether the practice of exclusion of women of the age group of 10

to 50 years is equivalent to a doctrine of Hindu religion or a

practice that could be regarded as an essential part of the Hindu
78

religion and whether the nature of Hindu religion would be

altered without the said exclusionary practice. The answer to

these questions, in our considered opinion, is in the firm

negative. In no scenario, it can be said that exclusion of women

of any age group could be regarded as an essential practice of

Hindu religion and on the contrary, it is an essential part of the

Hindu religion to allow Hindu women to enter into a temple as

devotees and followers of Hindu religion and offer their prayers to

the deity. In the absence of any scriptural or textual evidence, we

cannot accord to the exclusionary practice followed at the

Sabarimala temple the status of an essential practice of Hindu

religion.

123. By allowing women to enter into the Sabarimala temple for

offering prayers, it cannot be imagined that the nature of Hindu

religion would be fundamentally altered or changed in any

manner. Therefore, the exclusionary practice, which has been

given the backing of a subordinate legislation in the form of Rule

3(b) of the 1965 Rules, framed by the virtue of the 1965 Act, is

neither an essential nor an integral part of the Hindu religion

without which Hindu religion, of which the devotees of Lord

Ayyappa are followers, will not survive.

79

124. Nobody can say that essential part or practice of one’s

religion has changed from a particular date or by an event. Such

alterable parts or practices are definitely not the ‘core’ of religion

where the belief is based and religion is founded upon. It could

only be treated as mere embellishments to the non-essential part

or practices.

125. This view of ours is further substantiated by the fact that

where a practice changes with the efflux of time, such a practice

cannot, in view of the law laid down in Commissioner of Police

and others (supra), be regarded as a core upon which a religion

is formed. There has to be unhindered continuity in a practice for

it to attain the status of essential practice. It is further

discernible from the judgment of the High Court in S.

Mahendran (supra) that the Devaswom Board had accepted

before the High Court that female worshippers of the age group of

10 to 50 years used to visit the temple and conduced poojas in

every month for five days for the first rice feeding ceremony of

their children. The Devaswom Board also took a stand before the

High Court that restriction of entry for women was only during

Mandalam, Makaeavilakku and Vishnu days. The same has also

been pointed out by learned Senior Counsel, Ms. Indira Jaising,
80

that the impugned exclusionary practice in question is a ‘custom

with some aberrations’ as prior to the passing of the Notification

in 1950, women of all age groups used to visit the Sabarimala

temple for the first rice feeding ceremony of their children.

126. Therefore, there seems to be no continuity in the

exclusionary practice followed at the Sabarimala temple and in

view of this, it cannot be treated as an essential practice.

Analysis of the 1965 Act and Rule 3(b) of the 1965 Rules

127. We may presently deal with the statutory provisions of the

Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry)

Act, 1965. Section 2 of the said Act is the definition clause and

reads as under:

“2. Definitions.- In this Act, unless the
context otherwise requires,-

(a) “Hindu” includes a person professing the
Buddhist, Sikh or Jaina religion;

(b) “place of public worship” means a place,
by whatever name known or to whomsoever
belonging, which is dedicated to, or for the
benefit of, or is used generally by, Hindus or
any section or class thereof, for the
performance of any religious service or for
offering prayers therein, and includes all
lands and subsidiary shrines, mutts,
devasthanams, namaskara mandapams and
nalambalams, appurtenant or attached to
any such place, and also any sacred tanks,
wells, springs and water courses the waters
of which are worshipped or are used for
81

bathing or for worship, but does not include
a “sreekoil”;

(c) “section or class” includes any division,
sub-division, caste, sub-caste, sect or
denomination whatsoever. ”

128. As per clause (a) of Section 2, the term ‘Hindu’ includes a

person professing Buddhist, Sikh or Jaina religion. The word

‘person’ occurring in this clause, for the pure and simple reason

of logic, must include all genders. Clause (c) defines ‘section or

class’ as any division, sub-division, caste, sub-caste, sect or

denomination whatsoever. Nowhere the definition of section or

class suggests being limited to male division, sub-division, caste

and so forth.

129. Section 3 of the Act stipulates that places of public worship

will be open to all sections and classes of Hindus and reads thus:

“Section 3 : Places of public worship to
open to all sections and classes of
Hindus.-Notwithstanding anything to the
contrary contained in any other law for the
time being in force or any custom or usage
or any instrument having effect by virtue of
any such law or any decree or order of
court, every place of public worship which is
open to Hindus generally or to any section
or class thereof, shall be open to all sections
and classes of Hindus; and no Hindu of
whatsoever section or class shall, in any
manner, be prevented, obstructed or
discouraged from entering such place of
public worship, or from worshipping or
82

offering prayers thereat, or performing any
religious service therein, in the like manner
and to the like extent as any other Hindu of
whatsoever section or class may so enter,
worship, pray or perform:

Provided that in the case of a place of
public worship which is a temple founded
for the benefit of any religious denomination
or section thereof, the provisions of this
section shall be subject to the right of that
religious denomination or section, as the
case may be, to manage its own affairs in
matters of religion. ”

130. Section 3 of the Act being a non-obstante clause declares

that every place of public worship which is open to Hindus

generally or to any section or class thereof shall be open to all

sections and classes of Hindus and no Hindu, of whatsoever

section or class, shall be prevented, obstructed or discouraged

from entering such place of public worship, or from worshipping,

offering prayers or performing any religious service at such place

of public worship in the like manner and to the like extent as any

other Hindu of whatsoever section or class may so be eligible to

enter, worship, pray or perform.

131. A careful dissection of Section 3 reveals that places of public

worship in the State of Kerala, irrespective of any contrary law,

custom, usage or instrument having effect by virtue of any such
83

law or any decree or order of Court, shall be open to all sections

and classes of Hindus. The definition of ‘section or class’ and

‘Hindu’ has to be imported, for the purposes of Section 3, from

the definition clauses 2(a) and 2(c) which, as per our foregoing

analysis, includes all the genders, provided they are Hindus. It

further needs to be accentuated that the right provided under

Section 3 due to its non-obstante nature has to be given effect to

regardless of any law, custom or usage to the contrary.

132. The proviso to Section 3 stipulates that in case the place of

public worship is a temple founded for the benefit of any religious

denomination or section thereof, then the rights warranted under

Section 3 becomes subject to the right of that religious

denomination or section to manage its own affairs in matters of

religion. Having said so, we have, in the earlier part of this

judgment, categorically stated that devotees and followers of Lord

Ayyappa do not constitute a religious denomination and,

therefore, the proviso to Section 3 cannot be resorted to in the

case at hand.

133. The importance and the gravity of the right stipulated under

Section 3 of this Act, for all sections and classes of Hindus which

include women, is very well manifest and evident from the fact
84

that its violation has been made penal under Section 5 of the

1965 Act which reads as under:

“Section 5 : Penalty
Whoever, in contravention of Section 3,-

(a) prevents or attempts to prevent any
person belonging to any section or class of
Hindus from entering, worshipping or
offering prayers, performing any religious
service, in any place of public worship; or

(b) obstructs, or causes or attempts to cause
obstruction to, or by threat of obstruction or
otherwise discourages, any such person
from doing or performing any of the acts
aforesaid, shall be publishable with
imprisonment which may extent to six
months, or with fine which may extent to
five hundred rupees, or with both:

Provided that in a case where a
sentence of fine only is awarded, such fine
shall not be less than fifty rupees. ”

134. Proceeding ahead, Section 4 of the 1965 Act confers the

power to make regulations for the maintenance of order and

decorum and performance of rites and ceremonies with regard to

places of public worship in Kerala:

“Section 4 : Power to make regulations
for the maintenance of order and
decorum and the due performance of
rites and ceremonies in places of public
worship
(1) The trustee or any other person in charge
of any place public worship shall have
power, subject to the control of the
competent authority and any rules which
85

may be made by that authority, to make
regulations for the maintenance of order and
decorum in the place of public worship and
the due observance of the religious rites and
ceremonies performed therein:

Provided that no regulation made
under this sub-section shall discriminate in
any manner whatsoever, against any Hindu
on the ground that he belongs to a
particular section or class.

(2) The competent authority referred to in
sub-section (1) shall be,-

(i) In relation to a place of public worship
situated in any area to which Part I of the
Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious
Institutions Act, 1950 (Travancore-Cochin
Act XV of 1950), extends, the Travancore
Devaswom Board;

(ii) in relation to a place of public worship
situated in any area to which Part II of the
said Act extends, the Cochin Devaswom
Board; and

(iii) in relation to a place of public worship
situated in any other area in the State of
Kerala, the Government.”

135. The proviso to Section 4 being an exception to Section 4(1)

is a classic example of a situation where the exception is more

important than the rule itself. It needs to be borne in mind that

the language of the proviso to Section 4 of the 1965 Act, in very

clear and simple terms, states that the regulations made under

clause (1) of Section 4 shall not discriminate against any Hindu

on the ground that he/she belongs to a particular section or
86

class. As stated earlier, a particular section or class for the

purposes of this Act includes women of all age groups, for Hindu

women of any age group also constitute a class or section of

Hindus.

136. The State of Kerala, by virtue of clause (1) of Section 4, has

framed the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation

of Entry) Rules, 1965. The relevant rule which is also the most

prominent bone of contention in the present case is Rule 3(b).

The relevant part of Rule 3 reads thus:

“Rule 3. The classes of persons mentioned
here under shall not be entitled to offer
worship in any place of public worship or
bath in or use the water of any sacred tank,
well, spring or water course appurtenant to
a place of public worship whether situate
within or outside precincts thereof, or any
sacred place including a hill or hill lock, or a
road, street or pathways which is requisite
for obtaining access to the place of public
worship:

x x x

(b) Women at such time during which they
are not by custom and usage allowed to
enter a place of public worship.

x x x”

137. The law is well-settled on the point that when a rule-making

power is conferred under any statute on an authority, the said

power has to be exercised within the confines of the statute and
87

no transgression of the same is permissible. In this context, we

may refer to the decision in Union of India and others v. S.

Srinivasan38 wherein it has been ruled:

“At this stage, it is apposite to state about the
rule making powers of a delegating authority. If a
rule goes beyond the rule making power
conferred by the statute, the same has to be
declared ultra vires. If a rule supplants any
provision for which power has not been
conferred, it becomes ultra vires. The basic test
is to determine and consider the source of power
which is relatable to the rule. Similarly, a rule
must be in accord with the parent statute as it
cannot travel beyond it.”

138. In General Officer Commanding-in-Chief v. Dr. Subhash

Chandra Yadav39, the Court held that for a rule to have the

effect of a statutory provision, it must fulfill two conditions, firstly

it must conform to the provisions of the statute under which it is

framed and secondly, it must also come within the scope and

purview of the rule making power of the authority framing the

rule and if either of these two conditions is not fulfilled, the rule

so framed would be void. In Kunj Behari Lai Butail and others

v. State of H.P. and others40, it has been laid down that for

holding a rule to be valid, it must first be determined as to what

is the object of the enactment and then it has to be seen if the

38
(2012) 7 SCC 683
39
AIR 1988 SC 876
40
AIR 2000 SC 1069
88

rules framed satisfy the test of having been so framed as to fall

within the scope of such general power conferred and if the rule

making power is not expressed in such a usual general form,

then it shall have to be seen if the rules made are protected by

the limits prescribed by the parent act. Another authority which

defines the limits and confines within which the rule-making

authority shall exercise its delegating powers is Global Energy

Limited and another v. Central Electricity Regulatory

Commission41, where the question before the Court was

regarding the validity of clauses (b) and (f) of Regulation 6- A of

the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission (Procedure, Terms

and Conditions for Grant of Trading Licence and other Related

Matters) Regulations, 2004. The Court gave the following opinion:

“It is now a well-settled principle of law that the
rulemaking power “for carrying out the purpose
of the Act” is a general delegation. Such a general
delegation may not be held to be laying down any
guidelines. Thus, by reason of such a provision
alone, the Regulation-making power cannot be
exercised so as to bring into existence
substantive rights or obligations or disabilities
which are not contemplated in terms of the
provisions of the said Act.”

139. It was clearly held in this case that the rule-making power,

which is provided under a statute with the aim of facilitating the

41
(2009) 15 SCC 570
89

implementation of the statute, does not confer power on any

authority to bring into existence substantive rights or obligations

or disabilities which are not contemplated in terms of the

provisions of the said Act. The Court, further, went on to hold

that:

“The image of law which flows from this
framework is its neutrality and objectivity: the
ability of law to put sphere of general decision-
making outside the discretionary power of those
wielding governmental power. Law has to provide
a basic level of “legal security” by assuring that
law is knowable, dependable and shielded from
excessive manipulation. In the contest of rule-
making, delegated legislation should establish
the structural conditions within which those
processes can function effectively. The question
which needs to be asked is whether delegated
legislation promotes rational and accountable
policy implementation. While we say so, we are
not oblivious of the contours of the judicial
review of the legislative Acts. But, we have made
all endeavours to keep ourselves confined within
the well-known parameters.”

140. At this stage, we may also benefit from the observations

made in State of T.N. and another v. P. Krishnamurthy and

others42 wherein it was stated that where a rule is directly

inconsistent with a mandatory provision of the statute, then, of

course, the task of the court is simple and easy. This implies that

if a rule is directly hit for being violative of the provisions of the

42
(2006) 4 SCC 517
90

enabling statute, then the Courts need not have to look in any

other direction but declare the said rule as invalid on the said

ground alone.

141. Rule 3(b) seeks to protect custom and usage by not allowing

women, Hindu women to be specific, to enter a place of public

worship at such times during which they are not so allowed to

enter by the said custom or usage. A cursory reading of Rule 3(b)

divulges that it is ultra vires both Section 3 as well as Section 4 of

the 1965 Act, the reason being that Section 3 being a non-

obstante provision clearly stipulates that every place of public

worship shall be open to all classes and sections of Hindus,

women being one of them, irrespective of any custom or usage to

the contrary.

142. That apart, Rule 3(b) is also ultra vires Section 4 of the 1965

Act as the proviso to Section 4(1) creates an exception to the

effect that the regulations/rules made under Section 4(1) shall

not discriminate, in any manner whatsoever, against any Hindu

on the ground that he/she belongs to a particular section or

class.

143. The language of both the provisions, that is, Section 3 and

the proviso to Section 4(1) of the 1965 Act, clearly indicates that
91

custom and usage must make space to the rights of all sections

and classes of Hindus to offer prayers at places of public worship.

Any interpretation to the contrary would annihilate the purpose

of the 1965 Act and the fundamental right to practise religion

guaranteed under Article 25(1). It is clear as crystal that the

provisions of the 1965 Act are liberal in nature so as to allow

entry to all sections and classes of Hindus including Scheduled

Castes and Scheduled Tribes. But framing of Rule 3(b) of the

1965 Rules under the garb of Section 4(1) would violate the very

purpose of the 1965 Act.

Conclusions

144. In view of our aforesaid analysis, we record our conclusions

in seriatim:

(i) In view of the law laid down by this Court in Shirur Mutt

(supra) and S.P. Mittal (supra), the devotees of Lord

Ayyappa do not constitute a separate religious

denomination. They do not have common religious tenets

peculiar to themselves, which they regard as conducive to

their spiritual well-being, other than those which are

common to the Hindu religion. Therefore, the devotees of
92

Lord Ayyappa are exclusively Hindus and do not constitute

a separate religious denomination.

(ii) Article 25(1), by employing the expression ‘all persons’,

demonstrates that the freedom of conscience and the right

to freely profess, practise and propagate religion is available,

though subject to the restrictions delineated in Article 25(1)

itself, to every person including women. The right

guaranteed under Article 25(1) has nothing to do with

gender or, for that matter, certain physiological factors

specifically attributable to women.

(iii) The exclusionary practice being followed at the Sabrimala

temple by virtue of Rule 3(b) of the 1965 Rules violates the

right of Hindu women to freely practise their religion and

exhibit their devotion towards Lord Ayyappa. This denial

denudes them of their right to worship. The right to practise

religion under Article 25(1) is equally available to both men

and women of all age groups professing the same religion.

(iv) The impugned Rule 3(b) of the 1965 Rules, framed under

the 1965 Act, that stipulates exclusion of entiy of women of

the age group of 10 to 50 years, is a clear violation of the

right of Hindu women to practise their religious beliefs
93

which, in consequence, makes their fundamental right of

religion under Article 25(1) a dead letter.

(v) The term ‘morality’ occurring in Article 25(1) of the

Constitution cannot be viewed with a narrow lens so as to

confine the sphere of definition of morality to what an

individual, a section or religious sect may perceive the term

to mean. Since the Constitution has been adopted and

given by the people of this country to themselves, the term

public morality in Article 25 has to be appositely understood

as being synonymous with constitutional morality.

(vi) The notions of public order, morality and health cannot be

used as colourable device to restrict the freedom to freely

practise religion and discriminate against women of the age

group of 10 to 50 years by denying them their legal right to

enter and offer their prayers at the Sabarimala temple.

(vii) The practice of exclusion of women of the age group of 10 to

50 years being followed at the Sabarimala Temple cannot be

regarded as an essential part as claimed by the respondent

Board.

(viii) In view of the law laid down by this Court in the second

Ananda Marga case, the exclusionary practice being
94

followed at the Sabarimala Temple cannot be designated as

one, the non-observance of which will change or alter the

nature of Hindu religion. Besides, the exclusionary practice

has not been observed with unhindered continuity as the

Devaswom Board had accepted before the High Court that

female worshippers of the age group of 10 to 50 years used

to visit the temple and conducted poojas in every month for

five days for the first rice feeding ceremony of their children.

(ix) The exclusionary practice, which has been given the

backing of a subordinate legislation in the form of Rule 3(b)

of the 1965 Rules, framed by the virtue of the 1965 Act, is

neither an essential nor an integral part of the religion.

(x) A careful reading of Rule 3(b) of the 1965 Rules makes it

luculent that it is ultra vires both Section 3 as well as

Section 4 of the 1965 Act, for the simon pure reason that

Section 3 being a non-obstante provision clearly stipulates

that every place of public worship shall be open to all

classes and sections of Hindus, women being one of them,

irrespective of any custom or usage to the contrary.

(xi) Rule 3(b) is also ultra vires Section 4 of the 1965 Act as the

proviso to Section 4(1) creates an exception to the effect that
95

the regulations/rules made under Section 4(1) shall not

discriminate, in any manner whatsoever, against any Hindu

on the ground that he/she belongs to a particular section or

class.

(xii) The language of both the provisions, that is, Section 3 and

the proviso to Section 4(1) of the 1965 Act clearly indicate

that custom and usage must make space to the rights of all

sections and classes of Hindus to offer prayers at places of

public worship. Any interpretation to the contrary would

annihilate the purpose of the 1965 Act and incrementally

impair the fundamental right to practise religion guaranteed

under Article 25(1). Therefore, we hold that Rule 3(b) of the

1965 Rules is ultra vires the 1965 Act.

145. In view of the aforesaid analysis and conclusions, the writ

petition is allowed. There shall be no order as to costs.

.………………………….CJI.

(Dipak Misra)

.…………………………….J.

(A.M. Khanwilkar)
New Delhi;

September 28, 2018
REPORTABLE

IN THE SUPREME COURT OF INDIA

CIVIL ORIGINAL JURISDICTION

WRIT PETITION (CIVIL) NO. 373 OF 2006

INDIAN YOUNG LAWYERS
ASSOCIATION AND ORS. … PETITIONERS

VERSUS

THE STATE OF KERALA AND ORS. … RESPONDENTS

JUDGMENT

R.F. Nariman, J. (Concurring)

1. The present writ petition raises far-reaching questions on the

ambit of the fundamental rights contained in Articles 25 and 26 of the

Constitution of India. These questions arise in the backdrop of an

extremely famous temple at Sabarimala in which the idol of Lord

Ayyappa is installed. According to the Respondents, the said temple,

though open to all members of the public regardless of caste, creed, or

religion, is a denominational temple which claims the fundamental right

to manage its own affairs in matters relating to religion. The question
1
that arises is whether the complete exclusion of women between the

ages of 10 and 50 from entry, and consequently, of worship in this

temple, based upon a biological factor which is exclusive to women

only, and which is based upon custom allegedly constituting an

essential part of religion, can be said to be violative of their rights

under Article 25. Consequently, whether such women are covered by

Section 3 of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation

of Entry) Act, 1965 and whether Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places

of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965 is violative of

their fundamental right under Article 25(1) and Article 15(1), and ultra

vires the parent Act.

2. Before answering the question posed on the facts before us, it

is necessary to cover the ground that has been covered by our

previous decisions on the scope and effect of religious freedom

contained in Articles 25 and 26.

3. In one of the earliest judgments dealing with religious freedom,

namely, Nar Hari Sastri and Ors. v. Shri Badrinath Temple

Committee, 1952 SCR 849, this Court was concerned with the temple

at Badrinath, which is an ancient temple, being a public place of

2
worship for Hindus. A representative suit was filed under Order I Rule

8 of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 on behalf of all Deoprayagi

Pandas who, as guides or escorts of pilgrims, sought a declaration that

they cannot be obstructed from entering the precincts of the temple

along with their ―clients‖ for darshan of the deities inside the temple.

This Court held:

―It seems to us that the approach of the court below to
this aspect of the case has not been quite proper, and,
to avoid any possible misconception, we would desire
to state succinctly what the correct legal position is.
Once it is admitted, as in fact has been admitted in the
present case, that the temple is a public place of
worship of the Hindus, the right of entrance into the
temple for purposes of ‗darshan‘ or worship is a right
which flows from the nature of the institution itself, and
for the acquisition of such rights, no custom or
immemorial usage need be asserted or proved. As the
Panda as well as his client are both Hindu
worshippers, there can be nothing wrong in the one‘s
accompanying the other inside the temple and subject
to what we will state presently, the fact that the pilgrim,
being a stranger to the spot, takes the assistance of
the Panda in the matter of ‗darshan‘ or worship of the
deities or that the Panda gets remuneration from his
client for the services he renders, does not in any way
affect the legal rights of either of them. In law, it makes
no difference whether one performs the act of worship
himself or is aided or guided by another in the
performance of them. If the Pandas claim any special
right which is not enjoyed ordinarily by members of the
Hindu public, they would undoubtedly have to
establish such rights on the basis of custom, usage or
otherwise.

3

This right of entry into a public temple is, however, not
an unregulated or unrestricted right. It is open to the
trustees of a public temple to regulate the time of
public visits and fix certain hours of the day during
which alone members of the public would be allowed
access to the shrine. The public may also be denied
access to certain particularly sacred parts of the
temple, e.g., the inner sanctuary or as it is said the
‗Holy of Holies‘ where the deity is actually located.
Quite apart from these, it is always competent to the
temple authorities to make and enforce rules to ensure
good order and decency of worship and prevent
overcrowding in a temple. Good conduct or orderly
behaviour is always an obligatory condition of
admission into a temple [Vide Kalidas Jivram v. Gor
Parjaram, I.L.R. 15 Bom. p. 309; Thackeray v.

Harbhum, I.L.R. 8 Bom. p. 432], and this principle has
been accepted by and recognised in the Shri
Badrinath Temple Act, section 25 of which provides for
framing of bye-laws by the temple committee inter alia
for maintenance of order inside the temple and
regulating the entry of persons within it [Vide Section
25(1)(m)].

The true position, therefore, is that the plaintiffs‘ right
of entering the temple along with their Yajmans is not
a precarious or a permissive right depending for its
existence upon the arbitrary discretion of the temple
authorities; it is a legal right in the true sense of the
expression but it can be exercised subject to the
restrictions which the temple committee may impose in
good faith for maintenance of order and decorum
within the temple and for ensuring proper performance
of customary worship. In our opinion, the plaintiffs are
entitled to a declaration in this form.‖
(at pp. 860-862)

4

4. In chronological sequence, next comes the celebrated Shirur

Math case, viz., The Commissioner, Hindu Religious Endowments,

Madras v. Sri Lakshmindra Thirtha Swamiar of Sri Shirur Mutt,

1954 SCR 1005. This case concerned itself with the settlement of a

scheme in connection with a Math known as the Shirur Math, which,

legislation in the form of the Madras Hindu Religious and Charitable

Endowments Act, 1951, sought to interfere with. In history, the Shirur

Math is stated to be one of the eight Maths situated at Udipi in the

district of South Kanara and reputed to have been founded by Shri

Madhwacharya, the well-known exponent of dualistic theism in

Hinduism. This judgment being a seminal authority for a large number

of aspects covered under Articles 25 and 26 needs to be quoted in

extenso. The Court first dealt with the individual right contained in

Article 25 as follows:

―We now come to Article 25 which, as its language
indicates, secures to every person, subject to public
order, health and morality, a freedom not only to
entertain such religious belief, as may be approved
of by his judgment and conscience, but also to
exhibit his belief in such outward acts as he thinks
proper and to propagate or disseminate his ideas for
the edification of others. A question is raised as to
whether the word ―persons‖ here means individuals
only or includes corporate bodies as well. The
5
question, in our opinion, is not at all relevant for our
present purpose. A Mathadhipati is certainly not a
corporate body; he is the head of a spiritual
fraternity and by virtue of his office has to perform
the duties of a religious teacher. It is his duty to
practice and propagate the religious tenets, of which
he is an adherent and if any provision of law
prevents him from propagating his doctrines, that
would certainly affect the religious freedom which is
guaranteed to every person under Article 25.
Institutions as such cannot practice or propagate
religion; it can be done only by individual persons
and whether these persons propagate their personal
views or the tenets for which the institution stands is
really immaterial for purposes of Article 25. It is the
propagation of belief that is protected, no matter
whether the propagation takes place in a church or
monastery, or in a temple or parlour meeting.‖1
(emphasis supplied)
(at p. 1021)
With regard to whether a Math could come within the expression

―religious denomination‖ under Article 26, this Court laid down the

following tests:

1

In State Trading Corporation of India Ltd. v. Commercial Tax Officer and Ors., (1964) 4 SCR 99, a
majority of 9 Judges held that the S.T.C., which is a company registered under the Indian Companies Act,
1956, is not a citizen within the meaning of Article 19 of the Constitution of India. In a concurring judgment
by Hidayatullah, J., the learned Judge, in arriving at this result, held that Articles 15, 16, 18 and 29(1)
clearly refer to natural persons, i.e., individuals (See p. 127). The learned Judge went on to hold that in
Articles 14, 20, 27 and 31, the word ―person‖ would apply to individuals as well as to corporations (See p.

147). What is conspicuous by its absence is Article 25(1), which also uses the word ―person‖, which, as
Shirur Math (supra) states above, can apply only to natural persons. Consequently, the argument that an
idol can exercise fundamental rights contained in Article 25(1), as urged by some of the Respondents,
must be rejected.

6
―As regards Article 26, the first question is, what is
the precise meaning or connotation of the
expression ―religious denomination‖ and whether a
Math could come within this expression. The word
―denomination‖ has been defined in the Oxford
Dictionary to mean ―a collection of individuals
classed together under the same name: a religious
sect or body having a common faith and
organisation and designated by a distinctive name‖.
It is well known that the practice of setting up Maths
as centers of theological teaching was started by
Shri Sankaracharya and was followed by various
teachers since then. After Sankara, came a galaxy
of religious teachers and philosophers who founded
the different sects and sub-sects of the Hindu
religion that we find in India at the present day. Each
one of such sects or sub-sects can certainly be
called a religious denomination, as it is designated
by a distinctive name, — in many cases it is the
name of the founder, and has a common faith and
common spiritual organization. The followers of
Ramanuja, who are known by the name of Shri
Vaishnabas, undoubtedly constitute a religious
denomination; and so do the followers of
Madhwacharya and other religious teachers. It is a
fact well established by tradition that the eight Udipi
Maths were founded by Madhwacharya himself and
the trustees and the beneficiaries of these Maths
profess to be followers of that teacher. The High
Court has found that the Math in question is in
charge of the Sivalli Brahmins who constitute a
section of the followers of Madhwacharya. As Article
26 contemplates not merely a religious
denomination but also a section thereof, the Math or
the spiritual fraternity represented by it can
legitimately come within the purview of this article.‖
(emphasis supplied)
(at pp. 1021-1022)
7
With regard to what constitutes ―religion‖, ―religious practice‖, and

―essential religious practices‖, as opposed to ―secular practices‖, this

Court held:

―It will be seen that besides the right to manage its
own affairs in matters of religion, which is given by
clause (b), the next two clauses of Article 26
guarantee to a religious denomination the right to
acquire and own property and to administer such
property in accordance with law. The administration
of its property by a religious denomination has thus
been placed on a different footing from the right to
manage its own affairs in matters of religion. The
latter is a fundamental right which no legislature can
take away, whereas the former can be regulated by
laws which the legislature can validly impose. It is
clear, therefore, that questions merely relating to
administration of properties belonging to a religious
group or institution are not matters of religion to
which clause (b) of the Article applies. What then
are matters of religion? The word ―religion‖ has not
been defined in the Constitution and it is a term
which is hardly susceptible of any rigid definition. In
an American case [Vide Davis v. Benson, 133 US
333 at 342], it has been said ―that the term ‗religion‘
has reference to one‘s views of his relation to his
Creator and to the obligations they impose of
reverence for His Being and character and of
obedience to His will. It is often confounded with
cultus of form or worship of a particular sect, but is
distinguishable from the latter.‖ We do not think that
the above definition can be regarded as either
precise or adequate. Articles 25 and 26 of our
Constitution are based for the most part upon Article
44(2) of the Constitution of Eire and we have great
8
doubt whether a definition of ―religion‖ as given
above could have been in the minds of our
Constitution-makers when they framed the
Constitution. Religion is certainly a matter of faith
with individuals or communities and it is not
necessarily theistic. There are well known religions
in India like Buddhism and Jainism which do not
believe in God or in any Intelligent First Cause. A
religion undoubtedly has its basis in a system of
beliefs or doctrines which are regarded by those
who profess that religion as conducive to their
spiritual well being, but it would not be correct to say
that religion is nothing else but a doctrine or belief. A
religion may not only lay down a code of ethical
rules for its followers to accept, it might prescribe
rituals and observances, ceremonies and modes of
worship which are regarded as integral parts of
religion, and these forms and observances might
extend even to matters of food and dress.

The guarantee under our Constitution not only
protects the freedom of religious opinion but it
protects also acts done in pursuance of a religion
and this is made clear by the use of the expression
―practice of religion‖ in Article 25. Latham, C.J. of
the High Court of Australia while dealing with the
provision of section 116 of the Australian
Constitution which inter alia forbids the
Commonwealth to prohibit the ―free exercise of any
religion‖ made the following weighty observations
[Vide Adelaide Company v. Commonwealth, 67
C.L.R. 116, 127]:

―It is sometimes suggested in discussions
on the subject of freedom of religion that,
though the civil Government should not
interfere with religious opinions, it
nevertheless may deal as it pleases with
any acts which are done in pursuance of
9
religious belief without infringing the
principle of freedom of religion. It appears
to me to be difficult to maintain this
distinction as relevant to the interpretation
of section 116. The section refers in
express terms to the exercise of religion,
and therefore it is intended to protect from
the operation of any Commonwealth laws
acts which are done in the exercise of
religion. Thus the section goes far beyond
protecting liberty of opinion. It protects also
acts done in pursuance of religious belief
as part of religion.‖

These observations apply fully to the protection of
religion as guaranteed by the Indian Constitution.

Restrictions by the State upon free exercise of
religion are permitted both under Articles 25 and 26
on grounds of public order, morality and health.
Clause (2)(a) of Article 25 reserves the right of the
State to regulate or restrict any economic, financial,
political and other secular activities which may be
associated with religious practice and there is a
further right given to the State by sub-clause (b)
under which the State can legislate for social
welfare and reform even though by so doing it might
interfere with religious practices. The learned
Attorney-General lays stress upon clause (2)(a) of
the Article and his contention is that all secular
activities, which may be associated with religion but
do not really constitute an essential part of it, are
amenable to State regulation.

The contention formulated in such broad terms
cannot, we think, be supported. In the first place,
what constitutes the essential part of a religion is
primarily to be ascertained with reference to the
doctrines of that religion itself. If the tenets of any
10
religious sect of the Hindus prescribe that offerings
of food should be given to the idol at particular hours
of the day, that periodical ceremonies should be
performed in a certain way at certain periods of the
year or that there should be daily recital of sacred
texts or oblations to the sacred fire, all these would
be regarded as parts of religion and the mere fact
that they involve expenditure of money or
employment of priests and servants or the use of
marketable commodities would not make them
secular activities partaking of a commercial or
economic character; all of them are religious
practices and should be regarded as matters of
religion within the meaning of Article 26(b). What
Article 25(2)(a) contemplates is not regulation by the
State of religious practices as such, the freedom of
which is guaranteed by the Constitution except
when they run counter to public order, health and
morality, but regulation of activities which are
economic, commercial or political in their character
though they are associated with religious practices.
We may refer in this connection to a few American
and Australian cases, all of which arose out of the
activities of persons connected with the religious
association known as ―Jehovah‘s Witnesses.‖ This
association of persons loosely organised throughout
Australia, U.S.A. and other countries regard the
literal interpretation of the Bible as fundamental to
proper religious beliefs. This belief in the supreme
authority of the Bible colours many of their political
ideas. They refuse to take oath of allegiance to the
king or other constituted human authority and even
to show respect to the national flag, and they decry
all wars between nations and all kinds of war
activities. In 1941 a company of ―Jehovah‘s
Witnesses‖ incorporated in Australia commenced
proclaiming and teaching matters which were
prejudicial to war activities and the defence of the
Commonwealth and steps were taken against them
11
under the National Security Regulations of the
State. The legality of the action of the Government
was questioned by means of a writ petition before
the High Court and the High Court held that the
action of the Government was justified and that
section 116, which guaranteed freedom of religion
under the Australian Constitution, was not in any
way infringed by the National Security Regulations
[Vide Adelaide Company v. Commonwealth, 67
C.L.R. 116, 127]. These were undoubtedly political
activities though arising out of religious belief
entertained by a particular community. In such
cases, as Chief Justice Latham pointed out, the
provision for protection of religion was not an
absolute protection to be interpreted and applied
independently of other provisions of the
Constitution. These privileges must be reconciled
with the right of the State to employ the sovereign
power to ensure peace, security and orderly living
without which constitutional guarantee of civil liberty
would be a mockery.‖
(emphasis supplied)
(at pp. 1023-1026)

As to what matters a religious denomination enjoys complete

autonomy over, this Court said:

―…… As we have already indicated, freedom of
religion in our Constitution is not confined to
religious beliefs only; it extends to religious practices
as well subject to the restrictions which the
Constitution itself has laid down. Under Article 26(b),
therefore, a religious denomination or organization
enjoys complete autonomy in the matter of deciding
as to what rites and ceremonies are essential
according to the tenets of the religion they hold and
12
no outside authority has any jurisdiction to interfere
with their decision in such matters. Of course, the
scale of expenses to be incurred in connection with
these religious observances would be a matter of
administration of property belonging to the religious
denomination and can be controlled by secular
authorities in accordance with any law laid down by
a competent legislature; for it could not be the
injunction of any religion to destroy the institution
and its endowments by incurring wasteful
expenditure on rites and ceremonies. It should be
noticed, however, that under Article 26(d), it is the
fundamental right of a religious denomination or its
representative to administer its properties in
accordance with law; and the law, therefore, must
leave the right of administration to the religious
denomination itself subject to such restrictions and
regulations as it might choose to impose. A law
which takes away the right of administration from
the hands of a religious denomination altogether
and vests it in any other authority would amount to a
violation of the right guaranteed under clause (d) of
Article 26.‖
(at pp. 1028-1029)

5. Close on the heels of this judgment, followed the judgment in

Ratilal Panachand Gandhi v. State of Bombay and Ors., 1954 SCR

1055. In this case, two connected appeals – one by the manager of a

Swetamber Jain public temple and one by the trustees of the Parsi

Punchayet, assailed the constitutional validity of the Bombay Public

Trusts Act, 1950. Dealing with the freedoms contained in Articles 25

and 26, this Court held:

13

―Article 25 of the Constitution guarantees to every
person and not merely to the citizens of India the
freedom of conscience and the right freely to
profess, practise and propagate religion. This is
subject, in every case, to public order, health and
morality. Further exceptions are engrafted upon this
right by clause (2) of the Article. Sub-clause (a) of
clause (2) saves the power of the State to make
laws regulating or restricting any economic,
financial, political or other secular activity which may
be associated with religious practice; and sub-
clause (b) reserves the State‘s power to make laws
providing for social reform and social welfare even
though they might interfere with religious practices.
Thus, subject to the restrictions which this Article
imposes, every person has a fundamental right
under our Constitution not merely to entertain such
religious belief as may be approved of by his
judgment or conscience but to exhibit his belief and
ideas in such overt acts as are enjoined or
sanctioned by his religion and further to propagate
his religious views for the edification of others. It is
immaterial also whether the propagation is made by
a person in his individual capacity or on behalf of
any church or institution. The free exercise of
religion by which is meant the performance of
outward acts in pursuance of religious belief, is, as
stated above, subject to State regulation imposed to
secure order, public health and morals of the
people. What sub-clause (a) of clause (2) of Article
25 contemplates is not State regulation of the
religious practices as such which are protected
unless they run counter to public health or morality
but of activities which are really of an economic,
commercial or political character though they are
associated with religious practices.

So far as Article 26 is concerned, it deals with a
particular aspect of the subject of religious freedom.
14
Under this article, any religious denomination or a
section of it has the guaranteed right to establish
and maintain institutions for religious and charitable
purposes and to manage in its own way all affairs in
matters of religion. Rights are also given to such
denomination or a section of it to acquire and own
movable and immovable properties and to
administer such properties in accordance with law.
The language of the two clauses (b) and (d) of
Article 26 would at once bring out the difference
between the two. In regard to affairs in matters of
religion, the right of management given to a religious
body is a guaranteed fundamental right which no
legislation can take away. On the other hand, as
regards administration of property which a religious
denomination is entitled to own and acquire, it has
undoubtedly the right to administer such property
but only in accordance with law. This means that the
State can regulate the administration of trust
properties by means of laws validly enacted; but
here again it should be remembered that under
Article 26(d), it is the religious denomination itself
which has been given the right to administer its
property in accordance with any law which the State
may validly impose. A law, which takes away the
right of administration altogether from the religious
denomination and vests it in any other or secular
authority, would amount to violation of the right
which is guaranteed by Article 26(d) of the
Constitution.

The moot point for consideration, therefore, is where
is the line to be drawn between what are matters of
religion and what are not? Our Constitution-makers
have made no attempt to define what ‗religion‘ is
and it is certainly not possible to frame an
exhaustive definition of the word ‗religion‘ which
would be applicable to all classes of persons. As
has been indicated in the Madras case referred to
15
above, the definition of ‗religion‘ given by Fields, J.
in the American case of Davis v. Beason [133 U.S.
333], does not seem to us adequate or precise. ―The
term ‗religion‘ ‖, thus observed the learned Judge in
the case mentioned above, ―has reference to one‘s
views of his relations to his Creator and to the
obligations they impose of reverence for His Being
and character and of obedience to His Will. It is
often confounded with cultus or form of worship of a
particular sect, but is distinguishable from the latter‖.
It may be noted that ‗religion‘ is not necessarily
theistic and in fact there are well known religions in
India like Buddhism and Jainism which do not
believe in the existence of God or of any Intelligent
First Cause. A religion undoubtedly has its basis in a
system of beliefs and doctrines which are regarded
by those who profess that religion to be conducive
to their spiritual well being, but it would not be
correct to say, as seems to have been suggested by
one of the learned Judges of the Bombay High
Court, that matters of religion are nothing but
matters of religious faith and religious belief. A
religion is not merely an opinion, doctrine or belief. It
has its outward expression in acts as well. We may
quote in this connection the observations of Latham,
C.J. of the High Court of Australia in the case of
Adelaide Company v. Commonwealth [67 C.L.R.

116, 124], where the extent of protection given to
religious freedom by section 116 of the Australian
Constitution came up for consideration.

―It is sometimes suggested in discussions
on the subject of freedom of religion that,
though the civil Government should not
interfere with religious opinions, it
nevertheless may deal as it pleases with
any acts which are done in pursuance of
religious belief without infringing the
principle of freedom of religion. It appears
16
to me to be difficult to maintain this
distinction as relevant to the interpretation
of section 116. The section refers in
express terms to the exercise of religion,
and therefore it is intended to protect from
the operation of any Commonwealth laws
acts which are done in the exercise of
religion. Thus the section goes far beyond
protecting liberty of opinion. It protects also
acts done in pursuance of religious belief
as part of religion.‖

In our opinion, as we have already said in the
Madras case, these observations apply fully to the
provision regarding religious freedom that is
embodied in our Constitution.

Religious practices or performances of acts in
pursuance of religious belief are as much a part of
religion as faith or belief in particular doctrines. Thus
if the tenets of the Jain or the Parsi religion lay down
that certain rites and ceremonies are to be
performed at certain times and in a particular
manner, it cannot be said that these are secular
activities partaking of commercial or economic
character simply because they involve expenditure
of money or employment of priests or the use of
marketable commodities. No outside authority has
any right to say that these are not essential parts of
religion and it is not open to the secular authority of
the State to restrict or prohibit them in any manner
they like under the guise of administering the trust
estate. Of course, the scale of expenses to be
incurred in connection with these religious
observances may be and is a matter of
administration of property belonging to religious
institutions; and if the expenses on these heads are
likely to deplete the endowed properties or affect the
stability of the institution, proper control can certainly
17
be exercised by State agencies as the law provides.
We may refer in this connection to the observation
of Davar, J. in the case of Jamshed ji v. Soonabai
[33 Bom. 122], and although they were made in a
case where the question was whether the bequest
of property by a Parsi testator for the purpose of
perpetual celebration of ceremonies like Muktad baj,
Vyezashni, etc., which are sanctioned by the
Zoroastrian religion were valid charitable gifts, the
observations, we think, are quite appropriate for our
present purpose. ―If this is the belief of the
community‖ thus observed the learned Judge, ―and
it is proved undoubtedly to be the belief of the
Zoroastrian community,—a secular Judge is bound
to accept that belief—it is not for him to sit in
judgment on that belief, he has no right to interfere
with the conscience of a donor who makes a gift in
favour of what he believes to be the advancement of
his religion and the welfare of his community or
mankind‖. These observations do, in our opinion,
afford an indication of the measure of protection that
is given by Article 26(b) of our Constitution.

The distinction between matters of religion and
those of secular administration of religious
properties may, at times, appear to be a thin one.
But in cases of doubt, as Chief Justice Latham
pointed out in the case [Vide Adelaide Company v.
The Commonwealth, 67 C.L.R. 116, 129] referred to
above, the court should take a common sense view
and be actuated by considerations of practical
necessity. It is in the light of these principles that we
will proceed to examine the different provisions of
the Bombay Public Trusts Act, the validity of which
has been challenged on behalf of the appellants.‖
(at pp. 1062-1066)

18

6. We now come to the famous Mulki Temple case. In this

judgment, namely, Sri Venkataramana Devaru and Ors. v. State of

Mysore and Ors., 1958 SCR 895, (―Sri Venkataramana Devaru‖), an

ancient temple dedicated to Sri Venkataramana, renowned for its

sanctity, was before the Court in a challenge to the Madras Temple

Entry Authorisation Act (V of 1947). It was noticed that the trustees of

this temple were all members of a sect known as the Gowda

Saraswath Brahmins. Even though the temple had originally been

founded for the benefit of certain immigrant families of the Gowda

Saraswath Brahmins, in the course of time, however, worshippers

consisted of all classes of Hindus. Finding that the said temple is a

public temple, it was further held that during certain religious

ceremonies, persons other than Gowda Saraswath Brahmins had

been wholly excluded, as a result of which, the temple was held to be

a religious denomination within the meaning of Article 26. The Court

then found that if an image becomes defiled or if there is any departure

or violation of any of the rules relating to worship, as a result of entry of

certain persons into the temple, an essential religious practice can be

said to have been affected. The Court held:

19
―According to the Agamas, an image becomes
defiled if there is any departure or violation of any of
the rules relating to worship, and purificatory
ceremonies (known as Samprokshana) have to be
performed for restoring the sanctity of the shrine.
Vide judgment of Sadasiva Aiyar, J., in Gopala
Muppanar v. Subramania Aiyar [(1914) 27 MLJ
253]. In Sankaralinga Nadan v. Raja Rajeswara
Dorai [(1908) L.R. 35 I.A. 176], it was held by the
Privy Council affirming the judgment of the Madras
High Court that a trustee who agreed to admit into
the temple persons who were not entitled to worship
therein, according to the Agamas and the custom of
the temple was guilty of breach of trust. Thus, under
the ceremonial law pertaining to temples, who are
entitled to enter into them for worship and where
they are entitled to stand and worship and how the
worship is to be conducted are all matters of
religion. The conclusion is also implicit in Art. 25
which after declaring that all persons are entitled
freely to profess, practice and propagate religion,
enacts that this should not affect the operation of
any law throwing open Hindu religious institutions of
a public character to all classes and sections of
Hindus. We have dealt with this question at some
length in view of the argument of the learned
Solicitor-General that exclusion of persons from
temple has not been shown to be a matter of
religion with reference to the tenets of Hinduism. We
must, accordingly hold that if the rights of the
appellants have to be determined solely with
reference to Art 26(b), then section 3 of Act V of
1947, should be held to be bad as infringing it.‖
(emphasis supplied)
(at pp. 910-911)

20
The important question that then had to be decided was whether

denominational institutions were within the reach of Article 25(2)(b).

This was answered in the affirmative. It was then stated:

―…… The fact is that though Art. 25(1) deals with
rights of individuals, Art. 25(2) is much wider in its
contents and has reference to the rights of
communities, and controls both Art. 25(1) and Art.
26(b).

The result then is that there are two provisions of
equal authority, neither of them being subject to the
other. The question is how the apparent conflict
between them is to be resolved. The rule of
construction is well settled that when there are in an
enactment two provisions which cannot be
reconciled with each other, they should be so
interpreted that, if possible, effect could be given to
both. This is what is known as the rule of
harmonious construction. Applying this rule, if the
contention of the appellants is to be accepted, then
Art. 25(2)(b) will become wholly nugatory in its
application to denominational temples, though, as
stated above, the language of that Article includes
them. On the other hand, if the contention of the
respondents is accepted, then full effect can be
given to Art. 26(b) in all matters of religion, subject
only to this that as regards one aspect of them,
entry into a temple for worship, the rights declared
under Art. 25(2)(b) will prevail. While, in the former
case, Art. 25(2)(b) will be put wholly out of
operation, in the latter, effect can be given to both
that provision and Art. 26(b). We must accordingly
hold that Art. 26(b) must be read subject to Art.

25(2)(b).‖
(at pp. 917-918)
21
When there is no general or total exclusion of members of the public

from worship in the temple, but exclusion from only certain religious

services, it was held:

―We have held that the right of a denomination to
wholly exclude members of the public from
worshipping in the temple, though comprised in Art.
26(b), must yield to the overriding right declared by
Art. 25(2)(b) in favour of the public to enter into a
temple for worship. But where the right claimed is
not one of general and total exclusion of the public
from worship in the temple at all times but of
exclusion from certain religious services, they being
limited by the rules of the foundation to the
members of the denomination, then the question is
not whether Art. 25(2)(b) overrides that right so as
extinguish it, but whether it is possible — so to
regulate the rights of the persons protected by Art.
25(2)(b) as to give effect to both the rights. If the
denominational rights are such that to give effect to
them would substantially reduce the right conferred
by Art. 25(2)(b), then of course, on our conclusion
that Art. 25(2)(b) prevails as against Art. 26(b), the
denominational rights must vanish. But where that is
not the position, and after giving effect to the rights
of the denomination what is left to the public of the
right of worship is something substantial and not
merely the husk of it, there is no reason why we
should not so construe Art. 25(2)(b) as to give effect
to Art. 26(b) and recognise the rights of the
denomination in respect of matters which are strictly
denominational, leaving the rights of the public in
other respects unaffected.‖
(at pp. 919-920)
22

7. In Durgah Committee, Ajmer and Anr. v. Syed Hussain Ali

and Ors., (1962) 1 SCR 383, (―Durgah Committee‖), this Court was

faced with a challenge to the vires of the Durgah Khwaja Saheb Act,

1955. The famous tomb of Khwaja Moin-ud-din Chishti of Ajmer was

managed by a group of persons who belonged to the Chishti Order of

Soofies. The argument that as people from all religious faiths came to

worship at this shrine, and that, therefore, it could not be said to be a

shrine belonging to any particular religious denomination, was negated

as follows:

―…… Thus on theoretical considerations it may not
be easy to hold that the followers and devotees of
the saint who visit the Durgah and treat it as a place
of pilgrimage can be regarded as constituting a
religious denomination or any section thereof.
However, for the purpose of the present appeal we
propose to deal with the dispute between the parties
on the basis that the Chishtia sect whom the
respondents purport to represent and on whose
behalf — (as well as their own) — they seek to
challenge the vires of the Act is a section or a
religious denomination. This position appears to
have been assumed in the High Court and we do
not propose to make any departure in that behalf in
dealing with the present appeal.‖
(emphasis supplied)
(at p. 401)

23

8. The judgment in Shirur Math (supra) was followed, as was Sri

Venkataramana Devaru (supra), for the determining tests of what

would constitute a ―religious denomination‖ and what could be said to

be essential and integral parts of religion as opposed to purely secular

practices. An important sentence was added to what has already been

laid down in these two judgments:

―…… Similarly, even practices, though religious,
may have sprung from merely superstitious beliefs
and may in that sense be extraneous and
unessential accretions to religion itself. ……‖
(at p. 412)

9. In Sardar Syedna Taher Saifuddin Saheb v. State of

Bombay, 1962 Supp. (2) SCR 496, this Court struck down the

Bombay Prevention of Excommunication Act, 1949, with Chief Justice

Sinha dissenting. Though the learned Chief Justice‘s judgment is a

dissenting judgment, some of the principles laid down by the learned

Chief Justice, not dissented from by the majority judgment, are

apposite and are, therefore, set out hereunder:-

―…… It is noteworthy that the right guaranteed by
Art. 25 is an individual right as distinguished from
the right of an organised body like a religious
denomination or any section thereof, dealt with by
24
Art. 26. Hence, every member of the community has
the right, so long as he does not in any way interfere
with the corresponding rights of others, to profess,
practice and propagate his religion, and everyone is
guaranteed his freedom of conscience. ……… The
Constitution has left every person free in the matter
of his relation to his Creator, if he believes in one. It
is, thus, clear that a person is left completely free to
worship God according to the dictates of his
conscience, and that his right to worship as he
pleased is unfettered so long as it does not come
into conflict with any restraints, as aforesaid,
imposed by the State in the interest of public order,
etc. A person is not liable to answer for the verity of
his religious views, and he cannot be questioned as
to his religious beliefs, by the State or by any other
person. Thus, though his religious beliefs are
entirely his own and his freedom to hold those
beliefs is absolute, he has not the absolute right to
act in any way he pleased in exercise of his religious
beliefs. He has been guaranteed the right to practice
and propagate his religion, subject to the limitations
aforesaid. His right to practice his religion must also
be subject to the criminal laws of the country, validly
passed with reference to actions which the
legislature has declared to be of a penal character.

Laws made by a competent legislature in the
interest of public order and the like, restricting
religious practices, would come within the regulating
power of the State. For example, there may be
religious practices of sacrifice of human beings, or
sacrifice of animals in a way deleterious to the well-
being of the community at large. It is open to the
State to intervene, by legislation, to restrict or to
regulate to the extent of completely stopping such
deleterious practices. It must, therefore, be held that
though the freedom of conscience is guaranteed to
every individual so that he may hold any beliefs he
likes, his actions in pursuance of those beliefs may
25
be liable to restrictions in the interest of the
community at large, as may be determined by
common consent, that is to say, by a competent
legislature. It was on such humanitarian grounds,
and for the purpose of social reform, that so called
religious practices like immolating a widow at the
pyre of her deceased husband, or of dedicating a
virgin girl of tender years to a God to function as
a devadasi, or of ostracizing a person from all social
contacts and religious communion on account of his
having eaten forbidden food or taboo, were stopped
by legislation.‖
(emphasis supplied)
(at pp. 518-520)

The learned Chief Justice upheld the said Act, stating that the Act is

aimed at fulfillment of the individual liberty of conscience guaranteed

by Article 25(1) of the Constitution, and not in derogation of it. Also, the

learned Chief Justice stated that the Act really carried out the strict

injunction of Article 17 of the Constitution of India by which

untouchability has been abolished, and held that, as excommunication

is a form of untouchability, the Act is protected by Article 17 and must

therefore be upheld.

The majority judgment, however, by K.C. Das Gupta, J. held the Act to

be constitutionally infirm as it was violative of Article 26(b) as follows:

―Let us consider first whether the impugned Act
contravenes the provisions of Art. 26(b). It is
26
unnecessary for the purpose of the present case to
enter into the difficult question whether every case
of excommunication by the Dai on whatever
grounds inflicted is a matter of religion. What
appears however to be clear is that where an
excommunication is itself based on religious
grounds such as lapse from the orthodox religious
creed or doctrine (similar to what is considered
heresy, apostasy or schism under the Canon Law)
or breach of some practice considered as an
essential part of the religion by the Dawoodi Bohras
in general, excommunication cannot but be held to
be for the purpose of maintaining the strength of the
religion. It necessarily follows that the exercise of
this power of excommunication on religious grounds
forms part of the management by the community,
through its religious head, ―of its own affairs in
matters of religion.‖ The impugned Act makes even
such excommunications invalid and takes away the
power of the Dai as the head of the community to
excommunicate even on religious grounds. It
therefore, clearly interferes with the right of the
Dawoodi Bohra community under clause (b) of Art.
26 of the Constitution.‖
(at p. 535)

Holding that the said law is not referable to Article 25(2)(b), the Court

then held:

―It remains to consider whether the impugned Act
comes within the saving provisions embodied in
clause 2 of Art. 25. The clause is in these words:—

―Nothing in this Article shall affect the operation of
any existing law or prevent the State from making
any law—

27

(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 institution of a
public character to all classes and section of
Hindus.‖

Quite clearly, the impugned Act cannot be regarded
as a law regulating or restricting any economic,
financial, political or other secular activity. Indeed,
that was not even suggested on behalf of the
respondent State. It was faintly suggested however
that the Act should be considered to be a law
―providing for social welfare and reform.‖ The mere
fact that certain civil rights which might be lost by
members of the Dawoodi Bohra community as a
result of excommunication even though made on
religious grounds and that the Act prevents such
loss, does not offer sufficient basis for a conclusion
that it is a law ―providing for social welfare and
reform.‖ The barring of excommunication on
grounds other than religious grounds, say, on the
breach of some obnoxious social rule or practice
might be a measure of social reform and a law
which bars such excommunication merely might
conceivably come within the saving provisions of
clause 2(b) of Art. 25. But barring of
excommunication on religious grounds pure and
simple, cannot however be considered to promote
social welfare and reform and consequently the law
insofar as it invalidates excommunication on
religious grounds and takes away the Dai’s power to
impose such excommunication cannot reasonably
be considered to be a measure of social welfare and
reform. As the Act invalidates excommunication on
any ground whatsoever, including religious grounds,
it must be held to be in clear violation of the right of

28
the Dawoodi Bohra community under Art. 26(b) of
the Constitution.‖
(at pp. 536-537)

In an illuminating concurring judgment, N. Rajagopala Ayyangar, J.

upheld the Act on the ground that excommunication is not so much a

punishment but is really used as a measure of discipline for the

maintenance of the integrity of the Dawoodi Bohra community. It

therefore violates the right to practice religion guaranteed by Articles

25(1) and 26 in that it interferes with the right of the religious head –

the Dai – to administer, as trustee, the property of the denomination so

as to exclude excommunicated persons. The learned Judge, however,

drew a distinction between the two parts of Article 25(2)(b), stating that

the expression ―social welfare and reform‖ could not affect essential

parts of religious practice as follows:

―But very different considerations arise when one
has to deal with legislation which is claimed to be
merely a measure ―providing for social welfare and
reform.‖ To start with, it has to be admitted that this
phrase is, as contrasted with the second portion of
Art. 25(2)(b), far from precise and is flexible in its
content. In this connection it has to be borne in mind
that limitations imposed on religious practices on the
ground of public order, morality or health have
already been saved by the opening words of Art.

25(1) and the saving would cover beliefs and

29
practices even though considered essential or vital
by those professing the religion. I consider that in
the context in which the phrase occurs, it is intended
to save the validity only of those laws which do not
invade the basic and essential practices of religion
which are guaranteed by the operative portion of
Art. 25(1) for two reasons: (1) To read the saving as
covering even the basic essential practices of
religion, would in effect nullify and render
meaningless the entire guarantee of religious
freedom — a freedom not merely to profess, but to
practice religion, for very few pieces of legislation for
abrogating religious practices could fail to be
subsumed under the caption of ―a provision for
social welfare or reform.‖ (2) If the phrase just
quoted was intended to have such a wide operation
as cutting at even the essentials guaranteed by Art.
25(1), there would have been no need for the
special provision as to ―throwing open of Hindu
religious institutions‖ to all classes and sections of
Hindus since the legislation contemplated by this
provision would be par excellence one of social
reform.

In my view by the phrase ―laws providing for social
welfare and reform‖ it was not intended to enable
the legislature to ―reform‖ a religion out of existence
or identity. Art. 25(2)(a) having provided for
legislation dealing with ―economic, financial, political
or secular activity which may be associated with
religious practices‖, the succeeding clause proceeds
to deal with other activities of religious groups and
these also must be those which are associated with
religion. Just as the activities referred to in Art.
25(2)(a) are obviously not of the essence of the
religion, similarly the saving in Art. 25(2)(b) is not
intended to cover the basic essentials of the creed
of a religion which is protected by Art. 25(1).‖

30
(at pp. 552-553)

10. As this view is the view of only one learned Judge, and as it

does not arise for decision in the present case, suffice it to say that this

view will need to be tested in some future case for its validity. It is

instructive to remember that Shirur Math (supra) specifically

contained a sentence which stated that there is a further right given to

the State by Article 25(2)(b) under which, the State can legislate for

social welfare and reform ―even though by so doing it might interfere

with religious practices‖. We, therefore, leave this part of Article

25(2)(b) to be focused and deliberated upon in some future case.

11. In Tilkayat Shri Govindlalji Maharaj v. State of Rajasthan

and Ors., (1964) 1 SCR 561, otherwise referred to as the Nathdwara

Temple case, this Court was concerned with the validity of the

Nathdwara Temple Act, 1959. Referring to and following some of the

judgments that have already been referred, this Court held that the

Nathdwara temple was a public temple and that as the Act

extinguished the secular office of the Tilkayat by which he was

managing the properties of the Temple, no right under Article 26 could

be said to have been effected. In an instructive passage, this Court
31
laid down certain tests as to what could be said to be an essential or

integral part of religion as opposed to purely secular practice, and laid

down what is to be done to separate what may not always be oil from

water. The Court held as follows:

―In deciding the question as to whether a given
religious practice is an integral part of the religion or
not, the test always would be whether it is regarded
as such by the community following the religion or
not. This formula may in some cases present
difficulties in its operation. Take the case of a
practice in relation to food or dress. If in a given
proceeding, one section of the community claims
that while performing certain rites white dress is an
integral part of the religion itself, whereas another
section contends that yellow dress and not the white
dress is the essential part of the religion, how is the
Court going to decide the question? Similar disputes
may arise in regard to food. In cases where
conflicting evidence is produced in respect of rival
contentions as to competing religious practices the
Court may not be able to resolve the dispute by a
blind application of the formula that the community
decides which practice is an integral part of its
religion, because the community may speak with
more than one voice and the formula would,
therefore, break down. This question will always
have to be decided by the Court and in doing so, the
Court may have to enquire whether the practice in
question is religious in character and if it is, whether
it can be regarded as an integral or essential part of
the religion, and the finding of the Court on such an
issue will always depend upon the evidence
adduced before it as to the conscience of the
community and the tenets of its religion. It is in the
32
light of this possible complication which may arise in
some cases that this Court struck a note of caution
in the case of The Durgah Committee Ajmer v. Syed
Hussain Ali [(1962) 1 SCR 383, 411], and observed
that in order that the practices in question should be
treated as a part of religion they must be regarded
by the said religion as its essential and integral part;

otherwise even purely secular practices which are
not an essential or an integral part of religion are apt
to be clothed with a religious form and may make a
claim for being treated as religious practices within
the meaning of Art. 25(1).

In this connection, it cannot be ignored that what is
protected under Arts. 25(1) and 26(b) respectively
are the religious practices and the right to manage
affairs in matters of religion. If the practice in
question is purely secular or the affair which is
controlled by the statute is essentially and
absolutely secular in character, it cannot be urged
that Art. 25(1) or Art. 26(b) has been contravened.
The protection is given to the practice of religion and
to the denomination‘s right to manage its own affairs
in matters of religion. Therefore, whenever a claim is
made on behalf of an individual citizen that the
impugned statute contravenes his fundamental right
to practise religion or a claim is made on behalf of
the denomination that the fundamental right
guaranteed to it to manage its own affairs in matters
of religion is contravened, it is necessary to consider
whether the practice in question is religious or the
affairs in respect of which the right of management
is alleged to have been contravened are affairs in
matters of religion. If the practice is a religious
practice or the affairs are the affairs in matter of
religion, then, of course, the rights guaranteed by
Art. 25(1) and Art. 26(b) cannot be contravened.

33
It is true that the decision of the question as to
whether a certain practice is a religious practice or
not, as well as the question as to whether an affair
in question is an affair in matters of religion or not,
may present difficulties because sometimes
practices, religious and secular, are inextricably
mixed up. This is more particularly so in regard to
Hindu religion because as is well known, under the
provisions of ancient Smritis, all human actions from
birth to death and most of the individual actions from
day-to-day are regarded as religious in character.
As an illustration, we may refer to the fact that the
Smritis regard marriage as a sacrament and not a
contract. Though the task of disengaging the secular
from the religious may not be easy, it must
nevertheless be attempted in dealing with the claims
for protection under Arts 25(1) and 26(b). If the
practice which is protected under the former is a
religious practice, and if the right which is protected
under the latter is the right to manage affairs in
matters of religion, it is necessary that in judging
about the merits of the claim made in that behalf the
Court must be satisfied that the practice is religious
and the affair is in regard to a matter of religion. In
dealing with this problem under Arts. 25(1) and
26(b), Latham C.J.‘s observation in Adelaide
Company of Jehovah’s Witnesses Incorporated v.
The Commonwealth [67 CLR 116, 123], that ―what
is religion to one is superstition to another‖, on
which Mr. Pathak relies, is of no relevance. If an
obviously secular matter is claimed to be matter of
religion, or if an obviously secular practice is alleged
to be a religious practice, the Court would be
justified in rejecting the claim because the protection
guaranteed by Art. 25(1) and Art. 26(b) cannot be
extended to secular practices and affairs in regard
to denominational matters which are not matters of
religion, and so, a claim made by a citizen that a
purely secular matter amounts to a religious
34
practice, or a similar claim made on behalf of the
denomination that a purely secular matter is an
affair in matters of religion, may have to be rejected
on the ground that it is based on irrational
considerations and cannot attract the provisions of
Art. 25(1) or Art 26(b). This aspect of the matter
must be borne in mind in dealing with the true scope
and effect of Art. 25(1) and Art. 26(b).‖
(at pp. 620-623)

12. In Seshammal and Ors. v. State of Tamil Nadu, (1972) 2

SCC 11, the validity of the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable

Endowments (Amendment) Act, 1970 was questioned by hereditary

Archakas and Mathadhipatis of some ancient temples of Tamil Nadu,

as the Amendment Act did away with the hereditary right of succession

to the office of Archaka even if the Archaka was otherwise qualified.

This Court repelled such challenge but in doing so, spoke of the

importance of the consecration of an idol in a Hindu temple and the

rituals connected therewith, as follows:

―11. ……… On the consecration of the image in the
temple the Hindu worshippers believe that the
Divine Spirit has descended into the image and from
then on the image of the deity is fit to be
worshipped. Rules with regard to daily and
periodical worship have been laid down for securing
the continuance of the Divine Spirit. The rituals have
a two-fold object. One is to attract the lay
worshipper to participate in the worship carried on
35
by the priest or Archaka. It is believed that when a
congregation of worshippers participates in the
worship a particular attitude of aspiration and
devotion is developed and confers great spiritual
benefit. The second object is to preserve the image
from pollution, defilement or desecration. It is part of
the religious belief of a Hindu worshipper that when
the image is polluted or defiled the Divine Spirit in
the image diminishes or even vanishes. That is a
situation which every devotee or worshipper looks
upon with horror. Pollution or defilement may take
place in a variety of ways. According to the Agamas,
an image becomes defiled if there is any departure
or violation of any of the rules relating to worship. In
fact, purificatory ceremonies have to be performed
for restoring the sanctity of the shrine [1958 SCR
895 (910)]. Worshippers lay great store by the
rituals and whatever other people, not of the faith,
may think about these rituals and ceremonies, they
are a part of the Hindu religious faith and cannot be
dismissed as either irrational or superstitious.‖

Ultimately, it was held that since the appointment of an Archaka is a

secular act, the Amendment Act must be regarded as valid.

13. We now come to a very important judgment contained in Rev.

Stainislaus v. State of Madhya Pradesh and Ors., (1977) 2 SCR

611. This judgment dealt with the constitutional validity of the Madhya

Pradesh Dharma Swatantraya Adhiniyam, 1968 and the Orissa

Freedom of Religion Act, 1967, both of which statutes were upheld by

the Court stating that they fall within the exception of ―public order‖ as
36
both of them prohibit conversion from one religion to another by use of

force, allurement, or other fraudulent means. In an instructive passage,

this Court turned down the argument on behalf of the appellants that

the word ―propagate‖ in Article 25(1) would include conversion. The

Court held:

―We have no doubt that it is in this sense that the
word ‗propagate‘ has been used in Article 25(1), for
what the Article grants is not the right to convert
another person to one’s own religion, but to transmit
or spread one’s religion by an exposition of its
tenets. It has to be remembered that Article 25(1)
guarantees ―freedom of conscience‖ to every citizen,
and not merely to the followers of one particular
religion, and that, in turn, postulates that there is no
fundamental right to convert another person to one‘s
own religion because if a person purposely
undertakes the conversion of another person to his
religion, as distinguished from his effort to transmit
or spread the tenets of his religion, that would
impinge on the ―freedom of conscience‖ guaranteed
to all the citizens of the country alike.

The meaning of guarantee under Article 25 of the
Constitution came up for consideration in this Court
in Ratilal Panachand Gandhi v. The State of
Bombay Ors. [1954 SCR 1055, 1062-63] and it
was held as follows:

―Thus, subject to the restrictions which this
Article imposes, every person has a
fundamental right under our Constitution
not merely to entertain such religious belief
as may be approved of by his judgment or
37
conscience but to exhibit his belief and
ideas in such overt acts as are enjoined or
sanctioned by his religion and further to
propagate his religious views for the
edification of others.‖

This Court has given the correct meaning of the
Article, and we find no justification for the view that it
grants a fundamental right to convert persons to
one’s own religion. It has to be appreciated that the
freedom of religion enshrined in the Article is not
guaranteed in respect of one religion only, but
covers all religions alike, and it can be properly
enjoyed by a person if he exercises his right in a
manner commensurate with the like freedom of
persons following the other religions. What is
freedom for one, is freedom for the other, in equal
measure, and there can therefore be no such thing
as a fundamental right to convert any person to
one’s own religion.‖
(at pp. 616-617)

14. In S.P. Mittal v. Union of India and Ors., (1983) 1 SCC 51,

(―S.P. Mittal‖), this Court upheld the constitutional validity of the

Auroville (Emergency Provisions) Act, 1980. After referring to Shirur

Math (supra) and Durgah Committee (supra), the Court laid down

three tests for determining whether a temple could be considered to be

a religious denomination as follows:

―80. The words ‗religious denomination‘ in Article 26
of the Constitution must take their colour from the
word ‗religion‘ and if this be so, the expression
38
‗religious denomination‘ must also satisfy three
conditions:

―(1) It must be a collection of individuals who
have a system of beliefs or doctrines which they
regard as conducive to their spiritual well-being,
that is, a common faith;

(2) common organization; and
(3) designation by a distinctive name.‖

A reference was made to Rule 9 of the Rules and Regulations of the

Sri Aurobindo Society, and to an important argument made, that to be

a religious denomination, the person who is a member of the

denomination should belong to the religion professed by the

denomination and should give up his previous religion. The argument

was referred to in paragraph 106 as follows:

―106. Reference was made to Rule 9 of the Rules
and Regulations of Sri Aurobindo Society, which
deals with membership of the Society and provides:

―9. Any person or institution or organisation
either in India or abroad who subscribes to the
aims and objects of the Society, and whose
application for membership is approved by the
Executive Committee, will be member of the
Society. The membership is open to people
everywhere without any distinction of
nationality, religion, caste, creed or sex.‖

The only condition for membership is that the
person seeking the membership of the Society must
subscribe to the aims and objects of the Society. It
39
was further urged that what is universal cannot be a
religious denomination. In order to constitute a
separate denomination, there must be something
distinct from another. A denomination argues the
counsel, is one which is different from the other and
if the Society was a religious denomination, then the
person seeking admission to the institution would
lose his previous religion. He cannot be a member
of two religions at one and the same time. But this is
not the position in becoming a member of the
Society and Auroville. A religious denomination
must necessarily be a new one and new
methodology must be provided for a religion.

Substantially, the view taken by Sri Aurobindo
remains a part of the Hindu philosophy. There may
be certain innovations in his philosophy but that
would not make it a religion on that account.‖

After referring to the arguments of both sides, the Court did not answer

the question as to whether the Sri Aurobindo Society was a religious

denomination, but proceeded on the assumption that it was, and then

held that the Act did not violate either Article 25 or Article 26.

In a separate opinion by Chinnappa Reddy, J., without adverting to the

argument contained in paragraph 106 of Misra, J.‘s judgment, the

learned Judge concluded that ―Aurobindoism‖ could be classified as a

new sect of Hinduism and the followers of Sri Aurobindo could,

therefore, be termed as a religious denomination. This was done

despite the fact that Sri Aurobindo himself disclaimed that he was
40
founding a new religion and that the Society had represented itself as

a ―non-political, non-religious organization‖ and claimed exemption

from income tax on the ground that it was engaged in educational,

cultural, and scientific research.

15. We then come to Acharya Jagdishwaranand Avadhuta and

Ors. v. Commissioner of Police, Calcutta and Anr., (1983) 4 SCC

522. This judgment concerned itself with whether ―Ananda Marga‖ is a

separate religious denomination. After referring to the tests laid down

in Shirur Math (supra), Durgah Committee (supra), and S.P. Mittal

(supra), this Court held that Ananda Margis belong to the Hindu

religion, more specifically, being Shaivites, and therefore, could be

held to be persons who satisfy all three tests – namely, that they are a

collection of individuals who have a system of beliefs which they

regard as conducive to their spiritual well-being; they have a common

organization; and a distinctive name. In holding that the Tandava

dance cannot be taken to be an essential religious right of the Anand

Margis, this Court in paragraph 14 held:

―14. The question for consideration now, therefore,
is whether performance of Tandava dance is a
religious rite or practice essential to the tenets of the
41
religious faith of the Ananda Margis. We have
already indicated that Tandava dance was not
accepted as an essential religious rite of Ananda
Margis when in 1955 the Ananda Marga order was
first established. It is the specific case of the
petitioner that Shri Ananda Murti introduced
Tandava as a part of religious rites of Ananda
Margis later in 1966. Ananda Marga as a religious
order is of recent origin and Tandava dance as a
part of religious rites of that order is still more
recent. It is doubtful as to whether in such
circumstances Tandava dance can be taken as an
essential religious rite of the Ananda Margis. Even
conceding that it is so, it is difficult to accept Mr.
Tarkunde‘s argument that taking out religious
processions with Tandava dance is an essential
religious rite of Ananda Margis. In paragraph 17 of
the writ petition the petitioner pleaded that ―Tandava
dance lasts for a few minutes where two or three
persons dance by lifting one leg to the level of the
chest, bringing it down and lifting the other‖. In
paragraph 18 it has been pleaded that ―when the
Ananda Margis greet their spiritual preceptor at the
airport, etc., they arrange for a brief welcome dance
of Tandava wherein one or two persons use the
skull and symbolic knife and dance for two or three
minutes‖. In paragraph 26 it has been pleaded that
―Tandava is a custom among the sect members and
it is a customary performance and its origin is over
four thousand years old, hence it is not a new
invention of Ananda Margis‖. On the basis of the
literature of the Ananda Marga denomination it has
been contended that there is prescription of the
performance of Tandava dance by every follower of
Ananda Marga. Even conceding that Tandava
dance has been prescribed as a religious rite for
every follower of the Ananda Marga it does not
follow as a necessary corollary that Tandava dance
to be performed in the public is a matter of religious
42
rite. In fact, there is no justification in any of the
writings of Sri Ananda Murti that Tandava dance
must be performed in public. At least none could be
shown to us by Mr. Tarkunde despite an enquiry by
us in that behalf. We are, therefore, not in a position
to accept the contention of Mr. Tarkunde that
performance of Tandava dance in a procession or at
public places is an essential religious rite to be
performed by every Ananda Margi.‖

16. In Sri Adi Visheshwara of Kashi Vishwanath Temple,

Varanasi and Ors. v. State of U.P. and Ors., (1997) 4 SCC 606, (―Sri

Adi Visheshwara‖), this Court upheld the constitutional validity of the

Uttar Pradesh Sri Kashi Vishwanath Temple Act, 1983. In so doing,

they referred to the tests of a religious denomination laid down in the

previous judgments of this Court, and then held:

―33. Thus, it could be seen that every Hindu whether
a believer of Shaiva form of worship or of
panchratna form of worship, has a right of entry into
the Hindu Temple and worship the deity. Therefore,
the Hindu believers of Shaiva form of worship are
not denominational worshippers. They are part of
the Hindu religious form of worship. The Act protects
the right to perform worship, rituals or ceremonies in
accordance with established customs and practices.

Every Hindu has right to enter the Temple, touch the
Linga of Lord Sri Vishwanath and himself perform
the pooja. The State is required under the Act to
protect the religious practices of the Hindu form of
worship of Lord Vishwanath, be it in any form, in
accordance with Hindu Shastras, the customs or
usages obtained in the Temple. It is not restricted to
43
any particular denomination or sect. Believers of
Shaiva form of worship are not a denominational
sect or a section of Hindus but they are Hindus as
such. They are entitled to the protection under
Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution. However,
they are not entitled to the protection, in particular,
of clauses (b) and (d) of Article 26 as a religious
denomination in the matter of management,
administration and governance of the temples under
the Act. The Act, therefore, is not ultra vires Articles
25 and 26 of the Constitution.‖
(emphasis supplied)

17. In N. Adithayan v. Travancore Devaswom Board and Ors.,

(2002) 8 SCC 106, this Court held the appointment of a person who is

not a Malayala Brahmin as a Pujari or priest of a temple in Kerala as

constitutionally valid. After referring to various authorities of this Court,

this Court held:

―16. It is now well settled that Article 25 secures to
every person, subject of course to public order,
health and morality and other provisions of Part III,
including Article 17 freedom to entertain and exhibit
by outward acts as well as propagate and
disseminate such religious belief according to his
judgment and conscience for the edification of
others. The right of the State to impose such
restrictions as are desired or found necessary on
grounds of public order, health and morality is inbuilt
in Articles 25 and 26 itself. Article 25(2)(b) ensures
the right of the State to make a law providing for
social welfare and reform besides throwing open of
Hindu religious institutions of a public character to
all classes and sections of Hindus and any such
44
rights of the State or of the communities or classes
of society were also considered to need due
regulation in the process of harmonizing the various
rights. The vision of the founding fathers of the
Constitution to liberate the society from blind and
ritualistic adherence to mere traditional superstitious
beliefs sans reason or rational basis has found
expression in the form of Article 17. The legal
position that the protection under Articles 25 and 26
extends a guarantee for rituals and observances,
ceremonies and modes of worship which are
integral parts of religion and as to what really
constitutes an essential part of religion or religious
practice has to be decided by the courts with
reference to the doctrine of a particular religion or
practices regarded as parts of religion, came to be
equally firmly laid down.

17. Where a temple has been constructed and
consecrated as per Agamas, it is considered
necessary to perform the daily rituals, poojas and
recitations as required to maintain the sanctity of the
idol and it is not that in respect of any and every
temple any such uniform rigour of rituals can be
sought to be enforced, dehors its origin, the manner
of construction or method of consecration. No doubt
only a qualified person well versed and properly
trained for the purpose alone can perform poojas in
the temple since he has not only to enter into the
sanctum sanctorum but also touch the idol installed
therein. It therefore goes without saying that what is
required and expected of one to perform the rituals
and conduct poojas is to know the rituals to be
performed and mantras, as necessary, to be recited
for the particular deity and the method of worship
ordained or fixed therefor. For example, in Saivite
temples or Vaishnavite temples, only a person who
learnt the necessary rites and mantras conducive to
be performed and recited in the respective temples
45
and appropriate to the worship of the particular deity
could be engaged as an Archaka. If traditionally or
conventionally, in any temple, all along a Brahmin
alone was conducting poojas or performing the job
of Santhikaran, it may not be because a person
other than the Brahmin is prohibited from doing so
because he is not a Brahmin, but those others were
not in a position and, as a matter of fact, were
prohibited from learning, reciting or mastering Vedic
literature, rites or performance of rituals and wearing
sacred thread by getting initiated into the order and
thereby acquire the right to perform homa and
ritualistic forms of worship in public or private
temples. Consequently, there is no justification to
insist that a Brahmin or Malayala Brahmin in this
case, alone can perform the rites and rituals in the
temple, as part of the rights and freedom
guaranteed under Article 25 of the Constitution and
further claim that any deviation would tantamount to
violation of any such guarantee under the
Constitution. There can be no claim based upon
Article 26 so far as the Temple under our
consideration is concerned. Apart from this principle
enunciated above, as long as anyone well versed
and properly trained and qualified to perform the
pooja in a manner conducive and appropriate to the
worship of the particular deity, is appointed as
Santhikaran dehors his pedigree based on caste, no
valid or legally justifiable grievance can be made in
a court of law. There has been no proper plea or
sufficient proof also in this case of any specific
custom or usage specially created by the founder of
the Temple or those who have the exclusive right to
administer the affairs — religious or secular of the
Temple in question, leave alone the legality,
propriety and validity of the same in the changed
legal position brought about by the Constitution and
the law enacted by Parliament. The Temple also
does not belong to any denominational category
46
with any specialized form of worship peculiar to
such denomination or to its credit. For the said
reason, it becomes, in a sense, even unnecessary
to pronounce upon the invalidity of any such
practice being violative of the constitutional mandate
contained in Articles 14 to 17 and 21 of the
Constitution of India.‖

Finally, this Court held:

―18. ……… Any custom or usage irrespective of
even any proof of their existence in pre-

constitutional days cannot be countenanced as a
source of law to claim any rights when it is found to
violate human rights, dignity, social equality and the
specific mandate of the Constitution and law made
by Parliament. No usage which is found to be
pernicious and considered to be in derogation of the
law of the land or opposed to public policy or social
decency can be accepted or upheld by courts in the
country.‖

18. In Dr. Subramanian Swamy v. State of Tamil Nadu and Ors.,

(2014) 5 SCC 75, this Court dealt with the claim by Podhu Dikshitars

(Smarthi Brahmins) to administer the properties of a temple dedicated

to Lord Natraja at the Sri Sabanayagar Temple at Chidambaram. This

Court noticed, in paragraph 24, that the rights conferred under Article

26 are not subject to other provisions of Part III of the Constitution. It

then went on to extract a portion of the Division Bench judgment of the

Madras High Court, which held that the Podhu Dikshitars constitute a

47
religious denomination, or in any event, a section thereof, because

they are a closed body, and because no other Smartha Brahmin who

is not a Dikshitar is entitled to participate in either the administration or

in the worship of God. This is their exclusive and sole privilege which

has been recognized and established for several centuries. Another

interesting observation of this Court was that fundamental rights

protected under Article 26 cannot be waived. Thus, the power to

supersede the administration of a religious denomination, if only for a

certain purpose and for a limited duration, will have to be read as

regulatory, otherwise, it will violate the fundamental right contained in

Article 26.

19. In Riju Prasad Sarma and Ors. v. State of Assam and Ors.,

(2015) 9 SCC 461, this Court dealt with customs based on religious

faith which dealt with families of priests of a temple called the Maa

Kamakhya Temple. After discussing some of the judgments of this

Court, a Division Bench of this Court held:

―61. There is no need to go into all the case laws in
respect of Articles 25 and 26 because by now it is
well settled that Article 25(2)(a) and Article 26(b)
guaranteeing the right to every religious
denomination to manage its own affairs in matters of
48
religion are subject to and can be controlled by a
law contemplated under Article 25(2)(b) as both the
Articles are required to be read harmoniously. It is
also well established that social reforms or the need
for regulations contemplated by Article 25(2) cannot
obliterate essential religious practices or their
performances and what would constitute the
essential part of a religion can be ascertained with
reference to the doctrine of that religion itself. In
support of the aforesaid established propositions,
the respondents have referred to and relied upon
the judgment in Commr., Hindu Religious
Endowments v. Sri Lakshmindra Thirtha Swamiar of
Sri Shirur Mutt [AIR 1954 SC 282 : 1954 SCR 1005]
and also upon Sri Venkataramana Devaru v. State
of Mysore [AIR 1958 SC 255 : 1958 SCR 895].‖

The observation that regulations contemplated by Article 25 cannot

obliterate essential religious practices is understandable as regulations

are not restrictions. However, social reform legislation, as has been

seen above, may go to the extent of trumping religious practice, if so

found on the facts of a given case. Equally, the task of carrying out

reform affecting religious belief is left by Article 25(2) in the hands of

the State (See paragraph 66).

20. In Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal Nala Sangam and Ors. v.

Government of Tamil Nadu and Anr., (2016) 2 SCC 725, (―Adi

Saiva Sivachariyargal Nala Sangam‖), this Court was concerned

49
with a Government Order issued by the Government of Tamil Nadu,

which stated that any person who is a Hindu and possesses the

requisite qualification and training, can be appointed as an Archaka in

Hindu temples. The Court referred to Article 16(5) of the Constitution,

stating that the exception carved out of the equality principle would

cover an office of the temple, which also requires performance of

religious functions. Therefore, an Archaka may, by law, be a person

professing a particular religion or belonging to a particular

denomination. The Court went on to hold that although what

constitutes essential religious practice must be decided with reference

to what the religious community itself says, yet, the ultimate

constitutional arbiter of what constitutes essential religious practice

must be the Court, which is a matter of constitutional necessity. The

Court went on to state that constitutional legitimacy, as decided by the

Courts, must supersede all religious beliefs and practices, and clarified

that ―complete autonomy‖, as contemplated by Shirur Math (supra), of

a denomination to decide what constitutes essential religious practice

must be viewed in the context of the limited role of the State in matters

relating to religious freedom as envisaged by Articles 25 and 26 of the

50
Constitution, and not of Courts as the arbiter of constitutional rights

and principles.

21. A conspectus of these judgments, therefore, leads to the

following propositions:

21.1. Article 25 recognises a fundamental right in favour of ―all

persons‖ which has reference to natural persons.

21.2. This fundamental right equally entitles all such persons to the

said fundamental right. Every member of a religious community has a

right to practice the religion so long as he does not, in any way,

interfere with the corresponding right of his co-religionists to do the

same.

21.3. The content of the fundamental right is the fleshing out of what

is stated in the Preamble to the Constitution as ―liberty of thought,

belief, faith and worship‖. Thus, all persons are entitled to freedom of

conscience and the right to freely profess, practice, and propagate

religion.

21.4. The right to profess, practice, and propagate religion will include

all acts done in furtherance of thought, belief, faith, and worship.
51
21.5. The content of the right concerns itself with the word ―religion‖.

―Religion‖ in this Article would mean matters of faith with individuals or

communities, based on a system of beliefs or doctrines which conduce

to spiritual well-being. The aforesaid does not have to be theistic but

can include persons who are agnostics and atheists.

21.6. It is only the essential part of religion, as distinguished from

secular activities, that is the subject matter of the fundamental right.

Superstitious beliefs which are extraneous, unnecessary accretions to

religion cannot be considered as essential parts of religion. Matters

that are essential to religious faith and/or belief are to be judged on

evidence before a court of law by what the community professing the

religion itself has to say as to the essentiality of such belief. One test

that has been evolved would be to remove the particular belief stated

to be an essential belief from the religion – would the religion remain

the same or would it be altered? Equally, if different groups of a

religious community speak with different voices on the essentiality

aspect presented before the Court, the Court is then to decide as to

whether such matter is or is not essential. Religious activities may also

be mixed up with secular activities, in which case the dominant nature

52
of the activity test is to be applied. The Court should take a common-

sense view and be actuated by considerations of practical necessity.

21.7. The exceptions to this individual right are public order, morality,

and health. ―Public order‖ is to be distinguished from ―law and order‖.

―Public disorder‖ must affect the public at large as opposed to certain

individuals. A disturbance of public order must cause a general

disturbance of public tranquility. The term ―morality‖ is difficult to

define. For the present, suffice it to say that it refers to that which is

considered abhorrent to civilized society, given the mores of the time,

by reason of harm caused by way, inter alia, of exploitation or

degradation.2 ―Health‖ would include noise pollution and the control of

disease.

21.8. Another exception to the fundamental right conferred by Article

25(1) is the rights that are conferred on others by the other provisions

of Part III. This would show that if one were to propagate one‘s religion

2
We were invited by the learned Amicus Curiae, Shri Raju Ramachandran, to read the word ―morality‖ as
being ―constitutional morality‖ as has been explained in some of our recent judgments. If so read, it
cannot be forgotten that this would bring in, through the back door, the other provisions of Part III of the
Constitution, which Article 26 is not subject to, in contrast with Article 25(1). In any case, the
fundamental right under Article 26 will have to be balanced with the rights of others contained in Part III
as a matter of harmonious construction of these rights as was held in Sri Venkataramana Devaru
(supra). But this would only be on a case to case basis, without necessarily subjecting the fundamental
right under Article 26 to other fundamental rights contained in Part III.

53

in such a manner as to convert a person of another religious faith,

such conversion would clash with the other person‘s right to freedom

of conscience and would, therefore, be interdicted. Where the practice

of religion is interfered with by the State, Articles 14, 15(1), 19, and 21

would spring into action. Where the practice of religion is interfered

with by non-State actors, Article 15(2) and Article 173 would spring into

action.

21.9. Article 25(2) is also an exception to Article 25(1), which speaks

of the State making laws which may regulate or restrict secular activity,

which includes economic, financial or political activity, which may be

associated with religious practice – see Article 25(2)(a).

21.10. Another exception is provided under Article 25(2)(b) which is in

two parts. Any law providing for social welfare and reform in a religious

community can also affect and/or take away the fundamental right

granted under Article 25(1). A further exception is provided only insofar

as persons professing the Hindu religion are concerned, which is to

3
We were invited by the learned Amicus Curiae, Shri Raju Ramachandran, to construe Article 17 in wider
terms than merely including those who were historically untouchables at the time of framing of the
Constitution. We have refrained from doing so because, given our conclusion, based on Article 25(1),
this would not directly arise for decision on the facts of this case.

54
throw open all Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all

classes and sections of Hindus.

21.11. Contrasted with the fundamental right in Article 25(1) is the

fundamental right granted by Article 26. This fundamental right is not

granted to individuals but to religious denominations or sections

thereof. A religious denomination or section thereof is to be

determined on the basis of persons having a common faith, a common

organization, and designated by a distinct name as a denomination or

section thereof. Believers of a particular religion are to be

distinguished from denominational worshippers. Thus, Hindu believers

of the Shaivite and Vaishnavite form of worship are not denominational

worshippers but part of the general Hindu religious form of worship.

21.12. Four separate and distinct rights are given by Article 26 to

religious denominations or sections thereof, namely:

―(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.‖

55
As in Article 25, it is only essential religious matters which are

protected by this Article.

21.13. The fundamental right granted under Article 26 is subject to the

exception of public order, morality, and health. However, since the

right granted under Article 26 is to be harmoniously construed with

Article 25(2)(b), the right to manage its own affairs in matters of

religion granted by Article 26(b), in particular, will be subject to laws

made under Article 25(2)(b) which throw open religious institutions of a

public character to all classes and sections of Hindus.

21.14. Thus, it is clear that even though the entry of persons into a

Hindu temple of a public character would pertain to management of its

own affairs in matters of religion, yet such temple entry would be

subject to a law throwing open a Hindu religious institution of a public

character owned and managed by a religious denomination or section

thereof to all classes or sections of Hindus. However, religious

practices by the religious denomination or section thereof, which do

not have the effect of either a complete ban on temple entry of certain

persons, or are otherwise not discriminatory, may pass muster under

Article 26(b). Examples of such practices are that only certain qualified

56
persons are allowed to enter the sanctum sanctorum of a temple, or

time management of a temple in which all persons are shut out for

certain periods.

22. At this stage, it is important to advert to a Division Bench

judgment of the Kerala High Court reported as S. Mahendran v. The

Secretary, Travancore Devaswom Board, Thiruvananthapuram

and Ors., AIR 1993 Ker 42. A petition filed by Shri S. Mahendran was

converted into a PIL by the High Court. The petition complained of

young women offering prayers at the Sabarimala Temple. The Division

Bench set out three questions that arose, as follows:

―12. The questions which require answers in this
original petition are:

(1) Whether woman [sic women] of the age
group 10 to 50 can be permitted to enter the
Sabarimala temple at any period of the year or
during any of the festivals or poojas conducted
in the temple.

(2) Whether the denial of entry of that class of
woman [sic women] amounts to discrimination
and [sic is] violative of Articles 15, 25 and 26 of
the Constitution of India, and
(3) Whether directions can be issued by this
Court to the Devaswom Board and the
Government of Kerala to restrict the entry of
such woman [sic women] to the temple?‖
57
The Division Bench referred to the all-important ―Vratham‖ (41-day

penance), which, according to the Division Bench, ladies between the

ages of 10 and 50 would not be physically capable of observing. In

paragraph 7, the Division Bench stated that while the old customs

prevailed, women did visit the temple, though rarely, as a result of

which, there was no prohibition. The affidavit filed on behalf of the

Travancore Devaswom Board stated that, even in recent years, many

female worshippers in the age group of 10 to 50 had gone to the

temple for the first rice-feeding ceremony of their children. The Board,

in fact, used to issue receipts on such occasions on payment of the

prescribed charge. However, on the advice of the priest i.e. the

Thanthri, changes were effected in order to preserve the temple‘s

sanctity. The Division Bench found that women, irrespective of their

age, were allowed to visit the temple when it opens for monthly poojas,

but were not permitted to enter the temple during Mandalam,

Makaravilakku, and Vishu seasons. After examining the evidence of

one Thanthri, the Secretary of the Ayyappa Seva Sangham, and a 75-

year old man who had personal knowledge of worshipping at the

temple, the Division Bench stated that the usage of not permitting
58
women between the age group of 10 to 50 to worship in the temple

had been established. This was further sanctified by Devaprasnams

conducted at Sabarimala by astrologers, who reported that the deity

does not like young ladies entering the precincts of the temple. It was

then held in paragraph 38 that since women of the age group of 10 to

50 years would not be able to observe Vratham for a period of 41 days

due to physiological reasons, they were not permitted to go on a

pilgrimage of Sabarimala. It was also held that the deity is in the form

of a Naisthik Brahmachari, as a result of which, young women should

not offer worship in the temple, so that even the slightest deviation

from celibacy and austerity observed by the deity is not caused by the

presence of such women. The conclusion of the Division Bench in

paragraph 44 was, therefore, as follows:

―44. Our conclusions are as follows:

(1) The restriction imposed on women aged
above 10 and below 50 from trekking the holy
hills of Sabarimala and offering worship at
Sabarimala Shrine is in accordance with the
usage prevalent from time immemorial.

(2) Such restriction imposed by the Devaswom
Board is not violative of Articles 15, 25 and 26
of the Constitution of India.

59

(3) Such restriction is also not violative of the
provisions of Hindu Place of Public Worship
(Authorisation of Entry) Act, 1965 since there is
no restriction between one section and another
section or between one class and another class
among the Hindus in the matter of entry to a
temple whereas the prohibition is only in
respect of women of a particular age group and
not women as a class.‖

23. In the present writ petition filed before this Court, an affidavit

filed by a Thanthri of the Sabarimala temple dated 23.04.2016 makes

interesting reading. According to the affidavit, two Brahmin brothers

from Andhra Pradesh were tested by Sage Parasuram and were

named ―Tharanam‖ and ―Thazhamon‖. The present Thanthri is a

descendant of the Thazhamon brother, who is authorized to perform

rituals in Sastha temples. The affidavit then refers to the Sabarimala

Temple, which is dedicated to Lord Ayyappa, as a prominent temple in

Kerala which is visited by over twenty million pilgrims and devotees

every year. The temple is only open during the first five days of every

Malayalam month, and during the festivals of Mandalam,

Makaravilakku, and Vishu. Significantly, no daily poojas are performed

in the said temple. It is stated in the affidavit that Lord Ayyappa had

himself explained that the pilgrimage to Sabarimala can be undertaken

60
only by the performance of Vratham, which are religious austerities

that train man for evolution to spiritual consciousness.

Paragraph 10 of the affidavit is important and states as follows:-

―10. I submit that as part of observing ―vrutham‖, the
person going on pilgrimage to Sabarimala separates
himself from all family ties and becomes a student
celibate who is under Shastras banned any contact
with females of the fertile age group. Everywhere
when somebody takes on the ―vrutham‖, either the
women leave the house and take up residence
elsewhere or the men separate themselves from the
family so that normal Asauchas in the house do not
affect his ―vrutham‖. The problem with women is
that they cannot complete the 41 days vrutham
because the Asaucham of periods will surely fall
within the 41 days. It is not a mere physiological
phenomenon. It is the custom among all Hindus
that women during periods do not go to Temples or
participate in religious activity. This is as per the
statement of the basic Thantric text of Temple
worshipping in Kerala Thanthra Samuchayam,
Chapter 10, Verse II. A true copy of the relevant
page of Thanthra Samuchchaya is attached
herewith and marked as Annexure A-1 (Pages 30-

31).‖

The affidavit then goes on to state that the Shastras forbid religious

austerity by menstruating women, which is why women above the age

of 10 and below the age of 50 are not allowed entering into the temple.

The affidavit then states, in paragraph 15:

61
―15. ……… During this period, many women are
affected by physical discomforts like headache,
body pain, vomiting sensation etc. In such
circumstances, intense and chaste spiritual
disciplines for forty-one days are not possible. It is
for the sake of pilgrims who practiced celibacy that
youthful women are not allowed in the Sabarimala
pilgrimage. ………‖

The other reason given in the affidavit for the usage of non-entry of

women between these ages is as follows:

―24. That the deity at Sabarimala is in the form of a
‗Naishtik Brahmachari‘ and that is the reason why
young women are not permitted to offer prayers in
the temple as the slightest deviation from celibacy
and austerity observed by the deity is not caused by
the presence of such women. ………‖

It will thus be seen that women are barred entry to the temple at

Sabarimala because of the biological or physiological phenomenon of

menstruation, which forbids their participation in religious activity. The

second reason given is that young women should not, in any manner,

deflect the deity, who is in the form of a Naisthika Brahmachari, from

celibacy and austerity.

24. All the older religions speak of the phenomenon of menstruation

in women as being impure, which therefore, forbids their participation

62
in religious activity. Thus, in the Old Testament, in Chapter 15, Verse

19 of the book of Leviticus, it is stated:

―19. And if a woman have an issue, and her issue in
her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven
days: and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean
until the even.‖4

Similarly, in the Dharmasutra of Vasistha, an interesting legend of how

women were made to menstruate is stated as follows:

―A menstruating woman remains impure for three
days. She should not apply collyrium on her eyes or
oil on her body, or bathe in water; she should sleep
on the floor and not sleep during the day; she
should not touch the fire, make a rope, brush her
teeth, eat meat, or look at the planets; she should
not laugh, do any work, or run; and she should drink
out of a large pot or from her cupped hands or a
copper vessel. For it is stated: ‗Indra, after he had
killed the three-headed son of Tvastr, was seized by
sin, and he regarded himself in this manner: ―An
exceedingly great guilt attaches to me‖. And all
creatures railed against him: ―Brahmin-killer!
Brahmin-killer!‖ He ran to the women and said:

―Take over one-third of this my guilt of killing a
Brahmin.‖ They asked: ―What will we get?‖ He
replied: ―Make a wish.‖ They said: ―Let us obtain
offspring during our season, and let us enjoy sexual
intercourse freely until we give birth.‖ He replied: ―So
be it!‖ And they took the guilt upon themselves. That
guilt of killing a Brahmin manifests itself every

4
Leviticus 15:19 (King James Version).

63

month. Therefore, one should not eat the food of a
menstruating woman, for such a woman has put on
the aspect of the guilt of killing a Brahmin‘.‖5

To similar effect are Chapters 9 and 13 of Canto 6 of the Bhagavata

Purana which read as follows:

―6.9.9. In return for Lord Indra‘s benediction that
they would be able to enjoy lusty desires
continuously, even during pregnancy for as long as
sex is not injurious to the embryo, women accepted
one fourth of the sinful reactions. As a result of
those reactions, women manifest the signs of
menstruation every month.‖6
―6.13.5. King Indra replied: When I killed Visvarupa,
I received extensive sinful reactions, but I was
favored by the women, land, trees and water, and
therefore I was able to divide the sin among them.

But now if I kill Vrtrasura, another brahmana, how
shall I free myself from the sinful reactions?‖7

Also, in the Qur‘an, Chapter 2, Verse 222 states as follows:

―222. They also ask you about (the injunctions
concerning) menstruation. Say: ―it is a state of hurt
(and ritual impurity), so keep away from women
during their menstruation and do not approach them
5
DHARMASUTRAS – THE LAW CODES OF APASTAMBA, GAUTAMA, BAUDHAYANA, AND VASISTHA 264
(Translation by Patrick Olivelle, Oxford University Press, 1999).

6

SRIMAD BHAGAVATAM – SIXTH CANTO (Translation by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, The
Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1976).

7

Id.

64
until they are cleansed. When they are cleansed,
then (you can) go to them inasmuch as God has
commanded you (according to the urge He has
placed in your nature, and within the terms He has
enjoined upon you). Surely God loves those who
turn to Him in sincere repentance (of past sins and
errors), and He loves those who cleanse
themselves.‖8

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is said to have cured a woman who was

ritualistically unclean, having had an issue of blood for 12 years, as

follows:

―25. And a certain woman, which had an issue of
blood twelve years,

26. And had suffered many things of many
physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was
nothing bettered, but rather grew worse,

27. When she had heard of Jesus, came in the
press behind, and touched his garment.

28. For she said, If I may touch but his clothes, I
shall be whole.

29. And straightway the fountain of her blood was
dried up; and she felt in her body that she was
healed of that plague.

30. And Jesus, immediately knowing in himself that
virtue had gone out of him, turned him about in the
press, and said, Who touched my clothes?

8

THE QUR‘AN – WITH ANNOTATED INTERPRETATION IN MODERN ENGLISH, 2:222 (Translation by Ali Ünal,
Tughra Books USA, 2015).

65

31. And his disciples said unto him, Thou seest the
multitude thronging thee, and sayest thou, Who
touched me?

32. And he looked round about to see her that had
done this thing.

33. But the woman fearing and trembling, knowing
what was done in her, came and fell down before
him, and told him all the truth.

34. And he said unto her, Daughter, thy faith hath
made thee whole; go in peace, and be whole of thy
plague.‖9

One may immediately notice that the woman touching Jesus was

without Jesus‘s knowledge, for upon coming to know of the woman‘s

touch, Jesus ―knew in himself that virtue had gone out of him‖.

Equally, in the Bundahishn, a text relating to creation in

Zoroastrianism, it is stated that a primeval prostitute call Jeh, because

of her misdeeds, brought upon herself, menstruation. Chapter 3,

Verses 6 to 8 of the Bundahishn are as follows:

―6. And, again, the wicked Jeh shouted thus: ‗Rise
up, thou father of us! for in that conflict I will shed
thus much vexation on the righteous man and the
laboring ox that, through my deeds, life will not be
wanted, and I will destroy their living souls (nismo); I
will vex the water, I will vex the plants, I will vex the

9
Mark 5:25-34 (King James Version).

66

fire of Ohrmazd, I will make the whole creation of
Ohrmazd vexed.‘

7. And she so recounted those evil deeds a second
time, that the evil spirit was delighted and started up
from that confusion; and he kissed Jeh upon the
head, and the pollution which they call menstruation
became apparent in Jeh.

8. He shouted to Jeh thus: ‗What is thy wish? so that
I may give it thee.‘ And Jeh shouted to the evil spirit
thus: ‗A man is the wish, so give it to me.‘‖10

In the selections of Zadspram, Chapter 34, Verse 31, it is stated:

―31. And [the demon Whore] of evil religion joined
herself [to the Blessed Man]; for the defilement of
females she joined herself to him, that she might
defile females; and the females, because they were
defiled, might defile the males, and (the males)
would turn aside from their proper work.‖11

However, in the more recent religions such as Sikhism and the Bahá‘í

Faith, a more pragmatic view of menstruation is taken, making it clear

that no ritualistic impurity is involved. The Sri Guru Granth Sahib

deems menstruation as a natural process – free from impurity12 and

10
THE BUNDAHISHN – ―CREATION‖ OR KNOWLEDGE FROM THE ZAND (Translation by E. W. West, from Sacred
Books of the East, vol. 5, 37, and 46, Oxford University Press, 1880, 1892, and 1897).

11

THE SELECTIONS OF ZADSPRAM (VIZIDAGIHA I ZADSPRAM) (Joseph H. Peterson Ed., 1995) (Translation by
E. W. West, from Sacred Books of the East, vol. 5, 37, and 46, Oxford University Press, 1880, 1892,
and 1897).

12

2 SRI GURU GRANTH SAHIB: ENGLISH TRANSLATION OF THE ORIGINAL TEXT 466-467 (Translation by Dr.
Gopal Singh, Allied Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2005) [which translates Raga Asa, Shaloka Mehla 1 at p. 472
of the original text of Sri Guru Granth Sahib].

67

essential to procreation.13 Similarly, in the Bahá‘í Faith, the concept of

ritual uncleanness has been abolished by Bahá‘u‘lláh.14

25. For the purpose of this case, we have proceeded on the footing

that the reasons given for barring the entry of menstruating women to

the Sabarimala temple are considered by worshippers and Thanthris

alike, to be an essential facet of their belief.

26. The first question that arises is whether the Sabarimala temple

can be said to be a religious denomination for the purpose of Article 26

of the Constitution. We have already seen with reference to the case

law quoted above, that three things are necessary in order to establish

that a particular temple belongs to a religious denomination. The

temple must consist of persons who have a common faith, a common

organization, and are designated by a distinct name. In answer to the

question whether Thanthris and worshippers alike are designated by a

distinct name, we were unable to find any answer. When asked

whether all persons who visit the Sabarimala temple have a common

13
4 SRI GURU GRANTH SAHIB: ENGLISH TRANSLATION OF THE ORIGINAL TEXT 975 (Translation by Dr. Gopal
Singh, Allied Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2005) [which translates Raga Maru, Mehla 1 at p.1022 of the original
text of Sri Guru Granth Sahib].

14

KITÁB-I-AQDAS BY BAHÁ‘U‘LLÁH, note 106 at p. 122 (Translation by Shoghi Effendi, Bahá’í World Centre,
1992).

68
faith, the answer given was that all persons, regardless of caste or

religion, are worshippers at the said temple. From this, it is also clear

that Hindus of all kinds, Muslims, Christians etc., all visit the temple as

worshippers, without, in any manner, ceasing to be Hindus, Christians

or Muslims. They can therefore be regarded, as has been held in Sri

Adi Visheshwara (supra), as Hindus who worship the idol of Lord

Ayyappa as part of the Hindu religious form of worship but not as

denominational worshippers. The same goes for members of other

religious communities. We may remember that in Durgah Committee

(supra), this Court had held that since persons of all religious faiths

visit the Durgah as a place of pilgrimage, it may not be easy to hold

that they constitute a religious denomination or a section thereof.

However, for the purpose of the appeal, they proposed to deal with the

dispute between the parties on the basis that the Chishtia sect, whom

the respondents represented, were a separate religious denomination,

being a sub-sect of Soofies. We may hasten to add that we find no

such thing here. We may also add that in S.P. Mittal (supra), the

majority judgment did not hold, and therefore, assumed that

―Aurobindoism‖ was a religious denomination, given the fact that the

Auroville Foundation Society claimed exemption from income tax on
69
the footing that it was a charitable, and not a religious organization,

and held itself out to be a non-religious organization. Also, the

powerful argument addressed, noticed at paragraph 106 of the

majority judgment, that persons who joined the Auroville Society did

not give up their religion, also added great substance to the fact that

the Auroville Society could not be regarded as a religious

denomination for the purpose of Article 26. Chinnappa Reddy, J.

alone, in dissent, held the Auroville Society to be a religious

denomination, without adverting to the fact that persons who are a part

of the Society continued to adhere to their religion.

27. In these circumstances, we are clearly of the view that there is

no distinctive name given to the worshippers of this particular temple;

there is no common faith in the sense of a belief common to a

particular religion or section thereof; or common organization of the

worshippers of the Sabarimala temple so as to constitute the said

temple into a religious denomination. Also, there are over a thousand

other Ayyappa temples in which the deity is worshipped by practicing

Hindus of all kinds. It is clear, therefore, that Article 26 does not get

attracted to the facts of this case.

70

28. This being the case, even if we assume that there is a custom

or usage for keeping out women of the ages of 10 to 50 from entering

the Sabarimala temple, and that this practice is an essential part of the

Thanthris‘ as well as the worshippers‘ faith, this practice or usage is

clearly hit by Section 3 of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship

(Authorisation of Entry) Act, 1965, which states as follows:

―3. Places of public worship to be open to all section
and classes of Hindus:— Notwithstanding anything
to the contrary contained in any other law for the
time being in force or any custom or usage or any
instrument having effect by virtue of any such law or
any decree or order of court, every place of public
worship which is open to Hindus generally or to any
section or class thereof, shall be open to all sections
and classes of Hindus; and no Hindu of whatsoever
section or class shall, in any manner, be prevented,
obstructed or discouraged from entering such place
of public worship, or from worshipping or offering
prayers thereat, or performing any religious service
therein, in the like manner and to the like extent as
any other Hindu of whatsoever section or class may
enter, worship, pray or perform:

Provided that in the case of a public of public
worship which is a temple founded for the benefit of
any religious denomination or section thereof, the
provisions of this section, shall be subject to the
right of that religious denomination or section as the

71
case may be, to manage its own affairs in matters of
religion.‖

Since the proviso to the Section is not attracted on the facts of this

case, and since the said Act is clearly a measure enacted under Article

25(2)(b), any religious right claimed on the basis of custom and usage

as an essential matter of religious practice under Article 25(1), will be

subject to the aforesaid law made under Article 25(2)(b). The said

custom or usage must therefore, be held to be violative of Section 3

and hence, struck down.

29. Even otherwise, the fundamental right of women between the

ages of 10 and 50 to enter the Sabarimala temple is undoubtedly

recognized by Article 25(1). The fundamental right claimed by the

Thanthris and worshippers of the institution, based on custom and

usage under the selfsame Article 25(1), must necessarily 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 at Sabarimala to worship the idol of

Lord Ayyappa. The argument that all women are not prohibited from

entering the temple can be of no avail, as women between the age

72
group of 10 to 50 are excluded completely. Also, the argument that

such women can worship at the other Ayyappa temples is no answer

to the denial of their fundamental right to practice religion as they see

it, which includes their right to worship at any temple of their choice.

On this ground also, the right to practice religion, as claimed by the

Thanthris and worshippers, must be balanced with and must yield to

the fundamental right of women between the ages of 10 and 50, who

are completely barred from entering the temple at Sabarimala, based

on the biological ground of menstruation.

Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation

of Entry) Rules, 1965 states as follows:

―3. The classes of persons mentioned here under
shall not be entitled to offer worship in any place of
public worship or bath in or use of water of any
sacred tank, well, spring or water course
appurtenant to a place of public worship whether
situate within or outside precincts thereof, or any
sacred place including a hill or hill lock, or a road,
street or pathways which is requisite for obtaining
access to place of public worship:

xxx xxx xxx

(b)Women at such time during which they are not by
custom and usage allowed to enter a place of public
worship.

xxx xxx xxx‖
73
The abovementioned Rule is ultra vires of Section 3 of the Kerala

Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Act, 1965, and

is hit by Article 25(1) and by Article 15(1) of the Constitution of India as

this Rule discriminates against women on the basis of their sex only.

30. The learned counsel appearing on behalf of the Respondents

stated that the present writ petition, which is in the nature of a PIL, is

not maintainable inasmuch as no woman worshipper has come

forward with a plea that she has been discriminated against by not

allowing her entry into the temple as she is between the age of 10 to

50. A similar argument was raised in Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal Nala

Sangam (supra) which was repelled in the following terms:

―12. ……… The argument that the present writ
petition is founded on a cause relating to
appointment in a public office and hence not
entertainable as a public interest litigation would be
too simplistic a solution to adopt to answer the
issues that have been highlighted which concerns
the religious faith and practice of a large number of
citizens of the country and raises claims of century-

old traditions and usage having the force of law. The
above is the second ground, namely, the gravity of
the issues that arise, that impel us to make an
attempt to answer the issues raised and arising in
the writ petitions for determination on the merits
thereof.‖
74
The present case raises grave issues relating to women generally,

who happen to be between the ages of 10 to 50, and are not allowed

entry into the temple at Sabarimala on the ground of a physiological or

biological function which is common to all women between those ages.

Since this matter raises far-reaching consequences relating to Articles

25 and 26 of the Constitution of India, we have found it necessary to

decide this matter on merits. Consequently, this technical plea cannot

stand in the way of a constitutional court applying constitutional

principles to the case at hand.

31. A fervent plea was made by some of the counsels for the

Respondents that the Court should not decide this case without any

evidence being led on both sides. Evidence is very much there, in the

form of the writ petition and the affidavits that have been filed in the

writ petition, both by the Petitioners as well as by the Board, and by

the Thanthri‘s affidavit referred to supra. It must not be forgotten that a

writ petition filed under either Article 32 or Article 226 is itself not

merely a pleading, but also evidence in the form of affidavits that are

sworn. (See Bharat Singh and Ors. v. State of Haryana and Ors.,

1988 Supp (2) SCR 1050 at 1059).

75

32. The facts, as they emerge from the writ petition and the

aforesaid affidavits, are sufficient for us to dispose of this writ petition

on the points raised before us. I, therefore, concur in the judgment of

the learned Chief Justice of India in allowing the writ petition, and

declare that the custom or usage of prohibiting women between the

ages of 10 to 50 years from entering the Sabarimala temple is violative

of Article 25(1), and violative of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public

Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Act, 1965 made under Article 25(2)(b)

of the Constitution. Further, it is also declared that Rule 3(b) of the

Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules,

1965 is unconstitutional being violative of Article 25(1) and Article

15(1) of the Constitution of India.

………………………..……J.

(R.F. Nariman)

New Delhi;

September 28, 2018.

76
REPORTABLE

IN THE SUPREME COURT OF INDIA
CIVIL ORIGINAL JURISDICTION

WRIT PETITION (CIVIL) NO 373 OF 2006

INDIAN YOUNG LAWYERS ASSOCIATION …PETITIONERS
AND ORS

VERSUS

THE STATE OF KERALA AND ORS …RESPONDENTS

JUDGMENT

INDEX

A Conversation within the Constitution: religion, dignity and morality

B History: Lord Ayyappa and the Sabarimala Temple

C Temple entry and the exclusion of women

D The reference

E Submissions

F Essential Religious Practices

1
G The engagement of essential religious practices with constitutional values

H Religious Denominations

H.1 Do the devotees of Lord Ayyappa constitute a religious denomination?

I Article 17, “Untouchability” and the notions of purity

J The ultra vires doctrine

K The ghost of Narasu

L Deity as a bearer of constitutional rights

M A road map for the future

N Conclusion

2
PART A

Dr Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud, J

A Conversation within the Constitution: religion, dignity and
morality

1 The Preamble to the Constitution portrays the foundational principles:

justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. While defining the content of these

principles, the draftspersons laid out a broad canvass upon which the diversity

of our society would be nurtured. Forty two years ago, the Constitution was

amended to accommodate a specific reference to its secular fabric in the

Preamble.1 Arguably, this was only a formal recognition of a concept which

found expression in diverse facets, as they were crafted at the birth of the

Constitution. Secularism was not a new idea but a formal reiteration of what the

Constitution always respected and accepted: the equality of all faiths. Besides

incorporating a specific reference to a secular republic, the Preamble divulges

the position held by the framers on the interface of religion and the fundamental

values of a constitutional order. The Constitution is not – as it could not have

been – oblivious to religion. Religiosity has moved hearts and minds in the

history of modern India. Hence, in defining the content of liberty, the Preamble

has spoken of the liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship. While

recognising and protecting individual liberty, the Preamble underscores the

importance of equality, both in terms of status and opportunity. Above all, it

1 The Constitution (Forty-second) Amendment, 1976

3
PART A

seeks to promote among all citizens fraternity which would assure the dignity

of the individual.

2 The significance of the Preamble lies both in its setting forth the founding

principles of the Constitution as well as in the broad sweep of their content. The

Constitution was brought into existence to oversee a radical transformation.

There would be a transformation of political power from a colonial regime. There

was to be a transformation in the structure of governance. Above all the

Constitution envisages a transformation in the position of the individual, as a

focal point of a just society. The institutions through which the nation would be

governed would be subsumed in a democratic polity where real power both in

legal and political terms would be entrusted to the people. The purpose of

adopting a democratic Constitution was to allow a peaceful transition from a

colonial power to home rule. In understanding the fundamental principles of the

Constitution which find reflection in the Preamble, it is crucial to notice that the

transfer of political power from a colonial regime was but one of the purposes

which the framers sought to achieve. The transfer of political power furnished

the imperative for drafting a fundamental text of governance. But the task which

the framers assumed was infinitely more sensitive. They took upon themselves

above all, the task to transform Indian society by remedying centuries of

discrimination against Dalits, women and the marginalised. They sought to

provide them a voice by creating a culture of rights and a political environment

to assert freedom. Above all, placing those who were denuded of their human

4
PART A

rights before the advent of the Constitution – whether in the veneer of caste,

patriarchy or otherwise – were to be placed in control of their own destinies by

the assurance of the equal protection of law. Fundamental to their vision was

the ability of the Constitution to pursue a social transformation. Intrinsic to the

social transformation is the role of each individual citizen in securing justice,

liberty, equality and fraternity in all its dimensions.

3 The four founding principles are not disjunctive. Together, the values

which they incorporate within each principle coalesce in achieving the fulfilment

of human happiness. The universe encompassed by the four founding principles

is larger the sum total of its parts. The Constitution cannot be understood without

perceiving the complex relationship between the values which it elevates. So,

liberty in matters of belief, faith and worship, must produce a compassionate

and humane society marked by the equality of status among all its citizens. The

freedom to believe, to be a person of faith and to be a human being in prayer

has to be fulfilled in the context of a society which does not discriminate between

its citizens. Their equality in all matters of status and opportunity gives true

meaning to the liberty of belief, faith and worship. Equality between citizens is

after all, a powerful safeguard to preserve a common universe of liberties

between citizens, including in matters of religion. Combined together, individual

liberty, equality and fraternity among citizens are indispensable to a social and

political ordering in which the dignity of the individual is realised. Our

understanding of the Constitution can be complete only if we acknowledge the

5
PART A

complex relationship between the pursuit of justice, the protection of liberty,

realisation of equality and the assurance of fraternity. Securing the worth of the

individual is crucial to a humane society.

4 The Constitution as a fundamental document of governance has sought

to achieve a transformation of society. In giving meaning to its provisions and

in finding solutions to the intractable problems of the present, it is well to remind

ourselves on each occasion that the purpose of this basic document which

governs our society is to bring about a constitutional transformation. In a

constitutional transformation, the means are as significant as are our ends. The

means ensure that the process is guided by values. The ends, or the

transformation, underlie the vision of the Constitution. It is by being rooted in

the Constitution’s quest for transforming Indian society that we can search for

answers to the binaries which have polarised our society. The conflict in this

case between religious practices and the claim of dignity for women in matters

of faith and worship, is essentially about resolving those polarities.

5 Essentially, the significance of this case lies in the issues which it poses

to the adjudicatory role of this Court in defining the boundaries of religion in a

dialogue about our public spaces. Does the Constitution, in the protection which

it grants to religious faith, allow the exclusion of women of a particular age group

from a temple dedicated to the public? Will the quest for human dignity be

incomplete or remain but a writ in sand if the Constitution accepts the exclusion

6
PART A

of women from worship in a public temple? Will the quest for equality and

fraternity be denuded of its content where women continue to be treated as

children of a lesser god in exercising their liberties in matters of belief, faith and

worship? Will the pursuit of individual dignity be capable of being achieved if

we deny to women equal rights in matters of faith and worship, on the basis of

a physiological aspect of their existence? These questions are central to

understanding the purpose of the Constitution, as they are to defining the role

which is ascribed to the Constitution in controlling the closed boundaries of

organised religion.

6 The chapter on Fundamental Rights encompasses the rights to (i)

Equality (Articles 14 to 18); (ii) Freedom (Articles 19 to 24); (iii) Freedom of

religion (Articles 25 to 28); (iv) Cultural and educational rights (Articles 29 and

30); and (v) Constitutional remedies (Article 32).

Article 25 provides thus:

“25. (1) Subject to public order, morality and health and to the
other provisions of this Part, all persons are equally entitled to
freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise
and propagate religion.

(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.

7

PART A

Explanation I.—The wearing and carrying of kirpans shall be
deemed to be included in the profession of the Sikh religion.

Explanation II.—In sub-clause (b) of clause (2), the reference
to Hindus shall be construed as including a reference to
persons professing the Sikh, Jaina or Buddhist religion, and the
reference to Hindu religious institutions shall be construed
accordingly.”

In clause (1), Article 25 protects the equal entitlement of all persons to a

freedom of conscience and to freely profess, protect and propagate religion. By

conferring this right on all persons, the Constitution emphasises the universal

nature of the right. By all persons, the Constitution means exactly what it says :

every individual in society without distinction of any kind whatsoever is entitled

to the right. By speaking of an equal entitlement, the Constitution places every

individual on an even platform. Having guaranteed equality before the law and

the equal protection of laws in Article 14, the draftspersons specifically

continued the theme of an equal entitlement as an intrinsic element of the

freedom of conscience and of the right to profess, practice and propagate

religion. There are three defining features of clause (1) of Article 25: firstly, the

entitlement of all persons without exception, secondly, the recognition of an

equal entitlement; and thirdly, the recognition both of the freedom of conscience

and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion. The right under

Article 25(1) is evidently an individual right for, it is in the individual that a

conscience inheres. Moreover, it is the individual who professes, practices and

propagates religion. Freedom of religion in Article 25(1) is a right which the

Constitution recognises as dwelling in each individual or natural person.

8
PART A

7 Yet, the right to the freedom of religion is not absolute. For the

Constitution has expressly made it subject to public order, morality and health

on one hand and to the other provisions of Part III, on the other. The subjection

of the individual right to the freedom of religion to the other provisions of the Part

is a nuanced departure from the position occupied by the other rights to freedom

recognised in Articles 14, 15, 19 and 21. While guaranteeing equality and the

equal protection of laws in Article 14 and its emanation, in Article 15, which

prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth,

the Constitution does not condition these basic norms of equality to the other

provisions of Part III. Similar is the case with the freedoms guaranteed by Article

19(1) or the right to life under Article 21. The subjection of the individual right

to the freedom of religion under Article 25(1) to the other provisions of Part III

was not a matter without substantive content. Evidently, in the constitutional

order of priorities, the individual right to the freedom of religion was not intended

to prevail over but was subject to the overriding constitutional postulates of

equality, liberty and personal freedoms recognised in the other provisions of

Part III.

8 Clause (2) of Article 25 protects laws which existed at the adoption of the

Constitution and the power of the state to enact laws in future, dealing with two

categories. The first of those categories consists of laws regulating or restricting

economic, financial, political or other secular activities which may be associated

with religious practices. Thus, in sub-clause (a) of Article 25 (2), the Constitution

9
PART A

has segregated matters of religious practice from secular activities, including

those of an economic, financial or political nature. The expression “other

secular activity” which follows upon the expression “economic, financial,

political” indicates that matters of a secular nature may be regulated or restricted

by law. The fact that these secular activities are associated with or, in other

words, carried out in conjunction with religious practice, would not put them

beyond the pale of legislative regulation. The second category consists of laws

providing for (i) social welfare and reform; or (ii) throwing open of Hindu religious

institutions of a public character to all classes and sections of Hindus. The

expression “social welfare and reform” is not confined to matters only of the

Hindu religion. However, in matters of temple entry, the Constitution recognised

the disabilities which Hindu religion had imposed over the centuries which

restricted the rights of access to dalits and to various groups within Hindu

society. The effect of clause (2) of Article 25 is to protect the ability of the state

to enact laws, and to save existing laws on matters governed by sub-clauses

(a) and (b). Clause (2) of Article 25 is clarificatory of the regulatory power of the

state over matters of public order, morality and health which already stand

recognised in clause (1). Clause 1 makes the right conferred subject to public

order, morality and health. Clause 2 does not circumscribe the ambit of the

‘subject to public order, morality or health’ stipulation in clause 1. What clause

2 indicates is that the authority of the state to enact laws on the categories is

not trammelled by Article 25.

10
PART A

9 Article 26, as its marginal note indicates, deals with the “freedom to

manage religious affairs”:

“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.”

Article 26 confers rights on religious denominations and their sections. The

Article covers four distinct facets: (i) establishment and maintenance of

institutions for purposes of a religious and charitable nature; (ii) managing the

affairs of the denomination in matters of religion; (iii) ownership and acquisition

of immovable property; and (iv) administration of the property in accordance

with law. Article 26, as in the case of Article 25(1), is prefaced by a “subject to

public order, morality and health” stipulation. Article 26(1) does not embody the

additional stipulation found in Article 25(1) viz; “and to the other provisions of

this Part.” The significance of this will be explored shortly.

10 Public order, morality and health are grounds which the Constitution

contemplates as the basis of restricting both the individual right to freedom of

religion in Article 25(1) and the right of religious denominations under Article 26.

The vexed issue is about the content of morality in Articles 25 and 26. What

meaning should be ascribed to the content of the expression ‘morality’ is a

11
PART A

matter of constitutional moment. In the case of the individual right as well as

the right of religious denominations, morality has an overarching position similar

to public order and health because the rights recognised by both the Articles are

subject to those stipulations. Article 25(2) contemplates that the Article will

neither affect the operation of existing law or prevent the state from enacting a

law for the purposes stipulated in sub-clauses (a) and (b).

11 In defining the content of morality, did the draftspersons engage with

prevailing morality in society? Or does the reference to morality refer to

something more fundamental? Morality for the purposes of Articles 25 and 26

cannot have an ephemeral existence. Popular notions about what is moral and

what is not are transient and fleeting. Popular notions about what is or is not

moral may in fact be deeply offensive to individual dignity and human rights.

Individual dignity cannot be allowed to be subordinate to the morality of the mob.

Nor can the intolerance of society operate as a marauding morality to control

individual self-expression in its manifest form. The Constitution would not

render the existence of rights so precarious by subjecting them to passing

fancies or to the aberrations of a morality of popular opinion. The draftspersons

of the Constitution would not have meant that the content of morality should

vary in accordance with the popular fashions of the day. The expression has

been adopted in a constitutional text and it would be inappropriate to give it a

content which is momentary or impermanent. Then again, the expression

‘morality’ cannot be equated with prevailing social conceptions or those which

12
PART A

may be subsumed within mainstream thinking in society at a given time. The

Constitution has been adopted for a society of plural cultures and if its provisions

are any indication, it is evident that the text does not pursue either a religious

theocracy or a dominant ideology. In adopting a democratic Constitution, the

framers would have been conscious of the fact that governance by a majority is

all about the accumulation of political power. Constitutional democracies do not

necessarily result in constitutional liberalism. While our Constitution has

adopted a democratic form of governance it has at the same time adopted

values based on constitutional liberalism. Central to those values is the position

of the individual. The fundamental freedoms which Part III confers are central

to the constitutional purpose of overseeing a transformation of a society based

on dignity, liberty and equality. Hence, morality for the purposes of Articles 25

and 26 must mean that which is governed by fundamental constitutional

principles.

12 The content of morality is founded on the four precepts which emerge

from the Preamble. The first among them is the need to ensure justice in its

social, economic and political dimensions. The second is the postulate of

individual liberty in matters of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship.

The third is equality of status and opportunity amongst all citizens. The fourth

is the sense of fraternity amongst all citizens which assures the dignity of

human life. Added to these four precepts is the fundamental postulate of

secularism which treats all religions on an even platform and allows to each

13
PART A

individual the fullest liberty to believe or not to believe. Conscience, it must be

remembered, is emphasised by the same provision. The Constitution is meant

as much for the agnostic as it is for the worshipper. It values and protects the

conscience of the atheist. The founding faith upon which the Constitution is

based is the belief that it is in the dignity of each individual that the pursuit of

happiness is founded. Individual dignity can be achieved only in a regime which

recognises liberty as inhering in each individual as a natural right. Human dignity

postulates an equality between persons. Equality necessarily is an equality

between sexes and genders. Equality postulates a right to be free from

discrimination and to have the protection of the law in the same manner as is

available to every citizen. Equality above all is a protective shield against the

arbitrariness of any form of authority. These founding principles must govern

our constitutional notions of morality. Constitutional morality must have a value

of permanence which is not subject to the fleeting fancies of every time and age.

If the vision which the founders of the Constitution adopted has to survive,

constitutional morality must have a content which is firmly rooted in the

fundamental postulates of human liberty, equality, fraternity and dignity. These

are the means to secure justice in all its dimensions to the individual citizen.

Once these postulates are accepted, the necessary consequence is that the

freedom of religion and, likewise, the freedom to manage the affairs of a

religious denomination is subject to and must yield to these fundamental notions

of constitutional morality. In the public law conversations between religion and

morality, it is the overarching sense of constitutional morality which has to

14
PART A

prevail. While the Constitution recognises religious beliefs and faiths, its

purpose is to ensure a wider acceptance of human dignity and liberty as the

ultimate founding faith of the fundamental text of our governance. Where a

conflict arises, the quest for human dignity, liberty and equality must prevail.

These, above everything else, are matters on which the Constitution has willed

that its values must reign supreme.

13 The expression “subject to” is in the nature of a condition or proviso.

Making a provision subject to another may indicate that the former is controlled

by or is subordinate to the other. In making clause 1 of Article 25 subject to the

other provisions of Part III without introducing a similar limitation in Article 26,

the Constitution should not readily be assumed to have intended the same

result. Evidently the individual right under Article 25(1) is not only subject to

public order, morality and health, but it is also subordinate to the other freedoms

that are guaranteed by Part III. In omitting the additional stipulation in Article

26, the Constitution has consciously not used words that would indicate an

intent specifically to make Article 26 subordinate to the other freedoms. This

textual interpretation of Article 26, in juxtaposition with Article 25 is good as far

as it goes. But does that by itself lend credence to the theory that the right of a

religious denomination to manage its affairs is a standalone right uncontrolled

or unaffected by the other fundamental freedoms? The answer to this must lie

in the negative. It is one thing to say that Article 26 is not subordinate to (not

‘subject to’) other freedoms in Part III. But it is quite another thing to assume

15
PART A

that Article 26 has no connect with other freedoms or that the right of religious

denominations is unconcerned with them. To say as a matter of interpretation

that a provision in law is not subordinate to another is one thing. But the absence

of words of subjection does not necessarily attribute to the provision a status

independent of a cluster of other entitlements, particularly those based on

individual freedoms. Even where one provision is not subject to another there

would still be a ground to read both together so that they exist in harmony.

Constitutional interpretation is all about bringing a sense of equilibrium, a

balance, so that read individually and together the provisions of the Constitution

exist in contemporaneous accord. Unless such an effort were to be made, the

synchrony between different parts of the Constitution would not be preserved.

In interpreting a segment of the Constitution devoted exclusively to fundamental

rights one must eschew an approach which would result in asynchrony. Co-

existence of freedoms is crucial, in the ultimate analysis, to a constitutional order

which guarantees them and seeks to elevate them to a platform on which every

individual without distinction can reap their fruit without a bar to access. Thus,

the absence of words in Article 26 which would make its provisions subordinate

to the other fundamental freedoms neither gives the right conferred upon

religious denominations a priority which overrides other freedoms nor does it

allow the freedom of a religious denomination to exist in an isolated silo. In real

life it is difficult to replicate the conditions of a controlled experiment in a

laboratory. Real life is all about complexities and uncertainties arising out of the

assertions of entitlements and conflicts of interests among groups of different

16
PART A

hues in society. The freedoms which find an elaboration in Part III are exercised

within a society which is networked. The freedoms themselves have linkages

which cannot be ignored. There is, therefore, a convincing reason not to allow

the provisions of Article 26 to tread in isolation. Article 26 is one among a large

cluster of freedoms which the Constitution has envisaged as intrinsic to human

liberty and dignity. In locating the freedom under Article 26 within a group – the

religious denomination – the text in fact allows us to regard the fundamental

right recognised in it as one facet of the overall components of liberty in a free

society.

14 This approach to constitutional interpretation which I propose and follow

is acceptable for another reason, as a matter of constitutional doctrine. Since

the decision of eleven judges in Rustom Cavasjee Cooper v Union of India2,

it is now settled doctrine that the fundamental rights contained in Part III are not,

as it has been said, water-tight compartments. Evolving away from the earlier

jurisprudence in A K Gopalan v State of Madras3 our interpretation of the

freedoms is now governed by a sense of realism which notices their open-

textured content and indeed, their fluid nature. One freedom shades into and

merges with another. Fairness as a guarantee against arbitrary state action

influences the content of the procedure for the deprivation of life under Article

21. Though Article 21 speaks only of the deprivation of life or personal liberty by

a procedure established by law, decisions from Maneka Gandhi v Union of

2(1970) 1 SCC 248
3 1950 SCR 88

17
PART A

India4, (“Maneka”) have expounded that the law must have a content which is

reasonable. The procedure for deprivation must be free of the taint of that which

is arbitrary. This reading of the fundamental rights as constellations emanating

from a cosmos of freedom and as having paths which intersect and merge

enhances the value of freedom itself. Though the principal provision relating to

equality before the law is embodied in Article 14, the four articles which follow it

are a manifestation of its basic doctrines. Article 15 in outlawing discrimination

on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex and place of birth is but a manifestation

of equality. Equality in matters of public employment under Article 16 is a facet

of the basic postulate of equality. Article 17 gives expression to equality in

abolishing untouchability: a practice fundamentally at odds to the notion of an

equal society. Titles which place some citizens above others are abolished by

Article 18 in manifesting yet another aspect of equality. As we have seen, a

fundamental notion of equality is embodied in Article 25(1) itself when it speaks

of an equal entitlement to freely practice, profess and propagate religion. This

sense of equality permeates the other guarantees of fundamental freedoms as

well. Article 19 recognises six freedoms as an entitlement “of all citizens”.

Recognizing that a right inheres in all citizens is a constitutional affirmation that

every citizen, without exception or discrimination of any kind is entitled to those

freedoms. Then again, the restrictions on the freedoms contemplated by Articles

19(2) to (6) have to be reasonable. Reasonableness is a facet of equality. The

equal application of law to persons similarly circumstanced is a fundamental

4 (1978) 1 SCC 248

18
PART A

postulate of the protections which are conferred by Articles 20, 21 and 22. Thus

the principle which has become an entrenched part of our constitutional doctrine

after the decision in Bank Nationalization is based on a sure foundation. The

freedoms which we possess and those which we exercise are not disjunctive

parts, separate from each other. Individuals in society exercise not one but

many of the freedoms. An individual exercises a multitude of freedoms as a

composite part of the human personality. A single act embodies within it the

exercise of many choices reflecting the assertion of manifold freedoms. From

this perspective, it is but a short step to hold that all freedoms exist in harmony.

Our freedoms are enveloped in the womb created by the Constitution for the

survival of liberty. Hence, the absence of a clause of subjection in Article 26

does not lead to the conclusion that the freedom of a religious denomination

exists as a discrete element, divorced from the others. This approach is quite

independent of the consideration that even Article 26 like Article 25(1) is subject

to public order, morality and health. Once we hold, following the line which is

now part of conventional doctrine, that all freedoms have linkages and exist in

a state of mutual co-existence, the freedom of religious denominations under

Article 26 must be read in a manner which preserves equally, other individual

freedoms which may be impacted by an unrestrained exercise. Hence, the

dignity of women which is an emanation of Article 15 and a reflection of Article

21 cannot be disassociated from the exercise of religious freedom under Article

26.

19
PART A

15 Once Articles 25 and 26 are read in the manner in which they have been

interpreted, the distinction between the articles in terms of the presence or

absence of a clause of subjection should make little practical significance to the

relationship between the freedom of religion with the other freedoms recognized

in the fundamental rights. If the Constitution has to have a meaning, is it

permissible for religion – either as a matter of individual belief or as an organized

structure of religious precepts – to assert an entitlement to do what is derogatory

to women? Dignity of the individual is the unwavering premise of the

fundamental rights. Autonomy nourishes dignity by allowing each individual to

make critical choices for the exercise of liberty. A liberal Constitution such as

ours recognizes a wide range of rights to inhere in each individual. Without

freedom, the individual would be bereft of her individuality. Anything that is

destructive of individual dignity is anachronistic to our constitutional ethos. The

equality between sexes and equal protection of gender is an emanation of

Article 15. Whether or not Article 15 is attracted to a particular source of the

invasion of rights is not of overarching importance for the simple reason that the

fundamental principles which emerge from the Preamble, as we have noticed

earlier, infuse constitutional morality into its content. In our public discourse of

individual rights, neither religious freedom nor organized religion can be heard

to assert an immunity to adhere to fundamental constitutional precepts

grounded in dignity and human liberty. The postulate of equality is that human

beings are created equal. The postulate is not that all men are created equal

but that all individuals are created equal. To exclude women from worship by

20
PART A

allowing the right to worship to men is to place women in a position of

subordination. The Constitution, should not become an instrument for the

perpetuation of patriarchy. The freedom to believe, the freedom to be a person

of faith and the freedom of worship, are attributes of human liberty. Facets of

that liberty find protection in Article 25. Religion then cannot become a cover to

exclude and to deny the basic right to find fulfilment in worship to women. Nor

can a physiological feature associated with a woman provide a constitutional

rationale to deny to her the right to worship which is available to others. Birth

marks and physiology are irrelevant to constitutional entitlements which are

provided to every individual. To exclude from worship, is to deny one of the most

basic postulates of human dignity to women. Neither can the Constitution

countenance such an exclusion nor can a free society accept it under the veneer

of religious beliefs.

16 Much of our jurisprudence on religion has evolved, as we shall see,

around what constitutes an essential religious practice. At a certain level an

adjudication of what is a religious practice seems to have emerged from the

distinction made in clause 2(a) of Article 25 between a religious practice and

economic, financial, political or other secular activities which are associated with

religious practices. Where the state has enacted a law by which it claims to have

regulated a secular activity associated with a religious practice, but not the

religious practice, it becomes necessary to decide the issue, where the validity

of the law is challenged. Similarly, Article 26(b) speaks of “matters of religion”

21
PART A

when it recognises the right of a religious denomination to manage them. In the

context of Article 26(b), this Court has embarked upon a course to decide in

individual cases whether, what was said to be regulated by the state was a

matter of religion which falls within the freedom guaranteed to the denomination.

These compulsions nonetheless have led the court to don a theological mantle.

The enquiry has moved from deciding what is essentially religious to what is an

essential religious practice. Donning such a role is not an easy task when the

Court is called upon to decide whether a practice does nor does not form an

essential part of a religious belief. Scriptures and customs merge with

bewildering complexity into superstition and dogma. Separating the grain from

the chaff involves a complex adjudicatory function. Decisions of the Court have

attempted to bring in a measure of objectivity by holding that the Court has been

called upon to decide on the basis of the tenets of the religion itself. But even

that is not a consistent norm.

17 Our conversations with the Constitution must be restructured to evolve

both with the broadening of the content of liberty and dignity and the role of the

Court as an enforcer of constitutional doctrine. The basic principle which must

guide any analysis in this area is the dominance of the values of liberty, equality

and fraternity as instruments in achieving individual dignity. Once individual

dignity assumes the character of a shining star in the constellation of

fundamental rights, the place of religion in public places must be conditioned by

India’s unwavering commitment to a constitutional order based on human

22
PART A

dignity. Practices which are destructive of liberty and those which make some

citizens less equal than others can simply not be countenanced. To treat

women as children of a lesser god is to blink at the Constitution itself. Among

the fundamental duties of every citizen recognized by the Constitution is “to

renounce practices derogatory to the dignity of women”.5 In speaking to the

equality between individuals in matters of livelihood, health and remuneration

for work, the Directive Principles speak to the conscience of the Constitution.

To allow practices derogatory to the dignity of a woman in matters of faith and

worship would permit a conscious breach of the fundamental duties of every

citizen. We cannot adopt an interpretation of the Constitution which has such

an effect. Our inability to state this as a matter of constitutional doctrine is liable

to lead us to positions of pretence or, worse still, hypocrisy. Both are willing

allies to push critical issues under the carpet. If we are truly to emerge out of

the grim shadows of a society which has subjugated groups of our citizens under

the weight of discrimination for centuries, it is time that the Constitution is

allowed to speak as it can only do: in a forthright manner as a compact of

governance, for today and the future.

18 Now it is in this background that it would be necessary to explore the

principles which emerge from the precedents of this Court which explain the

content of Article 25(1) and Article 26.

5 Article 51A(e), The Constitution of India

23
PART B

B History: Lord Ayyappa and the Sabarimala Temple

Origins

19 The Sabarimala Temple, devoted to Lord Ayyappa is a temple of great

antiquity. The temple is situated over one of the eighteen mountains spread over

the Western Ghats known as Sannidhanam. Situated in the district of

Pathananthitta in Kerala, the temple nestles at a height of 1260 metres (4135

feet) above sea level. The faithful believe that Lord Ayyappa’s powers derive

from his ascetism, in particular from his being celibate. Celibacy is a practice

adopted by pilgrims before and during the pilgrimage. Those who believe in Lord

Ayyappa and offer prayer are expected to follow a strict ‘Vratham’ or vow over

a period of forty one days which lays down a set of practices.

20 The legend of Lord Ayyappa and the birth of the Sabarimala temple have

been explained6 in the erudite submissions in this case. Although there are

numerous Ayyappa Temples in India, the Sabarimala Temple depicts Lord

Ayyappa as a “Naishtika Brahmacharya”: his powers derive specifically from

abstention from sexual activities.

The birth of Lord Ayyappa is described as arising from the union of Lord Shiva

and Lord Vishnu (the form of Mohini). The divine beings left the boy in a forest

6 Written Submissions by: Learned Senior Counsel Shri K. Parasaran, Learned Senior Counsel Dr. Abhishek Manu
Singhvi for the Respondents; Non-Case Law Convenience Compilation filed by Advocate for Respondent No. 2;
Learned Senior Counsel Indira Jaisingh and Learned Counsel R.P. Gupta for the Petitioners

24
PART B

near River Pampa. The Pandalam King, Rajasekara, while on a hunting trip in

the forest along the banks of the River Pampa, heard the cries of a child. The

King reached the banks of the river and found the child Ayyappa. The King took

the child in and took him to the Palace, where the King briefed the Queen about

the incident. The couple as well as the people of the Kingdom were happy by

the arrival of the new child. Ayyappa, also called ‘Manikanta’ grew up in the

palace and was trained in the martial arts and Vedas. The Guru responsible for

Manikanta’s education concluded that the this was not an ordinary child, but a

divine power.

Meanwhile, the Queen gave birth to a male child named Raja Rajan. Impressed

with the talents of Manikanta, King Rajasekara decided to crown him, treating

him as the elder child. He ordered the Minister to make arrangements for the

coronation. However, the Minister, desiring the throne for himself, attempted to

execute plans to prevent the coronation, all of which failed. Having failed, the

Minister approached the Queen to persuade her to ensure that her own

biological child was crowned King. The Minister suggested that the Queen

pretend that she was suffering from a severe headache, whereupon he would

make the physician prescribe that the milk of a tigress be brought to cure her.

To achieve this, he suggested that Manikanta should be sent to the forest.

21 Manikanta soon left for the forest after promising the King that he would

return with the milk of a tigress. Manikanta set out on his journey after having

refused an escort of men that the King had desired to accompanying him. The

25
PART B

King had sent with Manikanta food and coconuts with three eyes, in the

remembrance of Lord Shiva. In the forest, Lord Shiva appeared before

Manikanta and told him that though he had done his duty towards the devas, he

was left with the task to ensure the King’s comfort. Lord Shiva told Manikanta

that he could go back to the Palace with Lord Indra in the form of a tiger.

When Manikanta was seated on the tiger, and all the female devatas in the

disguise of tigresses started their journey to the palace, the schemers were

frightened into confessing their plot. They were convinced of his divine origins

and prayed for their own salvation and for the safety of the Kingdom. Manikanta

disappeared. The King refused to eat anything till his return. Manikanta

appeared in the form of a vision before the King. Filled with emotions of

happiness, grief, fear, wonder and ‘Bhakti, the King stood praying for mercy and

the blessings of Manikanta. He repented in front of Manikanta for not having

realized his divine power and for treating him merely as his child. The Lord

lovingly embraced the King who prayed to bless him by freeing him from ego

and the worldy cycle of rebirth. Manikanta granted him Moksha (salvation). He

told the King that he was destined to return. The King implored Manikanta to

allow him to build a temple and dedicate it to him. The Lord assented. Manikanta

then enlightened the King on the path of Moksha.

22 The Lord shot an arrow that fell at the pinnacle of Sabarimala and told the

King that he could construct a temple at Sabarimala, north of the Holy river

Pampa and install his deity there. Lord Ayyappa also explained how the

26
PART B

Sabarimala pilgrimage shall be undertaken, emphasizing the importance of the

penance or ‘Vratham’ and what the devotees can attain by his ‘darshan’. But

before the departure of the Lord, the King secured a promise from the Lord that

on thai pongal on January 14, every year, his personal jewelry will be adorned

on his deity at Sabarimala.

The Pilgrimage

23 Sabarimala follows the system of being open for:

1. The month of Mandalam viz. 17 November to 26 December of the normal

calendar years of each year;

2. For the first five days of each Malayalam month which communes

approximately in the middle of each calendar month; and

3. For the period of Makar Sankranti, viz. approximately from January to mid

January each year.

The followers of Lord Ayyappa undertake a holy Pilgrimage which culminates in

a prayer at the holy shrine. The pilgrimage takes place in four stages. First, there

is a formal initiation ceremony that begins a forty-one day Vratham. This is

followed by another formal ceremony at the end of the Vratham period, called

the Irumuti Kattal (tying of bundle), after which the pilgrims set off for their yatra

to the Ayyappa Temple at Sabarimala. This stage includes the physical travel

to the pilgrimage site, bathing in the holy river Pampa at the foot of Mount Sabari

27
PART B

and the climb up Mount Sabari. This involves a trek from the Pampa river,

climbing 3000 feet to the Sannidhanam, which is a trek of around 13 Kms, or

through forests which is a trek of 41 Kms. It ends with the pilgrim’s ascending

the sacred” eighteen steps to the shrine for the first darshan or glimpse of the

deity. The fourth stage is the return journey and the final incorporation back into

life.

Modern communications have made the task less arduous. In 1960, an access

road was constructed for vehicles, so that a pilgrim can drive right up to the foot

of Sabarimala. From here, the holy summit is just 8 kms away. The Kerala State

Transport Corporation runs special buses during the season of pilgrimage. The

buses connect Pampa directly with almost all the main cities in Kerala, Tamil

Nadu and Karnataka.

24 The pilgrimage has three distinctive features: (i) It is almost exclusively a

male-centric pilgrimage that bars women between the ages of ten and fifty from

participating in the rituals; (ii) Though the worshippers of Lord Ayyappa fall

broadly within the Hindu tradition, yet males of all ages may participate on an

equal footing, regardless of caste, creed or religion. Muslims and Christians are

also known to undertake this pilgrimage, enjoying the same equality; and (iii)

The actual journey to the pilgrimage site is preceded by a preparatory period of

forty-one days. During this period, pilgrims are obliged to wear black clothes

28
PART B

and the ‘mala’ with which they are initiated, and they must observe celibacy,

abstinence from meat and intoxicants.

25 Traditionally though the Vratham period extended over forty-one days,

nowadays shorter periods are permitted. While it is expected that for first time

initiaties observe the forty-one day Vratham, others shorten the term to two

weeks or even six days. A key essential of the Vratham is a sathvic lifestyle and

brahmacharya. This is believed to be a step towards a pure body and mind an

effort to be aloof from the materialistic world, by taking a step towards the path

of devotion.

The Vratham or penance entails:

(i) Abstaining from physical relations with a spouse;

(ii) Abstention from intoxicating drinks, smoking and tamasic food;

(iii) Living in isolation from the rest of the family;

(iv) Refraining from interacting with women in daily life including those

in the family;

(v) Cooking one’s own food;

(vi) Maintaining hygiene including bathing twice a day before prayers;

(vii) Wearing a black mundu and upper garments;

(viii) Partaking of one meal a day; and

(ix) Walking barefoot.

29
PART C

The penance is to be carried out in the manner prescribed. Maintaining oneself

as ‘pure and unpolluted’, it is believed, would lead to the path towards attaining

Godhead or to be one with Lord Ayyappa.

C Temple entry and the exclusion of women

Before proceeding to analyse the questions in this reference, it would be

necessary to outline the history of the case bearing upon the controversy.

26 Two notifications were issued by the Travancore Devaswom Board which

read as follows:

Notification dated 21 October 1955

“In accordance with the fundamental principle underlying the
prathishta (installation) of the venerable, holy and ancient
temple of Sabarimala, Ayyappans who had not observed the
usual vows as well as women who had attained maturity were
not in the habit of entering the above mentioned temple for
Darshan (worship) by stepping the Pathinettampadi. But of
late, there seems to have been a deviation from this custom
and practice. In order to maintain the sanctity and dignity of this
great temple and keep up the past traditions, it is hereby
notified that Ayyappans who do not observe the usual Vrithams
are prohibited from entering the temple by stepping the
Pathinettampadi and women between the ages of ten and fifty-

five are forbidden from entering the temple.”7

Notification dated 27 November 1956

7 The Kerala High Court in S Mahendran v The Secretary, Travancore Devaswom Board, Thiruvananthapuram,
recorded that women between ten and fifty were excluded from the Sabarimala temple. The Petitioners and
Respondents in the present case accept that women between the age of ten and fifty are excluded.

30
PART C

“In accordance with the fundamental principle underlying the
prathishta (installation) of the venerable, holy and ancient
temple of Sabarimala, Ayyappans who had not observed the
usual vows as well as women who had attained maturity were
not in the habit of entering the above-mentioned temple for
Darshan (worship) by stepping the Pathinettampadi. But of
late, there seems to have been a deviation from this custom
and practice. In order to maintain the sanctity and dignity of this
great temple and keep up the past traditions, it is hereby
notified that Ayyappans who do not observe the usual Vritham
(vows) are prohibited from entering the temple by stepping the
pathinettampadi and women between the ages of ten and fifty
five are forbidden from entering the temple.”

In 1965, the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorization of Entry) Act

19658 was enacted. The preamble to the Act lays down that the Act has been

enacted to make better provisions for entry of all classes and sections of Hindu

into places of public worship. Section 2 contains definitions:

“Section 2. Definitions:- In this Act, unless the context
otherwise requires, –

(a) “Hindu” includes a person professing the Buddhist, Sikh or
Jaina religion;

(b) “place of public worship” means a place, by whatever name
known or to whomsoever belonging, which is dedicated to, or
for the benefit of, or is used generally by, Hindus or any section
or class thereof, for the performance of any religious service or
for offering prayers therein, and includes all lands and
subsidiary shrines, mutts, devasthanams, namaskara
mandapams and nalambalams appurtenant or attached to any
such place, and also any sacred tanks, wells, springs and
water courses the waters of which are worshipped, or are used
for bathing or for worship, but does not include a “sreekoil”;

(c) “section or class” includes any division, sub-division, caste,
sub-caste, sect or denomination whatsoever.”

8 The “1965 Act”

31
PART C

Section 3 provides for places of public worship to be open to all sections and

classes of Hindus:

“Section 3. Places of public worship to be open to all section
and classes of Hindus:-

Notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained in any other
law for the time being in force or any custom or usage or any
instrument having effect by virtue of any such law or any
decree or order of court, every place of public worship which is
open to Hindus generally or to any section or class thereof,
shall be open to all sections and classes of Hindus; and no
Hindu of whatsoever section or class shall, in any manner, be
prevented, obstructed or discouraged from entering such place
of public worship, or from worshipping or offering prayers
thereat, or performing any religious service therein, in the like
manner and to the like extent as any other Hindu of whatsoever
section or class may enter, worship, pray or perform:

Provided that in the case of a place of public worship which is
a temple founded for the benefit of any religious denomination
or section thereof, the provisions of this section, shall be
subject to the right of that religious denomination or section as
the case may be, to manage its own affairs in matters of
religion.”

Section 4 deals with the power to make regulations:

“Section 4. Power to make regulations for the maintenance of
order and decorum and the due performance of rites and
ceremonies in places of public worship:-

(1) The trustee or any other person in charge of any place
public worship shall have power, subject to the control of the
competent authority and any rules which may be made by that
authority, to make regulations for the maintenance of order and
the decorum in the place of public worship and the due
observance of the religious rites and ceremonies performed
therein:

Provided that no regulation made under this sub-section shall
discriminate in any manner whatsoever, against any Hindu on
the ground that he belongs to a particular section or class.

(2) The competent authority referred to in sub-section (1) shall
be,-

32

PART C

(i) in relation to a place of public worship situated in any area
to which Part I of the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious
Institutions Act, 1950 (Travancore-Cochin Act XV of 1930),
extends, the Travancore Devaswom Board;

(ii) in relation to a place of public worship situated in any area
to which Part II of the said Act extends, the Cochin Devaswom
Board; and

(iii) in relation to a place of public worship situated in any other
area in the State of Kerala, the Government.”

The State of Kerala in exercise of the power under Section 4 framed the Kerala

Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorization of Entry) Rules 1965.9 Rule 3 of

the 1965 Rules is extracted below:

“Rule 3. The classes of persons mentioned here under shall not
be entitled to offer worship in any place of public worship or bathe
in or use the water of any sacred tank, well, spring or water
course appurtenant to a place of public worship whether situate
within or outside precincts thereof, or any sacred place including
a hill or hill lock, or a road, street or pathways which is requisite
for obtaining access to the place of public worship-

(a) Persons who are not Hindus.

(b) Women at such time during which they are not by custom
and usage allowed to enter a place of public worship.

(c) Persons under pollution arising out of birth or death in their
families.

(d) Drunken or disorderly persons.

(e) Persons suffering from any loathsome or contagious disease.

(f) Persons of unsound mind except when taken for worship
under proper control and with the permission of the executive
authority of the place of public worship concerned.

(g) Professional beggars when their entry is solely for the
purpose of begging.”

(Emphasis Supplied)

9 The “1965 Rules”

33
PART C

27 The legality of banning the entry of women above the age of ten and

below the age of fifty to offer worship at Sabarimala shrine was sought to be

answered in 1992 by a Division Bench of the High Court of Kerala in S

Mahendran v The Secretary, Travancore Devaswom Board,

Thiruvananthapuram (“Mahendran”).10 A public interest litigation was

entertained by the High Court on the basis of a petition addressed by one S.

Mahendran. Upholding the exclusion of women from the ceremonies and prayer

at the shrine, the High Court concluded:

“44. Our conclusions are as follows:

(1) The restriction imposed on women aged above 10 and
below 50 from trekking the holy hills of Sabarimala and offering
worship at Sabarimala Shrine is in accordance with the usage
prevalent from time immemorial.

(2) Such restriction imposed by the Devaswom Board is not
violative of Articles 15, 25 and 26 of the Constitution of India.

(3) Such restriction is also not violative of the provisions of
Hindu Place of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Act,
1965 since there is no restriction between one section and
another section or between one class and another class
among the Hindus in the matter of entry to a temple whereas
the prohibition is only in respect of women of a particular age
group and not women as a class.”11

The High Court issued the following directions:-

“In the light of the aforesaid conclusions we direct the first
respondent, the Travancore Devaswom Board, not to permit
women above the age of 10 and below the age of 50 to trek
the holy hills of Sabarimala in connection with the pilgrimage
to the Sabarimala temple and from offering worship at
Sabarimala Shrine during any period of the year. We also
direct the 3rd respondent, Government of Kerala, to render all
necessary assistance inclusive of police and to see that the
direction which we have issued to the Devaswom Board is
implemented and complied with.”

10 AIR 1993 Ker 42
11 Ibid, at page 57

34
PART D

D The reference

28 When the present case came up before a three judge Bench of this Court,

by an order dated 13 October 2017, the following questions were referred to a

larger bench:

“1 Whether the exclusionary practice which is based upon a
biological factor exclusive to the female gender amounts to
“discrimination” and thereby violates the very core of Articles
14, 15 and 17 and not protected by ‘morality’ as used in Articles
25 and 26 of the Constitution?

2. Whether the practice of excluding such women constitutes
an “essential religious practice” under Article 25 and whether a
religious institution can assert a claim in that regard under the
umbrella of right to manage its own affairs in the matters of
religion?

3. Whether Ayyappa Temple has a denominational character
and, if so, is it permissible on the part of a ‘religious
denomination’ managed by a statutory board and financed
under Article 290-A of the Constitution of India out of
Consolidated Fund of Kerala and Tamil Nadu can indulge in
such practices violating constitutional principles/ morality
embedded in Articles 14, 15(3), 39(a) and 51-A(e)?

4. Whether Rule 3 of Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship
(Authorisation of Entry) Rules permits ‘religious denomination’
to ban entry of women between the age of 10 to 50 years? And
if so, would it not play foul of Articles 14 and 15(3) of the
Constitution by restricting entry of women on the ground of
sex?

5. Whether Rule 3(b) of Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship
(Authorization of Entry) Rules, 1965 is ultra vires the Kerala
Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Act,
1965 and, if treated to be intra vires, whether it will be violative
of the provisions of Part III of the Constitution?”

It is these questions that we have been called upon to answer.

35

PART E

E Submissions

The Petitioners challenge the exclusion of women between the age group ten

and fifty from the Sabarimala Temple as unconstitutional.

Mr Ravi Prakash Gupta,12 learned Counsel submitted that the exclusion of

women between the age group of ten and fifty from the Sabarimala Temple is

unconstitutional on the following grounds:

i. The devotees of Lord Ayyappa do not constitute a religious denomination

under Article 26 of the Constitution;

ii. The restriction of entry of women into Sabarimala temple does not

constitute an Essential Religious Practice;

iii. The right under Article 26 and Article 25 must be read harmoniously as

laid down in Devaru; and

iv. That Rule 3(b) of the 1965 Rules is ultra vires the 1965 Act and Article 14

and 15 of the Constitution.

12 Appearing for the Petitioners – Indian Young Lawyer’s Association

36
PART E

Ms Indira Jaising,13 learned Senior Counsel, submits that the exclusion from

the Sabarimala temple is unconstitutional:

i. The exclusionary practice is based on physiological factors exclusive to

the female gender and this violates Articles 14, 15 and 21 of the

Constitution;

ii. The practice of exclusion based on menstruation constitutes a form of

untouchability and is prohibited by Article 17 of the Constitution;

iii. The devotees of Lord Ayyappa do not constitute a religious denomination

under Article 26 of the Constitution;

iv. The practice of excluding women from the Sabarimala temple does not

constitute an Essential Religious Practice;

v. That the impugned custom of excluding women falls within the ambit of

‘laws in force’ in Article 13 and is constitutionally invalid; and

vi. That Rule 3(b) of the 1965 Rules is ultra vires the 1965 Act.

Mr Raju Ramachandran, learned Senior Counsel who has assisted the Court

as Amicus Curiae made the following submissions:

i. That the right of a woman to worship is an essential aspect of her right to

worship under Article 25;

ii. That the exclusion of women from Sabarimala temple amounts to

discrimination prohibited under Article 15(1) of the Constitution;

13 Appearing for the Intervenors – Nikita Azad Arora and Sukhjeet Singh

37
PART E

iii. That compulsory disclosure of menstrual status by women is a violation

of their right to privacy under Article 21 of the Constitution;

iv. The term ‘morality’ in Article 25 and 26 embodies constitutional morality;

v. That Rule 3(b) of the 1965 Rules is ultra vires the 1965 Act;

vi. The devotees of Lord Ayyappa do not constitute a religious denomination

under Article 26 of the Constitution;

vii. The practice of excluding women from the Sabarimala temple does not

constitute an Essential Religious Practice;

viii. The prohibition against untouchability in Article 17 extends to the denial

of entry to women between the age group ten and fifty;

ix. A deity is not a juristic person for the purpose of rights enshrined in Part

III of the Constitution; and

x. That there is no requirement of trial as the recordings by the High Court

in Mahendran are sufficient.

Mr P V Surendranath,14 learned Senior Counsel submitted thus:

i. There is no proven custom of excluding women from the Sabarimala

temple;

ii. The practice of exclusion violates Article 14, 15, 25 and 51 of the

Constitution; and

14 Appearing for the Intervenors – All India Democratic Women’s Association

38
PART E

iii. In the case of a conflict between fundamental rights and customs, the

former would prevail in accordance with Article 13 of the Constitution.

Mr Jaideep Gupta,15 learned Senior Counsel submitted:

i. The State Government of Kerala stands by the affidavit filed on 13

November 2007 wherein the State Government was not in favour of any

discrimination against women;

ii. That women fall within the ambit of ‘section or class’ in Section 3 of the

1965 Act;

iii. Article 17 must be given a broad interpretation which prohibits the

exclusion of women;

iv. That Rule 3(b) of the 1965 Rules is ultra vires the 1965 Act;

v. The devotees of Lord Ayyappa do not constitute a religious denomination

under Article 26 of the Constitution;

vi. The practice of excluding women from the Sabarimala temple does not

constitute an Essential Religious Practice; and

vii. That the impugned custom of excluding women falls within the ambit of

Article 13 and is constitutionally invalid.

15 Appearing for the State of Kerala

39
PART E

The Respondents submitted that the practice of excluding women between the

age group of ten and fifty from the Sabarimala temple is constitutionally

permissible.

Dr. Abhishek Manu Singhvi,16 learned Senior Counsel submitted that the

practice of excluding women between the age group of ten and fifty from the

Sabarimala temple is constitutional and valid:

i. The exclusion of women is not based on gender and satisfies the test of

intelligible differentia and nexus to the object sought to be achieved;

ii. That Article 17 is inapplicable to the case at hand as the Article is

restricted to prohibiting caste and religion-based untouchability;

iii. The Sabarimala temple is a denominational temple and the exclusion of

women is in exercise of denomination rights under Article 26 of the

Constitution;

iv. Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution protect religious matters including

ceremonial issues and the exclusion of women is an exercise of this right;

v. That Article 13 of the Constitution does not apply to the present case; and

vi. That a separate trial would be required for the determination of facts.

16 Appearing on behalf of the Respondent – Travancore Devaswom Board

40
PART E

Shri K Parasaran,17 learned Senior Counsel submitted that the exclusion from

the Sabarimala temple is constitutionally permissible:

i. There exists an independent custom that permits the exclusion of women

from the Sabarimala temple;

ii. The right to exclude women of a particular age group from the temple

flows from the religious rights of the devotees under Article 25 of the

Constitution and the character of the deity as a Naishtika Brahmacharya;

iii. The custom is protected under Rule 3(b) the 1965 Rules; and

iv. That the notion of equality is enshrined in Article 25, and consequently,

Article 14 and 15 are inapplicable to the present case.

Mr K Ramamoorthy, learned Senior Counsel who assisted the Court as Amicus

Curiae made the following submissions:

i. That the exclusion of women between the age group ten and fifty does

not violate the rights of the Petitioners under Article 25; and

ii. The practice of exclusion is protected under Article 25.

Mr K Radhakrishnan,18 learned Senior Counsel submitted that the exclusion of

women between the ages ten and fifty is permissible:

i. The impugned practice constitutes an Essential Religious Practice; and

17 Appearing on behalf of the Respondent – Nair Service Society
18 Appearing on behalf of the Intervenor – Raja of Pandalam

41
PART E

ii. The prohibition of untouchability enshrined in Article 17 is inapplicable.

Mr V Giri,19 learned Senior Counsel submitted thus:

i. The exclusion of women constitutes an Essential Religious Practice and

is in accordance with character of the deity as a Naishtika

Brahmacharya.

Mr J Sai Deepak,20 learned Counsel submitted that the deity has constitutional

rights and that the practice of excluding women between the age group of ten

and fifty from worship at the Sabarimala temple is constitutional and

permissible:

i. The impugned practice is based on the character of the deity as a

Naishtika Brahmacharya;

ii. Given the form of the deity, the practice constitutes an Essential

Religious Practice;

iii. The devotees of Lord Ayyappa constitute a religious denomination under

Article 26 of the Constitution;

iv. That the presiding deity of Sabarimala Temple is a bearer of

constitutional rights under Articles 21 and 25 of the Constitution;

v. Article 17 of the Constitution has no applicability as it applies only to

untouchability based on caste and religion; and

19 Appearing on behalf of the Respondent – the Thantri
20 Appearing on behalf of K K Sabu and People for Dharma

42
PART E

vi. The impugned Rules and Act flow from the right of the denomination

under Article 26 and are constitutionally valid.

Mr V K Biju,21 learned Counsel submitted that the exclusion is constitutionally

permissible:

i. That the right of the deity as a juristic person sitting as a Naishtika

Brahmacharya cannot be questioned;

ii. That the exclusion is protected under Article 25 and 26 of the

Constitution; and

iii. The issue at hand cannot be decided without a determination of facts

that would take place at trial.

Mr Gopal Sankaranarayanan,22 learned Counsel made the following

submissions:

i. That Article 25 is not applicable to the present case;

ii. That the devotees of Lord Ayyappa constitute a religious denomination

under Article 26 of the Constitution; and

iii. The 1965 Act does not apply to the Sabarimala temple; In any case,

the proviso to Rule 3 of the 1965 Rules protects the rights of religious

denominations.

21 Appearing on behalf of the Lord Ayyappa Devotees
22 Appearing for Intervenor – Usha Nandini

43
PART F

F Essential Religious Practices

29 The doctrine of essential religious practices was first articulated in 1954,

in Commissioner, Hindu Religious Endowments, Madras v Sri

Lakshmindra Thirtha Swamiar of Shirur Mutt23 (“Shirur Mutt”). A seven

judge Bench of this Court considered a challenge to the Madras Hindu Religious

and Charitable Endowments Act 1951, which empowered a statutory

commissioner to frame and settle a scheme if they had reason to believe that

the religious institution was mismanaging funds. The Petitioner, the

mathadhipati (superior) of the Shirur Mutt monastery, claimed that the law

interfered with his right to manage the religious affairs of the monastery, and

therefore violated Article 26(b) of the Constitution.

Justice B K Mukherjea, writing for the Court, noted that Article 26(b) allowed a

religious denomination to ‘manage its own affairs in matters of religion’ and

framed a question on the ambit of ‘matters of religion’:

“16.The language undoubtedly suggests that there could be
other affairs of a religious denomination or a section thereof
which are not matters of religion and to which the guarantee
given by this clause would not apply. The question is, where
is the line to be drawn between what are matters of religion
and what are not?”

(Emphasis supplied)

23 1954 SCR 1005

44
PART F

The Court cited with approval the judgment of the High Court of Australia in

Adelaide Company of Jehovah’s Witnesses Incorporated v The

Commonwealth of Australia24, which held that the Constitution protected not

only “liberty of opinion” but also “acts done in pursuance of religious belief as

part of religion.” The court noted the importance of both religious belief and the

practice that stems from it, and provided an expansive definition of ‘religion’:

“A religion undoubtedly has its basis in a system of beliefs or
doctrines which are regarded by those who profess that
religion as conducive to their spiritual well-being, but it would
not be correct to say that religion is nothing else but a doctrine
or belief…The guarantee under our Constitution not only
protects the freedom of religious opinion but it protects
also acts done in pursuance of a religion and this is made
clear by the use of the expression “practice of religion” in
article 25.”
(Emphasis supplied)

Drawing a distinction between religious and secular practices, the court held

that:

“…What constitutes the essential part of a religion is
primarily to be ascertained with reference to the doctrines
of that religion itself. If the tenets of any religious sect of the
Hindus prescribe that offerings of food should be given to the
idol at particular hours of the day…all these would be regarded
as parts of religion and the mere fact that they involve
expenditure of money or employment of priests and servants
or the use of marketable commodities would not make them
secular activities partaking of a commercial or economic
character; all of them are religious practices and should be
regarded as matters of religion within the meaning of Article
26(b).”
(Emphasis supplied)

24 [1943] HCA 12

45
PART F

The Court ruled that the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Constitution

applied to freedom of both religious belief and practice. To distinguish between

the religious and the secular, the Court looked to the religion itself, and noted

that the views of adherents were crucial to the analysis of what constituted

‘essential’ aspects of religion.

30 This approach was followed in Ratilal Panachand Gandhi v State of

Bombay25 (“Ratilal”), where a Constitution Bench of this Court considered the

constitutionality of the Bombay Public Trusts Act, 1950. The Act sought to

regulate and make provisions for the administration of public and religious trusts

in the State of Bombay. The Petitioners challenged the validity of the Act on the

grounds that it interfered with their freedom of conscience, their right to freely

profess, practise and propagate their religion, and their right to manage their

religious affairs under Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution. Justice B K

Mukherjea, speaking for a Constitution Bench of this Court, expounded upon

the meaning and scope of Article 25:

“10…Subject to the restrictions which this article imposes,
every person has a fundamental right under our Constitution
not merely to entertain such religious belief as may be
approved of by his judgment or conscience but to exhibit his
belief and ideas in such overt acts as are enjoined or
sanctioned by his religion and further to propagate his religious
views for the edification of others.”

25 1954 SCR 1055

46
PART F

Speaking with reference to Article 26, Justice Mukherjea reiterated the broad

view taken by the Court in Shirur Mutt – that religious denominations had

‘complete autonomy’ to decide which religious practices were essential for

them:

“Religious practices or performances of acts in pursuance of
religious beliefs are as much a part of religion as faith or belief
in particular doctrines …

23…No outside authority has any right to say that these are not
essential parts of religion and it is not open to the secular
authority of the State to restrict or prohibit them in any manner
they like under the guise of administering the trust estate.”

The Court, however, recognized the limited role of the Court in the determination

of such a question:

“The distinction between matters of religion and those of
secular administration of religious properties may, at times,
appear to be a thin one. But in cases of doubt …the court
should take a common sense view and be actuated by
considerations of practical necessity.”
(Emphasis supplied)

31 The late 1950s witnessed two cases that were central to the evolution of

the essential practices doctrine. In Sri Venkataramana Devaru v State of

Mysore26 (“Devaru”), a Constitution Bench of this Court considered the

constitutionality of the Madras Temple Entry Authorisation Act, 1947, which

sought to reform the practice of religious exclusion of Dalits from a

denominational temple founded by the Gowda Saraswat Brahmins. The Court

26 (1958) SCR 895

47
PART F

accepted the claim that the temple was a denominational temple founded for

the benefit of the Gowda Saraswats, and proceeded to examine whether

exercising the right of a religious denomination under Article 26(b), they were

‘entitled to exclude other communities from entering into it for worship on the

ground that it was a matter of religion.’

Rather than allowing the religious denomination ‘complete autonomy in the

matter of deciding as to what rites and ceremonies are essential’, the Court

examined scripture and precedent to determine whether the exclusion of a

person from entering into a temple for worship was a matter of religion under

Hindu Ceremonial Law. Justice Venkatarama Aiyar reviewed ancient literature,

the practice of Hindus, and the role of temples in that practice, and concluded

on behalf of the Court that:

“18…Thus, under the ceremonial law pertaining to temples,
who are entitled to enter them for worship and where they are
entitled to stand and worship and how the worship is to be
conducted are all matters of religion.” (Emphasis supplied)

This firmly established the Court’s role in determining what constituted

‘essential’ religious practices. However, the matter did not end here. The Gowda

Saraswats claimed their right to manage their own religious affairs under Article

26(b), whereas the State claimed that it had a constitutional mandate to throw

open Hindu temples ‘to all classes and sections of Hindus’ under Article

25(2)(b). Noting that the two are “apparently in conflict”, the Court considered

whether the right of a religious denomination to manage its own affairs in

48
PART F

matters of religion guaranteed under Article 26(b) was subject to, and could be

controlled by, a law protected by Article 25(2)(b), throwing open a Hindu public

temple to all classes and sections of Hindus:

“Article 26, it was contended, should therefore be construed as
falling wholly outside Art. 25(2)(b), which should be limited to
institutions other than denominational ones… The answer to
this contention is that it is impossible to read any such limitation
into the language of Art. 25(2)(b). It applies in terms to all
religious institutions of a public character without qualification
or reserve. As already stated, public institutions would mean
not merely temples dedicated to the public as a whole but also
those founded for the benefit of sections thereof, and
denominational temples would be comprised therein. The
language of the Article being plain and unambiguous, it is not
open to us to read into it limitations which are not there, based
on a priori reasoning as to the probable intention of the
Legislature. Such intention can be gathered only from the
words actually used in the statute; and in a Court of law, what
is unexpressed has the same value as what is unintended. We
must therefore hold that denominational institutions are within
Art. 25(2)(b).”

Applying the doctrine of harmonious construction, the Court held that the

protection under Article 25(2)(b) vanishes in its entirety if it is held that Article

26(b) allows no exceptions or is not subject to Article 25(2)(b):

“If the denominational rights are such that to give effect to them
would substantially reduce the right conferred by Art. 25(2)(b),
then of course, on our conclusion that Art. 25(2)(b) prevails as
against Art. 26(b), the denominational rights must vanish. But
where that is not the position, and after giving effect to the
rights of the denomination what is left to the public of the right
of worship is something substantial and not merely the husk of
it, there is no reason why we should not so construe Art.

25(2)(b) as to give effect to Art. 26(b) and recognise the rights
of the denomination in respect of matters which are strictly
denominational, leaving the rights of the public in other
respects unaffected.”

49
PART F

32 This case marked a nuance of the essential practices doctrine laid down

in Shirur Mutt, where a denomination was granted ‘complete autonomy’ to

determine which practices it considered to be essential. In Shirur Mutt, the

autonomy to decide what is essential to religion was coupled with the definition

of religion itself, which was to comprehend belief and practice. In Devaru, the

Court laid down a crucial precedent in carving out its role in examining the

essentiality of such practices. While the Court would take into consideration the

views of a religious community in determining whether a practice qualified as

essential, this would not be determinative.

Prior to Devaru, this Court used the word ‘essential’ to distinguish between

religious and secular practices in order to circumscribe the extent of state

intervention in religious matters. The shift in judicial approach took place when

‘essentially religious’ (as distinct from the secular) became conflated with

‘essential to religion.’ The Court’s enquiry into the essentiality of the practice in

question represented a shift in the test, which now enjoined upon the Court the

duty to decide which religious practices would be afforded constitutional

protection, based on the determination of what constitutes an essential religious

practice.

33 In Mohd. Hanif Quareshi v State of Bihar27 (“Qureshi”), a Constitution

Bench of this Court considered whether laws prohibiting cattle slaughter

27(1959) SCR 629

50
PART F

infringed upon the fundamental right to religion of the Petitioners, who were

members of the Muslim Qureshi Community. The Petitioners claimed that these

laws were violative of Article 25 of the Constitution as Muslims were compelled

by their religion to sacrifice cows at Bakr-Id. The Court placed reliance upon

Islamic religious texts to determine that the sacrificing of cows at Bakr-Id was

not an essential practice for Muslims:

“13…No reference is made in the petition to any particular Surah
of the Holy Quran which, in terms, requires the sacrifice of a
cow…What the Holy book enjoins is that people should pray unto
the Lord and make sacrifice…It is therefore, optional for a Muslim
to sacrifice a goat for one person or a cow or a camel for seven
persons. It does not appear to be obligatory that a person
must sacrifice a cow. The very fact of an option seems to run
counter to the notion of an obligatory duty…”
(Emphasis supplied)

In response to the claim that Muslims had been sacrificing cows since time

immemorial and that this practice was sanctioned by their religion and was

therefore protected by Article 25, the Court observed that:

“13…It is part of the known history of India that the Moghul
Emperor Babar saw the wisdom of prohibiting the slaughter of
cows as and by way of religious sacrifice and directed his son
Humayun to follow this example…We have, however, no
material on the record before us which will enable us to
say, in the face of the foregoing facts, that the sacrifice of
a cow on that day is an obligatory overt act for a
Mussalman to exhibit his religious belief and idea. In the
premises, it is not possible for us to uphold this claim of the
petitioners.”

(Emphasis supplied)

51
PART F

The Court looked to the texts and scriptures of the religious community to

conclude that the practice claimed to be essential was not supported by religious

tenets.

34 In Durgah Committee, Ajmer v Syed Hussain Ali28 (“Durgah

Committee”), a Constitution Bench of this Court considered a challenge to the

Durgah Khawaja Saheb Act, 1955, which provided for the constitution of a

Committee to manage a Muslim Durgah. The Respondents, who were

khadims29 of the Durgah, contended that the Act barred them from managing

the Durgah and receiving offerings from pilgrims, and hence infringed upon their

rights under Article 26 as Muslims belonging to the Soofi Chishtia Order. Rather

than making a reference to scriptures, Justice Gajendragadkar, writing for the

Court, considered the history of the Ajmer shrine to determine that the right to

administer the property never vested in the Respondents:

“22. Thus it would be clear that from the middle of the 16th
Century to the middle of the 20th Century the administration
and management of the Durgah Endowment has been true to
the same pattern. The said administration has been treated as
a matter with which the State is concerned and it has been left
in charge of the Mutawallis who were appointed from time to
time by the State and even removed when they were found to
be guilty of misconduct or when it was felt that their work was
unsatisfactory.”

28
(1962) 1 SCR 383
29 According to the khadims, they were descendants of two followers of the twelfth century Sufi saint Khwaja
Moinuddin Chisti, whose tomb at Ajmer is known as the Durgah Khwaja Saheb. The khadims also claimed they
belonged to a religious denomination known as the Chishtia Sufis.

52

PART F

Before parting with the judgment, Justice Gajendragadkar issued an important

“note of caution”:

“33…in order that the practices in question should be
treated as a part of religion they must be regarded by the
said religion as its essential and integral part; otherwise
even purely secular practices which are not an essential
or an integral part of religion are apt to be clothed with a
religious form and may make a claim for being treated as
religious practices within the meaning of Article 26.

Similarly, even practices though religious may have
sprung from merely superstitious beliefs and may in that
sense be extraneous and unessential accretions to
religion itself. Unless such practices are found to constitute
an essential and integral part of a religion their claim for the
protection under Article 26 may have to be carefully
scrutinised; in other words, the protection must be confined to
such religious practices as are an essential and an integral part
of it and no other.”
(Emphasis supplied)

35 This statement pushed the essential religious practices doctrine in a new

direction. The Court distinguished, for the first time, between ‘superstitious

beliefs’ and religious practice. Apart from engaging in a judicial enquiry to

determine whether a practice claimed to be essential was in fact grounded in

religious scriptures, beliefs, and tenets, the Court would ‘carefully scrutinize’ that

the practice claiming constitutional protection does not claim superstition as its

base. This was considered a necessary safeguard to ensure that superstitious

beliefs would not be afforded constitutional protection in the garb of an essential

religious practice. The Court also emphasized that purely secular matters

clothed with a religious form do not enjoy protection as an essential part of

religion.

53

PART F

36 The test was narrowed down further in Sardar Syedna Taher Saifuddin

Saheb v State of Bombay (“Saifuddin”),30 where this Court, by a 4-1 majority,

struck down the Bombay Prevention of Excommunication Act, 1949, which

prohibited the practice of excommunication within religious communities. The

Court held that the practice of excommunication within the Dawoodi Bohra faith

on religious grounds fell within ‘matters of religion’ under Article 26(b) and was

thus constitutionally protected. Justice Das Gupta, writing for the majority,

emphasized that the practice claimed to be essential must be based strictly on

religious grounds in order to claim constitutional protection:

“43…The barring of excommunication on grounds other
than religious grounds say, on the breach of some
obnoxious social rule or practice might be a measure of
social reform and a law which bars such excommunication
merely might conceivably come within the saving
provisions of clause 2(b) of Art. 25. But barring of
excommunication on religious grounds pure and simple,
cannot however be considered to promote social welfare and
reform and consequently the law in so far as it invalidates
excommunication on religious grounds and takes away the
Dai’s power to impose such excommunication cannot
reasonably be considered to be a measure of social welfare
and reform.” (Emphasis supplied)

The Court, therefore, enquired into the basis of excommunication: if its basis

was strictly religious, the practice would warrant constitutional protection. If,

however, the practice was based on any other ground, it would be open to the

Legislature to prohibit such a practice.

30 1962 Supp (2) SCR 496

54
PART F

37 In a strong dissent, Chief Justice Sinha concluded that the matter of

excommunication was not purely of a religious nature. Clarifying that his

analysis was confined to the civil rights of the members of the community,

Justice Sinha opined:

“11…The impugned Act, thus, has given full effect to modern
notions of individual freedom to choose one’s way of life and to
do away with all those undue and outmoded interferences with
liberty of conscience, faith and belief. It is also aimed at
ensuring human dignity and removing all those restrictions
which prevent a person from living his own life so long as he
did not interfere with similar rights of others.”

Justice Sinha drew a distinction between ‘matters of religion’ as protected under

Article 26(b) and activities associated with religion, though not intimately

connected with it:

“18…Now, Art. 26(b) itself would seem to indicate that a
religious denomination has to deal not only with matters of
religion, but other matters connected with religion, like laying
down rules and regulations for the conduct of its members and
the penalties attached to infringement of those rules, managing
property owned and possessed by the religious community,
etc., etc. We have therefore, to draw a line of demarcation
between practises consisting of rites and ceremonies
connected with the particular kind of worship, which is the tenet
of the religious community, and practises in other matters
which may touch the religious institutions at several points, but
which are not intimately concerned with rites and ceremonies
the performance of which is an essential part of the religion.”

Justice Sinha noticed the extreme consequences that follow excommunication:

“24. On the social aspect of excommunication, one is inclined
to think that the position of an excommunicated person
becomes that of an untouchable in his community, and if that
is so, the Act in declaring such practises to be void has only
carried out the strict injunction of Art. 17 of the Constitution, by

55
PART F

which untouchability has been abolished and its practice in any
form forbidden. The Article further provides that the
enforcement of any disability arising out of untouchability shall
be an offence punishable in accordance with law. The Act, in
this sense, is its logical corollary and must, therefore, be
upheld.”

The decision in Saifuddin is presently pending consideration before a larger

bench.

38 Durgah Committee and Saifuddin established the role of this Court in

scrutinizing claims of practices essential to religion in order to deny

constitutional protection to those practices that were not strictly based in

religion. Ascertaining what was “essential” to a religious denomination

“according to its own tenets” required a scrutiny of its religious texts. Durgah

Committee laid down that the court would ‘carefully scrutinize’ claims to deny

constitutional protection to those claims which are religious but spring from

superstitious beliefs and are not essential to religion. Saifuddin laid down that

a practice grounded on an obnoxious social rule or practice may be within the

ambit of social reform that the State may carry out. This view infuses the

doctrine with a safeguard against claims by religious denominations that any

practice with a religious undertone would fall within the protection afforded by

Article 26(b) to them to ‘manage its own affairs in matters of religion.’

56
PART F

39 In Tilkayat Shri Govindlalji Maharaj v State of Rajasthan (“Tilkayat”)31,

a Constitution Bench of this Court dealt with a challenge to Nathdwara Temple

Act 1959, which provides for the appointment of a board to manage the affairs

of the temple and its property. The Petitioner, the spiritual head of the temple,

claimed that the temple and its properties were private and that the State

legislature was not competent to pass the law. He contended that even if the

temple was held to be a public temple, the Act infringed Articles 25, 26(b) and

26(c) because the temple was managed by the Tilkayat as head of the Vallabh

denomination. The Court relied on firmans (edicts or administrative orders)

issued by emperors of the erstwhile Mughal Empire to hold that the temple was

public and that the Tilkayat was “merely a custodian, manager and trustee of

the temple.” Justice Gajendragadkar, writing for the Bench, underlined why the

claims of a community regarding their religious practices could not be accepted

without scrutiny:

“57.In deciding the question as to whether a given religious
practice is an integral part of the religion or not, the test always
would be whether it is regarded as such by the community
following the religion or not. This formula may in some cases
present difficulties in its operation…In cases where conflicting
evidence is produced in respect of rival contentions as to
competing religious practices the Court may not be able to
resolve the dispute by a blind application of the formula that the
community decides which practice is an integral part of its
religion, because the community may speak with more than
one voice and the formula would therefore break down. The
question will always have to be decided by the Court…”

31 (1964) 1 SCR 561

57
PART F

In this regard, the Court noted that:

“58…What is protected under Articles 25(1) and 26(b)
respectively are the religious practices and the right to manage
affairs in matters of religion. If the practice in question is purely
secular or the affair which is controlled by the statute is
essentially and absolutely secular in character, it cannot be
urged that Article 25(1) or Article 26(b) has been contravened.”

Tilkayat set forth an important qualification to the proposition laid down in

Shirur Mutt, which held that adherents themselves must be allowed to

determine what was essential to their religion. The Court observed that where

‘conflicting evidence is produced in respect of rival contentions as to competing

religious practices,’ a ‘blind application’ of the Shirur Mutt formula may not

resolve a dispute, because persons within a community may have diverse and

contrasting conceptions of what is essential to their religion. It was therefore

held to be incumbent upon the Court to determine not only whether a practice

was religious in character, but also whether it could be considered an essential

part of religion. Beginning with the Shirur Mutt formulation that what is essential

to religion would be determined by the adherents to the faith, the Court moved

towards a doctrine that what is essential “will always have to be decided by the

Court.” In fact, the Court would determine whether a statute sought to regulate

what is “essentially and absolutely secular.” What is religious and what is

secular and the boundaries of both were then to be adjudicated by the Court.

58

PART F

40 In Sastri Yagnapurushadji v. Muldas Bhudardas Vaishya32 (“Sastri

Yagnapurushadji”), a Constitution Bench of this Court was seized with the

issue of whether the Swaminarayan sect could be exempted from the

application of the Bombay Hindu Places of Public Worship (Entry Authorization)

Act, 1956, which allowed Dalits to worship in all temples to which the Act

applied. The Petitioners, who were members of the Swaminarayan sect,

contended that by virtue of being a non-Hindu creed, temples belonging to the

sect did not fall within the ambit of the Act. Justice Gajendragadkar, writing for

the Court, rejected this claim:

“55.It may be conceded that the genesis of the suit is the
genuine apprehension entertained by the appellants, but as
often happens in these matters the said apprehension is
founded on superstition, ignorance and complete
misunderstanding of the true teachings of Hindu religion
and of the real significance of the tenets and philosophy
taught by Swaminarayan himself.”
(Emphasis supplied)

Quoting Tilak, Justice Gajendragadkar then expounded the distinctive features

of Hinduism:

“40.Tilak faced this complex and difficult problem of defining or
at least describing adequately Hindu religion and he evolved a
working formula which may be regarded as fairly adequate and
satisfactory. Said Tilak: “Acceptance of the Vedas with
reverence; recognition of the fact that the means or ways
to salvation are diverse and realisation of the truth that the
number of gods to be worshipped is large, that indeed is
the distinguishing feature of Hindu religion.”
(Emphasis supplied)

32 (1966) 3 SCR 242

59
PART F

41 In Acharya Jagdishwaranand Avadhuta v. Commissioner of Police,

Calcutta33 (“Avadhuta I”), a three judge Bench of this Court considered

whether the police could prevent the Ananda Margis from performing the

‘tandava dance’ in public, in which adherents dance in a public procession

carrying knives, live snakes, tridents, and skulls. The Court enquired ‘whether

performance of Tandava dance is a religious rite or practice essential to the

tenets of the religious faith of the Ananda Margis.’ Justice Ranganath Misra,

writing for the Court, held that since the Ananda Margis were a recent religious

order, and the tandava dance an even more recent innovation, it could not be

considered an essential religious practice:

“14.Ananda Marga as a religious order is of recent origin and
tandava dance as a part of religious rites of that order is still
more recent. It is doubtful as to whether in such circumstances
tandava dance can be taken as an essential religious rite of the
Ananda Margis.

“Even conceding that Tandava dance has been prescribed as
a religious rite for every follower of Ananda Margis it does not
follow as a necessary corollary that Tandava dance to be
performed in the public is a matter of religious rite. In fact, there
is no justification in any of the writings of Shri Ananda Murti that
tandava dance must be performed in public.”34

42 In Sri Adi Visheshwara of Kashi Vishwanath Temple, Varanasi v

State of Uttar Pradesh35 (“Adi Visheshwara”), a three judge Bench of this

Court dealt with a challenge to the Uttar Pradesh Sri Kashi Vishwanath Temple

Act, 1983, which entrusted the State with the management of the temple as

33 (1983) 4 SCC 522
34 Ibid, at pages 532-533
35 (1997) 4 SCC 606

60
PART F

opposed to the Pandas (priests). The priests contended that this violated their

right under Article 25(1) and Article 26(b) and (d) of the Constitution. Rejecting

that the claim and holding that the management of a temple is a secular activity,

this Court held that the Sri Vishwanath Temple is not a denominational temple

and that the Appellants are not denominational worshippers. In a view similar to

that taken by Justice Gajendragadkar in Tilkayat, the Court cautioned against

extending constitutional protection to purely secular practices clothed with a

religious form:

“28…Sometimes, practices, religious or secular, are
inextricably mixed up. This is more particularly so in regard
to Hindu religion because under the provisions of the ancient
Smriti, human actions from birth to death and most of the
individual actions from day-today are regarded as religious in
character in one facet or the other. They sometimes claim the
religious system or sanctuary and seek the cloak of
constitutional protection guaranteed by Articles 25 and 26. One
hinges upon constitutional religious model and another
diametrically more on traditional point of view. The legitimacy
of the true categories is required to be adjudged strictly
within the parameters of the right of the individual and the
legitimacy of the State for social progress, well-being and
reforms, social intensification and national unity.”36
(Emphasis supplied)

43 In N Adithayan v Travancore Devaswom Board37 (“Travancore

Devaswom Board”), a two judge Bench of this Court was seized with the issue

of whether the Travancore Devaswom Board could appoint a non-Malayala

Brahmin as priest of the Kongorpilly Neerikode Siva Temple. Justice

36 Ibid, at page 630
37 (2002) 8 SCC 106

61
PART F

Doraiswamy Raju, writing for the Court, held that there was no evidence on

record to demonstrate that only Brahmins were entitled to serve as priests.

Rejecting the claim that Shirur Mutt laid down the proposition that all practices

arising out of religion are afforded constitutional protection, the Court held:

“18…The attempted exercise by the learned Senior Counsel
for the appellant to read into the decisions of this Court in Shirur
Mutt’s case (supra) and others something more than what it
actually purports to lay down as if they lend support to assert
or protect any and everything claimed as being part of the
religious rituals, rites, observances and method of worship and
make such claims immutable from any restriction or regulation
based on the other provisions of the Constitution or the law
enacted to implement such constitutional mandate, deserves
only to be rejected as merely a superficial approach by
purporting to deride what otherwise has to have really an
overriding effect, in the scheme of rights declared and
guaranteed under Part III of the Constitution of India. Any
custom or usage irrespective of even any proof of their
existence in pre constitutional days cannot be
countenanced as a source of law to claim any rights when
it is found to violate human rights, dignity, social equality
and the specific mandate of the Constitution and law made
by Parliament. No usage which is found to be pernicious
and considered to be in derogation of the law of the land
or opposed to public policy or social decency can be
accepted or upheld by courts in the country.”38
(Emphasis supplied)

44 The question of the essential religious nature of the Tandava dance was

considered again in 2004, in Commissioner of Police v. Acharya

Jagdishwarananda Avadhuta39 (“Avadhuta II”). After Avadhuta I, the

religious book of the Anand Margis, the Carya-Carya, was revised to prescribe

the Anand Tandava as an essential religious practice. Laying emphasis on the

‘essential’ nature of the practice claimed, the majority, in a 2-1 split verdict, held

38 Ibid, at pages 124-125
39 (2004) 12 SCC 770

62
PART F

that the practice must be of such a nature that its absence would result in a

fundamental change in the character of that religion:

“9.Essential part of a religion means the core beliefs upon
which a religion is founded. Essential practice means those
practices that are fundamental to follow a religious belief. It is
upon the cornerstone of essential parts or practices that the
superstructure of a religion is built, without which a religion will
be no religion. Test to determine whether a part or practice
is essential to a religion is to find out whether the nature
of the religion will be changed without that part or practice.
If the taking away of that part or practice could result in a
fundamental change in the character of that religion or in
its belief, then such part could be treated as an essential
or integral part.

There cannot be additions or subtractions to such part
because it is the very essence of that religion and
alterations will change its fundamental character. It is
such permanent essential parts which are protected by the
Constitution…Such alterable parts or practices are
definitely not the ‘core’ of religion where the belief is based
and religion is founded upon. It could only be treated as
mere embellishments to the non-essential part or
practices.”40
(Emphasis supplied)

The essentiality test came to be linked to the “fundamental character” of the

religion. If the abrogation of a practice does not change the fundamental nature

of the religion, the practice itself is not essential.

Rejecting the claim of the Anand Margis, the majority held that the Ananda Margi

order was in existence (1955-66) even without the practice of the Tandava

dance. Hence, such a practice would not constitute the ‘core’ of the religion.

40 Ibid, at pages 782-783

63
PART F

Further, religious groups could not be permitted to alter their religious doctrine

to recognize certain religious practices, in order to afford them constitutional

protection.

45 In Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal Nala Sangam v. Government of Tamil

Nadu41 (“Adi Saiva”), a two judge Bench of this Court considered a challenge

to a Government Order issued by the State of Tamil Nadu which permitted ‘any

qualified Hindu’ to be appointed as the Archaka of a temple. The Petitioners

challenged the Government Order on the grounds that it violated their right to

appoint Archakas from their own denomination in accordance with the Agamas.

In determining the constitutional validity of the Government Order, this Court

held that any religious belief or practice must pass constitutional muster in order

to be afforded constitutional protection:

“48.The requirement of constitutional conformity is inbuilt and
if a custom or usage is outside the protective umbrella afforded
and envisaged by Articles 25 and 26, the law would certainly
take its own course. The constitutional legitimacy, naturally,
must supersede all religious beliefs or practices.”42
(Emphasis supplied)

46 In Shayara Bano v Union of India43 (“Shayara Bano”), a Constitution

Bench of this Court considered whether the practice of triple talaq was an

essential practice to the Hanafi school of Sunni Muslims. Based on an

examination of Islamic jurisprudence which established that triple talaq

41 (2016) 2 SCC 725
42 Ibid, at page 755
43 (2017) 9 SCC 1

64
PART F

constitutes an irregular practice of divorce, the majority opinion, in a 3-2 split,

held that triple talaq was not an essential practice. Justice Nariman, speaking

for himself and Justice Lalit, noted that “a practice does not acquire the sanction

of religion simply because it is permitted” and applied the essential religious

practices test set out in Javed v State of Haryana44 and Avadhuta II to the

practice of triple talaq:

“54…It is clear that Triple Talaq is only a form of Talaq which is
permissible in law, but at the same time, stated to be sinful by
the very Hanafi school which tolerates it. According to Javed
(supra), therefore, this would not form part of any essential
religious practice. Applying the test stated in Acharya
Jagdishwarananda (supra), it is equally clear that the
fundamental nature of the Islamic religion, as seen through an
Indian Sunni Muslim’s eyes, will not change without this
practice.”45

Justice Kurian Joseph, concurring with Justices Nariman and Lalit, held that on

an examination of the Quran and Islamic legal scholarship, the practice of triple

talaq could not be considered an essential religious practice. He opined that

“merely because a practice has continued for long, that by itself cannot make it

valid if it has been expressly declared to be impermissible.”

Chief Justice Khehar, who delivered the minority judgment, held that the

practice of triple talaq is integral to the religion of Hanafi Muslims. He reasoned

that:

“[T]here can be no dispute on two issues. Firstly, that the
practice of ‘talaq-e-biddat’ has been in vogue since the period

44 (2003) 8 SCC 369
45 Ibid, at page 69

65
PART F

of Umar, which is roughly more than 1400 years ago.

Secondly, that ‘talaq-e-biddat’ though bad in theology, was
considered as “good” in law.”

On the basis of the history and prevalence of triple talaq in practice, Justice

Khehar held that even though triple talaq “is considered as irreligious within the

religious denomination in which the practice is prevalent, yet the denomination

considers it valid in law.”

While the majority based its conclusion on an examination of the substantive

doctrines of Islam and the theological sanctity of triple talaq, the minority relied

on the widespread practice of triple talaq to determine its essentiality. The

majority and minority concurred, however, that the belief of a religious

denomination claiming a particular practice to be essential must be taken into

consideration in the determination of the essentiality of that practice.

47 In its jurisprudence on religious freedom, this Court has evolved a body

of principles which define the freedom of religion under Article 25 and Article 26

to practices ‘essential’ to the religion. The Constitution has been held to protect

not only freedom of religious belief, but acts done in pursuance of those beliefs.

While the views of a religious denomination are to be taken into consideration

in determining whether a practice is essential, those views are not determinative

of its essentiality. The Court has assumed a central role in determining what is

or is not essential to religious belief. Intrinsic to the role which the Court has

66
PART F

carved out, it has sought to distinguish between what is religious and what is a

secular practice, even if it is associated with a religious activity. Going further,

the Court has enquired into whether a practice is essential to religion.

Essentiality of the practice would, as the Court as held depend on whether the

fundamental character of a religion would be altered. if it were not observed.

Above all, there is an emphasis on constitutional legitimacy, which underscores

need to preserve the basic constitutional values associated with the dignity of

the individual. The ephemeral distinction between religion and superstition

becomes more coherent in terms of the need to preserve fundamental

constitutional values associated with human liberty.

48 In determining the essentiality of a practice, it is crucial to consider

whether the practice is prescribed to be of an obligatory nature within that

religion. If a practice is optional, it has been held that it cannot be said to be

‘essential’ to a religion. A practice claimed to be essential must be such that the

nature of the religion would be altered in the absence of that practice. If there is

a fundamental change in the character of the religion, only then can such a

practice be claimed to be an ‘essential’ part of that religion.

In Tilkayat, this Court noted that ‘whether an affair in question is an affair in

matters of religion or not, may present difficulties because sometimes practices,

religious and secular, are inextricably mixed up.’ The process of disentangling

them in order to adjudicate upon claims grounded in Article 25 and Article 26(b)

67
PART F

becomes ultimately an exercise of judicial balancing. Durgah Committee

established that in examining a claim that a practice is essential to religion, the

Court must ‘carefully scrutinize’ the claims put before it in order to ensure that

practices which have sprung from ‘superstitious beliefs’, through grounded in

religion, will not be afforded constitutional protection. Saifuddin recognized that

where a purportedly essential practice is based on an ‘obnoxious social rule or

practice’, it would be amenable to a measure of social reform.

Of crucial importance are the observations in Devaru, where the Court

harmonized the inherent tension between the individual right under Article

25(2)(b) and the denominational right under Article 26(b). Where the protection

of denominational rights would substantially reduce the right conferred by Article

25(2)(b), the latter would prevail against the former. This ensures that the

constitutional guarantee under Article 25(2)(b) is not destroyed by exclusionary

claims which detract from individual dignity. That a practice claimed to be

essential has been carried on since time immemorial or is grounded in religious

texts, does not lend to it constitutional protection unless it passes the test of

essentiality.

68
PART G

G The engagement of essential religious practices with
constitutional values

49 For decades, this Court has witnessed claims resting on the essentiality

of a practice that militate against the constitutional protection of dignity and

individual freedom under the Constitution. It is the duty of the courts to ensure

that what is protected is in conformity with fundamental constitutional values

and guarantees and accords with constitutional morality. While the Constitution

is solicitous in its protection of religious freedom as well as denominational

rights, it must be understood that dignity, liberty and equality constitute the trinity

which defines the faith of the Constitution. Together, these three values

combine to define a constitutional order of priorities. Practices or beliefs which

detract from these foundational values cannot claim legitimacy. In Government

of NCT of Delhi v Union of India46, one of us (Chandrachud J), observed the

importance of constitutional morality as a governing ideal:

“Constitutional morality highlights the need to preserve the
trust of the people in institutions of democracy. It encompasses
not just the forms and procedures of the Constitution, but
provides an “enabling framework that allows a society the
possibilities of self-renewal”. It is the governing ideal of
institutions of democracy which allows people to cooperate and
coordinate to pursue constitutional aspirations that cannot be
achieved single-handedly.”

Our Constitution places the individual at the heart of the discourse on rights. In

a constitutional order characterized by the Rule of Law, the constitutional

46 (2018) 8 SCALE 72

69
PART G

commitment to egalitarianism and the dignity of every individual enjoins upon

the Court a duty to resolve the inherent tensions between the constitutional

guarantee of religious freedom afforded to religious denominations and

constitutional guarantees of dignity and equality afforded to individuals. There

are a multiplicity of intersecting constitutional values and interests involved in

determining the essentiality of religious practices. In order to achieve a balance

between competing rights and interests, the test of essentiality is infused with

these necessary limitations.

50 Is the practice of excluding women between the ages of ten and fifty from

undertaking the pilgrimage and praying at the Sabarimala temple an essential

part of religion? The texts and tenets on which the Respondents placed reliance

do not indicate that the practice of excluding women is an essential part of

religion required or sanctioned by these religious documents. At best, these

documents indicate the celibate nature of Lord Ayyappa at the Sabarimala

temple. The connection between this and the exclusion of women is not

established on the material itself.

51 It was briefly contended that the case at hand required a determination of

fact and law and should be sent to trial. It was contended that no new material

has been placed before this Court to contradict the holding of the Kerala High

Court in Mahendran. The High Court recorded findings on the pilgrimage, the

inconsistent practice of prohibiting women between the age group of ten and

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PART G

fifty, and the collection of individuals that offer prayer at the Sabarimala

temple. Relying on the findings of fact recorded in Mahendran and taking note

of the submissions of the Respondents herein, the question of remanding the

case to a trial in this case does not arise.

In regard to the maintainability of the present public interest litigation, this issue

stands answered by the judgment of this Court in Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal v

Government of Tamil Nadu,47 :

“12…The argument that the present writ petition is founded on
a cause relating to appointment in a public office and hence not
entertainable as a public interest litigation would be too
simplistic a solution to adopt to answer the issues that have
been highlighted which concerns the religious faith and
practice of a large number of citizens of the country and
raises claims of century-old traditions and usage having
the force of law. The above is the second ground, namely, the
gravity of the issues that arise, that impel us to make an
attempt to answer the issues raised and arising in the writ
petitions for determination on the merits thereof.”
(Emphasis supplied)

Of importance are some of the observations of the Kerala High Court in

Mahendran The High Court noted that even when old customs prevailed,

women were allowed to visit the Temple.48 It noted an incident where the

Maharaja of Travancore, accompanied by the Maharani and the Divan, had

visited the Temple in 1115 M.E. The High Court noted that the Temple has seen

the presence of women worshippers between the ages of ten and fifty for the

47 (2016) 2 SCC 725
48 Ibid, at para 7

71
PART G

first rice-feeding ceremony of their children.49 The Secretary of the Ayyappa

Seva Sangham had deposed that young women were seen in Sabarimala

during the previous ten to fifteen years.50 A former Devaswom Commissioner

admitted that the first rice-feeding ceremony of her grandchild was conducted

at the Sabarimala Temple. The High Court found that during the twenty years

preceding the decision, women irrespective of age were allowed to visit the

temple when it opened for monthly poojas,51 but were prohibited from entering

the temple only during Mandalam, Makaravilakku and Vishu seasons.52

The High Court thus noted multiple instances wherein women were allowed to

pray at the Sabarimala temple. These observations demonstrate that the

practice of excluding women from the Sabarimala temple was not uniform. This

militates against a claim that such a practice is of an obligatory nature. That

such practice has not been followed on numerous occasions, also shows that

the denial of constitutional protection to an exclusionary practice will not result

in a fundamental change in the character of the religion as required by

Avadhuta II.

52 The High Court proceeded on the basis of the ‘complete autonomy’ of the

followers in determining the essentiality of the practice 53. This followed the

dictum in Shirur Mutt, without taking note of evolution of precedent thereafter,

49 Ibid
50
Ibid, at para 32
51 Ibid, at paras 8, 10
52 Ibid, at para 43
53 Ibid, at para 22

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which strengthened the role of the Court in the determination and put in place

essential safeguards to ensure to every individual, the constitutional protection

afforded by the trinity of dignity, liberty and equality. The approach of the High

Court is incorrect. The High Court relied completely on the testimonies of the

Thanthris without an enquiry into its basis in religious text or whether the

practice claiming constitutional protection fulfilled the other guidelines laid down

by this Court. Such an approach militates against the fundamental role of the

constitutional Court as a guardian of fundamental rights. Merely establishing a

usage54 will not afford it constitutional protection as an essential religious

practice. It must be proved that the practice is ‘essential’ to religion and

inextricably connected with its fundamental character. This has not been

proved.

This is sufficient reason to hold that the practice of excluding women from

Sabarimala does not constitute an essential religious practice. However, since

the claim in this case has a significant bearing on the dignity and fundamental

rights of women, an issue of principle must be analysed.

53 It was brought to the notice of this Court that in earlier days, the prohibition

on women was because of non-religious factors.55 The ‘main reason’ as

observed by the High Court in Mahendran, is the arduous nature of the

54 Ibid, at para 37
55 Ibid, at para 7

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journey56 which according to the Court could not be completed by women for

physiological reasons. This claim falls foul of the requirement that the practice

claiming constitutional protection must be on strictly religious grounds. Of

significant importance, is that such a claim is deeply rooted in a stereotypical

(and constitutionally flawed) notion that women are the ‘weaker’ sex and may

not undertake tasks that are ‘too arduous’ for them. This paternalistic approach

is contrary to the constitutional guarantee of equality and dignity to women.

Interpreting the Constitution in accordance with the values that infuse it requires

that the dignity of women, which is an emanation of Article 15 and founded in

Article 21, cannot be disassociated from the exercise of religious freedom.

Holding that stereotypical understandings of sex hold no legitimate claim under

our Constitution, one of us (Chandrachud J) in Navtej Singh v Union of India,57

held:

“A discriminatory act will be tested against constitutional
values. A discrimination will not survive constitutional scrutiny
when it is grounded in and perpetuates stereotypes about a
class constituted by the grounds prohibited in Article 15(1). If
any ground of discrimination, whether direct or indirect is
founded on a stereotypical understanding of the role of the sex,
it would not be distinguishable from the discrimination which is
prohibited by Article 15 on the grounds only of sex. If certain
characteristics grounded in stereotypes, are to be associated
with entire classes of people constituted as groups by any of
the grounds prohibited in Article 15(1), that cannot establish a
permissible reason to discriminate.”

56 Ibid, at paras 38, 43
57 Writ Petition (Criminal) No. 76 of 2016

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54 The Court must lean against granting constitutional protection to a claim

which derogates from the dignity of women as equal holders of rights and

protections. In the ethos of the Constitution, it is inconceivable that age could

found a rational basis to condition the right to worship. The ages of ten to fifty

have been marked out for exclusion on the ground that women in that age group

are likely to be in the procreative age. Does the Constitution permit this as basis

to exclude women from worship? Does the fact that a woman has a

physiological feature – of being in a menstruating age – entitle anybody or a

group to subject her to exclusion from religious worship? The physiological

features of a woman have no significance to her equal entitlements under the

Constitution. All women in the age group of ten and fifty may not in any case

fall in the ‘procreative age group’. But that to my mind is again not a matter of

substance. The heart of the matter lies in the ability of the Constitution to assert

that the exclusion of women from worship is incompatible with dignity,

destructive of liberty and a denial of the equality of all human beings. These

constitutional values stand above everything else as a principle which brooks

no exceptions, even when confronted with a claim of religious belief. To exclude

women is derogatory to an equal citizenship.

55 The Respondents submitted that the deity at Sabarimala is in the form of

a Naishtika Brahmacharya: Lord Ayyappa is celibate. It was submitted that since

celibacy is the foremost requirement for all the followers, women between the

ages of ten and fifty must not be allowed in Sabarimala. There is an assumption

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here, which cannot stand constitutional scrutiny. The assumption in such a claim

is that a deviation from the celibacy and austerity observed by the followers

would be caused by the presence of women. Such a claim cannot be sustained

as a constitutionally sustainable argument. Its effect is to impose the burden of

a man’s celibacy on a woman and construct her as a cause for deviation from

celibacy. This is then employed to deny access to spaces to which women are

equally entitled. To suggest that women cannot keep the Vratham is to

stigmatize them and stereotype them as being weak and lesser human beings.

A constitutional court such as this one, must refuse to recognize such claims.

56 Human dignity postulates an equality between persons. The equality of

all human beings entails being free from the restrictive and dehumanizing effect

of stereotypes and being equally entitled to the protection of law. Our

Constitution has willed that dignity, liberty and equality serve as a guiding light

for individuals, the state and this Court. Though our Constitution protects

religious freedom and consequent rights and practices essential to religion, this

Court will be guided by the pursuit to uphold the values of the Constitution,

based in dignity, liberty and equality. In a constitutional order of priorities, these

are values on which the edifice of the Constitution stands. They infuse our

constitutional order with a vision for the future – of a just, equal and dignified

society. Intrinsic to these values is the anti-exclusion principle. Exclusion is

destructive of dignity. To exclude a woman from the might of worship is

fundamentally at odds with constitutional values.

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57 It was briefly argued that women between the ages of ten and fifty are not

allowed to undertake the pilgrimage or enter Sabarimala on the ground of the

‘impurity’ associated with menstruation. The stigma around menstruation has

been built up around traditional beliefs in the impurity of menstruating women.

They have no place in a constitutional order. These beliefs have been used to

shackle women, to deny them equal entitlements and subject them to the

dictates of a patriarchal order. The menstrual status of a woman cannot be a

valid constitutional basis to deny her the dignity of being and the autonomy of

personhood. The menstrual status of a woman is deeply personal and an

intrinsic part of her privacy. The Constitution must treat it as a feature on the

basis of which no exclusion can be practised and no denial can be perpetrated.

No body or group can use it as a barrier in a woman’s quest for fulfilment,

including in her finding solace in the connect with the creator.

H Religious Denominations

58 One of the major planks of the response to the petition is that Sabarimala

is a denominational temple and is entitled to the rights granted to ‘religious

denominations’ by Article 26 of the Constitution.

59 The rights conferred by Article 26 are not unqualified. Besides this, they

are distinct from the rights guaranteed by Article 25. In Devaru, this Court

elucidated on the application of such a right and held that where the

denominational rights would substantially diminish Article 25(2)(b), the former

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must yield to the latter. However, when the ambit of Article 25(2)(b) is not

substantially affected, the rights of a “denomination” as distinct “from the rights

of the public” may be given effect to. However, such rights must be “strictly”

denominational in nature.

Over the years, criteria have emerged from judicial pronouncements of this

Court on whether a collective of individuals qualifies as a ‘religious

denomination’. In making the determination, benches of this Court have referred

to the history and organisation of the collective seeking denominational status.

60 Shirur Mutt dealt with the status of one of the eight Maths founded by

Shri Madhavacharya, an exponent of dualist theism in Hindu religion. Justice B

K Mukherjea undertook an enquiry into the precise meaning of the expression

“religious denomination” and whether a “Math” is covered by the expression:

“15… The word “denomination” has been defined in the Oxford
Dictionary to mean “a collection of individuals classed together
under the same name: a religious sect or body having a
common faith and organisation and designated by a distinctive
name”.

A three fold test emerges from the above observations: (i) the existence of a

religious sect or body; (ii) a common faith shared by those who belong to the

religious sect and a common spiritual organisation; and (iii) the existence of a

distinctive name.

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The Court held that the “spiritual fraternity” represented by followers of Shri

Madhavacharya, constitute a religious denomination:

“15.It is well known that the practice of setting up Maths as
centres of theological teaching was started by Shri
Sankaracharya and was followed by various teachers since
then. After Sankara, came a galaxy of religious teachers and
philosophers who founded the different sects and sub-sects of
the Hindu religion that we find in India at the present day. Each
one of such sects or sub-sects can certainly be called a
religious denomination, as it is designated by a distinctive
name, — in many cases it is the name of the founder, —
and has a common faith and common spiritual
organisation. The followers of Ramanuja, who are known by
the name of Shri Vaishnabas, undoubtedly constitute a
religious denomination; and so do the followers of
Madhwacharya and other religious teachers. It is a fact well
established by tradition that the eight Udipi Maths were
founded by Madhwacharya himself and the trustees and the
beneficiaries of these Maths profess to be followers of that
teacher…”
(Emphasis supplied)

61 In Devaru, Justice Venkatarama Aiyyar considered whether the Gowda

Saraswath Brahmins, associated with the Sri Venkataramana Temple, can be

regarded as a religious denomination. In doing so, the Court undertook a factual

enquiry:

“14…Now, the facts found are that the members of this
community migrated from Gowda Desa first to the Goa region
and then to the south, that they carried with them their idols,
and that when they were first settled in Moolky, a temple was
founded and these idols were installed therein. We are
therefore concerned with the Gowda Saraswath Brahmins
not as a section of a community but as a sect associated
with the foundation and maintenance of the Sri
Venkataramana Temple, in other words, not as a mere
denomination, but as a religious denomination. From the
evidence of PW 1, it appears that the Gowda Saraswath
Brahmins have three Gurus, that those in Moolky Petah are
followers of the head of the Kashi Mutt, and that it is he that
performs some of the important ceremonies in the temple.

Exhibit A is a document of the year 1826-27. That shows that

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the head of the Kashi Mutt settled the disputes among the
Archakas, and that they agreed to do the puja under his orders.
The uncontradicted evidence of PW 1 also shows that
during certain religious ceremonies, persons other than
Gowda Saraswath Brahmins have been wholly excluded.

This evidence leads irresistibly to the conclusion that the
temple is a denominational one, as contended for by the
appellants.”
(Emphasis supplied)

This was, in other words, not just a sect associated with the community but one

associated with the foundation and maintenance of the temple. This was

coupled with a spiritual head who was responsible for the performance of

religious worship.

The Court noted that a deed of endowment proved that the temple was founded

for the benefit of the Gowda Saraswath community, and concluded that the Sri

Venkateshwara Temple qualified as a denominational temple.

“15… When there is a question as to the nature and extent of a
dedication of a temple, that has to be determined on the terms
of the deed of endowment if that is available, and where it is
not, on other materials legally admissible; and proof of long and
uninterrupted user would be cogent evidence of the terms
thereof. Where, therefore, the original deed of endowment is
not available and it is found that all persons are freely
worshipping in the temple without let or hindrance, it would be
a proper inference to make that they do so as a matter of right,
and that the original foundation was for their benefit as well. But
where it is proved by production of the deed, of endowment or
otherwise that the original dedication was for the benefit of a
particular community, the fact that members of other
communities were allowed freely to worship cannot lead to the
inference that the dedication was for their benefit as well.…On
the findings of the Court below that the foundation was
originally for the benefit of the Gowda Saraswath Brahmin
community, the fact that other classes of Hindus were admitted
freely into the temple would not have the effect of enlarging the
scope of the dedication into one for the public generally. On a

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consideration of the evidence, we see no grounds for differing
from the finding given by the learned Judges in the court below
that the suit temple is a denominational temple founded for the
benefit of the Gowda Saraswath Brahmins…”

The dedication of the temple was for the Gowda Saraswath Brahmins

specifically. The temple was not dedicated for followers of all communities.

62 In S P Mittal v Union of India (“Mittal”)58, Justice Ranganath Misra who

delivered the opinion of the Court, held that the followers of Sri Aurobindo do

not constitute a religious denomination. The Court formulated the conditions

necessary to be fulfilled to qualify as ‘religious denomination’:

“80. The words “religious denomination” in Article 26 of the
Constitution must take their colour from the word “religion” and
if this be so, the expression “religious denomination” must also
satisfy three conditions:

“(1) It must be a collection of individuals who have a system of
beliefs or doctrines which they regard as conducive to their
spiritual well-being, that is, a common faith;

(2) common organisation; and
(3) designation by a distinctive name.”59

These tests, as we have seen, are a re-statement of the Shirur Mutt

formulation.

The Court dwelt on the organisation and activities of the Aurobindo Society and

emphasised that a collective seeking the status of a religious denomination

must be a religious institution:

58 1983 1 SCC 51
59 Ibid, at page 85

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“120. It was further contended that a religious denomination
must be professed by that body but from the very beginning the
Society has eschewed the word “religion” in its constitution.
The Society professed to be a scientific research organisation
to the donors and got income tax exemption on the footing that
it was not a religious institution. The Society has claimed
exemption from income tax under Section 80 for the donors
and under Section 35 for itself on that ground. Ashram Trust
was different from Auroville Ashram. The Ashram Trust also
applied for income tax exemption and got it on that very ground.
So also Aurobindo Society claimed exemption on the footing
that it was not a religious institution and got it. They professed
to the Government also that they were not a religious institution
in their application for financial assistance under the Central
Scheme of Assistance to voluntary Hindu organisations.60

121. On the basis of the materials placed before us viz. the
Memorandum of Association of the Society, the several
applications made by the Society claiming exemption under
Section 35 and Section 80 of the Income Tax Act, the repeated
utterings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother that the Society and
Auroville were not religious institutions and host of other
documents there is no room for doubt that neither the Society
nor Auroville constitute a religious denomination and the
teachings of Sri Aurobindo only represented his philosophy and
not a religion.”61

The sect was based on a shared philosophy and not on a common set of

religious beliefs or faith. Hence, the sect was held not to qualify to be a religious

denomination.

63 The above tests have been followed in other decisions. In Avadhuta I, a

three judge bench of this Court held that the Ananda Margis of West Bengal

constitute a religious denomination under Article 26, as they satisfy all the three

conditions:

60 Ibid, at page 98
61 Ibid, at pages 98-99

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“11. Ananda Marga appears to satisfy all the three conditions
viz. it is a collection of individuals who have a system of beliefs
which they regard as conducive to their spiritual well-being;
they have a common organisation and the collection of these
individuals has a distinctive name. Ananda Marga, therefore,
can be appropriately treated as a religious denomination, within
the Hindu religion…”62

In Bramchari Sidheswar Shai v State of West Bengal63, a three judge Bench

of this Court adopted the tests re-stated in Mittal to hold that the followers of

Ramakrishna constitute a religious denomination:

“57… These Maths and Missions of Ramakrishna composed
of the followers of principles of Hinduism as expounded,
preached or practised by Ramakrishna as his disciples or
otherwise form a cult or sect of Hindu religion. They believe in
the birth of sage Ramakrishna in Dakshineswar as an Avatar
of Rama and Krishna and follow the principles of Hinduism
discovered, expounded, preached and practised by him as
those conducive to their spiritual well-being as the principles of
highest Vedanta which surpassed the principles of Vedanta
conceived and propagated by Sankaracharya, Madhavacharya
and Ramanujacharya, who were earlier exponents of
Hinduism. Hence, as rightly held by the Division Bench of the
High Court, followers of Ramakrishna, who are a collection
of individuals, who adhere to a system of beliefs as
conducive to their spiritual well-being, who have
organised themselves collectively and who have an
organisation of definite name as Ramakrishna Math or
Ramakrishna Mission could, in our view, be regarded as a
religious denomination within Hindu religion…”64
(Emphasis supplied)

In Nallor Marthandam Vellalar v Commissioner, Hindu Religious and

Charitable Endowments65 a two judge Bench held that the Vellala community

62
Ibid, at page 530
63 (1995) 4 SCC 646
64 Ibid, at pages 648-649
65 (2003) 10 SCC 712

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in Tamil Nadu does not constitute a religious denomination. Justice Shivraj Patil

emphasised that the common faith of the community must find its basis in

“religion”:

“7. It is settled position in law, having regard to the various
decisions of this Court that the words “religious denomination”
take their colour from the word “religion”. The expression
“religious denomination” must satisfy three requirements: (1) it
must be a collection of individuals who have a system of belief
or doctrine which they regard as conducive to their spiritual
well-being i.e. a common faith; (2) a common organisation; and
(3) designation of a distinctive name. It necessarily follows
that the common faith of the community should be based
on religion and in that they should have common religious
tenets and the basic cord which connects them, should be
religion and not merely considerations of caste or
community or societal status…”66
(Emphasis supplied)

Though formulated as a three-pronged test, a fourth element emerges from the

narrative. That is the position of a common set of religious tenets. Religion is

what binds a religious denomination. Caste, community and social status do not

bring into being a religious denomination.

64 These precedents indicate the ingredients which must be present for a

set of individuals to be regarded as a religious denomination. These are a

common faith, a common organisation and a distinctive name brought together

under the rubric of religion. A common thread which runs through them is the

requirement of a religious identity, which is fundamental to the character of a

religious denomination.

66 Ibid, at page 716

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H. 1 Do the devotees of Lord Ayyappa constitute a religious
denomination?

65 Dr Abhishek Manu Singhvi, learned Senior Counsel submitted that

devotees who undertake a forty one day penance form a denomination or

section called “Ayyappaswamis” and the common organisation is the

organisation of ‘Ayyappas’. He submits that the ‘Ayyappas’ believe in a common

faith and hold the belief that if they undertake the penance of forty-one days in

the manner prescribed, by maintaining themselves pure and unpolluted, they

would be one with Lord Ayyappa. It has been submitted by Mr K Parasaran,

learned Senior Counsel that the devotees of Lord Ayyappa hold a sacred

religious belief that the deity at Sabarimala is celibate – a Naishtika Brahmachari

– who practises strict penance and the strictest form of celibacy, in which he

cannot find himself in the presence of young women.

It has been submitted that Lord Ayyappa has female devotees. Hence, girls

below the age of ten and women above the age of fifty would be included as

members of the denomination. However, it is unclear as to how they may be

considered as members of a denomination that seeks their exclusion. The

judgements of this Court lay down that the collective of individuals must have a

common faith and set of beliefs that aid their spiritual well-being. It is implausible

that women should leave the membership of a common faith, which is meant to

be conducive to their spiritual growth for a period of forty years and resume

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membership at the age of fifty. Such a requirement takes away from the spiritual

character of the denomination.

66 The decision of the Kerala High Court in Mahendran brought on the

record several facets which would in fact establish that Ayyappans do not

constitute a religious denomination. While it is stated in the impugned

notification that women between the age of ten and fifty five are forbidden from

entering the temple as a matter of custom followed since time immemorial, the

stand taken by the Respondent before the Kerala High Court differs to a great

extent. The Board had submitted before the High Court:

“7. In olden days worshippers visit the temple only after
observing penance for 41 days. Since pilgrims to Sabarimala
temple ought to undergo ‘Vrathams’ or penance for 41 days,
usually ladies between the age of 10 and 50 will not be
physically capable of observing vratham for 41 days on
physiological grounds. The religious practices and customs
followed earlier had changed during the last 40 years
particularly from 1950, the year in which the renovation of the
temple took place after the “fire disaster”. Even while the old
customs prevailed, women used to visit the temple though
very rarely. The Maharaja of Travancore accompanied by
the Maharani and the Divan had visited the temple in 1115
M.E. There was thus no prohibition for women to enter the
Sabarimala temple in olden days, but women in large
number were not visiting the temple. That was not because
of any prohibition imposed by Hindu religion but because
of other non-religious factors. In recent years, many
worshippers had gone to the temple with lady worshippers
within the age group 10 to 50 for the first rice-feeding
ceremony of their children (Chottoonu). The Board used to
issue receipts on such occasions on payment of the
prescribed charges. A change in the old custom and
practice was brought about by installing a flag staff
(Dhwajam) in 1969. Another change was brought about by
the introduction of Padipooja. These were done on the
advice of the Thanthri. Changes were also effected in other
practices. The practice of breaking coconuts on the 18
steps was discontinued and worshippers were allowed to

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crack the coconuts only on a stone placed below the
eighteen sacred steps (Pathinettaam Padi). These changes
had been brought about in order to preserve the temple and the
precinct in all its gaiety and sanctity.”67
(Emphasis supplied)

According to the above extract, in the “olden days” there was no ‘religious

prohibition’ on the entry of women in the Sabarimala temple. But women visited

the temple in fewer numbers for ‘non-religious’ reasons. The submission of the

Board before the High Court reveals that the prohibition has not been

consistently followed even after the notification was issued.

“8. For the last 20 years women irrespective of their age
were allowed to visit the temple when it opens for monthly
poojas. They were not permitted to enter the temple during
Mandalam, Makaravilakku and Vishu seasons. The rule that
during these seasons no woman who is aged more than 10 and
less than 50 shall enter the temple is scrupulously followed.68

9. The second respondent, former Devaswom Commissioner
Smt. S. Chandrika in her counter-affidavit admitted that the first
rice-feeding ceremony of her grandchild was conducted on the
1st of Chingam 1166 at Sabarimala temple while she was
holding the post of Devaswom Commissioner…The restriction
regarding the entry of women in the age group 10 to 50 is there
only during Mandalam, Makaravilakku and Vishu. As per the
stipulations made by the Devaswom Board there is no
restriction during the remaining period. When monthly poojas
are conducted, women of all age groups used to visit
Sabarimala. On the 1st of Chingam 1166 the first rice-feeding
ceremony of other children were also conducted at the temple.
No V.I.P. treatment was given to her grandchild on that day.
The same facility was afforded to others also. Her daughter got
married on 13-7-1984 and was not begetting a child for a
considerably long time. She took a vow that the first rice-

feeding ceremony would be performed at Sabarimala in case
she begets a child. Hence the reason why the first rice-feeding
ceremony of the child delivered by her was performed at that
temple. The entry of young ladies in the temple during monthly
poojas is not against the customs and practices followed in the
temple…”69 (Emphasis supplied)

67 Ibid, at page 45
68 Ibid, at page 45
69 Ibid, at pages 45-46

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67 The stand of the Board demonstrates that the practice of excluding

women of a particular age group has not been consistently followed. The basis

of the claim that there exists a religious denomination of Ayyapans is that the

presiding deity is celibate and a strict regime of forty one days is prescribed for

worship. Women between the age groups of ten and fifty would not for

physiological reasons (it is asserted) be able to perform the penance associated

with worship and hence their exclusion is intrinsic to a common faith. As

indicated earlier, the exclusion of women between the ages of ten and fifty has

not been shown to be a uniform practice or tenet. The material before the Kerala

High Court in Mahendran in fact indicates that there was no such uniform tenet,

down the ages. Therefore, the claim that the exclusion of women is part of a

common set of religious beliefs held by those who worship the deity is not

established. Above all, what is crucial to a religious denomination is a religious

sect or body. A common faith and spiritual organisation must be the chord which

unites the adherents together.

68 Justice Rajagopala Ayyangar in his concurring judgement in Saifuddin,

emphasised the necessity of an identity of doctrines, creeds and tenets in a

‘religious denomination’:

“52…The identity of a religious denomination consists in the
identity of its doctrines, creeds and tenets and these are
intended to ensure the unity of the faith which its adherents
profess and the identity of the religious views are the bonds of
the union which binds them together as one community.”

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The judgement cited the ruling of Lord Halsbury in Free Church of Scotland

v Overtoun70 :

“In the absence of conformity to essentials, the denomination
would not be an entity cemented into solidity by harmonious
uniformity of opinion, it would be a mere incongruous heap of,
as it were, grains of sand, thrown together without being united,
each of these intellectual and isolated grains differing from
every other, and the whole forming a but nominally united while
really unconnected mass; fraught with nothing but internal
dissimilitude, and mutual and reciprocal contradiction and
dissension.”

69 Adherence to a ‘common faith’ would entail that a common set of beliefs

have been followed since the conception of the particular sect or denomination.

A distinctive feature of the pilgrimage is that pilgrims of all religions participate

in the pilgrimage on an equal footing. Muslims and Christians undertake the

pilgrimage. A member of any religion can be a part of the collective of individuals

who worship Lord Ayyappa. Religion is not the basis of the collective of

individuals who worship the deity. Bereft of a religious identity, the collective

cannot claim to be regarded as a ‘religious denomination’. To be within the fold

of Article 26, a denomination must be a religious sect or body. Worship of the

presiding deity is not confined to adherents of a particular religion. Coupled with

this is the absence of a common spiritual organisation, which is a necessary

element to constitute a religious denomination. The temple at which worship is

carried out is dedicated to the public and represents truly, the plural character

of society. Everyone, irrespective of religious belief, can worship the deity. The

70 (1904) AC 515, at page 616

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practices associated with the forms of worship do not constitute the devotees

into a religious denomination.

Considering the inability of the collective of individuals to satisfy the judicially-

enunciated requirements, we cannot recognise the set of individuals who refer

to themselves as “Ayyappans” or devotees of Lord Ayyappa as a ‘religious

denomination’.

I Article 17, “Untouchability” and the notions of purity

70 The petitioners and the learned Amicus Curiae Mr. Raju Ramachandran

urge that the denial of entry to women in the Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala, on

the basis of customs, is a manifestation of “untouchability” and is hence violative

of Article 17 of the Constitution. The contention has been countered by the

argument that Article 17 is specifically limited to caste-based untouchability and

cannot be expanded to include gender-based exclusion. Understanding these

rival positions requires the Court to contemplate on the historical background

behind the insertion of Article 17 into the Constitution and the intent of the

framers.

71 Article 17 occupies a unique position in our constitutional scheme. The

Article, which prohibits a social practice, is located in the chapter on

fundamental rights. The framers introduced Article 17, which prohibits a

discriminatory and inhuman social practice, in addition to Articles 14 and 15,

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which provide for equality and non-discrimination. While there has been little

discussion about Article 17 in textbooks on constitutional law, it is a provision

which has a paramount social significance both in terms of acknowledging the

past and in defining the vision of the Constitution for the present and for the

future. Article 17 provides:

““Untouchability” is abolished and its practice in any form is
forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of
“Untouchability” shall be an offence punishable in accordance
with law.”

Article 17 abolished the age old practice of “untouchability”, by forbidding its

practice “in any form”. By abolishing “untouchability”, the Constitution attempts

to transform and replace the traditional and hierarchical social order. Article 17,

among other provisions of the Constitution, envisaged bringing into “the

mainstream of society, individuals and groups that would otherwise have

remained at society’s bottom or at its edges”71. Article 17 is the constitutional

promise of equality and justice to those who have remained at the lowest rung

of a traditional belief system founded in graded inequality. Article 17 is

enforceable against everyone – the State, groups, individuals, legal persons,

entities and organised religion – and embodies an enforceable constitutional

mandate. It has been placed on a constitutional pedestal of enforceable

fundamental rights, beyond being only a directive principle, for two reasons.

First, “untouchability” is violative of the basic rights of socially backward

71 Granville Austin, The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation, Oxford University Press (1999), at pages xii-

xiii

91
PART I

individuals and their dignity. Second, the framers believed that the abolition of

“untouchability” is a constitutional imperative to establish an equal social order.

Its presence together and on an equal footing with other fundamental rights,

was designed to “give vulnerable people the power to achieve collective

good”72. Article 17 is a reflection of the transformative ideal of the Constitution,

which gives expression to the aspirations of socially disempowered individuals

and communities, and provides a moral framework for radical social

transformation. Article 17, along with other constitutional provisions 73, must be

seen as the recognition and endorsement of a hope for a better future for

marginalized communities and individuals, who have had their destinies

crushed by a feudal and caste-based social order.

72 The framers of the Constitution left the term “untouchability” undefined.

The proceedings of the Constituent Assembly suggest that this was deliberate.

B Shiva Rao has recounted74 the proceedings of the Sub-Committee on

Fundamental Rights, which was undertaking the task of preparing the draft

provisions on fundamental rights. A clause providing for the abolition of

“untouchability” was contained in K M Munshi’s draft of Fundamental Rights.

Clause 4(a) of Article III of his draft provided:

“Untouchability is abolished and the practice thereof is
punishable by the law of the Union.”

72
Politics and Ethics of the Indian Constitution Rajeev Bhagava (ed.), Oxford University Press (2008), at page 15
73 Articles 15(2) and 23, The Constitution of India
74 B Shiva Rao, The Framing of India’s Constitution: A Study, Indian Institution of Public Administration (1968), at

page 202

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PART I

Clause 1 of Article II of Dr Ambedkar’s draft provided that:

“any privilege or disability arising out of rank, birth, person,
family, religion or religious usage and custom is abolished.”

While discussing the clause on “untouchability” on 29 March 1947, the Sub-

Committee on Fundamental Rights accepted Munshi’s draft with a verbal

modification that the words “is punishable by the law of the Union” be substituted

by the expression “shall be an offence”.75 Reflecting on the draft, the

constitutional advisor, B N Rau, remarked that the meaning of “untouchability”

would have to be defined in the law which would be enacted in future to

implement the provision. Bearing in mind the comments received, the Sub-

Committee when it met on 14 April 1947 to consider its draft report, decided to

add the words “in any form” after the word “Untouchability”. This was done

specifically in order “to make the prohibition of practice [of “untouchability”]

comprehensive”76.

Subsequently, on 21 April 1947, the clause proposed by the Sub-Committee on

Fundamental Rights was dealt with by the Advisory Committee, where Jagjivan

Ram had an incisive query. While noting that ordinarily, the term “untouchability”

referred to a practice prevalent in Hindu society, he queried whether the

intention of the committee was to abolish untouchability among Hindus,

Christians or other communities or whether it applied also to ‘inter-communal’

75 Ibid
76 B Shiva Rao, The Framing of India’s Constitution: A Study, Indian Institution of Public Administration (1968), at
page 202

93
PART I

untouchability. Shiva Rao has recounted that the Committee came to the

general conclusion that “the purpose of the clause was to abolish

untouchability in all its forms— whether it was untouchability within a

community or between various communities”77. In the proceedings, K M

Panikkar elaborated the point by observing that the clause intended to abolish

various disabilities arising out of untouchability, irrespective of religion. 78 He

remarked:

“If somebody says that he is not going to touch me, that is not
a civil right which I can enforce in a court of law. There are
certain complex of disabilities that arise from the practice of
untouchability in India. Those disabilities are in the nature of
civil obligations or civil disabilities and what we have attempted
to provide for is that these disabilities that exist in regard to the
individual, whether he be a Christian, Muslim or anybody else,
if he suffers from these disabilities, they should be eradicated
through the process of law.”79

Rajagopalachari suggested a minor amendment of the clause, which sought to

make “the imposition of any disability of any kind or any such custom of

‘untouchability’” an offence. Taking note of the suggestions and views

expressed, the clause was redrafted as clause 6 in the Interim Report of the

Advisory Committee as follows:

““Untouchability” in any form is abolished and the imposition
of any disability on that account shall be an offence.”

77 B Shiva Rao, The Framing of India’s Constitution: A Study, Indian Institution of Public Administration (1968), at
page 202
78 B Shiva Rao has remarked that Panikkar’s reference was to the depressed classes who had been converted to

Christianity in Travancore-Cochin and Malabar. See B Shiva Rao, The Framing of India’s Constitution: A Study,
Indian Institution of Public Administration (1968), at page 202
79 B Shiva Rao, The Framing of India’s Constitution: A Study, Indian Institution of Public Administration (1968), at

page 203

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PART I

The Interim Report was moved before the Constituent Assembly by Vallabhbhai

Patel on 29 April 1947. Commenting on Clause 6, one member, Promatha

Ranjan Thakur, observed that “untouchability” cannot be abolished without

abolishing the caste system, since “untouchability” is its symptom. Srijut Rohini

Kumar Chaudhury, SC Banerjee and Dhirendra Nath Datta sought a clarification

on the definition of the term “untouchability”. Chaudhary even suggested the

following amendment to define the term “untouchability”:

“‘Untouchability’ means any act committed in exercise of
discrimination on, grounds of religion, caste or lawful vocation
of life mentioned in clause 4.”

Opposing the amendment, K M Munshi stated that the word “untouchability” has

been “put purposely within inverted commas in order to indicate that the Union

legislature when it defines ‘untouchability’ will be able to deal with it in the sense

in which it is normally understood”80. Subsequently, only three amendments

were moved. H V Kamath sought to insert the word “unapproachability” after the

term “untouchability” and the words “and every” after the word “any”. S.

Nagappa wanted to substitute the words “imposition of any disability” with the

words “observance of any disability”. P Kunhiraman wanted to add the words

“punishable by law” after the word “offence”. Vallabhbhai Patel, who had moved

the clause, considered the amendments to be unnecessary and observed:

“The first amendment is by Mr. Kamath. He wants the addition
of the word ‘unapproachability’. If untouchability is provided for
in the fundamental rights as an offence, all necessary
adjustments will be made in the law that may be passed by the
Legislature. I do not think it is right or wise to provide for such

80 Constituent Assembly Debates (29 April 1947)

95
PART I

necessary corollaries and, therefore, I do not accept this
amendment.

The other amendment is by Mr. Nagappa who has suggested
that for the words “imposition of any disability’’ the words
“observance of any disability’’ may be substituted. I cannot
understand his point. I can observe one man imposing a
disability on another, and I will be guilty I have observed it. I do
not think such extreme things should be provided for. The
removal of untouchability is the main idea, and
if untouchability is made illegal or an offence, it is quite enough.

The next amendment was moved by Mr. Kunhiraman. He has
suggested the insertion of ‘punishable by law’. We have
provided that imposition of untouchability shall be an offence.
Perhaps his idea is that an offence could be excusable, or
sometimes an offence may be rewarded. Offence is an
offence; it is not necessary to provide that offence should be
punishable by law. Sir, I do not accept this amendment either.

Then, it was proposed that for the words ‘any form’, the words
‘all forms’ be substituted. Untouchability in any form is a legal
phraseology, and no more addition is necessary.”81

After Patel’s explanation, HV Kamath and P Kunhiraman withdrew their

amendments, while the amendment moved by Nagappan was rejected. Clause

6 was adopted by the Constituent Assembly. However, in the Draft Constitution

(dated October 1947) prepared by the constitutional advisor, B N Rau, the third

amendment moved by Kunhiraman was adopted in effect and after the word

“offence” the words “which shall be punishable in accordance with law” were

inserted.82 On 30-31 October 1947, the Drafting Committee considered the

“untouchability” provision and redrafted it as article 11. It was proposed 83 by Dr

Ambedkar before the Constituent Assembly as follows:

81 Constituent Assembly Debates (29 April 1947)
82
B Shiva Rao, The Framing of India’s Constitution: A Study, Indian Institution of Public Administration (1968), at
page 204
83 B Shiva Rao, The Framing of India’s Constitution: A Study, Indian Institution of Public Administration (1968), at

page 205

96
PART I

““Untouchability” is abolished and its practice in any form is
forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of
“untouchability” shall be an offence punishable in accordance
with law.”

In response to comments and representations received on the Draft

Constitution, B N Rau reiterated that Parliament would have to enact legislation,

which would provide a definition of “untouchability”.84 When the draft Article 11

came for discussion before the Constituent Assembly on 29 November 1948,

one member, Naziruddin Ahmad, sought to substitute it by the following Article:

“No one shall on account of his religion or caste be treated or
regarded as an ‘untouchable’; and its observance in any form
may be made punishable by law.”85

The amendment proposed would obviously restrict untouchability to its religious

and caste-based manifestations. Naziruddin Ahmad supported his contention by

observing that draft Article 11 prepared by the Drafting Committee was vague,

as it provides no legal meaning of the term “untouchability”. Stressing that the

term was “rather loose”, Ahmad wanted the draft Article to be given “a better

shape”. Professor KT Shah had a similar concern. He observed:

“… I would like to point out that the term ‘untouchability’ is
nowhere defined. This Constitution lacks very much in a
definition clause; and consequently we are at a great loss in
understanding what is meant by a given clause and how it is
going to be given effect to. You follow up the general
proposition about abolishing untouchability, by saying that it
will be in any form an offence and will be punished at law. Now
I want to give the House some instances of recognised and
permitted untouchability whereby particular communities

84 B Shiva Rao, The Framing of India’s Constitution: A Study, Indian Institution of Public Administration (1968), at
page 204
85 Ibid, at page 205

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PART I

or individuals are for a time placed under disability, which
is actually untouchability. We all know that at certain
periods women are regarded as untouchables. Is that
supposed to be, will it be regarded as an offence under this
article? I think if I am not mistaken, I am speaking from
memory, but I believe I am right that in the Quran in a certain
‘Sura’, this is mentioned specifically and categorically. Will you
make the practice of their religion by the followers of the
Prophetan offence? Again there are many ceremonies in
connection with funerals and obsequies which make those who
have taken part in them untouchables for a while. I do not wish
to inflict a lecture upon this House on anthropological or
connected matters; but I would like it to be brought to the notice
that the lack of any definition of the term ‘untouchability’
makes it open for busy bodies and lawyers to make capital
out of a clause like this, which I am sure was not the
intention of the Drafting Committee to make.”86
(Emphasis supplied)

Dr Ambedkar neither accepted Naziruddin Ahmad’s amendment nor replied to

the points raised by KT Shah. The amendment proposed by Ahmad was

negatived by the Constituent Assembly and the draft Article as proposed by Dr

Ambedkar was adopted. Draft Article 11 has been renumbered as the current

Article 17 of the Constitution.

The refusal of the Constituent Assembly to provide any definite meaning to

“untouchability” (despite specific amendments and proposals voicing the need

for a definition) indicates that the framers did not wish to make the term

restrictive. The addition of the words “in any form” in the initial draft prepared

by the Sub-Committee on Fundamental Rights is an unambiguous statement to

the effect that the draftspersons wanted to give the term “untouchability” a broad

86 Constituent Assembly Debates (29 November 1948)

98
PART I

scope. A reconstruction of the proceedings of the Constituent Assembly

suggests that the members agreed to the Constitutional Advisor’s insistence

that the law which is to be enacted for implementing the provision on

“untouchability” would provide a definition of the term. The rejection of

Naziruddin Ahmad’s amendment by the members of the Constituent Assembly

reflects a conscious effort not to limit the scope of the legislation to be enacted.

73 In order to fully understand the constitutional philosophy underlying the

insertion of Article 17, this Court must also deal with one specific instance during

the proceedings of the Constituent Assembly. As mentioned above, while

Professor KT Shah gave specific examples of acts of “untouchability”, including

that of women being considered untouchables “in certain periods”, and argued

for a specific definition, Dr Ambedkar furnished no reply. This raises the

question as to why Dr Ambedkar did not accept Naziruddin Ahmad’s

amendment and refused to reply to KT Shah’s remarks. One member of the

Constituent Assembly, Monomohan Das, remarked during the debate on the

draft Article on “untouchability”:

“…It is an irony of fate that the man who was driven from one
school to another, who was forced to take his lessons outside
the class room, has been entrusted with this great job of
framing the Constitution of free and independent India, and it
is he who has finally dealt the death blow to this custom of
untouchability, of which he was himself a victim in his younger
days.”87

87 Constituent Assembly Debates (29 November 1948)

99
PART I

The answers lie in the struggle for social emancipation and justice which was

the defining symbol of the age, together with the movement for attaining political

freedom but in a radical transformation of society as well. To focus on the former

without comprehending the latter would be to miss the inter-connected nature

of the document as a compact for political and social reform.

74 Reading Dr Ambedkar compels us to look at the other side of the

independence movement. Besides the struggle for independence from the

British rule, there was another struggle going on since centuries and which still

continues. That struggle has been for social emancipation. It has been the

struggle for the replacement of an unequal social order. It has been a fight for

undoing historical injustices and for righting fundamental wrongs with

fundamental rights. The Constitution of India is the end product of both these

struggles. It is the foundational document, which in text and spirit, aims at social

transformation namely, the creation and preservation of an equal social order.

The Constitution represents the aspirations of those, who were denied the basic

ingredients of a dignified existence. It contains a vision of social justice and lays

down a roadmap for successive governments to achieve that vision. The

document sets out a moral trajectory, which citizens must pursue for the

realization of the values of liberty, equality, fraternity and justice. It is an

assurance to the marginalized to be able to rise to the challenges of human

existence. The Constituent Assembly was enriched by the shared wisdom and

experiences gathered by its members from the ongoing social struggle for

100
PART I

equality and justice. In particular, as the Chairman of the Drafting Committee,

Dr Ambedkar brought with himself ideas, values and scholarship, which were

derived from the experiences and struggles which singularly were his own. He

drew as well from other social reformers in their movements against social

injustice. Some of these experiences and literature ought to be discussed in

order to understand the vision behind the philosophy of the Constitution and,

particularly, Article 17.

Having himself faced discrimination and stigmatization, Dr Ambedkar had

launched an active movement against “untouchability”. In 1924, he founded the

Bahishkrut Hitkarani Sabha, aimed at advancing the rights of those who were

neglected by society. Over the following years, Dr Ambedkar organised

marches demanding rights for untouchables to drinking water from public

resources, and their right to enter temples. These movements were part of the

larger demand of equality for the untouchables.

In his profound work, “Annihilation of Caste”, while advocating the destruction

of the caste system, Dr Ambedkar recorded some of the “untouchability”

practices by which the Untouchables were subjected to inhuman treatment:

“Under the rule of the Peshwas in the Maratha country, the
Untouchable was not allowed to use the public streets if a
Hindu was coming along, lest he should pollute the Hindu by
his shadow. The Untouchable was required to have a black
thread either on his wrist or around his neck, as a sign or a
mark to prevent the Hindus from getting themselves polluted
by his touch by mistake. In Poona, the capital of the Peshwa,
the Untouchable was required to carry, strung from his waist,

101
PART I

a broom to sweep away from behind himself the dust he trod
on, lest a Hindu walking on the same dust should be polluted.

In Poona, the Untouchable was required to carry an earthen
pot hung around his neck wherever he went—for holding his
spit, lest his spit falling on the earth should pollute a Hindu who
might unknowingly happen to tread on it.”88

His autobiographical notes published after his death with the title “Waiting for a

Visa”89, contain reminiscences drawn by Dr Ambedkar on his own experiences

with “untouchability”. Dr Ambedkar mentions several experiences from his

childhood. No barber would consent to shave an untouchable. During his days

as an Officer in Baroda State, he was denied a place to stay in quarters. In

another note, which was handwritten by Dr Ambedkar and was later published

with the title “Frustration”, he wrote:

“The Untouchables are the weariest, most loathed and the
most miserable people that history can witness. They are a
spent and sacrificed people… To put it in simple language the
Untouchables have been completely overtaken by a sense of
utter frustration. As Mathew Arnold says “life consists in the
effort to affirm one’s own essence; meaning by this, to develop
one’s own existence fully and freely… Failure to affirm ones
own essence is simply another name for frustration… ” Many
people suffer such frustrations in their history. But they soon
recover from the blight and rise to glory again with new
vibrations. The case of the Untouchables stands on a different
footing. Their frustration is frustration for ever. It is unrelieved
by space or time. In this respect the story of the Untouchables
stands in strange contrast with that of the Jews.”90

88 Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, (Vasant Moon ed.) Government of Maharashtra, Vol. 1
(2014), at pages 39
89 Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, (Vasant Moon ed.) Government of Maharashtra, Vol. 12

(2014), at pages 661-691
90 Ibid, at pages 733-735

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PART I

In his writing titled “Slaves and Untouchables”91, he described “untouchability”

to be worse than slavery. In his words:

“.. untouchability is obligatory. A person is permitted to hold
another as his slave. There is no compulsion on him if he does
not want to. But an Untouchable has no option. Once he is born
an Untouchable, he is subject to all the disabilities of an
Untouchable… [U]ntouchability is an indirect and therefore the
worst form of slavery… It is enslavement without making the
Untouchables conscious of their enslavement.”92

Dr Ambedkar’s thoughts and ideas bear an impact of other social reformers who

preceded him, in particular Jyotirao Phule and Savitribai Phule. In 1873, in the

preface to his book titled “Gulamgiri” (Slavery), Jyotirao Phule made a stinging

critique on the cause of “untouchability”:

“[The] Sudras and Atisudras were regarded with supreme
hatred and contempt, and the commonest rights of humanity
were denied [to] them. Their touch, nay, even their shadow, is
deemed a pollution. They are considered as mere chattels, and
their life of no more value than that of meanest reptile… How
far the Brahmins have succeeded in their endeavours to
enslave the minds of the Sudras and Atisudras… For
generations past [the Sudras and Atisudras] have borne these
chains of slavery and bondage… This system of slavery, to
which the Brahmins reduced the lower classes is in no respect
inferior to that which obtained a few years ago in America. In
the days of rigid Brahmin dominancy, so lately as that of the
time of the Peshwa, my Sudra brethren had even greater
hardships and oppression practiced upon them than what even
the slaves in America had to suffer. To this system of selfish
superstition and bigotry, we are to attribute the stagnation and
all the evils under which India has been groaning for many
centuries past.”93

91 Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, (Vasant Moon ed.) Government of Maharashtra, Vol. 5 (2014),
at pages 9-18
92 Ibid, at page 15
93 India Dissents: 3,000 Years of Difference, Doubt and Argument, (Ashok Vajpeyi ed.), Speaking Tiger Publishing

Private Limited (2017), at pages 86-88

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PART I

Savitribai Phule expresses the feeling of resentment among the marginalized in

form of a poem:

“Arise brothers, lowest of low shudras
wake up, arise.

Rise and throw off the shackles
put by custom upon us.

Brothers, arise and learn…

We will educate our children
and teach ourselves as well.

We will acquire knowledge
of religion and righteousness.

Let the thirst for books and learning
dance in our every vein.

Let each one struggle and forever erase
our low-caste stain.”94

75 The consistent discourse flowing through these writings reflects a

longstanding fight against subjugation and of atrocities undergone by the victims

of an unequal society. Article 17 is a constitutional recognition of these

resentments. The incorporation of Article 17 into the Constitution is symbolic of

valuing the centuries’ old struggle of social reformers and revolutionaries. It is a

move by the Constitution makers to find catharsis in the face of historic horrors.

It is an attempt to make reparations to those, whose identity was subjugated by

society. Article 17 is a revolt against social norms, which subjugated individuals

into stigmatised hierarchies. By abolishing “untouchability”, Article 17 protects

them from a repetition of history in a free nation. The background of Article 17

94 Ibid, at page 88

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PART I

thus lies in protecting the dignity of those who have been victims of

discrimination, prejudice and social exclusion.

Article 17 must be construed from the perspective of its position as a powerful

guarantee to preserve human dignity and against the stigmatization and

exclusion of individuals and groups on the basis of social hierarchism. Article 17

and Articles 15(2) and 23, provide the supporting foundation for the arc of social

justice. Locating the basis of Article 17 in the protection of dignity and preventing

stigmatization and social exclusion, would perhaps be the apt answer to

Professor KT Shah’s unanswered queries. The Constitution has designedly left

untouchability undefined. Any form of stigmatization which leads to social

exclusion is violative of human dignity and would constitute a form of

“untouchability”. The Drafting Committee did not restrict the scope of Article 17.

The prohibition of “untouchability”, as part of the process of protecting dignity

and preventing stigmatization and exclusion, is the broader notion, which this

Court seeks to adopt, as underlying the framework of these articles.

76 The practice of “untouchability”, as pointed out by the members of the

Constituent Assembly, is a symptom of the caste system. The root cause of

“untouchability” is the caste system.95 The caste system represents a

95 In his paper on “Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development” (1916) presented at the Columbia
University, Dr Ambedkar wrote: “The caste problem is a vast one, both theoretically and practically. Practically,
it is an institution that portends tremendous consequences. It is a local problem, but one capable of much wider
mischief, for as long as caste in India does exist, Hindus will hardly intermarry or have any social intercourse with
outsiders; and if Hindus migrate to other regions on earth, Indian caste would become a world problem”. See Dr.
Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, (Vasant Moon ed.) Government of Maharashtra, Vol. 1 (2014),
at pages 5-6

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PART I

hierarchical order of purity and pollution enforced by social compulsion. Purity

and pollution constitute the core of caste. While the top of the caste pyramid is

considered pure and enjoys entitlements, the bottom is considered polluted and

has no entitlements. Ideas of “purity and pollution” are used to justify this

distinction which is self-perpetuality. The upper castes perform rituals that, they

believe, assert and maintain their purity over lower castes. Rules of purity and

pollution are used to reinforce caste hierarchies.96 The notion of “purity and

pollution” influences who people associate with, and how they treat and are

treated by other people. Dr Ambedkar’s rejection of privileges associated with

caste, in “Annihilation of Caste”97, is hence a battle for human dignity. Dr

Ambedkar perceived the caste system to be violative of individual dignity. 98 In

his last address to the Constituent Assembly, he stated that the caste system is

contrary to the country’s unity and integrity, and described it as bringing

“separation in social life”.99 Individual dignity cannot be based on the notions of

purity and pollution. “Untouchability” against lower castes was based on these

notions, and violated their dignity. It is for this reason that Article 17 abolishes

“untouchability”, which arises out of caste hierarchies. Article 17 strikes at the

foundation of the notions about “purity and pollution”.

96 Diane Coffey and Dean Spears, Where India Goes: Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development and the Costs of
Caste, Harper Collins (2017), at pages 74-79
97 See Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, (Vasant Moon ed.) Government of Maharashtra, Vol. 1

(2014), at pages 23-96
98 See Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, (Vasant Moon ed.) Government of Maharashtra, Vol. 12

(2014), at pages 661-691.

99 Constituent Assembly Debates (25 November 1949)

106
PART I

77 Notions of “purity and pollution”, entrenched in the caste system, still

continue to dominate society. Though the Constitution abolished untouchability

and other forms of social oppression for the marginalised and for the Dalits, the

quest for dignity is yet a daily struggle. The conditions that reproduce

“untouchability” are still in existence. Though the Constitution guarantees to

every human being dignity as inalienable to existence, the indignity and social

prejudices which Dalits face continue to haunt their lives. Seventy years after

independence, a section of Dalits has been forced to continue with the indignity

of manual scavenging. In a recent work, “Ants Among Elephants: An

Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India”, Sujatha Gidla describes

the indignified life of a manual scavenger:

“As their brooms wear down, they have to bend their backs
lower and lower to sweep. When their baskets start to leak, the
[human] shit drips down their faces. In the rainy season, the
filth runs all over these people, onto their hair, their noses, their
moths. Tuberculosis and infectious diseases are endemic
among them.”100

The demeaning life of manual scavengers is narrated by Diane Coffey and Dean

Spears in “Where India Goes: Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development and

the Costs of Caste”101. The social reality of India is that manual scavenging

castes face a two-fold discrimination- one, by society, and other, within the

Dalits:

100

Sujatha Gidla, Ants among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India, Harper Collins
(2017), at page 114
101 Diane Coffey and Dean Spears, Where India Goes: Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development and the Costs of

Caste, Harper Collins (2017), at pages 74-79

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PART I

“[M]anual scavengers are considered the lowest-ranking
among the Dalit castes. The discrimination they face is
generally even worse than that which Dalits from non-

scavenging castes face.”102

Manual scavengers have been the worst victims of the system of “purity and

pollution”. Article 17 was a promise to lower castes that they will be free from

social oppression. Yet for the marginalized communities, little has changed. The

list of the daily atrocities committed against Dalits is endless. Dalits are being

killed for growing a moustache, daring to watch upper-caste folk dances,

allegedly for owning and riding a horse and for all kinds of defiance of a social

order that deprives them of essential humanity.103 The Dalits and other

oppressed sections of society have been waiting long years to see the quest for

dignity fulfilled. Security from oppression and an opportunity to lead a dignified

life is an issue of existence for Dalits and the other marginalized. Post-

independence, Parliament enacted legislations104 to undo the injustice done to

oppressed social groups. Yet the poor implementation105 of law results in a

continued denial which the law attempted to remedy.

78 Article 17 is a social revolutionary provision. It has certain features. The

first is that the Article abolishes “untouchability”. In abolishing it, the Constitution

strikes at the root of the institution of untouchability. The abolition of

102 Ibid, at page 78
103 Rajesh Ramachandran, Death for Moustache, Outlook (16 October 2017), available at
https://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/story/death-for-moustache/299405
104 Scheduled Castes Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989; Prohibition of Manual Scavenging

Act, 2013
105 As observed in National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights v. Union of India, (2017) 2 SCC 432

108
PART I

untouchability can only be fulfilled by dealing with notions which it

encompasses. Notions of “purity and pollution” have been its sustaining force.

In abolishing “untouchability”, the Constitution attempts a dynamic shift in the

social orderings upon which prejudice and discrimination were institutionalized.

The first feature is a moral re-affirmation of human dignity and of a society

governed by equal entitlements. The second important feature of Article 17 is

that the practice of “untouchability” is forbidden. The practice is an emanation

of the institution which sustains it. The abolition of the practice as a

manifestation is a consequence of the abolition of the institution of

“untouchability”. The third significant feature is that the practice of

untouchability” is forbidden “in any form”. The “in any form” prescription has a

profound significance in indicating the nature and width of the prohibition. Every

manifestation of untouchability without exception lies within the fold of the

prohibition. The fourth feature of Article 17 is that the enforcement of disabilities

founded upon “untouchability” shall constitute an offence punishable in

accordance with law. The long arms of the criminal law will lend teeth to the

enforcement of the prohibition.

79 The Constitution has carefully eschewed a definition of “untouchability”.

The draftspersons realized that even a broadly couched definition may be

restrictive. A definition would become restrictive if the words used or the

instances depicted are not adequate to cover the manifold complexities of our

social life through which prejudice and discrimination is manifest. Hence, even

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PART I

though the attention of the framers was drawn to the fact that “untouchability” is

not a practice referable only to the lowest in the caste ordering but also was

practiced against women (and in the absence of a definition, the prohibition

would cover all its forms), the expression was designedly left undefined. The

Constitution uses the expression “untouchability” in inverted comas. The use of

a punctuation mark cannot be construed as intent to circumscribe the

constitutional width of the expression. The historical backdrop to the inclusion

of the provision was provided by centuries of subjugation, discrimination and

social exclusion. Article 17 is an intrinsic part of the social transformation which

the Constitution seeks to achieve. Hence in construing it, the language of the

Constitution should not be ascribed a curtailed meaning which will obliterate its

true purpose. “Untouchability” in any form is forbidden. The operation of the

words used by the Constitution cannot be confined to a particular form or

manifestation of “untouchability”. The Constitution as a constantly evolving

instrument has to be flexible to reach out to injustice based on untouchability, in

any of its forms or manifestations. Article 17 is a powerful guarantee against

exclusion. As an expression of the anti-exclusion principle, it cannot be read to

exclude women against whom social exclusion of the worst kind has been

practiced and legitimized on notions of purity and pollution.

80 The provisions of Article 17 have been adverted to in judicial decisions.

In Devarajiah v B Padmanna106, a learned single judge of the Mysore High

106 AIR 1958 Mys 84

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PART I

Court observed that the absence of a definition of the expression “untouchability

in the Constitution and the use of inverted commas indicated that “the subject-

matter of that Article is not untouchability in its literal or grammatical sense but

the practice as it had developed historically in this country”. The learned single

judge held :

“18.Comprehensive as the word ‘untouchables’ in the Act is
intended to be, it can only refer to those regarded as
untouchables in the course of historical development. A literal
construction of the term would include persons who are treated
as untouchables either temporarily or otherwise for various
reasons, such as their suffering from an epidemic or contagious
disease or on account of social observances such as are
associated with birth or death or on account of social boycott
resulting from caste or other disputes.”107

In Jai Singh v Union of India108, a Full Bench of the Rajasthan High Court

followed the decision of the Mysore High Court in Devarajiah while upholding

the constitutional validity of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled

Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989.

In State of Karnataka v Appa Balu Ingale109, a two judge Bench of this Court

traced the origins of untouchability. The court held that “untouchability is an

indirect form of slavery and only an extension of caste system”. The court held:

“36. The thrust of Article 17 and the Act is to liberate the society
from blind and ritualistic adherence and traditional beliefs which
lost all legal or moral base. It seeks to establish a new ideal for
society – equality to the Dalits, on a par with general public,
absence of disabilities, restrictions or prohibitions on grounds

107 Ibid, at page 85
108 AIR 1993 Raj 177
109 1995 Supp (4) SCC 469

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PART I

of caste or religion, availability of opportunities and a sense of
being a participant in the mainstream of national life.”110

In a more recent decision in Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal Nala Sangam v

Government of Tamil Nadu111, a two judge Bench construed Article 17 in the

context of exclusionary caste based practices:

“47. The issue of untouchability raised on the anvil of Article 17
of the Constitution stands at the extreme opposite end of the
pendulum. Article 17 of the Constitution strikes at caste-based
practices built on superstitions and beliefs that have no
rationale or logic…”

While these judgments focus on “untouchability” arising out of caste based

practices, it is important to note that the provisions of Article 17 were enforced

by means of the Protection of Civil Rights Act 1955 [earlier known as the

Untouchability (Offences) Act]. Clauses (a) and (b) of Section 3 penalise the act

of preventing any person from entering a place of public worship and from

worshiping or offering prayers in such a place. Section 3 reads thus:

“Section 3 – Punishment for enforcing religious disabilities:

Whoever on the ground of “untouchability” prevents any
person—

(a) from entering any place of public worship which is open
to other persons professing the same religion of any
section thereof, as such person; or

(b) from worshipping or offering prayers or performing any
religious service in any place of public worship, or bathing
in, or using the waters of, any sacred tank, well, spring or water-
course [river or lake or bathing at any ghat of such tank, water-

course, river or lake] in the same manner and to the same

110 Ibid, at page 486
111 (2016) 2 SCC 725

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PART I

extent as is permissible to the other persons professing
the same religion or any section thereof, as such person,

[shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term of not less
than one month and not more than six months and also with
fine which shall be not less than one hundred rupees and not
more than five hundred rupees].

Explanation: For the purposes of this section and section 4
persons professing the Buddhist, Sikh or Jaina religion or
persons professing the Hindu religion in any of its forms or
developments including Virashaivas, Lingayats, Adivasis,
followers of Brahmo, Prarthana, Arya Samaj and the
Swaminarayan Sampraday shall be deemed to be Hindus.”
(Emphasis supplied)

Section 4 contains a punishment for enforcing social disability:

“Section 4 – Punishment for enforcing social disabilities:

Whoever on the ground of “untouchability” enforces against
any person any disability with regard to—

(v) the use of, or access to, any place used for a charitable or
a public purpose maintained wholly or partly out of State funds
or dedicated to the use of the general public or [any
section thereof]; or

(x) the observance of any social or religious custom, usage or
ceremony or [taking part in, or taking out, any religious,
social or cultural procession]; or

[Explanation.–For the purposes of this section, “enforcement
of any disability” includes any discrimination on the ground of
“untouchability”.].”

(Emphasis supplied)

Section 7 provides for punishment for other offences arising out of

untouchability. Section 7(1)(c) criminalises the encouragement and incitement

to the practice of untouchability in “any form whatsoever”. Explanation II

stipulates that:

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PART I

“[Explanation II.–For the purpose of clause (c) a person shall
be deemed to incite or encourage the practice of
“untouchability”—

(i) if he, directly or indirectly, preaches “untouchability” or
its practice in any form; or

(ii) if he justifies, whether on historical, philosophical
or religious grounds or on the ground of any
tradition of the caste system or on any other
ground, the practice of “untouchability” in any
form.]”
(Emphasis supplied)

“Untouchability” as such is not defined. Hence, a reference to “untouchability”

must be construed in the context of the provisions of the Civil Rights Act to

include social exclusions based on notions of “purity and pollution”. In the

context of political freedom, Articles 14, 19 and 21 represent as it were, a golden

triangle of liberty. On a different plane, in facing up to the struggle against

exclusion or discrimination in public places of worship, Articles 15(2)(b), 17 and

25(2)(b) constitute the foundation. The guarantee against social exclusion

based on notions of “purity and pollution” is an acknowledgment of the

inalienable dignity of every individual. Dignity as a facet of Article 21 is firmly

entrenched after the decision of nine Judges in K S Puttaswamy v Union of

India (“Puttaswamy”)112.

81 The caste system has been powered by specific forms of subjugation of

women.113 The notion of “purity and pollution” stigmatizes the menstruation of

112(2017) 10 SCC 1
113
In his 1916 paper, “Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development”, Dr Ambedkar speaks about
the practice of subjugating and humiliating women for the purpose of reinforcement of the caste system. He
advances that women have been used as a medium to perpetuate caste system by citing the specific examples of
Sati (the practice of burning of the widow on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband), enforced widowhood by

114
PART I

women in Indian society. In the ancient religious texts 114 and customs,

menstruating women have been considered as polluting the surroundings.

Irrespective of the status of a woman, menstruation has been equated with

impurity, and the idea of impurity is then used to justify their exclusion from key

social activities.

Our society is governed by the Constitution. The values of constitutional morality

are a non-derogable entitlement. Notions of “purity and pollution”, which

stigmatize individuals, can have no place in a constitutional regime. Regarding

menstruation as polluting or impure, and worse still, imposing exclusionary

disabilities on the basis of menstrual status, is against the dignity of women

which is guaranteed by the Constitution. Practices which legitimise menstrual

taboos, due to notions of “purity and pollution”, limit the ability of menstruating

women to attain the freedom of movement, the right to education and the right

of entry to places of worship and, eventually, their access to the public sphere.

Women have a right to control their own bodies. The menstrual status of a

woman is an attribute of her privacy and person. Women have a constitutional

entitlement that their biological processes must be free from social and religious

practices, which enforce segregation and exclusion. These practices result in

humiliation and a violation of dignity. Article 17 prohibits the practice of

which a widow is not allowed to remarry, and pre-pubertal marriage of girls. He believed that the caste-gender
nexus was the main culprit behind the oppression of the lower castes and women and that it had to be uprooted.
See Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, (Vasant Moon ed.), Government of Maharashtra (2014),
Vol. 1, at pages 3-22
114 Manusmriti

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PART I

“untouchability”, which is based on notions of purity and impurity, “in any form”.

Article 17 certainly applies to untouchability practices in relation to lower castes,

but it will also apply to the systemic humiliation, exclusion and subjugation faced

by women. Prejudice against women based on notions of impurity and pollution

associated with menstruation is a symbol of exclusion. The social exclusion of

women, based on menstrual status, is but a form of untouchability which is an

anathema to constitutional values. As an expression of the anti-exclusion

principle, Article 17 cannot be read to exclude women against whom social

exclusion of the worst kind has been practiced and legitimized on notions of

purity and pollution. Article 17 cannot be read in a restricted manner. But even

if Article 17 were to be read to reflect a particular form of untouchability, that

article will not exhaust the guarantee against other forms of social exclusion.

The guarantee against social exclusion would emanate from other provisions of

Part III, including Articles 15(2) and 21. Exclusion of women between the age

groups of ten and fifty, based on their menstrual status, from entering the temple

in Sabarimala can have no place in a constitutional order founded on liberty and

dignity.

82 The issue for entry in a temple is not so much about the right of

menstruating women to practice their right to freedom of religion, as about

freedom from societal oppression, which comes from a stigmatized

understanding of menstruation, resulting in “untouchability”. Article 25, which is

subject to Part III provisions, is necessarily therefore subject to Article 17. To

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PART J

use the ideology of “purity and pollution” is a violation of the constitutional right

against “untouchability”.

J     The ultra vires doctrine

83 Section 2 of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of

Entry) Act 1965 provides thus:

“2. Definitions – In this Act, unless the context otherwise
requires,-

(a) “Hindu” includes a person professing the Buddhist, Sikh or
Jaina religion;

(b) “place of public worship” means a place, by whatever name
known or to whomsoever belonging, which is dedicated to, or
for the benefit of, or is used generally by, Hindus or any section
or class thereof, for the performance of any religious service or
for offering prayers therein, and includes all lands and
subsidiary shrines, mutts, devasthanams, namaskara
mandapams and nalambalams, appurtenant or attached to any
such place, and also any sacred tanks, wells, springs and water
courses the waters of which are worshipped or are used for
bathing or for worship, but does not include a “sreekoil”;

(c) “section or class” includes any division, sub-division, caste,
sub-caste, sect or denomination whatsoever.”

Section 2(c) provides an inclusive definition of the expression “section or class”.

As a principle of statutory interpretation, the term “includes” is used to expand

the scope of the words or phrases which accompany. When “includes” is

employed in a definition clause, the expression must be given a broad

interpretation to give effect to the legislative intent. “Includes” indicates that the

definition must not be restricted.

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PART J

84 In Ardeshir H Bhiwandiwala v State of Bombay,115 a Constitution

Bench of this Court considered whether the Petitioner’s salt works could be

included within the definition of ‘factory’ in Section 2(m) of the Factories Act,

1948. Section 2(m) defines ‘factory’ as “any premises including the precincts

thereof”. This Court rejected the appellant’s claim that the salt works could not

have precincts, being open lands and not premises:

“6.The expression “premises including precincts” does not
necessarily mean that the premises must always have
precincts. Even buildings need not have any precincts. The
word “including” is not a term restricting the meaning of
the word “premises” but is a term which enlarges the
scope of the word “premises”. We are therefore of opinion
that even this contention is not sound and does not lead to the
only conclusion that the word “premises” must be restricted to
mean buildings and be not taken to cover open land as well.”
(Emphasis supplied)

In CIT v Taj Mahal Hotel, Secunderabad116 a two judge Bench of this Court

considered whether sanitary and pipeline fittings would fall within the definition

of ‘plant’ under Section 10(5) of the Income Tax Act, 1922. Section 10(5) of the

Act provided inter alia that in Section 10(2) the word “plant” includes “vehicles,

books, scientific apparatus and surgical equipment purchased for the purpose

of the business, profession or vocation”. While answering the above question in

the affirmative, this Court held that:

“6.The word “includes” is often used in interpretation
clauses in order to enlarge the meaning of the words or
phrases occurring in the body of the statute. When it is so
used, those words and phrases must be construed as
comprehending not only such things as they signify according

115 (1961) 3 SCR 592
116 (1971) 3 SCC 550

118
PART J

to their nature and import but also those things which the
interpretation clause declares that they shall include.”117
(Emphasis supplied)

In Geeta Enterprises v State of U P,118 a three judge Bench of this Court

considered whether Section 2(3) of the United Provinces Entertainment and

Betting Tax Act, 1937 which provided that “entertainment includes any

exhibitional performance, amusement, game or sport to which persons are

admitted for payment”, would include video shows which were being played on

video machines at the premises of the Petitioner. Affirming the above position,

this Court cited with approval, the following interpretation of the word “includes”

by the Allahabad High Court in Gopal Krishna Agrawal v State of U P119:

“The context in which the word ‘includes’ has been used in the
definition clauses of the Act does not indicate that the
legislature intended to put a restriction or a limitation on words
like ‘entertainment’ or ‘admission to an entertainment’ or
‘payment for admission’.”

The same view was expressed by a three judge Bench in Regional Director,

ESIC v High Land Coffee Works of P.F.X. Saldanha Sons120.

85 The use of the term ‘includes’ in Section 2(c) indicates that the scope of

the words ‘section or class’ cannot be confined only to ‘division’, ‘sub-division’,

‘caste’, ‘sub-caste’, ‘sect’ or ‘denomination’. ‘Section or class’, would be

117
Ibid, at pages 552-553
118 (1983) 4 SCC 202
119 (1982) All. L.J. 607
120 (1991) 3 SCC 617

119
PART J

susceptible to a broad interpretation that includes ‘women’ within its ambit.

Section 2(b) uses the expression “Hindus or any section or class thereof”.

Plainly, individuals who profess and practise the faith are Hindus. Moreover,

every section or class of Hindus is comprehended within the expression. That

must necessarily include women who profess and practise the Hindu religion.

The wide ambit of the expression “section or class” emerges from Section 2(c).

Apart from the inclusive definition, the expression includes any division, sub-

division, caste, sub-caste, sect or denomination whatsoever. Women constitute

a section or class. The expression ‘section or class’ must receive the meaning

which is ascribed to it in common parlance. Hence, looked at from any

perspective, women would be comprehended within that expression.

The long title of the Act indicates that its object is “to make better provisions for

the entry of all classes and sections of Hindus into places of public worship”.

The long title is a part of the Act and is a permissible aid to construction.121 The

Act was enacted to remedy the restriction on the right of entry of all Hindus in

temples and their right to worship in them. The legislation is aimed at bringing

about social reform. The legislature endeavoured to strike at the heart of the

social evil of exclusion and sought to give another layer of recognition and

protection to the fundamental right of every person to freely profess, practice

and propagate religion under Article 25. Inclusion of women in the definition of

‘section and class’ in Section 2(c) furthers the object of the law, and recognizes

121 Union of India v Elphinstone Spinning and Weaving Co Ltd, (2001) 4 SCC 139

120
PART J

the right of every Hindu to enter and worship in a temple. It is an attempt to

pierce through imaginary social constructs formed around the practice of

worship, whose ultimate effect is exclusion. A just and proper construction of

Section 2(c) requires that women be included within the definition of ‘section or

class’.

86 The notifications dated 21 October 1955 and 27 November 1956 were

issued by the Travancore Devaswom Board before the 1965 Act was enacted.

The notifications were issued by the Board under Section 31 of the Travancore-

Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act 1950 (“1950 Act”). Section 31 of the

1950 Act reads:

“Management of Devaswoms.- Subject to the provisions of this
Part and the rules made thereunder the Board shall manage
the properties and affairs of the Devaswoms, both incorporated
and unincorporated, as heretofore, and arrange for the conduct
of the daily worship and ceremonies and of the festivals in
every temple according to its usage.”

Both the notifications dated 21 October 1955 and 27 November 1956 have the

same effect, which is the total prohibition on the entry of women between the

ages of ten and fifty into the Sabarimala temple. According to the notifications,

the entry of women between the ages of ten and fifty is in contravention of the

customs and practice of the temple.

Section 3 throws open places of public worship to all sections and classes of

Hindus:

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PART J

“3. Places of public worship to be open to all sections and
classes of Hindus –

Notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained in any
other law for the time being in force or any custom or
usage or any instrument having effect by virtue of any
such law or any decree or order of court, every place of public
worship which is open to Hindus generally or to any section or
class thereof, shall be open to all sections and classes of
Hindus; and no Hindu of whatsoever section or class shall, in
any manner, be prevented, obstructed or discouraged from
entering such place of public worship, or from worshipping or
offering prayers thereat, or performing any religious service
therein, in the like manner and to the like extent as any other
Hindu of whatsoever section or class may so enter, worship,
pray or perform:

Provided that in the case of a place of public worship which is
a temple founded for the benefit of any religious denomination
or section thereof, the provisions of this section shall be subject
to the right of that religious denomination or section, as the
case may be, to manage its own affairs in matters of religion.”
(Emphasis supplied)

Section 3 begins with a non-obstante clause, which overrides any custom or

usage or any instrument having effect by virtue of any such law. Every place of

public worship, which is open to Hindus or to any section or class of Hindus

generally, shall be open to all sections and classes of Hindus. No Hindu of any

section or class whatsoever, shall be prevented, obstructed or discouraged from

entering a place of public worship or from worshipping or offering prayers or

performing any religious service in that place of public worship. Hence, all

places of public worship which are open to Hindus or to any section or class of

Hindus generally have to be open to all sections and classes of Hindus

(including women). Hindu women constitute a ‘section or class’ under Section

2(c).

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PART J

The proviso to Section 3 creates an exception by providing that if the place of

public worship is a temple which is founded for the benefit of any religious

denomination or section thereof, Section 3 would be subject to the right of that

religious denomination or section to manage its own affairs in matters of religion.

The proviso recognises the entitlement of a religious denomination to manage

its own affairs in matters of religion. However, the proviso is attracted only if the

following conditions are satisfied:

(i) The place of public worship is a temple; and

(ii) The temple has been founded for the benefit of any religious denomination

or section thereof.

87 We have held that the devotees of Lord Ayyappa do not constitute a

religious denomination and the Sabarimala temple is not a denominational

temple. The proviso has no application. The notifications which restrict the entry

of women between the ages of ten and fifty in the Sabarimala temple cannot

stand scrutiny and plainly infringe Section 3. They prevent any woman between

the age of ten and fifty from entering the Sabarimala temple and from offering

prayers. Such a restriction would infringe the rights of all Hindu women which

are recognized by Section 3. The notifications issued by the Board prohibiting

the entry of women between ages ten and fifty-five, are ultra vires Section 3.

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PART J

88 The next question is whether Rule 3(b) of the 1965 Rules is ultra vires the

1965 Act. Rule 3 provides:

“The classes of persons mentioned here under shall not be
entitled to offer worship in any place of public worship or bathe
in or use the water of any sacred tank, well, spring or water
course appurtenant to a place of public worship whether situate
within or outside precincts thereof, or any sacred place
including a hill or hill lock, or a road, street or pathways which
is requisite for obtaining access to the place of public worship-

(a) Persons who are not Hindus.

(b) Women at such time during which they are not by
custom and usage allowed to enter a place of public
worship.

(c) Persons under pollution arising out of birth or death in their
families.

(d) Drunken or disorderly persons.

(e) Persons suffering from any loathsome or contagious
disease.

(f) Persons of unsound mind except when taken for worship
under proper control and with the permission of the executive
authority of the place of public worship concerned.

(g) Professional beggars when their entry is solely for the
purpose of begging.”
(Emphasis supplied)

By Rule 3(b), women are not allowed to offer worship in any place of public

worship including a hill, hillock or a road leading to a place of public worship or

entry into places of public worship at such time, if they are, by custom or usage

not allowed to enter such place of public worship.

Section 4 provides thus:

“4. Power to make regulations for the maintenance of order and
decorum and the due performance of rites and ceremonies in
places of public worship –

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PART J

(1) The trustee or any other person in charge of any place of
public worship shall have power, subject to the control of the
competent authority and any rules which may be made by that
authority, to make regulations for the maintenance of order and
decorum in the place of public worship and the due observance
of the religious rites and ceremonies performed therein:

Provided that no regulation made under this sub-section shall
discriminate in any manner whatsoever, against any Hindu on
the ground that he belongs to a particular section or class.

(2) The competent authority referred to in sub-section (1) shall
be,-

(i) In relation to a place of public worship situated in any area
to which Part I of the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious
Institutions Act, 1950 (Travancore-Cochin Act XV of 1950),
extends, the Travancore Devaswom Board;

(ii) in relation to a place of public worship situated in any area
to which Part II of the said Act extends, the Cochin Devaswom
Board; and

(iii) in relation to a place of public worship situated in any other
area in the State of Kerala, the Government.”

Section 4(1) empowers the trustee or a person in charge of a place of public

worship to make regulations for maintenance of order and decorum and for

observance of rites and ceremonies in places of public worship. The regulation

making power is not absolute. The proviso to Section 4(1) prohibits

discrimination against any Hindu in any manner whatsoever on the ground that

he or she belongs to a particular section or class.

89 When the rule-making power is conferred by legislation on a delegate, the

latter cannot make a rule contrary to the provisions of the parent legislation. The

rule-making authority does not have the power to make a rule beyond the scope

of the enabling law or inconsistent with the law.122 Whether delegated legislation

122 Additional District Magistrate v Siri Ram, (2000) 5 SCC 451

125
PART J

is in excess of the power conferred on the delegate is determined with reference

to the specific provisions of the statute conferring the power and the object of

the Act as gathered from its provisions.123

90 Hindu women constitute a ‘section or class’ of Hindus under clauses b

and c of Section 2 of the 1965 Act. The proviso to Section 4(1) forbids any

regulation which discriminates against any Hindu on the ground of belonging to

a particular section or class. Above all, the mandate of Section 3 is that if a place

of public worship is open to Hindus generally or to any section or class of

Hindus, it shall be open to all sections or classes of Hindus. The Sabarimala

temple is open to Hindus generally and in any case to a section or class of

Hindus. Hence it has to be open to all sections or classes of Hindus, including

Hindu women. Rule 3(b) gives precedence to customs and usages which allow

the exclusion of women “at such time during which they are not… allowed to

enter a place of public worship”. In laying down such a prescription, Rule 3(b)

directly offends the right of temple entry established by Section 3. Section 3

overrides any custom or usage to the contrary. But Rule 3 acknowledges,

recognises and enforces a custom or usage to exclude women. This is plainly

ultra vires.

123Maharashtra State Board of Secondary and Higher Education v Paritosh Bhupeshkumar Sheth, (1984) 4 SCC
27

126
PART K

The object of the Act is to enable the entry of all sections and classes of Hindus

into temples dedicated to, or for the benefit of or used by any section or class of

Hindus. The Act recognizes the rights of all sections and classes of Hindus to

enter places of public worship and their right to offer prayers. The law was

enacted to remedy centuries of discrimination and is an emanation of Article

25(2)(b) of the Constitution. The broad and liberal object of the Act cannot be

shackled by the exclusion of women. Rule 3(b) is ultra vires.

 K        The ghost of Narasu124

91 The Respondents have urged that the exclusion of women from the

Sabarimala temple constitutes a custom, independent of the Act and the 1965

Rules.125 It was contended that this exclusion is part of ‘institutional worship’

and flows from the character of the deity as a Naishtika Brahmachari. During

the proceedings, a submission was addressed on the ambit of Article 13 and

the definition of ‘laws in force’ in clause 1 of that Article.

Article 13 of the Constitution reads thus:

“13. (1) All laws in force in the territory of India immediately
before the commencement of this Constitution, in so far as they
are inconsistent with the provisions of this Part, shall, to the
extent of such inconsistency, be void.

(2) The State shall not make any law which takes away or
abridges the rights conferred by this Part and any law made in

124
Indira Jaisingh, ‘The Ghost of Narasu Appa Mali is stalking the Supreme Court of India’, Lawyers Collective, 28
May, 2018
125 Written Submissions of Senior Advocate Shri K. Parasaran, at paras 4, 6, 10, 15, 29, 39, 41; Additional Affidavit

of Travancore Devaswom Board at para 1

127
PART K

contravention of this clause shall, to the extent of the
contravention, be void.

(3) In this article, unless the context otherwise requires,—

(a) “law” includes any Ordinance, order, bye-law, rule,
regulation, notification, custom or usage having in the territory
of India the force of law;

(b) “laws in force” includes laws passed or made by a
Legislature or other competent authority in the territory of India
before the commencement of this Constitution and not
previously repealed, notwithstanding that any such law or any
part thereof may not be then in operation either at all or in
particular areas.

(4) Nothing in this article shall apply to any amendment of this
Constitution made under article 368.”

92 A Division Bench of the Bombay High Court in The State of Bombay v

Narasu Appa Mali (“Narasu”),126 considered the ambit of Article 13, particularly

in the context of custom, usage and personal law. The constitutional validity of

the Bombay Prevention of Hindu Bigamous Marriages Act 1946 was

considered. It was contended that a provision of personal law which permits

polygamy violates the guarantee of non-discrimination under Article 15, and that

such a practice had become void under Article 13(1) after the Constitution came

into force. The Bombay High Court considered the question of “whether in the

expression ‘all laws in force’ appearing in Article 13(1) ‘personal laws’ were

included”. Chief Justice Chagla opined that ‘custom or usage’ would be included

in the definition of ‘laws in force’ in Article 13(1). The learned Chief Justice held:

“15…The Solicitor General's contention is that this definition of
“law” only applies to Article 13(2) and not to Article 13(1).

According to him it is only the definition of “laws in force” that

126AIR 1952 Bom 84; In the proceedings before the Sessions Judge of South Satara, the accused was acquitted
and the Bombay Prevention of Hindu Bigamous Marriages Act 1946 was held invalid. The cases arise from these
proceedings

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applies to Article 13(1). That contention is difficult to accept
because custom or usage would have no meaning if it were
applied to the expression “law” in Article 13(2). The State
cannot make any custom or usage. Therefore, that part of the
definition can only apply to the expression “laws” in Article
13(1). Therefore, it is clear that if there is any custom or usage
which is in force in India, which is inconsistent with the
fundamental rights, that custom or usage is void.”

Hence, the validity of a custom or usage could be tested for its conformity with

Part III. However, the learned Chief Justice rejected the contention that personal

law is ‘custom or usage’:

“15…Custom or usage is deviation from personal law and not
personal law itself. The law recognises certain institutions
which are not in accordance with religious texts or are even
opposed to them because they have been sanctified by custom
or usage, but the difference between personal law and custom
or usage is clear and unambiguous.”

Thus, Justice Chagla concluded that “personal law is not included in the

expression “laws in force” used in Article 13(1).”

93 Justice Gajendragadkar (as the learned Judge then was) differed with the

Chief Justice’s view that custom or usage falls within the ambit of Article 13(1).

According to Justice Gajendragadkar, ‘custom or usage’ does not fall within the

expression ‘laws in force’ in Article 13(1):

“26…If custom or usage having the force of law was really
included in the expression “laws in force,” I am unable to see
why it was necessary to provide for the abolition of
untouchability expressly and specifically by Article 17. This
article abolishes untouchability and forbids its practice in any
form. It also lays down that the enforcement of any disability
arising out of untouchability shall be an offence punishable in

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accordance with law. Untouchability as it was practised
amongst the Hindus owed its origin to custom and usage, and
there can be no doubt whatever that in theory and in practice it
discriminated against a large section of Hindus only on the
ground of birth. If untouchability thus clearly offended against
the provisions of Article 15(1) and if it was included in the
expression “laws in force”, it would have been void under
Article 13(1). In that view it would have been wholly
unnecessary to provide for its abolition by Article 17. That is
why I find it difficult to accept the argument that custom or
usage having the force of law should be deemed to be included
in the expression “laws in force.””

The learned Judge opined that the practice of untouchability owed its origins to

custom and usage. If it was intended to include ‘custom or usage’ in the

definition of ‘laws in force’ in Article 13(3)(b), the custom of untouchability would

offend the non-discrimination guarantee under Article 15 and be void under

Article 13(1). The learned Judge concluded that this renders Article 17 obsolete.

The learned Judge concluded that it was thus not intended to include ‘custom

or usage’ within the ambit of ‘laws in force’ in Article 13(1) read with Article

13(3)(b).

Justice Gajendragadkar held that “even if this view is wrong, it does not follow

that personal laws are included in the expression “laws in force””:

“26…It seems to me impossible to hold that either the Hindu or
the Mahomedan law is based on custom or usage having the
force of law.”

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The learned Judge read in a statutory requirement for ‘laws in force’ under

Article 13(1):

“23…There can be no doubt that the personal laws are in force
in a general sense; they are in fact administered by the Courts
in India in matters falling within their purview. But the
expression “laws in force” is, in my opinion, used in Article
13(1) not in that general sense. This expression refers to what
may compendiously be described as statutory laws. There is
no doubt that laws which are included in this expression must
have been passed or made by a Legislature or other
competent authority, and unless this test is satisfied it would
not be legitimate to include in this expression the personal laws
merely on the ground that they are administered by Courts in
India.”

The learned Judges differed on whether ‘laws in force’ in Article 13(1) read with

Article 13(3)(b) includes ‘custom or usages’. The reasoning of the High Court in

recording this conclusion merits a closer look.

94 In A K Gopalan v State of Madras,127 a seven judge Bench dealt with

the constitutionality of the Preventive Detention Act 1950. The majority upheld

the Act on a disjunctive reading of the Articles in Part III of the Constitution. In

his celebrated dissent, Justice Fazl Ali, pointed out that the scheme of Part III

of the Constitution suggested the existence of a degree of overlap between

Articles 19, 21, and 22. The dissent adopted the view that the fundamental rights

are not isolated and separate but protect a common thread of liberty and

freedom:

127 1950 SCR 88

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“58.To my mind, the scheme of the Chapter dealing with
the fundamental rights does not contemplate what is
attributed to it, namely, that each Article is a code by itself
and is independent of the others. In my opinion, it cannot
be said that Articles 19, 20, 21 and 22 do not to some
extent overlap each other. The case of a person who is
convicted of an offence will come under Articles 20 and 21 and
also under Article 22 so far as his arrest and detention in
custody before trial are concerned. Preventive detention, which
is dealt with in Article 22, also amounts to deprivation of
personal liberty which is referred to in Article 21, and is a
violation of the right of freedom of movement dealt with in
Article 19(1)(d)...”
(Emphasis supplied)

The view adopted in Justice Fazl Ali’s dissent was endorsed in Rustom

Cavasjee Cooper v Union of India.128 An eleven judge Bench dealt with the

question whether the Banking Companies (Acquisition and Transfer of

Undertakings) Ordinance, 1969, and the Banking Companies (Acquisition and

Transfer of Undertakings) Act, 1969 impaired the Petitioner’s rights under

Articles 14, 19 and 31 of the Constitution. Holding the Act to be unconstitutional,

Justice J C Shah held:

“52…The enunciation of rights either express or by implication
does not follow a uniform pattern. But one thread runs through
them: they seek to protect the rights of the individual or groups
of individuals against infringement of those rights within
specific limits. Part III of the Constitution weaves a pattern of
guarantees on the texture of basic human rights. The
guarantees delimit the protection of those rights in their allotted
fields: they do not attempt to enunciate distinct rights.”129

128 (1970) 1 SCC 248
129 Ibid, at page 289

132
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Similarly, in Maneka, a seven judge Bench was faced with a constitutional

challenge to Section 10(3)(c) of the Passports Act 1967. Striking the section

down as violating Article 14 of the Constitution, Justice P N Bhagwati held:

“5…It is said that the freedom to move freely is carved out of
personal liberty and, therefore, the expression 'personal liberty'
in Article 21 excludes that attribute. In our view, this is not a
correct approach. Both are independent fundamental
rights, though there is overlapping. There is no question of
one being carved out of another. The fundamental right of life
and personal liberty has many attributes and some of them are
found in Article 19. If a person's fundamental right under Article
21 is infringed, the State can rely upon a law to sustain the
action, but that cannot be a complete answer unless the said
law satisfies the test laid down in Article 19(2) so far as the
attributes covered by Article 19(1) are concerned.”130
(Emphasis supplied)

In the Special Courts Bill Reference,131 a seven judge Bench of this Court,

considered a reference under Article 143(1) on the question whether the Special

Courts Bill, 1978 or any of its provisions, if enacted, would be constitutionally

invalid. Justice Y V Chandrachud (writing for himself, Justice P N Bhagwati,

Justice R S Sarkaria, and Justice Murtaza Fazl Ali) held that an attempt must

be made to “to harmonize the various provisions of the Constitution and not to

treat any part of it as otiose or superfluous.” The learned Judge held:

“49…Some amount of repetitiveness or overlapping is
inevitable in a Constitution like ours which, unlike the American
Constitution, is drawn elaborately and runs into minute details.

There is, therefore, all the greater reason why, while construing
our Constitution, care must be taken to see that powers
conferred by its different provisions are permitted their full play

130 Ibid, at page 279
131 (1979) 1 SCC 380

133
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and any one provision is not, by construction, treated as
nullifying the existence and effect of another.”132

In Puttaswamy, a unanimous verdict by a nine judge Bench declared privacy

to be constitutionally protected, as a facet of liberty, dignity and individual

autonomy. The Court held that privacy traces itself to the guarantee of life and

personal liberty in Article 21 of the Constitution as well as to other facets of

freedom and dignity recognized and guaranteed by the fundamental rights

contained in Part III. The judgment of four judges held thus:

“259…The coalescence of Articles 14, 19 and 21 has brought
into being a jurisprudence which recognises the inter-
relationship between rights. That is how the requirements of
fairness and non-discrimination animate both the substantive
and procedural aspects of Article 21…133

260…At a substantive level, the constitutional values
underlying each Article in the Chapter on fundamental rights
animate the meaning of the others. This development of the
law has followed a natural evolution. The basis of this
development after all is that every aspect of the diverse
guarantees of fundamental rights deals with human beings.

Every element together with others contributes in the
composition of the human personality. In the very nature of
things, no element can be read in a manner disjunctive from
the composite whole.”134

Responding to the reasoning employed in Narasu, A M Bhattacharjee in his

work ‘Matrimonial Laws and the Constitution’,135 writes:

“…the provisions of Article 15(3) may also appear to be
unnecessary to the extent that it refers to “children”. Article
15(1) prohibiting discrimination on the ground of religion, race,
caste, sex or place of birth does not prohibit any differential

132
Ibid, at page 413
133 Ibid, at page 477
134 Ibid, at page 478
135 A M Bhattacharjee, Matrimonial Laws and the Constitution, Eastern Law House (1996) at page 32

134
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treatment on the ground of age. And, therefore, if age is thus
not a prohibited basis for differentiation, it was not necessary
to provide any express saving clause in Article 15(3) to the
effect that “nothing in this Article shall prevent the State from
making any special provisions for children,” because nothing in
Article 15(1) or Article 15(2) would forbid such special
provision…There, the mere fact that some matter has been
specifically dealt with by one or more Articles in Part III or
anywhere else, would not, by itself, warrant the conclusion that
the same has not been or cannot be covered by or included or
dealt with again in any other Article or Articles in Part III or
elsewhere.”

95 The rights guaranteed under Part III of the Constitution have the common

thread of individual dignity running through them. There is a degree of overlap

in the Articles of the Constitution which recognize fundamental human freedoms

and they must be construed in the widest sense possible. To say then that the

inclusion of an Article in the Constitution restricts the wide ambit of the rights

guaranteed, cannot be sustained. Article 17 was introduced by the framers to

incorporate a specific provision in regard to untouchability. The introduction of

Article 17 reflects the transformative role and vision of the Constitution. It brings

focus upon centuries of discrimination in the social structure and posits the role

of the Constitution to bring justice to the oppressed and marginalized. The

penumbra of a particular article in Part III which deals with a specific facet of

freedom may exist elsewhere in Part III. That is because all freedoms share an

inseparable connect. They exist together and it is in their co-existence that the

vision of dignity, liberty and equality is realized. As noted in Puttaswamy, “the

Constituent Assembly thought it fit that some aspects of liberty require a more

emphatic declaration so as to restrict the authority of the State to abridge or

curtail them”. The rationale adopted by Justice Gajendragadkar in Narasu for

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PART K

excluding custom and usage from ‘laws in force’ under Article 13(1) read with

Article 13(3)(b) is unsustainable both doctrinally and from the perspective of the

precedent of this Court.

96 Both Judges in Narasu relied on the phraseology of Section 112 of the

Government of India Act 1915 which enjoined the High Courts in Calcutta,

Madras, and Bombay to decide certain matters in the exercise of their original

jurisdiction in accordance with the personal law or custom of the parties to the

suit, and of the defendant, where the plaintiff and defendant are subject to

different personal laws or custom:

“112. The High Courts at Calcutta, Madras and Bombay, in the
exercise of their original jurisdiction in suits against inhabitants
of Calcutta, Madras or Bombay, as the case may be, shall, in
matters of inheritance and succession to lands, rents and
goods, and in matters of contract and dealing between party
and party, when both parties are subject to the same personal
law or custom having the force of law, decide according to
that personal law or custom, and when the parties are subject
to different personal laws or custom having the force of law,
decide according to the law or custom to which the defendant
is subject.”
(Emphasis supplied)

Relying on the disjunctive use of ‘personal law’ and ‘custom having the force of

law’ (separated by the use of the word ‘or’), Chief Justice Chagla opined that

despite the legislative precedent of the 1915 Act, the Constituent Assembly

deliberately omitted a reference to ‘personal law’ in Article 13. Chief Justice

Chagla held that this “is a very clear pointer to the intention of the Constitution

making body to exclude personal law from the purview of Article 13.”

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PART K

The Constituent Assembly also had a legislative precedent of the Government

of India Act 1935, from which several provisions of the Constitution are

designed. Section 292 of that Act, which corresponds broadly to Article 372(1)

of the Constitution reads thus:

“292. Notwithstanding the repeal by this Act of the Government
of India Act, but subject to the other provisions of this Act, all
the law in force in British India immediately before the
commencement of Part III of this Act shall continue in force in
British India until altered or repealed or amended by a
competent Legislature or other competent authority.”
(Emphasis supplied)

Section 292 of the Act saved ‘all the law in force’ in British India immediately

before the commencement of Part III of that Act. The expression “law in force”

in that Section was interpreted by the Federal Court in The United Provinces

v Mst. Atiqa Begum.136 The question before the Court was whether the

legislature of the United Provinces was competent to enact the Regularization

of Remissions Act 1938. While construing Section 292 of the Government of

India Act 1935 and adverting to the powers of the Provincial Legislature and the

Central Legislature, Justice Suleman held:

“Even though we are not concerned with the wisdom of the
Legislature, one cannot help saying that there appears to be
no adequate reason why the power to give retrospective effect
to a new legislation should be curtailed, limited or minimized,
particularly when S. 292 applies not only to statutory
enactments then in force, but to all laws, including even
personal laws, customary laws, and common laws.”137
(Emphasis supplied)

136 AIR 1941 FC 16
137 Ibid, at page 31

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PART K

The definitional terms ‘law’ and ‘laws in force’ in Article 13(3)(a) and 13(3)(b)

have an inclusive definition. It is a settled position of statutory interpretation, that

use of the word ‘includes’ enlarges the meaning of the words or phrases used. 138

In his seminal work, ‘Principles of Statutory Interpretation’, Justice G P Singh

writes that: “where the word defined is declared to ‘include’ such and such, the

definition is prima facie extensive.”139

97 In Sant Ram v Labh Singh140, a Constitution Bench of this Court dealt

with whether ‘after coming into operation of the Constitution, the right of pre-

emption is contrary to the provisions of Art. 19(1)(f) read with Art. 13 of the

Constitution’. It was contended that the terms ‘law’ and ‘laws in force’ were

defined separately and ‘custom or usage’ in the definition of ‘law’ cannot be

included in the definition of ‘laws in force’. Rejecting this contention, the Court

relied on the expansive meaning imported by the use of ‘includes’ in the

definition clauses:

“4…The question is whether by defining the composite phrase
“laws in force” the intention is to exclude the first definition. The
definition of the phrase “laws in force” is an inclusive definition
and is intended to include laws passed or made by a
Legislature or other competent authority before the
commencement of the Constitution irrespective of the fact that
the law or any part thereof was not in operation in particular
areas or at all. In other words, laws, which were not in
operation, though on the statute book, were included in the
phrase “laws in force”. But the second definition does not in
any way restrict the ambit of the word “law” in the first clause
as extended by the definition of that word. It merely seeks to

138 Ardeshir H Bhiwandiwala v State of Bombay (1961) 3 SCR 592; CIT v Taj Mahal Hotel, Secunderabad (1971)
3 SCC 550; Geeta Enterprises v State of U P (1983) 4 SCC 202; Regional Director, ESIC v High Land Coffee
Works of P.F.X. Saldanha Sons (1991) 3 SCC 617
139 Justice G P Singh, Principles of Statutory Interpretation, Lexis Nexis (2016) at page 198
140 (1964) 7 SCR 756

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PART K

amplify it by including something which, but for the second
definition, would not be included by the first definition…Custom
and usage having in the territory of India the force of the law
must be held to be contemplated by the expression “all laws in
force.”

The use of the term ‘includes’ in the definition of the expression ‘law’ and ‘laws

in force’ thus imports a wide meaning to both. Practices having the force of law

in the territory of India are comprehended within “laws in force.” Prior to the

adoption of Article 13 in the present form, draft Article 8 included only a definition

of ‘law’.141 In October 1948, the Drafting Committee brought in the definition of

‘laws in force’. The reason for proposing this amendment emerges from the

note142 of the Drafting Committee:

“The expression “laws in force” has been used in clause (1) of
8, but it is not clear if a law which has been passed by the
Legislature but which is not in operation either at all or in
particular areas would be treated as a law in force so as to
attract the operation of clause (1) of this article. It is accordingly
suggested that a definition of “law in force” on the lines of
Explanation I to article 307 should be inserted in clause (3) of
this article.”

The reason for a separate definition for ‘laws in force’ is crucial. The definition

of ‘laws in force’ was inserted to ensure that laws passed by the legislature, but

not in operation at all or in particular areas would attract the operation of Article

141 Shiva Rao, The Framing of India’s Constitution, Vol III, at pages 520, 521. Draft Article 8 reads:

“8(1) All laws in force immediately before the commencement of this Constitution in the territory of
India, in so far as they are inconsistent with the provisions of this Part, shall, to the extent of such
inconsistency, be void.

(2) The State shall not make any law which takes away or abridges the rights conferred by this Part
and any law made in contravention of this clause shall, to the extent of the contravention, be void:
*Provided that nothing in this clause shall prevent the State from making any law for the removal of
any inequality, disparity, disadvantage or discrimination arising out of any existing law.

(3) In this article, the expression “law” includes any ordinance, order, bye-law, rule, regulation,
notification, custom or usage having the force of law in the territory of India or any part thereof.”
142 Shiva Rao, The Framing of India’s Constitution, Vol IV, at pages 26, 27

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PART K

13(1). Justice Gajendragadkar, however, held that ‘laws in force’ in Article 13(1)

is a compendious expression for statutory laws. In doing so, the learned Judge

overlooked the wide ambit that was to be attributed to the term ‘laws in force’,

by reason of the inclusive definition. The decision of the Constitution Bench in

Sant Ram emphasizes precisely this facet. Hence, the view of Justice

Gajendragadkar as a judge of the Bombay High Court in Narasu cannot be held

to be correct.

98 Recently, in Shayara Bano, a Constitution Bench considered whether

talaq – ul – biddat or ‘triple talaq’, which authorised a Muslim man to divorce his

wife by pronouncing the word “talaq” thrice, was legally invalid. In a 3-2 verdict,

the majority ruled that triple talaq is not legally valid. Justice Rohinton Fali

Nariman (writing for himself and Justice Lalit) held that the Muslim Personal Law

(Shariat) Application Act, 1937 codified the practice of Triple Talaq. The learned

Judge proceeded to examine whether this violated the Constitution:

“47.It is, therefore, clear that all forms of Talaq recognized and
enforced by Muslim personal law are recognized and enforced
by the 1937 Act. This would necessarily include Triple Talaq
when it comes to the Muslim personal law applicable to Sunnis
in India…143

48.As we have concluded that the 1937 Act is a law made by
the legislature before the Constitution came into force, it would
fall squarely within the expression “laws in force” in Article
13(3)(b) and would be hit by Article 13(1) if found to be
inconsistent with the provisions of Part III of the Constitution,
to the extent of such inconsistency.”144

143 Ibid, at page 65
144 Ibid, at page 65

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PART K

Having concluded that the 1937 Act codified the practice of triple talaq and that

the legislation would consequently fall within the ambit of ‘laws in force’ in Article

13(1) of the Constitution, it was held that it was “unnecessary…to decide

whether the judgment in Narasu Appa (supra) is good law.”145 Justice Nariman,

however, doubted the correctness of Narasu in the following observation:

“However, in a suitable case, it may be necessary to have a re-

look at this judgment in that the definition of “law and “laws in
force” are both inclusive definitions, and that at least one part
of the judgment of P.B. Gajendragadkar, J., (para 26) in which
the learned Judge opines that the expression “law” cannot be
read into the expression “laws in force” in Article 13(3) is itself
no longer good law.”

99 Custom, usages and personal law have a significant impact on the civil

status of individuals. Those activities that are inherently connected with the civil

status of individuals cannot be granted constitutional immunity merely because

they may have some associational features which have a religious nature. To

immunize them from constitutional scrutiny, is to deny the primacy of the

Constitution.

Our Constitution marks a vision of social transformation. It marks a break from

the past – one characterized by a deeply divided society resting on social

prejudices, stereotypes, subordination and discrimination destructive of the

dignity of the individual. It speaks to the future of a vision which is truly

145 Ibid, at para 51

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PART K

emancipatory in nature. In the context of the transformative vision of the South

African Constitution, it has been observed that such a vision would:

“require a complete reconstruction of the state and society,
including a redistribution of power and resources along
egalitarian lines. The challenge of achieving equality within this
transformation project involves the eradication of systemic
forms of domination and material disadvantage based on race,
gender, class and other grounds of inequality. It also entails the
development of opportunities which allow people to realise
their full human potential within positive social relationships.”146

100 The Indian Constitution is marked by a transformative vision. Its

transformative potential lies in recognizing its supremacy over all bodies of law

and practices that claim the continuation of a past which militates against its

vision of a just society. At the heart of transformative constitutionalism, is a

recognition of change. What transformation in social relations did the

Constitution seek to achieve? What vision of society does the Constitution

envisage? The answer to these questions lies in the recognition of the individual

as the basic unit of the Constitution. This view demands that existing structures

and laws be viewed from the prism of individual dignity.

Did the Constitution intend to exclude any practice from its scrutiny? Did it intend

that practices that speak against its vision of dignity, equality and liberty of the

individual be granted immunity from scrutiny? Was it intended that practices that

146Cathi Albertyn and Beth Goldblatt, Facing the Challenge of Transformation: Difficulties in the Development of
an Indigenous Jurisprudence of Equality, Vol. 14, South African Journal of Human Rights (1988), at page 249

142
PART K

detract from the transformative vision of the Constitution be granted supremacy

over it? To my mind, the answer to all these, is in the negative.

The individual, as the basic unit, is at the heart of the Constitution. All rights and

guarantees of the Constitution are operationalized and are aimed towards the

self-realization of the individual. This makes the anti-exclusion principle firmly

rooted in the transformative vision of the Constitution, and at the heart of judicial

enquiry. Irrespective of the source from which a practice claims legitimacy, this

principle enjoins the Court to deny protection to practices that detract from the

constitutional vision of an equal citizenship.

101 The decision in Narasu, in restricting the definition of the term ‘laws in

force’ detracts from the transformative vision of the Constitution. Carving out

‘custom or usage’ from constitutional scrutiny, denies the constitutional vision of

ensuring the primacy of individual dignity. The decision in Narasu, is based on

flawed premises. Custom or usage cannot be excluded from ‘laws in force’. The

decision in Narasu also opined that personal law is immune from constitutional

scrutiny. This detracts from the notion that no body of practices can claim

supremacy over the Constitution and its vision of ensuring the sanctity of dignity,

liberty and equality. This also overlooks the wide ambit that was to be attributed

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PART K

to the term ‘laws in force’ having regard to its inclusive definition and

constitutional history. As H M Seervai notes147:

“there is no difference between the expression “existing law”
and “law in force” and consequently, personal law would be
“existing law” and “law in force …custom, usage and statutory
law are so inextricably mixed up in personal law that it would
be difficult to ascertain the residue of personal law outside
them.”

The decision in Narasu, in immunizing uncodified personal law and construing

the same as distinct from custom, deserves detailed reconsideration in an

appropriate case in the future.

102 In the quest towards ensuring the rights guaranteed to every individual, a

Constitutional court such as ours is faced with an additional task.

Transformative adjudication must provide remedies in individual instances that

arise before the Court. In addition, it must seek to recognize and transform the

underlying social and legal structures that perpetuate practices against the

constitutional vision. Subjecting personal laws to constitutional scrutiny is an

important step in this direction. Speaking of the true purpose of liberty, Dr B R

Ambedkar stated:

“What are we having this liberty for? We are having this liberty
in order to reform our social system, which is so full of
inequities, so full of inequalities, discriminations and other
things, which conflict with our fundamental rights.”148

147 H M Seervai, Constitutional Law of India, Vol. I, at page 677
148 Parliament of India, Constituent Assembly Debates, Vol. VII, at page 781

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PART L

Practices, that perpetuate discrimination on the grounds of characteristics that

have historically been the basis of discrimination, must not be viewed as part of

a seemingly neutral legal background. They have to be used as intrinsic to, and

not extraneous to, the interpretive enquiry.

The case before us has raised the question of whether it is constitutionally

permissible to exclude women between the ages of ten and fifty from the

Sabarimala Temple. In the denial of equal access, the practice denies an equal

citizenship and substantive equality under the Constitution. The primacy of

individual dignity is the wind in the sails of the boat chartered on the

constitutional course of a just and egalitarian social order.

L Deity as a bearer of constitutional rights

103 Mr J Sai Deepak, learned Counsel, urged that the presiding deity of the

Sabarimala Temple, Lord Ayyappa, is a bearer of constitutional rights under

Part III of the Constitution. It was submitted that the right to preserve the celibacy

of the deity is a protected constitutional right and extends to excluding women

from entering and praying at the Sabarimala Temple. It was urged that the right

of the deity to follow his Dharma flows from Article 25(1) and Article 26 of the

Constitution and any alteration in the practice followed would have an adverse

effect on the fundamental rights of the deity.

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PART L

104 The law recognizes an idol or deity as a juristic persons which can own

property and can sue and be sued in the Court of law. In Pramatha Nath

Mullick v Pradyumna Kumar Mullick149, the Privy Council dealt with the nature

of an idol and services due to the idol. Speaking for the Court, Lord Shaw held

thus:

“A Hindu idol is, according to long established authority,
founded upon the religious customs of the Hindus, and the
recognition thereof by Courts of law, a “juristic entity.” It has a
juridical status with the power of suing and being sued.”150

In Yogendra Nath Naskar v Commissioner of the Income-Tax, Calcutta151,

this Court held thus:

“6.But so far as the deity stands as the representative and
symbol of the particular purpose which is indicated by the
donor, it can figure as a legal person. The true legal view is that
in that capacity alone the dedicated property vests in it. There
is no principle why a deity as such a legal person should not be
taxed if such a legal person is allowed in law to own property
even though in the ideal sense and to sue for the property, to
realize rent and to defend such property…in the ideal
sense.”152

B K Mukherjea in his seminal work ‘The Hindu Law of Religious and Charitable

Trusts’ writes thus:

“An idol is certainly a juristic person and as the Judicial
Committee observed in Promotha v Prayumna, “it has a
juridical status with the power of suing and being sued.” An idol
can hold property and obviously it can sue and be sued in

149
(1925) 27 Bom LR 1064
150 Ibid, at page 250
151 (1969) 1 SCC 555
152 Ibid, at page 560

146
PART L

respect of it…[Thus] the deity as a juristic person has
undoubtedly the right to institute a suit for the protection of its
interest.”153

105 The word ‘persons’ in certain statutes have been interpreted to include

idols. However, to claim that a deity is the bearer of constitutional rights is a

distinct issue, and does not flow as a necessary consequence from the position

of the deity as a juristic person for certain purposes. Merely because a deity has

been granted limited rights as juristic persons under statutory law does not

mean that the deity necessarily has constitutional rights.

In Shirur Mutt, Justice B K Mukherjea writing for the Court, made observations

on the bearer of the rights under Article 25 of the Constitution:

“14.We now come to Article 25 which, as its language
indicates, secures to every person, subject to public order,
health and morality, a freedom not only to entertain such
religious belief, as may be approved of by his judgment and
conscience, but also to exhibit his belief in such outward acts
as he thinks proper and to propagate or disseminate his ideas
for the edification of others. A question is raised as to whether
the word “persons” here means individuals only or includes
corporate bodies as well….Institutions, as such cannot
practise or propagate religion; it can be done only by
individual persons and whether these persons propagate
their personal views or the tenets for which the institution
stands is really immaterial for purposes of Article 25. It is
the propagation of belief that is protected, no matter
whether the propagation takes place in a church or
monastery, or in a temple or parlour meeting.”
(Emphasis supplied)

153 B K Mukherjea “The Hindu Law of Religious and Charitable Trust”, at pages 257, 264

147
PART L

In Shri A S Narayana Deekshitulu v State Of Andhra Pradesh154, a two judge

Bench of this Court considered the constitutionality of Sections 34, 35, 37, 39

and 144 of the Andhra Pradesh Charitable and Hindu Religious Institutions and

Endowments Act, 1987 which abolished the hereditary rights of archakas,

mirasidars, gamekars and other office-holders. Upholding the Act, the Court

held:

“85.Articles 25 and 26 deal with and protect religious freedom.

Religion as used in these articles must be construed in its strict
and etymological sense. Religion is that which binds a man
with his Cosmos, his Creator or super force. It is difficult and
rather impossible to define or delimit the expressions ‘religion’
or “matters of religion” used in Articles 25 and 26. Essentially,
religion is a matter of personal faith and belief of personal
relations of an individual with what he regards as Cosmos,
his Maker or his Creator which, he believes, regulates the
existence of insentient beings and the forces of the
universe.”155
(Emphasis supplied)

106 A religious denomination or any section thereof has a right under Article

26 to manage religious affairs. This right vests in a collection of individuals which

demonstrate (i) the existence of a religious sect or body; (ii) a common faith

shared by those who belong to the religious sect and a common spiritual

organisation; (iii) the existence of a distinctive name and (iv) a common thread

of religion. Article 25 grants the right to the freedom of conscience and free

profession, practice and propagation of religion. Conscience, as a cognitive

process that elicits emotion and associations based on an individual's beliefs

154 1996 9 SCC 548
155 Ibid, at pages 592-593

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PART M

rests only in individuals. The Constitution postulates every individual as its

basic unit. The rights guaranteed under Part III of the Constitution are geared

towards the recognition of the individual as its basic unit. The individual is the

bearer of rights under Part III of the Constitution. The deity may be a juristic

person for the purposes of religious law and capable of asserting property rights.

However, the deity is not a ‘person’ for the purpose of Part III of the Constitution.

The legal fiction which has led to the recognition of a deity as a juristic person

cannot be extended to the gamut of rights under Part III of the Constitution.

In any case, the exclusion of women from the Sabarimala temple effects both,

the religious and civic rights of the individual. The anti-exclusion principle would

disallow a claim based on Article 25 and 26 which excludes women from the

Sabarimala Temple and hampers their exercise of religious freedom. This is in

keeping with over-arching liberal values of the Constitution and its vision of

ensuring an equal citizenship.

M A road map for the future

107 The decision in Shirur Mutt defined religion to encompass matters

beyond conscience and faith. The court recognized that religious practices are

as much a part of religion. Hence, where the tenets of a religious sect prescribe

ceremonies at particular hours of the day or regular offerings of food to the deity,

this would constitute a part of religion. The mere fact that these practices involve

149
PART M

the expenditure of money would not take away their religious character. The

precept that religion encompasses doctrine and ceremony enabled the court to

allow religion a broad autonomy in deciding what according to its tenets is

integral or essential. Shirur Mutt was followed by another decision in Ratilal.

Both cases were decided in the same year.

108 As the jurisprudence of the court evolved, two separate issues came to

the fore. The first was the divide between what is religious and secular. This

divide is reflected in Article 25(2)(a) which allows the state to enact legislation

which would regulate or restrict economic, financial, political or “other secular

activities” which may be associated with religious practice. A second distinct

issue, however, was addressed by this Court. That was whether a practice is

essential to religion. While the religious versus secular divide finds support in

constitutional text, neither Article 25 nor Article 26 speaks about practices which

are essential to religion. As the jurisprudence of this Court unfolded, the court

assumed the function of determining whether or not a practice constitutes an

essential and integral part of religion. This set the determination up at the

threshold. Something which the court holds not to be essential to religion would

not be protected by Article 25, or as the case may be, Article 26. Matters of

religion under Article 26(b) came to be conflated with what is an essential part

of religion. In Qureshi (1959), a Constitution Bench (of which Justice

Gajendragadkar was a part) emphasised the non-obligatory nature of the

practice and held that the sacrificing of cows at Bakr-Id was not an essential

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PART M

practice for the Muslim community. Durgah Committee (1962), Tilkayat

(1964) and Sastri Yagnapurushadji (1966), Justice Gajendragadkar reserved

to the court the authority to determine whether a practice was religious and, if it

is, whether the practice can be regarded as essential or integral to religion. In

Durgah Committee, Justice Gajendragadkar sought to justify the exercise of

that adjudicatory function by stating that otherwise, practices which may have

originated in “merely superstitious beliefs” and would, therefore, be “extraneous

and unessential accretions” to religion would be treated as essential parts of

religion. In Sastri Yagnapurushadji, Chief Justice Gajendragadkar

propounded a view of Hinduism which in doctrinal terms segregates it from

practices which could be isolated from a rational view of religion. The result

which followed was that while at a formal level, the court continued to adopt a

view which placed credence on the role of the community in deciding what

constitutes a part of its religion, there is a super imposed adjudicatory role of

the court which would determine as to whether something is essential or

inessential to religion. In the case of the Avadhuta II, the assumption of this role

by the Court came to the forefront in allowing it to reject a practice as not being

essential, though it had been prescribed in a religious text by the founder of the

sect.

By reserving to itself the authority to determine practices which are essential or

inessential to religion, the Court assumed a reformatory role which would allow

it to cleanse religion of practices which were derogatory to individual dignity.

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PART M

Exclusions from temple entry could be regarded as matters which were not

integral to religion. While doing so, the Court would set up a progressive view

of religion. This approach is problematic. The rationale for allowing a religious

community to define what constitutes an essential aspect of its religion is to

protect the autonomy of religions and religious denominations. Protecting that

autonomy enhances the liberal values of the Constitution. By entering upon

doctrinal issues of what does or does not constitute an essential part of religion,

the Court has, as a necessary consequence, been required to adopt a religious

mantle. The Court would determine as to whether a practice is or is not an

essential part of religion. This has enabled the Court to adopt a reformist vision

of religion even though it may conflict with the views held by the religion and by

those who practice and profess the faith. The competence of the Court to do

so and the legitimacy of the assumption of that role may be questionable. The

Court discharges a constitutional (as distinct from an ecclesiastical) role in

adjudication. Adjudicating on what does or does not form an essential part of

religion blurs the distinction between the religious-secular divide and the

essential/inessential approach. The former has a textual origin in Article

25(2)(a). The latter is a judicial creation.

109 The assumption by the court of the authority to determine whether a

practice is or is not essential to religion has led to our jurisprudence bypassing

what should in fact be the central issue for debate. That issue is whether the

Constitution ascribes to religion and to religious denominations the authority to

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PART M

enforce practices which exclude a group of citizens. The exclusion may relate

to prayer and worship, but may extend to matters which bear upon the liberty

and dignity of the individual. The Constitution does recognise group rights when

it confers rights on religious denominations in Article 26. Yet the basic question

which needs to be answered is whether the recognition of rights inhering in

religious denominations can impact upon the fundamental values of dignity,

liberty and equality which animate the soul of the Constitution.

In analysing this issue, it is well to remind ourselves that the right to freedom of

religion which is comprehended in Articles 25, 26, 27 and 28 is not a stand alone

right. These Articles of the Constitution are an integral element of the entire

chapter on fundamental rights. Constitutional articles which recognise

fundamental rights have to be understood as a seamless web. Together, they

build the edifice of constitutional liberty. Fundamental human freedoms in Part

III are not disjunctive or isolated. They exist together. It is only in cohesion that

they bring a realistic sense to the life of the individual as the focus of human

freedoms. The right of a denomination must then be balanced with the individual

rights to which each of its members has a protected entitlement in Part III.

110 Several articles in the chapter on fundamental rights are addressed

specifically to the state. But significantly, others have a horizontal application

to state as well non-state entities. Article 15(2) embodies a guarantee against

discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or birth place in access to

153
PART M

listed public places. Article 17 which abolishes untouchability has a horizontal

application which is available against the state as well as non-state entities.

Article 23, Article 24 and Article 25(1) are illustrations of horizontal rights

intended to secure the dignity of the individual. All these guarantees rest in

equilibrium with other fundamental freedoms that the Constitution recognizes:

equality under Article 14, freedoms under Article 19 and life and personal liberty

under Article 21. The individual right to the freedom of religion under Article 25

must rest in mutual co-existence with other freedoms which guarantee above

all, the dignity and autonomy of the individual. Article 26 guarantees a group

right – the right of a religious denomination. The co-existence of a group right in

a chapter on fundamental rights which places the individual at the forefront of

its focus cannot be a matter without significance. Would the Constitution have

intended to preserve the assertion of group rights even at the cost of denigrating

individual freedoms? Should the freedom conferred upon a group - the religious

denomination under Article 26(b) – have such a broad canvas as would allow

the denomination to practice exclusion that would be destructive of individual

freedom? The answer to this, in my view, would have to be in the negative for

the simple reason that it would be impossible to conceive of the preservation of

liberal constitutional values while at the same time allowing group rights to defy

those values by practicing exclusion and through customs which are derogatory

to dignity. This apparent contradiction can be resolved by postulating that

notwithstanding the recognition of group rights in Article 26, the Constitution has

never intended that the assertion of these rights destroy individual dignity and

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PART M

liberty. Group rights have been recognized by the Constitution in order to

provide a platform to individuals within those denominations to realize fulfilment

and self-determination. Gautam Bhatia156 in a seminal article on the subject

succinctly observes:

“While it is true that Article 26(b) makes groups the bearers of
rights, as pointed out above, the Constitution does not state the
basis of doing so. It does not clarify whether groups are granted
rights for the instrumental reason that individuals can only
achieve self-determination and fulfilment within the ‘context of
choice’157 provided by communities, or whether the
Constitution treats groups, along with individuals, as
constitutive units worthy of equal concern and respect.158 The
distinction is crucial, because the weight that must be accorded
to group integrity, even at the cost of blocking individual access
to important public goods, can only be determined by deciding
which vision the Constitution subscribes to.”

Relevant to the subject which this section explores, Bhatia’s thesis is that the

essential religious practices doctrine, which lacks a sure constitutional

foundation, has led the court into a maze in the process of unraveling theological

principles. While deciding what is or is not essential to religion, the court has

ventured into areas where it lacks both the competence and legitimacy to

pronounce on the importance of specific doctrines or beliefs internal to religion.

In making that determination, the court essentially imposes an external point of

view. Imposition of an external perspective about what does or does not

156 Gautam Bhatia, Freedom from community: Individual rights, group life, state authority and religious freedom
under the Indian Constitution, Global Constitutionalism, Cambridge University Press (2016).
157
C Taylor, The Politics of Recognition in Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition (A Gutmann ed.)
Princeton University Press (1994)
158 R Bhargava, Introduction Multiculturalism in Multiculturalism, Liberalism and Democracy (R Bhargava et al. eds),

Oxford University Press (2007)

155
PART M

constitute an essential part of religion is inconsistent with the liberal values of

the Constitution which recognize autonomy in matters of faith and belief.

111 A similar critique of the essential religious practices doctrine has been put

forth by Professors Faizan Mustafa and Jagteshwar Singh Sohi in a recent

publication titled “Freedom of Religion in India: Current Issues and Supreme

Court Acting as Clergy”.159 Along similar lines, Jaclyn L Neo in an article titled

“Definitional Imbroglios: A critique of the definition of religion and essential

practice tests in religious freedom adjudication”160 has dealt with the flaws of the

essential religious practices doctrine. The author notes that definitional tests

such as the essential religious practices doctrine are formalistic in nature,

leading the court to draw an arbitrary line between protected and non-protected

religious beliefs or practices:

“The key distinction between adjudicating religious freedom
claims by examining whether the restrictions are permissible
under the limitation clauses and adjudicating claims through a
definitional test is that the latter precludes a religious freedom
claim by determining that it falls outside the scope of a
constitutional guarantee, before any consideration could be
made concerning the appropriate balance between the right
and competing rights or interests. Definitional tests are often
formalistic in that courts select a particular set of criteria and
make a decision on the religious freedom claim by simply
considering whether the religion, belief or practice falls within
these criteria. In doing so, the courts therefore could be said to
risk drawing an arbitrary line between protected and non-

protected religions, beliefs or practices.”161

159 Faizan Mustafa and Jagteshwar Singh Sohi, Freedom of Religion in India: Current Issues and Supreme Court
Acting as Clergy, Brigham Young University Review (2017)
160 Jaclyn L Neo, Definitional imbroglios: A critique of the definition of religion and essential practice tests in religious

freedom adjudication, International Journal of Constitutional Law, Vol. 16 (2018), at pages 574-595
161 Ibid, at pages 575, 576

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PART M

Associated with this conceptual difficulty in applying the essential religious

practices test is the issue of competence and legitimacy for the court to rule on

religious tenets:

“While it may be legitimate for religious courts to apply internal
religious doctrines, civil courts are constitutionally established
to adjudicate upon secular constitutional statutory and
common law issues. In a religiously pluralistic society, judges
cannot presume to have judicial competence to have
theological expertise over all religions.”162

She suggests a two stage determination which is explained thus:

“Accordingly, there would be a two-stage test in adjudicating
religious freedom claims that adopts a more deferential
approach to definition, bearing in mind…a workable approach
to religious freedom protection in plural societies. In the first
stage, as mentioned, the courts should accept a group’s self-

definition except in extreme cases where there is clearly a lack
of sincerity, fraud or ulterior motive. At the second stage, the
courts should apply a balancing, compelling reason inquiry, or
proportionality analysis to determine whether the religious
freedom claim is outweighed by competing state or public
interest.”163

A deferential approach to what constitutes a part of religious tenets would free

the court from the unenviable task of adjudicating upon religious texts and

doctrines. The deference, however, that is attributed to religion is subject to the

fundamental principles which emerge from the quest for liberty, equality and

dignity in Part III of the Constitution. Both Article 25(1) and Article 26 are subject

to public order, morality and health. Acting under the rubric of these limitations

162 Ibid, at page 589
163 Ibid, at page 591

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PART M

even the religious freedom of a denomination is subject to an anti-exclusion

principle:

“the anti-exclusion principle holds that the external norm of
constitutional anti-discrimination be applied to limit the
autonomy of religious groups in situations where these groups
are blocking access to basic goods.”164

The anti-exclusion principle stipulates thus:

“…that the state and the Court must respect the integrity of
religious group life (and thereby treat the internal point of
religious adherents as determinative of the form and content of
religious practices) except where the practices in question lead
to the exclusion of individuals from economic, social or cultural
life in a manner that impairs their dignity, or hampers their
access to basic goods.”165

112 The anti-exclusion principle allows for due-deference to the ability of a

religion to determine its own religious tenets and doctrines. At the same time,

the anti-exclusion principle postulates that where a religious practice causes the

exclusion of individuals in a manner which impairs their dignity or hampers their

access to basic goods, the freedom of religion must give way to the over-arching

values of a liberal constitution. The essential religious practices test should merit

a close look, again for the above reasons, in an appropriate case in the future.

For the present, this judgment has decided the issues raised on the law as it

stands.

164

Gautam Bhatia, Freedom from community: Individual rights, group life, state authority and religious freedom
under the Indian Constitution, Global Constitutionalism, Cambridge University Press (2016) at page 374
165 Gautam Bhatia, Freedom from community: Individual rights, group life, state authority and religious freedom
under the Indian Constitution, Global Constitutionalism, Cambridge University Press (2016) at page 382

158
PART N

N Conclusion

113 The Constitution embodies a vision of social transformation. It represents

a break from a history marked by the indignation and discrimination attached to

certain identities and serves as a bridge to a vision of a just and equal

citizenship. In a deeply divided society marked by intermixing identities such as

religion, race, caste, sex and personal characteristics as the sites of

discrimination and oppression, the Constitution marks a perception of a new

social order. This social order places the dignity of every individual at the heart

of its endeavours. As the basic unit of the Constitution, the individual is the focal

point through which the ideals of the Constitution are realized.

The framers had before them the task of ensuring a balance between individual

rights and claims of a communitarian nature. The Constituent Assembly

recognised that the recognition of a truly just social order situated the individual

as the ‘backbone of the state, the pivot, the cardinal center of all social activity,

whose happiness and satisfaction should be the goal of every social

mechanism.’166 In forming the base and the summit of the social pyramid, the

dignity of every individual illuminates the constitutional order and its aspirations

for a just social order. Existing structures of social discrimination must be

evaluated through the prism of constitutional morality. The effect and endeavour

is to produce a society marked by compassion for every individual.

166Pandit Govind Ballabh Pant (Member, Constituent Assembly) in a speech to the Constituent Assembly on 24
January, 1947

159
PART N

114 The Constitution protects the equal entitlement of all persons to a freedom

of conscience and to freely profess, protect and propagate religion. Inhering in

the right to religious freedom, is the equal entitlement of all persons, without

exception, to profess, practice and propagate religion. Equal participation of

women in exercising their right to religious freedom is a recognition of this right.

In protecting religious freedom, the framers subjected the right to religious

freedom to the overriding constitutional postulates of equality, liberty and

personal freedom in Part III of the Constitution. The dignity of women cannot be

disassociated from the exercise of religious freedom. In the constitutional order

of priorities, the right to religious freedom is to be exercised in a manner

consonant with the vision underlying the provisions of Part III. The equal

participation of women in worship inheres in the constitutional vision of a just

social order.

115 The discourse of freedom in the Constitution cannot be denuded of its

context by construing an Article in Part III detached from the part within which it

is situated. Even the right of a religious denomination to manage its own affairs

in matters of religion cannot be exercised in isolation from Part III of the

Constitution. The primacy of the individual, is the thread that runs through the

guarantee of rights. In being located in Part III of the Constitution, the exercise

of denominational rights cannot override and render meaningless constitutional

protections which are informed by the overarching values of a liberal

Constitution.

160
PART N

116 The Constitution seeks to achieve a transformed society based on

equality and justice to those who are victims of traditional belief systems

founded in graded inequality. It reflects a guarantee to protect the dignity of all

individuals who have faced systematic discrimination, prejudice and social

exclusion. Construed in this context, the prohibition against untouchability

marks a powerful guarantee to remedy the stigmatization and exclusion of

individuals and groups based on hierarchies of the social structure. Notions of

purity and pollution have been employed to perpetuate discrimination and

prejudice against women. They have no place in a constitutional order. In

acknowledging the inalienable dignity and worth of every individual, these

notions are prohibited by the guarantee against untouchability and by the

freedoms that underlie the Constitution.

In civic as in social life, women have been subjected to prejudice, stereotypes

and social exclusion. In religious life, exclusionary traditional customs assert a

claim to legitimacy which owes its origin to patriarchal structures. These forms

of discrimination are not mutually exclusive. The intersection of identities in

social and religious life produces a unique form of discrimination that denies

women an equal citizenship under the Constitution. Recognizing these forms of

intersectional discrimination is the first step towards extending constitutional

protection against discrimination attached to intersecting identities.

161
PART N

117 In the dialogue between constitutional freedoms, rights are not isolated

silos. In infusing each other with substantive content, they provide a cohesion

and unity which militates against practices that depart from the values that

underlie the Constitution – justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. Substantive

notions of equality require the recognition of and remedies for historical

discrimination which has pervaded certain identities. Such a notion focuses on

not only distributive questions, but on the structures of oppression and

domination which exclude these identities from participation in an equal life. An

indispensable facet of an equal life, is the equal participation of women in all

spheres of social activity.

The case at hand asks important questions of our conversation with the

Constitution. In a dialogue about our public spaces, it raises the question of the

boundaries of religion under the Constitution. The quest for equality is denuded

of its content if practices that exclude women are treated to be acceptable. The

Constitution cannot allow practices, irrespective of their source, which are

derogatory to women. Religion cannot become a cover to exclude and to deny

the right of every woman to find fulfillment in worship. In his speech before the

Constituent Assembly on 25 November 1949, Dr B R Ambedkar sought answers

to these questions: ‘How long shall we continue to live this life of

contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and

economic life?’167 Sixty eight years after the advent of the Constitution, we have

167 Dr. B R Ambedkar in a speech to the Constituent Assembly on 25 November 1949

162
PART N

held that in providing equality in matters of faith and worship, the Constitution

does not allow the exclusion of women.

118 Liberty in matters of belief, faith and worship, must produce a

compassionate and humane society marked by the equality of status of all its

citizens. The Indian Constitution sought to break the shackles of social

hierarchies. In doing so, it sought to usher an era characterized by a

commitment to freedom, equality and justice. The liberal values of the

Constitution secure to each individual an equal citizenship. This recognizes that

the Constitution exists not only to disenable entrenched structures of

discrimination and prejudice, but to empower those who traditionally have been

deprived of an equal citizenship. The equal participation of women in every

sphere of the life of the nation subserves that premise.

119 I hold and declare that:

1) The devotees of Lord Ayyappa do not satisfy the judicially enunciated

requirements to constitute a religious denomination under Article 26 of the

Constitution;

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PART N

2) A claim for the exclusion of women from religious worship, even if it be

founded in religious text, is subordinate to the constitutional values of liberty,

dignity and equality. Exclusionary practices are contrary to constitutional

morality;

3) In any event, the practice of excluding women from the temple at Sabarimala

is not an essential religious practice. The Court must decline to grant

constitutional legitimacy to practices which derogate from the dignity of

women and to their entitlement to an equal citizenship;

4) The social exclusion of women, based on menstrual status, is a form of

untouchability which is an anathema to constitutional values. Notions of

“purity and pollution”, which stigmatize individuals, have no place in a

constitutional order;

5) The notifications dated 21 October 1955 and 27 November 1956 issued by

the Devaswom Board, prohibiting the entry of women between the ages of

ten and fifty, are ultra vires Section 3 of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public

Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Act 1965 and are even otherwise

unconstitutional; and

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PART N

6) Hindu women constitute a ‘section or class’ of Hindus under clauses (b) and (c)

of Section 2 of the 1965 Act. Rule 3(b) of the 1965 Rules enforces a custom

contrary to Section 3 of the 1965 Act. This directly offends the right of temple

entry established by Section 3. Rule 3(b) is ultra vires the 1965 Act.

Acknowledgment

Before concluding, I acknowledge the efforts of the counsel for the parties

who appeared in this case – Ms Indira Jaising, Dr. Abhishek Manu Singhvi,

Mr K Parasaran, Mr Jaideep Gupta, Mr V Giri, Mr P V Surendranath, and Mr

K Radhakrishnan, Senior Counsel; and Mr Ravi Prakash Gupta, Mr J Sai

Deepak, Mr V K Biju, and Mr Gopal Sankaranarayanan, learned Counsel. I

acknowledge the dispassionate assistance rendered by Mr Raju

Ramachandran and Mr K Ramamoorthy, Senior Counsel who appeared

as Amicus Curiae. Their knowledge and erudition have enriched my own

learning.

…………….…….….............................................J
[Dr Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud]

New Delhi;

September 28, 2018.

165
REPORTABLE

IN THE SUPREME COURT OF INDIA
CIVIL ORIGINAL JURISDICTION
WRIT PETITION (CIVIL) NO. 373 OF 2006

Indian Young Lawyers Association Ors. …Petitioners

Versus

State of Kerala Ors. …Respondents

JUDGMENT

INDU MALHOTRA, J.

1. The present Writ Petition has been filed in public interest by a registered

association of Young Lawyers. The Intervenors in the Application for

Intervention have averred that they are gender rights activists working in

and around the State of Punjab, with a focus on issues of gender equality

and justice, sexuality, and menstrual discrimination.

The Petitioners have inter alia stated that they learnt of the practise of

restricting the entry of women in the age group of 10 to 50 years in the

Sabarimala Temple in Kerala from three newspaper articles written by

Barkha Dutt (Scent of a Woman, Hindustan Times; July 1, 2006), Sharvani

Pandit (Touching Faith, Times of India; July 1, 2006), and Vir Sanghvi

(Keeping the Faith, Losing our Religion, Sunday Hindustan Times; July 2,

2006).

1
The Petitioners have challenged the Constitutional validity of Rule 3(b)

of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry)

Rules, 1965 (hereinafter referred to as “the 1965 Rules”), which restricts

the entry of women into the Sabarimala Temple as being ultra vires Section

3 of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Act,

1965 (hereinafter referred to as “the 1965 Act”).

Further, the Petitioners have prayed for the issuance of a Writ of

Mandamus to the State of Kerala, the Travancore Devaswom Board, the

Chief Thanthri of Sabarimala Temple and the District Magistrate of

Pathanamthitta to ensure that female devotees between the age group of 10

to 50 years are permitted to enter the Sabarimala Temple without any

restriction.

2. SUBMISSIONS OF PETITIONERS AND INTERVENORS

The Petitioners and the Intervenors were represented by Mr. R.P.

Gupta, and Ms. Indira Jaising, Senior Advocate. Mr. Raju Ramachandran,

learned Senior Advocate appeared as Amicus Curiae who supported the

case of the Petitioners.

(i) In the Writ Petition, the Petitioners state that the present case

pertains to a centuries old custom of prohibiting entry of women

between the ages of 10 years to 50 years into the Sabarimala Temple

of Lord Ayyappa.

The customary practise, as codified in Rule 3(b) of the 1965 Rules

read with the Notifications issued by the Travancore Devaswom

2
Board dated October 21, 1955 and November 27, 1956, does not

meet the tests of Articles 14, 15 and 21 of the Constitution.

This exclusionary practise violates Article 14 as the classification

lacks a Constitutional object. It is manifestly arbitrary as it is based

on physiological factors alone, and does not serve any valid object.

(ii) The customary practise violates Article 15(1) of the Constitution as it

is based on ‘sex’ alone.

The practise also violates Article 15(2)(b) since the Sabarimala

Temple is a public place of worship being open and dedicated to the

public and is partly funded by the State under Article 290A.

(iii) Article 25 guarantees the Fundamental Right to an individual to

worship or follow any religion.

The 1965 Act has been passed in furtherance of the goals

enshrined in Article 25(2)(b) as a ‘measure of social reform’. The Act

contains no prohibition against women from entering any public

temple.

(iv) Rule 3(b) of the 1965 Rules is ultra vires the Act insofar as it

prohibits the entry of women.

(v) The Petitioners contend that a religious denomination must have the

following attributes:

• It has its own property establishment capable of succession by

its followers.

• It has its distinct identity clearly distinguishable from any

established religion.

3
• It has its own set of followers who are bound by a distinct set of

beliefs, practises, rituals or beliefs.

• It has the hierarchy of its own administration, not controlled by

any outside agency.

It was contended that the devotees of Lord Ayyappa do not

constitute a religious denomination under Article 26 as they do not

have a common faith, or a distinct name. The devotees of Lord

Ayyappa are not unified on the basis of some distinct set of practises.

Every temple in India has its own different set of rituals. It differs

from region to region. A minor difference in rituals and ceremonies

does not make them a separate religious denomination.

The devotees of Lord Ayyappa do not form a religious

denomination since the tests prescribed by this Court have not been

satisfied in this case. Even assuming that the devotees of Lord

Ayyappa constitute a religious denomination, their rights under

Article 26(b) would be subject to Article 25(2)(b) in line with the

decision of this Court in Sri Venkataramana Devaru Ors. v. State of

Mysore Ors.1.

It was further submitted that there are no exclusive followers of

this Temple except general Hindu followers visiting any Hindu

temple.

Reliance was placed on the judgments of this Court in Sardar

Syedna Taher Saifuddin Saheb v. State of Bombay2, Raja Bira Kishore

1 1958 SCR 895 : AIR 1958 SC 255
2 1962 Supp (2) SCR 496 : AIR 1962 SC 853

4
Deb, Hereditary Superintendent, Jagannath Temple, P.O. and District

Puri v. State of Orissa3, and in S.P. Mittal v. Union of India Ors.4.

(vi) Even if the Sabarimala Temple is taken to be a religious

denomination, the restriction on the entry of women is not an

essential religious practise.

The prohibition on women between the ages of 10 to 50 years

from entering the temple does not constitute the core foundation of

the assumed religious denomination. Any law or custom to be

protected under Article 26 must have Constitutional legitimacy.

(vii) The exclusionary practise is violative of Article 21, as it has the

impact of casting a stigma on women as they are considered to be

polluted, which has a huge psychological impact on them, and

undermines their dignity under Article 21.

The exclusionary practise is violative of Article 17 as it is a direct

form of “Untouchability”. Excluding women from public places such

as temples, based on menstruation, is a form of ‘untouchability’.

This Article is enforceable both against non-State as well as State

actors.

(viii) Mr. Raju Ramachandran, learned Amicus Curiae, submitted that the

Sabarimala Temple is a place of public worship. It is managed and

administered by a statutory body i.e. the Travancore Devaswom

Board. According to him, a public temple by its very character is

established, and maintained for the benefit of its devotees. The right

3 (1964) 7 SCR 32 : AIR 1964 SC 1501
4 (1983) 1 SCC 51

5
of entry emanates from this public character, and is a legal right

which is not dependent upon the temple authorities.

The Travancore Devaswom Board is a statutorily created

authority under the Travancore – Cochin Hindu Religious

Institutions Act, 1950, and receives an annual payment from the

Consolidated Fund of India under Article 290A. It would squarely fall

within the ambit of “other authorities” in Article 12, and is duty

bound to give effect to the Fundamental Rights.

(ix) The Fundamental Right to worship under Article 25(1) is a non-

discriminatory right, and is equally available to both men and

women alike. The right of a woman to enter the Temple as a devotee

is an essential aspect of her right to worship, and is a necessary

concomitant of the right to equality guaranteed by Articles 15.

The non-discriminatory right of worship is not dependent upon

the will of the State to provide for social welfare or reform under

Article 25(2)(b).

Article 25(2)(b) is not merely an enabling provision, but provides a

substantive right. The exclusion of women cannot be classified as an

essential religious practise in the absence of any scriptural evidence

being adduced on the part of the Respondents.

(x) The exclusionary practise results in discrimination against women as

a class, since a significant section of women are excluded from

entering the Temple. Placing reliance on the “impact test” enunciated

by this Court in Bennett Coleman Co. Ors. v. Union of India

6
Ors.5, he submitted that the discrimination is only on the ground of

“sex” since the biological feature of menstruation emanates from the

characteristics of the particular sex.

(xi) Article 17 prohibits untouchability “in any form” in order to abolish

all practises based on notions of purity, and pollution. The exclusion

of menstruating women is on the same footing as the exclusion of

oppressed classes.

(xii) The term “morality” used in Articles 25 and 26 refers to

Constitutional Morality, and not an individualised or sectionalised

sense of morality. It must be informed by Articles 14, 15, 17, 38, and

51A.

(xiii) Mr. Ramachandran, learned Amicus Curiae submitted that Rule 3(b)

of the 1965 Act is ultra vires Section 3 of the 1965 Act insofar as it

seeks to protect customs and usages, which Section 3 specifically

over-rides. The justification for Rule 3 cannot flow from the proviso

to Section 3, since the proviso can only be interpreted in line with

the decision of this Court in Sri Venkataramana Devaru Ors. v.

State of Mysore Ors. (supra). It is ultra vires Section 4 since it

provides that the Rules framed thereunder cannot be discriminatory

against any section or class.

3. SUBMISSIONS OF THE RESPONDENTS

The State of Kerala was represented by Mr. Jaideep Gupta, Senior

Advocate. The Travancore Dewaswom Board was represented by Dr. A.M.

5 (1972) 2 SCC 788

7
Singhvi, Senior Advocate. The Chief Thanthri was represented by Mr. V.

Giri, Senior Advocate. The Nair Service Society was represented by Mr. K.

Parasaran, Senior Advocate. The Raja of Pandalam was represented by Mr.

K. Radhakrishnan. Mr. J. Sai Deepak appeared on behalf of Respondent

No. 18 and Intervenor by the name of People for Dharma. Mr.

Ramamurthy, Senior Advocate appeared as Amicus Curiae who supported

the case of the Respondents.

4. The State of Kerala filed two Affidavits in the present Writ Petition.

The State of Kerala filed an Affidavit dated November 13, 2007

supporting the cause of the Petitioners. The State however prayed for the

appointment of an “appropriate commission” to submit suggestions/views

on whether entry of women between the ages of 10 to 50 years should be

permitted. Some of the averments made in the said Affidavit are pertinent

to note, and are being reproduced herein below for reference:

“…As such, Government cannot render an independent direction
against the present prevailing custom, regard being had to the finality
of the said judgment [Kerala High Court’s decision in S. Mahendran
(supra)] over the disputed questions of facts which requires the
necessity of adducing evidence also…
…Thus, Government is of the opinion that no body should be
prohibited from their right to worship, but considering the fact that the
matter of entry to Sabarimala is a practise followed for so many years
and connected with the belief and values accepted by the people and
since there is a binding High Court judgment in that regard,
Government felt that this Hon'ble Court may be requested to appoint
an appropriate commission consisting of eminent scholars with
authentic knowledge in Hinduism and reputed and uncorrupt social
reformers to submit suggestions/views on the issue whether it is open
to all women, irrespective of their age to enter the temple and make
worship…”
(Emphasis supplied)

8
In the subsequent Additional Affidavit dated February 4, 2016 filed by

the State, it was submitted that the assertions made in the previous

Affidavit dated November 13, 2007 erroneously sought to support the

Petitioners. It was submitted that it was not open for the State Government

to take a stand at variance with its position before the Kerala High Court in

S. Mahendran v. The Secretary, Travancore Devaswom Board,

Thiruvananthapuram Ors.6 and in contravention of the directions issued

therein. It was asserted that the practise of restricting the entry of women

between the ages of 10 to 50 years is an essential and integral part of the

customs and usages of the Temple, which is protected under Articles 25

and 26 of the Constitution. Being a religious custom, it is also immune

from challenge under other provisions of Part III of the Constitution in light

of the ruling of this Court in Riju Prasad Sharma Ors. v. State of Assam

Ors.7.

However, during the course of hearing before the three-Judge Bench at

the time of reference, it was submitted that the State would be taking the

stand stated in the Affidavit dated November 13, 2007.

5. The submissions made by the Respondent No.2 – Travancore Devaswom

Board, Respondent No. 4 – the Thanthri of the Temple, Respondent No. 6 –

the Nair Service Society, Respondent Nos. 18 and 19 are summarised

hereinbelow:

6 AIR 1993 Ker 42
7 (2015) 9 SCC 461

9

(i) The Sabarimala Temple, dedicated to Lord Ayyappa, is a prominent

temple in Kerala which is visited by over twenty million pilgrims and

devotees every year. As per a centuries old tradition of this temple,

and the ‘acharas’, beliefs and customs followed by this Temple,

women in the age group of 10 to 50 years are not permitted to enter

this Temple.

This is attributable to the manifestation of the deity at the

Sabarimala Temple which is in the form of a ‘Naishtik Bramhachari’,

who practises strict penance, and the severest form of celibacy.

According to legend, it is believed that Lord Ayyappa, the

presiding deity of Sabarimala had his human sojourn at Pandalam

as the son of the King of Pandalam, known by the name of

Manikandan, who found him as a radiant faced infant on the banks

of the river Pampa, wearing a bead (‘mani’) around his neck.

Manikandan’s feats and achievements convinced the King and others

of his divine origin.

The Lord told the King that he could construct a temple at

Sabarimala, north of the holy river Pampa, and install the deity

there. The King duly constructed the temple at Sabarimala and

dedicated it to Lord Ayyappa. The deity of Lord Ayyappa in

Sabarimala Temple was installed in the form of a ‘Naishtik

Brahmachari’ i.e. an eternal celibate.

Lord Ayyappa is believed to have explained the manner in which

the pilgrimage to the Sabarimala Temple is to be undertaken, after

observing a 41-day ‘Vratham’.

10
It is believed that Lord Ayyappa himself undertook the 41-day

‘Vratham’ before he went to Sabarimala Temple to merge with the

deity. The whole process of the pilgrimage undertaken by a pilgrim

is to replicate the journey of Lord Ayyappa. The mode and manner of

worship at this Temple as revealed by the Lord himself is chronicled

in the ‘Sthal Purana’ i.e. the ‘Bhuthanatha Geetha’.

The 41 day “Vratham” is a centuries old custom and practise

undertaken by the pilgrims referred to as ‘Ayyappans’. The object of

this ‘Vratham’ is to discipline and train the devotees for the evolution

of spiritual consciousness leading to self-realization. Before

embarking on the pilgrimage to this shrine, a key essential of the

‘Vratham’ is observance of a ‘Sathvic’ lifestyle and ‘Brahmacharya’ so

as to keep the body and mind pure. A basic requirement of the

‘Vratham’ is to withdraw from the materialistic world and step onto

the spiritual path.

When a pilgrim undertakes the ‘Vratham’, the pilgrim separates

himself from the women-folk in the house, including his wife,

daughter, or other female members in the family.

The “Vratham” or penance consists of:

• Forsaking all physical relations with one’s spouse;

• Giving up anything that is intoxicating, including alcohol,

cigarettes and ‘tamasic’ food;

• Living separately from the rest of the family in an isolated

room or a separate building;

11
• Refraining from interacting with young women in daily life,

including one’s daughter, sister, or other young women

relatives;

• Cooking one’s own food;

• Observing cleanliness, including bathing twice a day before

prayers;

• Wearing a black mundu and upper garments;

• Having only one meal a day;

• Walking barefoot.

On the 41st day, after puja, the pilgrim takes the irimudi

(consisting of rice and other provisions for one’s own travel,

alongwith a coconut filled with ghee and puja articles) and starts the

pilgrimage to climb the 18 steps to reach the ‘Sannidhanam’, for

darshan of the deity. This involves walking from River Pampa,

climbing 3000 feet to the Sannidhanam, which is a climb of around

13 kilometres through dense forests.

As a part of this system of spiritual discipline, it is expressly

stipulated that women between the ages of 10 to 50 years should not

undertake this pilgrimage.

(ii) This custom or usage is understood to have been prevalent since the

inception of this Temple, which is since the past several centuries.

Reliance was placed on a comprehensive thesis by Radhika Sekar on

12
this Temple.8 Relevant extracts from the thesis are reproduced

hereinbelow:

“The cultus members maintain the strictest celibacy before they
undertake their journey through the forests to the Sabarimala
shrine. This emphasis on celibacy could be in order to gain
protection from other forest spirits, for as mentioned earlier,
Yaksas are said to protect “sages and celibates…
…Though there is no formal declaration, it is understood that
the Ayyappa (as he is now called) will follow the strictest
celibacy, abstain from intoxicants and meat, and participate
only in religious activities. He may continue to work at his
profession, but he may not indulge in social enterprises.
Ayyappas are also required to eat only once a day (at noon)
and to avoid garlic, onion and stale food. In the evening, they
may eat fruit or something very light. As far as the dress code
is concerned, a degree of flexibility is allowed during the vratam
period. The nature of one’s profession does not always permit
this drastic change in dress code. For example, Ayyappas in
the army or police force wear their regular uniforms and change
into black only when off duty. Black or blue vestis and
barefootedness are, however, insisted upon during the actual
pilgrimage…
…The rule of celibacy is taken very seriously and includes
celibacy in thought and action. Ayyappas are advised to look
upon all women older than them as mothers and those younger
as daughters or sisters. Menstrual taboos are now strictly
imposed….. Sexual cohabitation is also forbidden. During the
vratam, Ayyappas not only insist on these taboos being rigidly
followed but they go a step further and insist on physical
separation. It is not uncommon for a wife, daughter or sister to
be sent away during her menses if a male member of the
household has taken the vratam….”
(Emphasis supplied)

In the Memoir of the Survey of the Travancore and Cochin States

written by Lieutenants Ward and Conner, reference has been made

regarding the custom and usage prevalent at Sabarimala Temple.

The Memoir of the Survey was originally published in two parts in

1893 and 1901 giving details of the statistical and geographical

8 Radhika Sekar, The Process of Pilgrimage: The Ayyappa Cultus and Sabarimalai Yatra
(Faculty of Graduate Studies, Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton
University, Ottawa, Ontario; October 1987)

13
surveys of the Travancore and Cochin States. Reference was sought

to be made to the following excerpt from the survey:

“…old women and young girls, may approach the temple, but
those who have attained puberty and to a certain time of life
are forbid to approach, as all sexual intercourse in that vicinity
is averse to this deity…” 9

(iii) Dr. Singhvi submitted that a practise started in hoary antiquity, and

continued since time immemorial without interruption, becomes a

usage and custom. Reliance, in this regard, was placed on the

judgments of Ewanlangki-E-Rymbai v. Jaintia Hills District Council

Ors.10, Bhimashya Ors. v. Janabi (Smt) Alia Janawwa 11, and

Salekh Chand (Dead) by LRs v. Satya Gupta Ors.12.

The custom and usage of restricting the entry of women in the

age group of 10 to 50 years followed in the Sabarimala Temple is pre-

constitutional. As per Article 13(3)(a) of the Constitution, “law”

includes custom or usage, and would have the force of law.

The characteristics and elements of a valid custom are that it

must be of immemorial existence, it must be reasonable, certain and

continuous. The customs and usages, religious beliefs and practises

as mentioned above are peculiar to the Sabarimala Temple, and have

admittedly been followed since centuries.

(iv) The exclusion of women in this Temple is not absolute or universal.

It is limited to a particular age group in one particular temple, with

the view to preserve the character of the deity. Women outside the

9 Lieutenants Ward and Conner, Memoir of the Survey of the Travancore and Cochin States
(First Reprint 1994, Government of Kerala) at p. 137
10 (2006) 4 SCC 748
11 (2006) 13 SCC 627
12 (2008) 13 SCC 119

14
age group of 10 to 50 years are entitled to worship at the Sabarimala

Temple. The usage and practise is primary to preserve the sacred

form and character of the deity. It was further submitted that the

objection to this custom is not being raised by the worshippers of

Lord Ayyappa, but by social activists.

(v) It was further submitted that there are about 1000 temples

dedicated to the worship of Lord Ayyappa, where the deity is not in

the form of a ‘Naishtik Brahmachari’. In those temples, the mode and

manner of worship differs from Sabarimala Temple, since the deity

has manifested himself in a different form. There is no similar

restriction on the entry of women in the other Temples of Lord

Ayyappa, where women of all ages can worship the deity.

(vi) Mr. Parasaran, Senior Advocate submitted that the restriction on

entry of women is a part of the essential practise of this Temple, and

the pilgrimage undertaken. It is clearly intended to keep the pilgrims

away from any distraction related to sex, as the dominant objective of

the pilgrimage is the creation of circumstances in all respects for the

successful practise of the spiritual self-discipline.

The limited restriction on the entry of women from 10 to 50 years,

in the Sabarimala Temple is a matter of ‘religion’ and ‘religious faith

and practise’, and the fundamental principles underlying the

‘prathishtha’ (installation) of the Sabarimala Temple, as well as the

custom and usage of worship of the deity - Lord Ayyappa.

(vii) With respect to the contention that the custom is violative of

women’s right to gender equality, Mr. V. Giri, Senior Advocate inter

15
alia submitted that if women as a class were prohibited from

participation, it would amount to social discrimination. However,

this is not so in the present case. Girls below 10 years, and women

after 50 years can freely enter this Temple, and offer worship

Further, there is no similar restriction on the entry of women at the

other Temples of Lord Ayyappa.

The classification of women between the ages of 10 to 50 years,

and men of the same age group, has a reasonable nexus with the

object sought to be achieved, which is to preserve the identity and

manifestation of the Lord as a ‘Naishtik Brahmachari’.

(viii) It was submitted by the Respondents that in order to preserve the

character of the deity, and the sanctity of the idol at the Sabarimala

Temple, the limited restriction is imposed on the entry of women only

during the period notified by the Travancore Devaswom Board. There

is no absolute restriction on women per se. Such practise is

consistent with the ‘Nishta’ or ‘Naishtik Buddhi’ of the deity. This

being the underlying reason behind the custom, there is no

derogation of the dignity of women. It is only to protect the

manifestation and form of the deity, which is sacred and divine, and

preserve the penance undertaken by the devotees.

(ix) It was further submitted that it is the duty of the Travancore

Devaswom Board under Section 31 of the Travancore - Cochin Hindu

Religious Institutions Act, 1950 to administer the temple in

accordance with the custom and usage of the Temple.

16

(x) It was submitted that issues of law and fact should be decided by a

competent civil court, after examination of documentary and other

evidence.

(xi) Mr. Parasaran, Senior Advocate further submitted that religion is a

matter of faith. Religious beliefs are held to be sacred by those who

have faith. Reliance was placed on the judgment of this Court in

Commissioner, Hindu Religious Endowments, Madras v. Sri

Lakshmindra Swamiar Thirtha Swamiar of Shirur Mutt (supra)

wherein the definition of religion from an American case was

extracted i.e. “the term ‘religion’ has reference to one’s views of his

relation to his Creator and to the obligations they impose of reverence

for His Being and character and of obedience to His Will”.

Learned Senior Counsel also relied upon the case of Sri

Venkataramana Devaru Ors. v. State of Mysore Ors. (supra)

wherein it was observed as follows:

“The Gods have distinct forms ascribed to them and their
worship at home and in temples is ordained as certain means of
attaining salvation.”

In Tilkayat Shri Govindlalji Maharaj etc. v. State of Rajasthan

Ors.13, emphasis was laid on the mode of worship adopted when

Lord Krishna was worshipped in the form of a child.

Religion does not merely lay down a code of ethical rules for its

followers to accept, but also includes rituals and observances,

ceremonies and modes of worship which are regarded as integral

parts of the religion.

13 (1964) 1 SCR 561 at 582 : AIR 1963 SC 1638

17

(xii) The words ‘religious denomination’ in Article 26 of the Constitution

must take their colour from the word “religion”; and if this be so, the

expression ‘religious denomination’ must satisfy three conditions as

laid down in S.P. Mittal v. Union of India Ors. (supra):

“80. (1) It must be a collection of individuals who have a system
of beliefs or doctrines which they regard as conducive to their
spiritual well-being, that is, a common faith;

(2) common organisation; and
(3) designation by a distinctive name.”

Religious maths, religious sects, religious bodies, sub-sects or

any section thereof have been held to be religious denominations.

Reliance was placed on the judgments in Commissioner., Hindu

Religious Endowments, Madras v. Sri Lakshmindra Thirtha Swamiar

of Sri Shirur Mutt (supra); Durgah Committee, Ajmer Anr. v. Syed

Hussain Ali Ors.,14 and Dr. Subramanian Swamy v. State of T.N.

Ors.15.

Relying on the judgment in Sri Venkataramana Devaru Ors. v.

State of Mysore Ors. case (supra), Dr. Singhvi submitted that

religion, in this formulation, is a much wider concept, and includes:

• Ceremonial law relating to the construction of Temples;

• Installation of Idols therein;

• Place of consecration of the principle deity;

• Where the other Devatas are to be installed;

• Conduct of worship of the deities;

• Where the worshippers are to stand for worship;

14 (1962) 1 SCR 383 : AIR 1961 SC 1402
15 (2014) 5 SCC 75

18
• Purificatory ceremonies and their mode and manner of

performance;

• Who are entitled to enter for worship; where they are entitled

to stand and worship; and, how the worship is to be

conducted.

(xiii) It was categorically asserted by the Respondents that the devotees of

Lord Ayyappa constitute a religious denomination, who follow the

‘Ayyappan Dharma’, where all male devotees are called ‘Ayyappans’

and all female devotees below 10 years and above 50 years of age are

called ‘Malikapurams’. A devotee has to abide by the customs and

usages of this Temple, if he is to mount the ‘pathinettu padikal’ and

enter the Sabarimala Temple.

This set of beliefs and faiths of the ‘Ayyappaswamis’, and the

organization of the worshippers of Lord Ayyappa constitute a distinct

religious denomination, having distinct practises.

(xiv) It was further submitted that the status of this temple as a religious

denomination, was settled by the judgment of the Division Bench of

the Kerala High Court in S. Mahendran v. The Secretary, Travancore

Devaswom Board Ors. (supra). The High Court decided the case

after recording both documentary and oral evidence. The then

Thanthri – Sri Neelakandaru, who had installed the deity was

examined by the High Court as C.W.6, who stated that women

during the age group of 10 to 50 years were prohibited from entering

the temple much before the 1950s.

19
This judgment being a declaration of the status of this temple as

a religious denomination, is a judgment in rem. The said judgment

has not been challenged by any party. Hence, it would be binding on

all parties, including the Petitioners herein.

The following observation from the judgment of this Court in Dr.

Subramanian Swamy v. State of Tamil Nadu Ors. (supra) was relied

upon:

“The declaration that Dikshitars are religious denomination or
section thereof is in fact a declaration of their status and making
such declaration is in fact a judgment in rem.”
(Internal quotations omitted)

(xv) Unlike Article 25, which is subject to the other provisions of Pat III of

the Constitution, Article 26 is subject only to public order, morality,

and health, and not to the other provisions of the Constitution. As a

result, the Fundamental Rights of the denomination is not subject to

Articles 14 or 15 of the Constitution.

With respect to Article 25(1), it was submitted that the

worshippers of Lord Ayyappa are entitled to the freedom of

conscience, and the right to profess, practise and propagate their

religion. The right to profess their faith by worshipping at the

Sabarimala Temple, can be guaranteed only if the character of the

deity as a ‘Naishtik Brahmachari’ is preserved. If women between the

age of 10 to 50 years are permitted entry, it would result in changing

the very character/nature of the deity, which would directly impinge

on the right of the devotees to practise their religion guaranteed by

Article 25(1) of the Constitution.

20
The right of the devotees under Article 25(1) cannot be made

subject to the claim of the Petitioners to enter the temple under

Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution, since they do not profess faith

in the deity of this Temple, but claim merely to be social activists.

(xvi) Article 25(2)(b) declares that nothing in Article 25(1) shall prevent the

State from making any law 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. The ‘throwing open’

to ‘all classes and sections of Hindus’ was intended to redress caste-

based prejudices and injustices in society.

Article 25(2)(b) cannot be interpreted to mean that customs and

usages forming an essential part of the religion, are to be overridden.

Article 25(2)(b) would have no application since there is no ban,

but only a limited restriction during the notified period, based on

faith, custom and belief, which has been observed since time

immemorial.

(xvii) The Respondents submitted that the plea of the Petitioners with

reference to Article 17, was wholly misconceived. The object and core

of Article 17 was to prohibit untouchability based on ‘caste’ in the

Hindu religion. No such caste-based or religion-based untouchability

is practised at the Sabarimala Temple.

The customs practised by the devotees at the Sabarimala Temple

do not flow from any practise associated with untouchability under

Article 17. The custom is not based on any alleged impurity or

disability. Hence, the contention was liable to be rejected.

21

6. DISCUSSION AND ANALYSIS

We have heard the arguments of the Counsel representing various

parties, and perused the pleadings and written submissions filed by them.

6.1. The issues raised in the present Writ Petition have far-reaching

ramifications and implications, not only for the Sabarimala Temple in

Kerala, but for all places of worship of various religions in this

country, which have their own beliefs, practises, customs and

usages, which may be considered to be exclusionary in nature. In a

secular polity, issues which are matters of deep religious faith and

sentiment, must not ordinarily be interfered with by Courts.

6.2. In the past, the Courts, in the context of Hindu temples, have been

asked to identify the limits of State action under Articles 25 and 26

on the administration, control and management of the affairs of

temples, including the appointment of archakas. For instance, in the

case of Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal Nala Sangam Ors. v. Government

of Tamil Nadu Anr.16, this Court was asked to consider the issue of

appointment of archakas in Writ Petitions filed by an association of

archakas and individual archakas of Sri Meenakshi Amman Temple

of Madurai.

The present case is a PIL filed by an association of lawyers, who

have invoked the writ jurisdiction of this Court to review certain

practises being followed by the Sabarimala Temple on the grounds of

16 (2016) 2 SCC 725

22
gender discrimination against women during the age-band of 10 to

50 years.

7. MAINTAINABILITY JUSTICIABILITY

7.1. Article 25 of the Constitution guarantees to all persons the freedom

of conscience, and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate

religion. This is however subject to public order, morality and health,

and to the other provisions of Part III of the Constitution.

7.2. The right to move the Supreme Court under Article 32 for violation of

Fundamental Rights, must be based on a pleading that the

Petitioners’ personal rights to worship in this Temple have been

violated. The Petitioners do not claim to be devotees of the

Sabarimala Temple where Lord Ayyappa is believed to have

manifested himself as a ‘Naishtik Brahmachari’. To determine the

validity of long-standing religious customs and usages of a sect, at

the instance of an association/Intervenors who are “involved in social

developmental activities especially activities related to upliftment of

women and helping them become aware of their rights”17, would

require this Court to decide religious questions at the behest of

persons who do not subscribe to this faith.

The right to worship, claimed by the Petitioners has to be

predicated on the basis of affirmation of a belief in the particular

manifestation of the deity in this Temple.

17 Paragraph 2 of the Writ Petition.

23
7.3. The absence of this bare minimum requirement must not be viewed

as a mere technicality, but an essential requirement to maintain a

challenge for impugning practises of any religious sect, or

denomination. Permitting PILs in religious matters would open the

floodgates to interlopers to question religious beliefs and practises,

even if the petitioner is not a believer of a particular religion, or a

worshipper of a particular shrine. The perils are even graver for

religious minorities if such petitions are entertained.

Dr. A.M. Singhvi, Senior Advocate appeared on behalf of the

Travancore Devaswom Board, and submitted an illustrative list of

various religious institutions where restrictions on the entry of both

men and women exist on the basis of religious beliefs and practises

being followed since time immemorial.18

7.4. In matters of religion and religious practises, Article 14 can be

invoked only by persons who are similarly situated, that is, persons

belonging to the same faith, creed, or sect. The Petitioners do not

state that they are devotees of Lord Ayyappa, who are aggrieved by

the practises followed in the Sabarimala Temple. The right to equality

under Article 14 in matters of religion and religious beliefs has to be

viewed differently. It has to be adjudged amongst the worshippers of

18 Annexure C-8 in the Non-Case Law Convenience Compilation submitted by Dr. A.M.
Singhvi, Senior Advocate enlists places of worship where women are not allowed. This list
includes the Nizamuddin Dargah in New Delhi, Lord Kartikeya Temple in Pehowa, Haryana
and Pushkar, Rajasthan; Bhavani Deeksha Mandapam in Vijaywada; Patbausi Satra in
Assam; Mangala Chandi Temple in Bokaro, Jharkhand.
Annexure C-7 in the Non-Case Law Convenience Compilation submitted by Dr. A.M.
Singhvi, Senior Advocate enlists places of worship where women are not allowed. This list
includes the Temple of Lord Brahma in Pushkar, Rajasthan; the Bhagati Maa Temple in
Kanya Kumari, Kerala; the Attukal Bhagavathy Temple in Kerala; the Chakkulathukavu
Temple in Kerala; and the Mata Temple in Muzaffarpur, Bihar.

24
a particular religion or shrine, who are aggrieved by certain practises

which are found to be oppressive or pernicious.

7.5. Article 25(1) confers on every individual the right to freely profess,

practise and propagate his or her religion.19 The right of an

individual to worship a specific manifestation of the deity, in

accordance with the tenets of that faith or shrine, is protected by

Article 25(1) of the Constitution. If a person claims to have faith in a

certain deity, the same has to be articulated in accordance with the

tenets of that faith.

In the present case, the worshippers of this Temple believe in the

manifestation of the deity as a ‘Naishtik Brahmachari’. The devotees

of this Temple have not challenged the practises followed by this

Temple, based on the essential characteristics of the deity.

7.6. The right to practise one’s religion is a Fundamental Right

guaranteed by Part III of the Constitution, without reference to

whether religion or the religious practises are rational or not.

Religious practises are Constitutionally protected under Articles 25

and 26(b). Courts normally do not delve into issues of religious

practises, especially in the absence of an aggrieved person from that

particular religious faith, or sect.

In Hans Muller of Nurenburg v. Superintendent, Presidency Jail,

Calcutta Ors.20, this Court held that a person can impugn a

particular law under Article 32 only if he is aggrieved by it.

19 H.M. Seervai, Constitutional Law of India : A Critical Commentary, Vol. II (4th Ed., Reprint
1999), at Pg. 1274, para 12.35.

20 (1955) 1 SCR 1284 : AIR 1955 SC 367.

25
7.7. Precedents under Article 25 have arisen against State action, and not

been rendered in a PIL.

An illustrative list of such precedents is provided hereinbelow:

(i) In Commissioner, Hindu Religious Endowments, Madras v. Shri

Lakshimdra Thirtha Swamiar of Sri Shirur Mutt (supra), this

Court had interpreted Articles 25 and 26 at the instance of the

Mathadhipati or superior of the Shirur Mutt who was in-charge

of managing its affairs. The Mathadhipati was aggrieved by

actions taken by the Hindu Religious Endowments Board, which

he claimed were violative of Articles 25 and 26.

(ii) In Sri Venkataramana Devaru Ors. v. State of Mysore

Ors.(supra), this Court dealt with the question whether the

rights under Article 26(b) are subject to Article 25(2)(b), at the

instance of the Temple of Sri Venkataramana and its trustees

who belonged to the sect known as Gowda Saraswath

Brahmins.

(iii) In Mahant Moti Das v. S.P. Sahi, The Special Officer In Charge of

Hindu Religious trust Ors.21, this Court considered the

Constitutional validity of actions taken by the Bihar State Board

of Religious Trusts under the Bihar Hindu Religious Trusts Act,

1950 as being violative of the Fundamental Rights of Mahants of

certain Maths or Asthals guaranteed, inter alia, under Articles

25 and 26.

21 1959 Supp (2) SCR 563 : AIR 1959 SC 942

26

(iv) In Durgah Committee, Ajmer Anr. v. Syed Hussain Ali Ors.

(supra), this Court was called upon to decide the

Constitutionality of the Durgah Khwaja Saheb Act, 1955 in view

of Articles 25 and 26, inter alia, at the instance of Khadims of

the Tomb of Khwaja Moin-ud-din Chisti of Ajmer. The Khadims

claimed to be a part of a religious denomination by the name of

Chishtia Soofies.

(v) In Sardar Syedna Taher Saifuddin Saheb v. State of Bombay

(supra), this Court was called upon to test the Constitutionality

of the Bombay Prevention of Excommunication Act, 1949 on the

ground that it violated Fundamental Rights guaranteed under

Articles 25 and 26 to the petitioner who was the Dai-ul-Mutlaq or

Head Priest of the Dawoodi Bohra Community.

(vi) In Bijoe Emmanuel Ors. v. State of Kerala Ors.22, three

children belonging to a sect of Christianity called Jehovah’s

Witnesses had approached the Kerala High Court by way of Writ

Petitions to challenge the action of the Headmistress of their

school, who had expelled them for not singing the National

Anthem during the morning assembly. The children challenged

the action of the authorities as being violative of their rights

under Articles 19(1)(a) and Article 25. This Court held that the

refusal to sing the National Anthem emanated from the genuine

and conscientious religious belief of the children, which was

protected under Article 25(1).

22 (1986) 3 SCC 615

27
In a pluralistic society comprising of people with diverse faiths,

beliefs and traditions, to entertain PILs challenging religious

practises followed by any group, sect or denomination, could cause

serious damage to the Constitutional and secular fabric of this

country.

8. APPLICABILITY OF ARTICLE 14 IN MATTERS OF RELIGION AND RELIGIOUS PRACTISES

8.1. Religious customs and practises cannot be solely tested on the

touchstone of Article 14 and the principles of rationality embedded

therein. Article 25 specifically provides the equal entitlement of every

individual to freely practise their religion. Equal treatment under

Article 25 is conditioned by the essential beliefs and practises of any

religion. Equality in matters of religion must be viewed in the context

of the worshippers of the same faith.

8.2. The twin-test for determining the validity of a classification under

Article 14 is:

• The classification must be founded on an intelligible differentia;

and

• It must have a rational nexus with the object sought to be

achieved by the impugned law.

The difficulty lies in applying the tests under Article 14 to

religious practises which are also protected as Fundamental Rights

under our Constitution. The right to equality claimed by the

Petitioners under Article 14 conflicts with the rights of the

worshippers of this shrine which is also a Fundamental Right

28
guaranteed by Articles 25, and 26 of the Constitution. It would

compel the Court to undertake judicial review under Article 14 to

delineate the rationality of the religious beliefs or practises, which

would be outside the ken of the Courts. It is not for the courts to

determine which of these practises of a faith are to be struck down,

except if they are pernicious, oppressive, or a social evil, like Sati.

8.3. The submissions made by the Counsel for the Petitioners is premised

on the view that this practise constitutes gender discrimination

against women. On the other hand, the Respondents submit that the

present case deals with the right of the devotees of this denomination

or sect, as the case may be, to practise their religion in accordance

with the tenets and beliefs, which are considered to be “essential”

religious practises of this shrine.

8.4. The Petitioners and Intervenors have contended that the age group of

10 to 50 years is arbitrary, and cannot stand the rigours of Article

14. This submission cannot be accepted, since the prescription of

this age-band is the only practical way of ensuring that the limited

restriction on the entry of women is adhered to.

8.5. The right to gender equality to offer worship to Lord Ayyappa is

protected by permitting women of all ages, to visit temples where he

has not manifested himself in the form of a ‘Naishtik Brahamachari’,

and there is no similar restriction in those temples. It is pertinent to

mention that the Respondents, in this context, have submitted that

there are over 1000 temples of Lord Ayyappa, where he has

manifested in other forms, and this restriction does not apply.

29
8.6. The prayers of the Petitioners if acceded to, in its true effect,

amounts to exercising powers of judicial review in determining the

validity of religious beliefs and practises, which would be outside the

ken of the courts. The issue of what constitutes an essential religious

practise is for the religious community to decide.

9. APPLICABILITY OF ARTICLE 15

9.1. Article 15 of the Constitution prohibits differential treatment of

persons on the ground of ‘sex’ alone.

The limited restriction on the entry of women during the notified

age-group but in the deep-rooted belief of the worshippers that the

deity in the Sabarimala Temple has manifested in the form of a

‘Naishtik Brahmachari’.

9.2. With respect to the right under Article 15, Mr. Raju Ramachandran,

Amicus Curiae had submitted that the Sabarimala Temple would be

included in the phrase “places of public resort”, as it occurs in Article

15(2)(b).

In this regard, reference may be made to the debates of the

Constituent Assembly on this issue. Draft Article 9 which

corresponds to Article 15 of the Constitution, is extracted for ready

reference:

“9. Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race,
caste or sex – The State shall not discriminate against any
citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex or any of
them
(1) In particular, no citizen shall, on grounds only of
religion, race, caste, sex or any of them, be subject to

30
any disability, liability, restriction or condition with
regard to—
a. access to shops, public restaurants, hotels and places
of public entertainments, or
b. the use of wells, tanks, roads and places of public
resort maintained wholly or partly out of the revenues
of the State or dedicated to the use of the general
public.

(2) Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from
making any special provision for women and
children.”23

Professor K.T. Shah proposed Amendment No. 293 for

substitution of sub-clauses (a) (b) as follows:

“any place of public use or resort, maintained wholly or partly
out of the revenues of the State, or in any way aided,
recognised, encouraged or protected by the State, or place
dedicated to the use of general public like schools, colleges,
libraries, temples, hospitals, hotels and restaurants, places of
public entertainment, recreation or amusement, like theatres
and cinema-houses or concert-halls; public parks, gardens or
museums; roads, wells, tanks or canals; bridges, posts and
telegraphs, railways, tramways and bus services; and the
like.”24
(Emphasis supplied)

The Vice-President took up Amendment No. 296 for vote, which

was moved for addition to sub-clause (a). The Amendment was

proposed as under:

“After the words of Public entertainment the words or places of
worship be inserted.”25
(Emphasis supplied and internal quotations omitted)

23 Draft Constitution of India, Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly of India
(Manager Government of India Press, New Delhi, 1948) available at
http://14.139.60.114:8080/jspui/bitstream/123456789/966/7/Fundamental%20Rights%
20%285-12%29.pdf
24 Statement of Professor K.T. Shah, Constituent Assembly Debates (November 29, 1948)
25 Statement of Vice-President, Constituent Assembly Debates (November 29, 1948)

31
Amendment No. 301 was also proposed by Mr. Tajamul Hussain

for inclusion of: “places of worship”, “Dharamshalas, and

Musafirkhanas” at the end of sub-clause (a).26

All these proposals were voted upon, and rejected by the

Constituent Assembly.27 The Assembly considered it fit not to include

‘places of worship’ or ‘temples’ within the ambit of Draft Article 9 of

the Constitution.

The conscious deletion of “temples” and “places of worship” from

the Draft Article 9(1) has to be given due consideration. The

contention of the learned Amicus Curiae that the Sabarimala Temple

would be included within the ambit of ‘places of public resort’ under

Article 15(2) cannot be accepted.

10. ROLE OF COURTS IN MATTERS CONCERNING RELIGION

10.1. The role of Courts in matters concerning religion and religious

practises under our secular Constitutional set up is to afford

protection under Article 25(1) to those practises which are regarded

as “essential” or “integral” by the devotees, or the religious

community itself.

In Bijoe Emmanuel Ors. v. State of Kerala Ors. (supra), this

Court noted that the personal views of judges are irrelevant in

ascertaining whether a particular religious belief or practise must

receive the protection guaranteed under Article 25(1). The following

26 Statement of Mr. Mohd. Tahir, Constituent Assembly Debates (November 29, 1948)
27 Constituent Assembly Debates (November 29, 1948)

32
observations of Chinnappa Reddy, J. are instructive in

understanding the true role of this Court in matters of religion:

“19…We may refer here to the observations of Latham, C.J. in
Adelaide Company of Jehovah’s Witnesses v. The
Commonwealth, a decision of the Australian High Court quoted
by Mukherjea, J. in the Shirur Mutt case. Latham, C.J. had
said:

The Constitution protects religion within a community
organised under a Constitution, so that the continuance of
such protection necessarily assumes the continuance of
the community so organised. This view makes it possible
to reconcile religious freedom with ordered government. It
does not mean that the mere fact that the Commonwealth
Parliament passes a law in the belief that it will promote
peace, order and good government of Australia precludes
any consideration by a court of the question whether that
question by Parliament would remove all reality from the
constitutional guarantee. That guarantee is intended to
limit the sphere of action of the legislature. The
interpretation and application of the guarantee cannot,
under our Constitution, be left to Parliament. If the
guarantee is to have any real significance it must be left to
the courts of justice to determine its meaning and to give
effect to it by declaring the invalidity of laws which
infringes it and by declining to enforce them. The courts
will therefore have the responsibility of determining
whether a particular law can fairly be regarded, as a law
to protect the existence of the community, or whether, on
the other hand, it is a law for prohibiting the free exercise
of any religion…
What Latham, C.J. has said about the responsibility of the court
accords with what we have said about the function of the court
when a claim to the Fundamental Rights guaranteed by Article
25 is put forward…
…20…In Ratilal’s case we also notice that Mukherjea, J. quoted
as appropriate Davar, J.’s following observations in Jamshed Ji
v. Soonabai:

If this is the belief of the Zoroastrian community, - a
secular Judge is bound to accept that belief – it is not for
him to sit in judgment on that belief, he has no right to
interfere with the conscience of a donor who makes a gift
in favour of what he believes to be the advancement of his
religion and the welfare of his community or mankind.
We do endorse the view suggested by Davar, J.’s observation
that the question is not whether a particular religious belief is
genuinely and conscientiously held as a part of the profession
or practise of religion. Our personal views and reactions are

33
irrelevant. If the belief is genuinely and conscientiously held it
attracts the protection of Article 25 but subject, of course, to the
inhibitions contained therein.”
(Emphasis supplied; internal quotations and footnotes omitted)

10.2. At this juncture, it would be apposite to deal with certain

observations made by Gajendragadkar, J. in Durgah Committee,

Ajmer Anr. v. Syed Hussain Ali Ors. (supra), and Tilkayat Shri

Govindlalji Maharaj etc. v. State of Rajasthan Ors. (supra).

In Durgah Committee, Ajmer Anr. v. Syed Hussain Ali Ors.

(supra), a reference was made as to how practises emanating from

superstition “…may in that sense be extraneous, and unessential

accretions to religion itself…”.28

Similarly, in Tilkayat Shri Govindlalji Maharaj etc. v. State of

Rajasthan Ors. (supra), an argument was made by Senior Advocate

G.S. Pathak relying on the statement of Latham, C.J. in Adelaide

Company of Jehovah’s Witnesses Incorporated v. The Commonwealth

(supra) that “…what is religion to one is superstition to another…”29.

The argument was rejected by Gajendragadkar, J. as being “…of no

relevance…”.30

Mr. H.M. Seervai, well-known Constitutional expert and jurist, in

his seminal treatise titled ‘Constitutional Law of India: A Critical

Commentary’, has remarked that the observations of

Gajendragadkar, J. in Durgah Committee, Ajmer Anr. v. Syed

Hussain Ali Ors. (supra) are obiter. It is inconsistent with the

observations of Mukherjea, J. in the previous decision of a

28 (1962) 1 SCR 383 : AIR 1961 SC 1402 : at paragraph 33
29 (1964) 1 SCR 561 : AIR 1963 SC 1638, at paragraph 59
30 (1964) 1 SCR 561 : AIR 1963 SC 1638, at paragraph 59

34
Constitution Bench of seven Judges in Commissioner, Hindu

Religious Endowments, Madras v. Shri Lakshmindra Thirtha Swamiar

of Sri Shirur Mutt (supra), and a Constitution Bench of five Judges in

Ratilal Panachand Gandhi v. The State of Bombay Ors.31. Mr.

Seervai comments as under:

“12.18…Although it was wholly unnecessary to do so,
Gajendragadkar, J. said:

…it may not be out of place incidentally to strike a note of
caution and observe that in order that the practises in
question should be treated as a part of religion they must
be regarded by the said religion as its essential and
integral part; otherwise even purely secular practises
which are not an essential or an integral part of religion
are apt to be clothed with a religious form and may make
a claim for being treated as religious practises within the
meaning of Article 26. Similarly, even practises though
religious may have sprung from merely superstitious
beliefs and may in that sense be extraneous and
unessential accretions to religion itself. Unless such
practises are found to constitute an essential and integral
part of a religion their claim for the protection under Article
26 may have to be carefully scrutinised; in other words,
the protection must be confined to such religious practises
as are an essential and an integral part of it and no other.

It is submitted that the above obiter runs directly counter to the
judgment of Mukherjea, J. in the Shirur Mutt Case and
substitutes the view of the court for the view of the
denomination on what is essentially a matter of religion. The
reference to superstitious practises is singularly unfortunate, for
what is ‘superstition’ to one section of the public may be a
matter of fundamental religious belief to another. Thus, for
nearly 300 years bequests for masses for the soul of a testator
were held void as being for superstitious uses, till that view
was overruled by the House of Lords in Bourne v. Keane. It is
submitted that in dealing with the practise of religion protected
by provisions like those contained in s. 116, Commonwealth of
Australia Act or in Article 26(b) of our Constitution, it is
necessary to bear in mind the observations of Latham C.J.

quoted earlier, namely, that those provisions must be regarded
as operating in relation to all aspects of religion, irrespective of
varying opinions in the community as to the truth of a particular
religious doctrine or the goodness of conduct prescribed by a

31 1954 SCR 1055 : AIR 1954 SC 388

35
particular religion or as to the propriety of any particular
religious observance. The obiter of Gajendragadkar J. in the
Durgah Committee case is also inconsistent with the
observations of Mukherjea J. in Ratilal Gandhi Case, that the
decision in Jamshedji v. Soonabai afforded an indication of the
measure of protection given by Article 26(b).”32
(Emphasis supplied)

Mr. Seervai also criticised the observations of this Court in

Tilkayat Shri Govindlalji Maharaj etc. v. State of Rajasthan Ors.

(supra) as follows:

“12.66 In Tilkayat Shri Govindlalji v. Rajasthan
Gajendragadkar J. again adverted to the rights under Arts.

25(1) and 26(b) and stated that if a matter was obviously
secular and not religious, a Court would be justified in rejecting
its claim to be a religious practise, as based on irrational
considerations. It is submitted that the real question is whether
the religious denomination looks upon it as an essential part of
its religion, and however irrational it may appear to persons
who do not share that religious belief, the view of the
denomination must prevail, for, it is not open to a court to
describe as irrational that which is a part of a denomination’s
religion. The actual decision in the case, that the right to
manage the property was a secular matter, is correct, but that
is because, as pointed out by Mukherjea J., Art. 26(b) when
constrasted with Art. 26(c) and (d) shows that matters of
religious belief and practises are distinct and separate from the
management of property of a religious denomination. The
distinction between religious belief and practises which cannot
be controlled, and the management of the property of a religious
denomination which can be controlled to a limited extent, is
recognised by the Article itself and must be enforced. But this
distinction is not relevant to the question whether a religious
practise is itself irrational or secular.”33
(Emphasis supplied)

J. Duncan M. Derrett, a well-known Professor of Oriental Laws,

highlights the problems in applying the “essential practises test” in

his book titled ‘Religion, Law and State in Modern India’ as follows:

32 H.M. Seervai, Constitutional Law of India : A Critical Commentary, Vol. II (4th Ed., Reprint
1999), paragraph 12.18 at p. 1267-1268
33 Id. at paragraph 12.66 at p. 1283

36
“In other words the courts can determine what is an integral
part of religion and what is not. The word essential is now in
familiar use for this purpose. As we shall there is a context in
which the religious community is allowed freedom to determine
what is ‘essential’ to its belief and practise, but the individual
has no freedom to determine what is essential to his religion,
for if it were otherwise and if the law gave any protection to
religion as determined on this basis the State’s power to protect
and direct would be at an end. Therefore, the courts can
discard as non-essentials anything which is not proved to their
satisfaction – and they are not religious leaders or in any
relevant fashion qualified in such matters—to be essential, with
the result that it would have no Constitutional protection. The
Constitution does not say freely to profess, practise and
propagate the essentials of religion, but this is how it is
construed.”34
(Emphasis supplied and internal quotations omitted)

10.3. The House of Lords in Regina v. Secretary of State for Education and

Employment Ors.35, held that the court ought not to embark upon

an enquiry into the validity or legitimacy of asserted beliefs on the

basis of objective standards or rationality. The relevant extract from

the decision of the House of Lords is reproduced hereinbelow:

“It is necessary first to clarify the court’s role in identifying a
religious belief calling for protection under article 9. When the
genuineness of a claimant’s professed belief is an issue in the
proceedings the court will enquire into and decide this issue as
a question of fact. This is a limited inquiry. The Court is
concerned to ensure an assertion of religious belief is made in
good faith: neither fictitious, nor capricious, and that it is not an
artifice, to adopt the felicitous phrase of Iacobucci J in the
decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in Syndicat Northcrest
v. Amselem (2004) 241 DLR (4th) 1, 27, para 52. But,
emphatically, it is not for the Court to embark on an inquiry into
the asserted belief and judge its validity by some objective
standard such as the source material upon which the claimant
founds his belief or the orthodox teaching of the religion in
question or the extent to which the claimant’s belief conforms to
or differs from the views of others professing the same religion.

Freedom of religion protects the subjected belief of an
individual. As Iacobucci J also noted, at page 28, para 54,

34 J. Duncan M. Derett, Religion, Law and the State in India (1968), at p. 447
35 [2005] UKHL 15

37
religious belief is intensely personal and can easily vary from
one individual to another. Each individual is at liberty to hold
his own religious beliefs, however irrational or inconsistent they
may seem to some, however surprising. The European Court of
Human Rights has rightly noted that in principle, the right to
freedom of religion as understood in the Convention rules out
any appreciation by the State of the legitimacy of religious
beliefs or of the manner in which these are expressed:
Metropolitan Church of Bessarabia v Moldova (2002) 35 EHRR
306, 335, para 117. The relevance of objective factors such as
source material is, at most, that they may throw light on
whether the professed belief is genuinely held.”
(Emphasis supplied and internal quotations omitted)

10.4. In Eddie C. Thomas v. Review Board of the Indiana Employment

Security Division36, the U.S. Supreme Court was dealing with a case

where the Petitioner, who had terminated his job on account of his

religious beliefs which forbade him from partaking in the production

of armaments, was denied unemployment compensation benefits by

the State. The Court noted that the determination of what constitutes

a religious belief or practise is a very “difficult and delicate task”, and

noted as follows about the role of a Constitutional Court:

“…The determination of what is a religious belief or practise is
more often than not a difficult and delicate task…However, the
resolution of that question is not to turn upon a judicial
perception of the particular belief or practise in question;

religious beliefs need not be acceptable, logical, consistent, or
comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment
protection…
…The Indiana court also appears to have given significant
weight to the fact that another Jehovah’s Witness had no
scruples about working on tank turrets; for that other Witness,
at least, such work was scripturally acceptable. Intrafaith
differences of that kind are not uncommon among followers of a
particular creed, and the judicial process is singularly ill
equipped to resolve such differences in relation to the Religious
Clauses…Particularly in this sensitive area, it is not within the
judicial function and judicial competence to inquire whether the
petitioner or his fellow worker more correctly perceived the

36 450 U.S. 707 (1981)

38
commands of their common faith. Courts are not arbiters of
scriptural interpretation.”
(Emphasis supplied; internal quotations, and footnotes omitted)

This view was re-iterated by the U.S. Supreme Court in the

following decisions:

• United States v. Edwin D. Lee37, wherein it was held as follows:

“…It is not within the judicial function and judicial
competence, however, to determine whether appellee or
the Government has the proper interpretation of the
Amish faith; courts are not arbiters of scriptural
interpretation…”
(Emphasis supplied; internal quotations omitted)

• Robert L. Hernandez v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue38,

wherein the Court noted:

“…It is not within the judicial ken to question the
centrality of particular beliefs or practises to a faith or the
validity of particular litigants interpretations of those
creeds...”
(Emphasis supplied; internal quotations omitted)
• Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon

v. Alfred L. Smith39, wherein Scalia, J. noted as follows:

“…It is no more appropriate for judges to determine the
centrality of religious beliefs before applying a compelling
interest test in the free exercise field, than it would be for
them to determine the importance of ideas before
applying the compelling interest test in the free speech
field. What principle of law or logic can be brought to bear
to contradict a believer’s assertion that a particular act is
central to his personal faith? Judging the centrality of
different religious practises is akin to the unacceptable
business of evaluating the relative merits of differing
religious claims…As we reaffirmed only last Term, it is
not within the judicial ken to question the centrality of
37 455 U.S. 252 (1982)
38 490 U.S. 680 (1989)
39 494 U.S. 872 (1990)

39
particular beliefs or practises to a faith, or the validity of
particular litigants interpretations of those
creeds…Repeatedly and in many different contexts we
have warned that courts must not presume to determine
the place of a particular belief in a religion or the
plausibility of a religious claim…”
(Emphasis supplied; internal quotations omitted)

10.5. The observations of Chinnappa Reddy, J. in Bijoe Emmanuel Ors.

v. State of Kerala Ors. (supra) are instructive in understanding the

nature of the protection afforded under Article 25, and the role of the

Court in interpreting the same. The relevant extract from the opinion

of Chinnappa Reddy, J. is extracted hereinbelow:

“18. Article 25 is an article of faith in the Constitution,
incorporated in recognition of the principle that the real test of a
true democracy is the ability of even an insignificant minority to
find its identity under the country’s Constitution. This has to
borne in mind in interpreting Article 25…”

10.6. A reference to the following extracts from the judgment of Khehar,

C.J.I. in Shayara Bano v. Union of India Ors.40 is also instructive

with respect to the role of Courts in matters concerning religious

faiths and beliefs:

“389. It is not difficult to comprehend what kind of challenges
would be raised by rationalist assailing practises of different
faiths on diverse grounds, based on all kinds of enlightened
sensibilities. We have to be guarded lest we find our conscience
traversing into every nook and corner of religious practises, and
Personal Law. Can a court, based on a righteous endeavour,
declare that a matter of faith be replaced, or be completely done
away with?...This wisdom emerging from judgments rendered
by this Court is unambiguous namely, that while examining the
issues falling in the realm of religious practises or Personal
Law, it is not for a court to make a choice of something which it
considers as forward-looking or non-fundamentalist. It is not for
a court to determine whether religious practises were prudent
or progressive or regressive. Religion and Personal Law, must
be perceived, as it is accepted by the followers of the faith…”

40 (2017) 9 SCC 1

40
(Emphasis supplied and internal quotations omitted)

10.7. The following extract from the concurring judgment of Chinnappa

Reddy, J. in S.P. Mittal v. Union of India Ors. (supra) is pertinent

with respect to the approach to be adopted by Courts whilst dealing

with matters concerning religion:

“2…What is religion to some is pure dogma to others and what
is religion to others is pure superstition to some others…But my
views about religion, my prejudices and my predilections, if
they be such, are entirely irrelevant. So are the views of the
credulous, the fanatic, the bigot and the zealot. So also the
views of the faithful, the devout, the acharya, the moulvi, the
padre and the bhikhshu each of whom may claim his as the
only true or revealed religion. For our purpose, we are
concerned with what the people of the Socialist, Secular,
Democratic Republic of India, who have given each of its
citizens freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess,
practise and propagate religion and who have given every
religious denomination the right to freely manage its religious
affairs, mean by the expressions religion and religious
denomination. We are concerned with what these expressions
are designed to mean in Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution.

Any freedom or right involving the conscience must naturally
receive a wide interpretation and the expression religion and
religious denomination must therefore, be interpreted in no
narrow, stifling sense but in a liberal, expansive way.”
(Emphasis supplied and internal quotations omitted)

10.8. The Constitution lays emphasis on social justice and equality. It has

specifically provided for social welfare and reform, and throwing open

of Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all classes and

sections of Hindus through the process of legislation in Article

25(2)(b) of the Constitution. Article 25(2)(b) is an enabling provision

which permits the State to redress social inequalities and injustices

by framing legislation.

It is therefore difficult to accept the contention that Article

25(2)(b) is capable of application without reference to an actual

41
legislation. What is permitted by Article 25(2) is State made law on

the grounds specified therein, and not judicial intervention.

10.9. In the present case, the 1965 Act is a legislation framed in

pursuance of Article 25(2)(b) which provides for the throwing open of

Hindu places of public worship. The proviso to Section 3 of the 1965

Act carves out an exception to the applicability of the general rule

contained in Section 3, with respect to religious denominations, or

sect(s) thereof, so as to protect their right to manage their religious

affairs without outside interference.

Rule 3(b) gives effect to the proviso of Section 3 insofar as it

makes a provision for restricting the entry of women at such times

when they are not by custom or usage allowed to enter of place of

public worship.

10.10. The Respondents claim the right to worship in the Sabarimala

Temple under Article 25(1) in accordance with their beliefs and

practises as per the tenets of their religion. These practises are

considered to be essential or integral to that Temple. Any interference

with the same would conflict with their right guaranteed by Article

25(1) to worship Lord Ayyappa in the form of a ‘Naishtik

Brahmachari’.

10.11. In other jurisdictions also, where State made laws were challenged

on grounds of public morality, the Courts have refrained from

striking down the same on the ground that it is beyond the ken of

the Courts.

42
10.12. For instance, the U.S. Supreme Court in Church of Lukumi Babalu

Aye v. City of Hialeah,41 an animal cruelty law made by the City

Council was struck down as being violative of the Free Exercise

clause. The Court held:

“The extent to which the Free Exercise clause requires
Government to refrain from impeding religious exercise defines
nothing less than the respective relationships in our
Constitutional democracy of the individual to Government, and
to God. ‘ Neutral, generally applicable ’ laws, drafted as they
are from the perspective of the non-adherent, have the
unavoidable potential of putting the believer to a choice
between God and Government. Our cases now present
competing answers to the question when Government, while
pursuing secular ends may compel disobedience to what one
believes religion commands.”
(Emphasis supplied)

10.13. Judicial review of religious practises ought not to be undertaken, as

the Court cannot impose its morality or rationality with respect to

the form of worship of a deity. Doing so would negate the freedom to

practise one’s religion according to one’s faith and beliefs. It would

amount to rationalising religion, faith and beliefs, which is outside

the ken of Courts.

11. CONSTITUTIONAL MORALITY IN MATTERS OF RELIGION IN A SECULAR POLITY

11.1. The Petitioners have contended that the practise of restricting women

of a particular age group runs counter to the underlying theme of

equality and non-discrimination, which is contrary to Constitutional

Morality. Rule 3(b) of the 1965 Rules has been challenged as being

violative of Constitutional Morality.

41 508 U.S. 520 (1993)

43
11.2. India is a country comprising of diverse religions, creeds, sects each

of which have their faiths, beliefs, and distinctive practises.

Constitutional Morality in a secular polity would comprehend the

freedom of every individual, group, sect, or denomination to practise

their religion in accordance with their beliefs, and practises.

11.3. The Preamble to the Constitution secures to all citizens of this

country liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship.

Article 25 in Part III of the Constitution make freedom of conscience

a Fundamental Right guaranteed to all persons who are equally

entitled to the right to freely profess, practise and propagate their

respective religion. This freedom is subject to public order, morality

and health, and to the other provisions of Part III of the Constitution.

Article 26 guarantees the freedom to every religious

denomination, or any sect thereof, the right to establish and

maintain institutions for religious purposes, manage its own affairs

in matters of religion, own and acquire movable and immovable

property, and to administer such property in accordance with law.

This right is subject to public order, morality and health. The right

under Article 26 is not subject to Part III of the Constitution.

11.4. The framers of the Constitution were aware of the rich history and

heritage of this country being a secular polity, with diverse religions

and faiths, which were protected within the fold of Articles 25 and

26. State interference was not permissible, except as provided by

Article 25(2)(b) of the Constitution, where the State may make law

providing for social welfare and reform.

44
11.5. The concept of Constitutional Morality refers to the moral values

underpinning the text of the Constitution, which are instructive in

ascertaining the true meaning of the Constitution, and achieve the

objects contemplated therein.

11.6. Constitutional Morality in a pluralistic society and secular polity

would reflect that the followers of various sects have the freedom to

practise their faith in accordance with the tenets of their religion. It is

irrelevant whether the practise is rational or logical. Notions of

rationality cannot be invoked in matters of religion by courts.

11.7. The followers of this denomination, or sect, as the case may be,

submit that the worshippers of this deity in Sabarimala Temple even

individually have the right to practise and profess their religion

under Article 25(1) in accordance with the tenets of their faith, which

is protected as a Fundamental Right.

11.8. Equality and non-discrimination are certainly one facet of

Constitutional Morality. However, the concept of equality and non-

discrimination in matters of religion cannot be viewed in isolation.

Under our Constitutional scheme, a balance is required to be struck

between the principles of equality and non-discrimination on the one

hand, and the protection of the cherished liberties of faith, belief, and

worship guaranteed by Articles 25 and 26 to persons belonging to all

religions in a secular polity, on the other hand. Constitutional

morality requires the harmonisation or balancing of all such rights,

to ensure that the religious beliefs of none are obliterated or

undermined.

45
A Constitution Bench of five-Judges in Sahara India Real Estate

Corporation Limited Ors. v. Securities and Exchange Board of India

Anr.42 had highlighted the role of this Court as an institution

tasked with balancing the various Fundamental Rights, guaranteed

under Part III. It was noted that:

“25. At the outset, it may be stated that Supreme Court is not
only the sentinel of the fundamental rights but also a balancing
wheel between the rights, subject to social control…under our
Constitution no right in Part III is absolute. Freedom of
expression is not an absolute value under our Constitution. It
must not be forgotten that no single value, no matter exalted,
can bear the full burden of upholding a democratic system of
government. Underlying our constitutional system are a number
of important values, all of which help to guarantee our liberties,
but in ways which sometimes conflict. Under our Constitution,
probably, no values are absolute. All important values,
therefore, must be qualified and balanced against other
important, and often competing, values.”

The Constitutional necessity of balancing various Fundamental

Rights has also been emphasised in the decision of this Court in

Subramaniam Swamy v. Union of India, Ministry of Law Ors.43.

In Acharya Maharajshri Narendra Prasadji Anandprasadji

Maharaj Ors. v. The State of Gujarat Ors.44, a Constitution

Bench, in the context of Article 26, noted that it is a duty of this

Court to strike a balance, and ensure that Fundamental Rights of

one person co-exist in harmony with the exercise of Fundamental

Rights of others.

42 (2012) 10 SCC 603
43 (2016) 7 SCC 221
44 (1975) 1 SCC 11

46
It is the Constitutional duty of the Court to harmonise the rights

of all persons, religious denominations or sects thereof, to practise

their religion according to their beliefs and practises.

12. RELIGIOUS DENOMINATION

12.1. Article 26 of the Constitution guarantees the freedom to every

religious denomination, or sect thereof, the right to establish and

maintain institutions for religious or charitable purposes, and to

manage their own affairs in matters of religion. The right conferred

under Article 26 is subject to public order, morality and health, and

not to any other provisions in Part III of the Constitution.

12.2. A religious denomination or organisation enjoys complete autonomy

in matters of deciding what rites and ceremonies are essential

according to the tenets of that religion. The only restriction imposed

is on the exercise of the right being subject to public order, morality

and health under Article 26.

The Respondents assert that the devotees of the Sabarimala

Temple constitute a religious denomination, or a sect thereof, and are

entitled to claim protection under Article 26 of the Constitution.

12.3. Article 26 refers not only to religious denominations, but also to sects

thereof. Article 26 guarantees that every religious denomination, or

sect thereof, shall have the right inter alia to manage its own affairs

in matters of religion. This right is made subject to public order,

morality, and health.

47
The Travancore Devaswom Board, and the other Respondents

have asserted that the followers of the Sabarimala Temple constitute

a religious denomination having a distinct faith, well- identified

practises, being followed since time immemorial. The worshippers of

this shrine observe the tenets of this faith, and are addressed as

“Ayyappans.” The Notifications issued by the Travancore Devaswom

Board in 1955 and 1956 refer to the devotees of the Sabarimala

Temple as “Ayyappans”.

Given the identical phraseology, only the Notification dated

November 27, 1956 is set out herein below for ready reference:

“ NOTIFICATION
In accordance with the fundamental principles underlying the
Prathishta (installation) of the venerable holy and ancient
temple of Sabarimala, Ayyappans who had not observed the
usual vows as well as women who had attained maturity were
not in the habit of entering the above mentioned temple for
Darsan (worship) by stepping the Pathinettampadi. But of late,
there seems to have been a deviation from this custom and
practise. In order to maintain the sanctity and dignity of this
great temple and keep up the past traditions, it is hereby
notified that Ayyappans who do not observe the usual Vritham
(vows) are prohibited from entering the temple by stepping the
pathinettampadi and women between the ages of ten and fifty
five are forbidden from entering the temple.

Ambalapuzha
27-11-‘56 Assistant Devaswon Commissioner.”
(Emphasis supplied)

The worshippers of Lord Ayyappa at the Sabarimala Temple

together constitute a religious denomination, or sect thereof, as the

case maybe, follow a common faith, and have common beliefs and

practises. These beliefs and practises are based on the belief that

Lord Ayyappa has manifested himself in the form of a ‘Naishtik

48
Brahmachari’. The practises include the observance by the

Ayyappans of the 41-day ‘Vratham’, which includes observing

abstinence and seclusion from the women-folk, including one’s

spouse, daughter, or other relatives. This pilgrimage includes bathing

in the holy River Pampa, and ascending the 18 sacred steps leading

to the sanctum sanctorum.

The restriction on women between the ages of 10 to 50 years from

entering the Temple has to be understood in this context.

12.4. The expression “religious denomination” as interpreted in

Commissioner, Hindu Religious Endowments, Madras v. Sri

Lakshmindra Thirtha Swamiar of Sri Shirur Mutt (supra), was “a

collection of individuals classed together under the same name : a

religious sect or body having a common faith and organisation and

designated by a distinctive name”.45 The Court held that each of the

sects or sub-sects of the Hindu religion could be called a religious

denomination, as such sects or sub-sects, had a distinctive name.

12.5. In S.P. Mittal v. Union of India Ors. (supra), this Court, while relying

upon the judgment in Commissioner, Hindu Religious Endowments,

Madras v. Sri Lakshmindra Swamiar Thirtha Swamiar of Shirur Mutt

(supra), held that the words ‘religious denomination’ in Article 26 of

the Constitution must take their colour from the word ‘religion’, and

if this be so, the expression ‘religious denomination’ must satisfy

three conditions:

45 1954 SCR 1005, at paragraph 15

49
“80. (1) It must be a collection of individuals who have a system
of beliefs or doctrines which they regard as conducive to their
spiritual well-being, that is, a common faith;
(2) common organisation; and
(3) designation by a distinctive name.”

12.6. On a somewhat different note, Ayyangar, J. in Sardar Syedna Taher

Saifuddin Saheb v. State of Bombay (supra) in his separate judgment,

expressed this term to mean identity of its doctrines, creeds, and

tenets, which are intended to ensure the unity of the faith which its

adherents profess, and the identity of the religious views which bind

them together as one community.

12.7. The meaning ascribed to religious denomination by this Court in

Commissioner, Hindu Religious Endowments case (supra), and

subsequent cases is not a strait-jacket formula, but a working

formula. It provides guidance to ascertain whether a group would fall

within a religious denomination or not.

12.8. If there are clear attributes that there exists a sect, which is

identifiable as being distinct by its beliefs and practises, and having

a collection of followers who follow the same faith, it would be

identified as a ‘religious denomination’.

In this context, reference may be made to the concurring

judgment of Chinnappa Reddy, J. in the decision of this Court in S.P.

Mittal v. Union of India Ors. (supra) wherein he noted that the

judicial definition of a religious denomination laid down by this Court

is, unlike a statutory definition, a mere explanation. After observing

that any freedom or right involving the conscience must be given a

50
wide interpretation, and the expressions ‘religion’ and ‘religious

denomination’ must be interpreted in a “liberal, expansive way”:

“21…the expression religious denomination may be defined
with less difficulty. As we mentioned earlier Mukherjea, J.,
borrowed the meaning of the word denomination from the
Oxford Dictionary and adopted it to define religious
denomination as a collection of individuals classed together
under the same name, a religious sect or body having a
common faith and organisation and designated by a distinctive
name. The followers of Ramanuja, the followers of
Madhwacharya, the followers of Vallabha, the Chistia Soofies
have been found or assumed by the Court to be religious
denominations. It will be noticed that these sects possess no
distinctive names except that of their founder-teacher and had
no special organisation except a vague, loose – un-knit one. The
really distinctive feature about each one of these sects was a
shared belief in the tenets taught by the teacher-founder. We
take care to mention here that whatever the ordinary features
of a religious denomination may be considered to be, all are not
of equal importance and surely the common faith of the
religious body is more important than the other
features…Religious denomination has not to owe allegiance to
any parent religion. The entire following of a religion may be no
more than the religious denomination. This may be particularly
be so in the case of small religious groups or developing
religions, that is, religions in the formative stage.”
(Emphasis supplied and internal quotations omitted)

12.9. The Respondents have made out a strong and plausible case that the

worshippers of the Sabarimala Temple have the attributes of a

religious denomination, or sect thereof, for the reasons enumerated

hereinbelow:

i. The worshippers of Lord Ayyappa at Sabarimala Temple

constitute a religious denomination, or sect thereof, as the case

maybe, following the ‘Ayyappan Dharma’. They are designated by

a distinctive name wherein all male devotees are called

‘Ayyappans’; all female devotees below the age of 10 years and

above the age of 50 years, are called ‘Malikapurnams’. A pilgrim

51
on their maiden trip to Sabarimala Temple is called a ‘Kanni

Ayyappan’. The devotees are referred to as ‘Ayyappaswamis’. A

devotee has to observe the ‘Vratham’, and follow the code of

conduct, before embarking upon the ‘Pathinettu Padikal’ to enter

the Temple at Sabarimala.

ii. The devotees follow an identifiable set of beliefs, customs and

usages, and code of conduct which are being practised since time

immemorial, and are founded in a common faith. The religious

practises being followed in this Temple are founded on the belief

that the Lord has manifested himself in the form of a ‘Naishtika

Brahmachari’. It is because of this nishtha, that women between

the ages of 10 to 50 years, are not permitted to enter the temple.

The practises followed by this religious denomination, or sect

thereof, as the case maybe, constitute a code of conduct, which is

a part of the essential spiritual discipline related to this

pilgrimage. As per the customs and usages practised in the

Sabarimala Temple, the 41-day ‘Vratham’ is a condition precedent

for undertaking the pilgrimage to the Sabarimala Temple.

The Respondents submit that the beliefs and practises being

followed by them have been imparted by the deity himself to the

King of Pandalam who constructed this Temple. The teachings of

the Lord are scripted in the Sthal Purana of this Temple, known

as the ‘Bhuthanatha Geetha’.

Reference to the custom and usage restricting the entry of

women belonging to the age group of 10 to 50 years is

52
documented in the Memoir of the Survey of the Travancore and

Cochin States46 published in two parts in 1893 and 1901 written

by Lieutenants Ward and Conner.

iii. This Temple owned vast landed properties from which the Temple

was being maintained. These were taken over by the State,

subject to the obligation to pay annuities to the Temple from the

coffers of the State, as is evident from the Devaswom

Proclamation47 dated 12th April 1922 issued by the Maharaja of

Travancore, on which reliance was placed by Mr. J. Sai Deepak,

Advocate.

When the erstwhile State of Travancore merged with the

Union of India, the obligation of paying annuities for the landed

properties, was transferred to the Government of India.

iv. The Temple is managed by the Travancore Devaswom Board. It

does not receive funds from the Consolidated Fund of India,

which would give it the character of ‘State’ or ‘other authorities’

under Article 12 of the Constitution.

In any event, Article 290A does not in any manner take away

the denominational character of the Sabarimala Temple, or the

Fundamental Rights under Article 26.

12.10. The issue whether the Sabarimala Temple constitutes a ‘religious

denomination’, or a sect thereof, is a mixed question of fact and law.

It is trite in law that a question of fact should not be decided in writ

46Supra note 9
47Annexure I, Written Submissions by J. Sai Deepak, learned Advocate on Behalf of K.K.
Sabu (Respondent No. 18), and People for Dharma (Intervenor).

53
proceedings. The proper forum to ascertain whether a certain sect

constitutes a religious denomination or not, would be more

appropriately determined by a civil court, where both parties are

given the opportunity of leading evidence to establish their case.

In Arya Vyasa Sabha Ors. v. Commissioner of Hindu

Charitable and Religious Institutions Endowments, Hyderabad

Ors.48, this Court had noted that the High Court was correct in

leaving the question open, of whether the petitioners constituted a

religious denomination for determination by a competent civil court

on the ground that it was a disputed question of fact which could not

be appropriately determined in proceedings under Article 226.

12.11. This Court has identified the rights of a group of devotees as

constituting a religious denomination in the context of a single

temple, as illustrated hereinbelow:

In (supra), the Sri Venkataramana Temple at Moolky was

considered to be a denominational temple, and the Gowda

Saraswath Brahmins were held to constitute a religious

denomination.

Similarly, in Dr. Subramaniam Swamy v. State of Tamil Nadu

(supra) the Podhu Dikshitars were held to constitute a religious

denomination in the context of the Sri Sabanayagar Temple at

Chidambaram.

12.12. The contention of the Petitioners that since the visitors to the temple

are not only from the Hindu religion, but also from other religions,

48 (1976) 1 SCC 292

54
the worshippers of this Temple would not constitute a separate

religious sect.

This argument does not hold water since it is not uncommon for

persons from different religious faiths to visit shrines of other

religions. This by itself would not take away the right of the

worshippers of this Temple who may constitute a religious

denomination, or sect thereof.

12.13. The Constitution ensures a place for diverse religions, creeds,

denominations and sects thereof to co-exist in a secular society. It is

necessary that the term ‘religious denomination’ should receive an

interpretation which is in furtherance of the Constitutional object of

a pluralistic society.

13. ESSENTIAL PRACTISES DOCTRINE

This Court has applied the ‘essential practises’ test to afford protection

to religious practises.

13.1. The ‘essential practises’ test was formulated in Commissioner, Hindu

Religious Endowments, Madras v. Sri Lakshmindra Thirtha Swamiar

of Sri Shirur Mutt (supra).

Before articulating the test, this Court drew on the words

“practise of religion” in Article 25(1) to hold that the Constitution

protects not only the freedom of religious belief, but also acts done in

pursuance of a religion. In doing so, it relied on an extract from the

decision of Latham, C.J. of the High Court of Australia in Adelaide

Company of Jehovah’s Witnesses Incorporated v. The

55
Commonwealth.49 The original extract relied upon has been

reproduced hereinbelow:

“5. It is sometimes suggested in discussions on the subject of
freedom of religion that, though the civil government should not
interfere with religious opinions, it nevertheless may deal as it
pleases with any acts which are done in pursuance of religious
belief without infringing the principle of freedom of religion. It
appears to me to be difficult to maintain this distinction as
relevant to the interpretation of s. 116. The section refers in
express terms to the exercise of religion, and therefore it is
intended to protect from the operation of any Commonwealth
laws acts which are done in the exercise of religion. Thus the
section goes far beyond protecting liberty of opinion. It protects
also acts done in pursuance of religious belief as part of
religion.”
(Emphasis supplied)

This Court then went on to formulate the ‘essential practises test

in the following words:

“20…what constitutes the essential part of a religion is
primarily to be ascertained with reference to the doctrines of
that religion itself. If the tenets of any religious sect of the
Hindus prescribe that offerings of food should be given to the
idol at particular hours of the day, that periodical ceremonies
should be performed in a certain way at certain periods of the
year or that there should be daily recital of sacred texts or
oblations to the sacred fire, all these would be regarded as
parts of religion…all of them are religious practises and should
be regarded as matters of religion within the meaning of Article
26(b)…
…23. Under Article 26(b), therefore, a religious denomination or
organization enjoys complete autonomy in the matter of
deciding as to what rites and ceremonies are essential
according to the tenets of the religion they hold and no outside
authority has any jurisdiction to interfere with their decision in
such matters.”
(Emphasis supplied)

13.2. The ‘essential practises test’ was reiterated in Ratilal Panachand

Gandhi v. The State of Bombay Ors.50, where the narrow definition

49 67 CLR 116
50 (1954) SCR 1055 : AIR 1954 SC 388

56
of “religion” given by the Bombay High Court was discarded. It was

held that all religious practises or performances of acts in pursuance

of religious beliefs were as much a part of religion, as faith or belief

in particular doctrines. This Court re-iterated the ‘essential practises

test’ in the following words:

“13…Thus if the tenets of the Jain or the Parsi religion lay down
that certain rites and ceremonies are to be performed at certain
times and in a particular manner, it cannot be said that these
are secular activities partaking of commercial or economic
character simply because they involve expenditure of money or
employment of priests or the use of marketable commodities. No
outside authority has any right to say that these are not
essential parts of religion and it is not open to the secular
authority of the State to restrict or prohibit them in any manner
they like under the guise of administering the trust estate…We
may refer in this connection to the observation of Davar, J. in
the case of Jamshed ji v. Soonabai and although they were
made in a case where the question was whether the bequest of
property by a Parsi testator for the purpose of perpetual
celebration of ceremonies like Muktad bag, Vyezashni, etc.,
which are sanctioned by the Zoroastrian religion were valid and
charitable gifts, the observations, we think, are quite
appropriate for our present purpose. If this is the belief of the
community thus observed the learned judge, and it is proved
undoubtedly to be the belief of the Zoroastrian community, - a
secular judge is bound to accept that belief – it is not for him to
sit in judgment on that belief, he has no right to interfere with
the conscience of a donor who makes a gift in favour of what he
believes to be the advancement of the religion and the welfare
of his community or mankind. These observations do in our
opinion afford an indication of the measure of protection that is
given by Article 26(b) of our Constitution.”
(Emphasis supplied and internal quotations omitted)

13.3. In Durgah Committee, Ajmer Anr. v. Syed Hussain Ali Ors.

(supra), the ‘essential practises test’ was discussed by a Constitution

Bench in the following words:

“33…Whilst we are dealing with this point it may not be out of
place incidentally to strike a note of caution and observe that in
order that the practises in question should be treated as a part
of religion they must be regarded by the said religion as its

57
essential and integral part; otherwise even purely secular
practises which are not an essential or an integral part of
religion are apt to be clothed with a religious form and may
make a claim for being treated as religious practises within the
meaning of Article 26. Similarly, even practises though religious
may have sprung from merely superstitious beliefs and may in
that sense be extraneous and unessential accretions to religion
itself. Unless such practises are found to constitute an essential
and integral part of a religion their claim for the protection
under Article 26 may have to be carefully scrutinised; in other
words, the protection must be confined to such religious
practises as are an essential and an integral part of it and no
other.”
(Emphasis supplied)

This Court affirmed the ‘essential practises test’ as laid in the

previous decisions in Commissioner, Hindu Religious Endowments,

Madras v. Sri Lakshmindra Thirtha Swamiar of Sri Shirur Mutt

(supra), and Ratilal Panachand Gandhi v. The State of Bombay Ors.

(supra) insofar as it emphasised on the autonomy of religions to

identify essential or integral practises.

13.4. In Tilkayat Shri Govindlalji Maharaj etc. v. State of Rajasthan Ors.

(supra), it was clarified that courts will intervene where conflicting

evidence is produced in respect of rival contentions as to competing

religious practises. It was held that:

“57. In deciding the question as to whether a given religious
practise is an integral part of the religion or not, the test always
would be whether it is regarded as such by the community
following the religion or not. This formula may in some cases
present difficulties in its operation. Take the case of a practise
in relation to food or dress. If in a given proceeding, one section
of the community claims that while performing certain rites
white dress is an integral part of the religion itself, whereas
another section contends that yellow dress and not the white
dress is the essential part of religion, how is the Court going to
decide the question? Similar disputes may arise in regard to
food. In cases where conflicting evidence is produced in respect
of rival contentions as to competing religious practises the Court
may not be able to resolve the dispute by a blind application of

58
the formula that the community decides which practise in [sic]
an integral part of its religion, because the community may
speak with more than one voice and the formula would,
therefore, break down. This question will always have to be
decided by the Court and in doing so, the Court may have to
enquire whether the practise in question is religious in
character, and if it is, whether it can be regarded as an integral
or essential part of the religion, and the finding of the Court on
such an issue will always depend upon the evidence adduced
before it as to the conscience of the community and the tenets of
its religion…”
(Emphasis supplied)

13.5. In Bijoe Emmanuel Ors. v. State of Kerala Ors. (supra), this Court

emphasised that for a religious practise to receive protection under

Article 25(1) it must be “genuinely”, and “conscientiously” held by

persons claiming such rights. This Court had noted that such

religious beliefs and practises must be consistently and not “idly”

held, and should not emanate out of “perversity”. In doing so, it re-

affirmed that the Constitutional fabric of our country permits

religious beliefs and practises to exist, regardless of whether or not

they appeal to the rational sensibilities of this Court, or others.

It would also be instructive to refer to the decision of the

Supreme Court of Alaska in Carlos Frank v. State of Alaska51 wherein

the use of moose meat at a funeral potlatch, a religious ceremony,

was held to be a practise deeply rooted in religion, based on the

evidence adduced before the District Court. The Court had noted that

the State of Alaska had failed to illustrate any compelling interest

which would justify its curtailment, with the result that the case was

remanded with instructions to dismiss the complaint against Frank

51 604 P.2d 1068 (1979)

59
for unlawful transportation of moose meat. The Court had

underscored the importance of the sincerity of Frank’s religious

belief, and held that it would be sufficient that a practise be deeply

rooted in religious belief for it to receive the protection of the free

exercise clause under the U.S. Constitution.

13.6. Reference is required to be made to the doctrines and tenets of a

religion, its historical background, and the scriptural texts to

ascertain the ‘essentiality’ of religious practises.

The ‘essential practises test’ in its application would have to be

determined by the tenets of the religion itself. The practises and

beliefs which are considered to be integral by the religious

community are to be regarded as “essential”, and afforded protection

under Article 25.

The only way to determine the essential practises test would be

with reference to the practises followed since time immemorial, which

may have been scripted in the religious texts of this temple. If any

practise in a particular temple can be traced to antiquity, and is

integral to the temple, it must be taken to be an essential religious

practise of that temple.

13.7. The Temple Thanthri, the Travancore Devaswom Board, and

believers of Lord Ayyappa have submitted that the limited restriction

on access of women during the notified age of 10 to 50 years, is a

religious practise which is central and integral to the tenets of this

shrine, since the deity has manifested himself in the form of a

‘Naishtik Brahmachari’.

60
13.8. The practise of restricting the entry of women belonging to the age-

group of 10 to 50 years, was challenged as being violative of Articles

15, 25, and 26 of the Constitution before a Division Bench of the

Kerala High Court in S. Mahendran v. The Secretary, Travancore

Devaswom Board, Thiruvanathapuram Ors. (supra).

The Court held that the issue whether the practises were an

integral part of the religion or not had to be decided on the basis of

evidence. The High Court relied on the decision of this Court in

Tilkayat Shri Govindalji Maharaj v. State of Rajasthan (supra) wherein

it was held that the question whether the practise is religious in

character, and whether it can be regarded as an integral or essential

part of the religion, will depend upon the evidence adduced before a

court, with respect to the tenets of the religion.

The High Court held that the restriction on the entry of women

between the ages of 10 to 50 years was in accordance with the

practise prevalent since time immemorial, and was not violative of

Articles 15, 25, and 26 of the Constitution.

A religion can lay down a code of ethics, and also prescribe

rituals, observances, ceremonies and modes of worship. These

observances and rituals are also regarded as an integral part of

religion. If the tenets of a religion lay down that certain ceremonies

are to be performed at certain times in a particular manner, those

ceremonies are matters of religion, and are to be protected as a

religious belief.

61

The High Court took into consideration the testimony of three

persons who had direct and personal knowledge about the practises

of the temple. One of them was the then Thanthri of the Temple, who

could authoritatively testify about the practises of the temple. His

personal knowledge extended to a period of more than 40 years. The

second Affidavit was affirmed by the Secretary of the Ayyappa Seva

Sangham who had been a regular pilgrim of the shrine for a period of

60 years. A senior member of the Pandalam Palace also testified

about the practise followed, and the views of the members of the

Palace who have constructed the Temple. The testimony of these

witnesses established that the practise of restriction on the entry of

women during the notified age-group was being followed since the

past several centuries.

The High Court recorded that a vital reason for imposing this

restriction on young women as deposed by the Thanthri of the

Temple, as well as other witnesses, was that the deity at the

Sabarimala Temple was in the form of a ‘Naishtik Brahmachari’ which

means a student who has to live in the house of his preceptor, and

studies the Vedas, living the life of utmost austerity and discipline.

The deity is in the form of a ‘Yogi’ or ‘Naishtik Brahmachari’. The High

Court noted that this practise of restricting the entry of women is

admitted to have been prevalent since the past several centuries.

The High Court concluded by holding:

“Our conclusions are as follows:

(1) The restriction imposed on women aged above 10 and
below 50 from trekking the holy hills of Sabarimala and

62
offering worship at Sabarimala Shrine is in accordance
with the usage prevalent from time immemorial.
(2) Such restriction imposed by the Devaswom Board is not
violative of Articles 15, 25 and 26 of the Constitution of
India.

(3) Such restriction is also not violative of the provisions of
Hindu Place of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry)
Act, 1965 since there is no restriction between one
section and another section or between one class and
another class among the Hindus in the matter of entry to
a Temple whereas the prohibition is only in respect of
women of a particular age group and not women as a
class.”

In view of the conclusions summarised above, the High Court

directed the Travancore Devaswom Board not to permit women

belonging to the age-group of 10 to 50 years “… to trek the holy hills

of Sabarimala in connection with the pilgrimage…”. The Judgment of

the Kerala High Court was not challenged any further, and has

attained finality.

The findings contained in the Judgment of the Kerala High Court

deciding a Writ Petition under Article 226 were findings in rem, and

the principle of res judicata would apply.52

In this context, it is pertinent to note that this Court, in Daryao

Ors. v. State of U.P. Ors.53, had held as follows:

“26. We must now proceed to state our conclusion on the
preliminary objection raised by the respondents. We hold that
if a writ petition filed by a party under Article 226 is
considered on the merits as a contested matter and is
dismissed the decision thus pronounced would continue to
bind the parties unless it is otherwise modified or reversed by
appeal or other appropriate proceedings permissible under the
Constitution. It would not be open to a party to ignore the said
judgment and move this Court under Article 32 by an original

52 Dr Subramaniam Swamy v. State of Tamil Nadu Ors., (2014) 5 SCC 75.

53 (1962) 1 SCR 574 : AIR 1961 SC 1457

63
petition made on the same facts and for obtaining the same or
similar orders or writs.”

Thus viewed, such findings of fact ought not to be re-opened in a

Petition filed under Article 32.

13.9. The practise of celibacy and austerity is the unique characteristic of

the deity in the Sabarimala Temple.

Hindu deities have both physical/temporal and philosophical

form. The same deity is capable of having different physical and

spiritual forms or manifestations. Worship of each of these forms is

unique, and not all forms are worshipped by all persons.

The form of the deity in any temple is of paramount importance.

For instance, Lord Krishna in the temple at Nathdwara is in the form

of a child. In Tilkayat Shri Govindlalji Maharaj v. State of Rajasthan

(supra), this Court noted that Lord Krishna was the deity who was

worshipped in the Shrinathji Temple in Nathdwara. It was noted that:

“…believing in the paramount importance and efficacy of
Bhakti, the followers of Vallabha attend the worship and
services of the Nidhi Swaroops or idols from day-to-day in the
belief that such devotional conduct would ultimately lead to
their salvation.”

In Venkataramana Devaru Ors. v. State of Mysore Ors.

(supra), this Court had observed that Gods have distinct forms

ascribed to them, and their worship at home, and in temples, is

ordained as certain means of salvation.

Worship has two elements – the worshipper, and the worshipped.

The right to worship under Article 25 cannot be claimed in the

64
absence of the deity in the particular form in which he has

manifested himself.

13.10. Religion is a matter of faith, and religious beliefs are held to be

sacred by those who share the same faith. Thought, faith and belief

are internal, while expression and worship are external

manifestations thereof.

13.11. In the case of the Sabarimala Temple, the manifestation is in the

form of a ‘Naishtik Brahmachari’. The belief in a deity, and the form

in which he has manifested himself is a fundamental right protected

by Article 25(1) of the Constitution.

The phrase “equally entitled to”, as it occurs in Article 25(1), must

mean that each devotee is equally entitled to profess, practise and

propagate his religion, as per the tenets of that religion.

13.12. In the present case, the celibate nature of the deity at the Sabarimala

Temple has been traced by the Respondents to the Sthal Purana of

this Temple chronicled in the ‘Bhuthanatha Geetha’. Evidence of

these practises are also documented in the Memoir of the Survey of

the Travancore and Cochin States54 written by Lieutenants Ward and

Conner published in two parts in 1893 and 1901.

13.13. The religious practise of restricting the entry of women between the

ages of 10 to 50 years, is in pursuance of an ‘essential religious

practise’ followed by the Respondents. The said restriction has been

consistently, followed at the Sabarimala Temple, as is borne out from

the Memoir of the Survey of the Travancore and Cochin States

54 Supra note 9

65
published in two parts in 1893 and 1901. The Kerala High Court in

the case of S. Mahendran v. The Secretary, Travancore Devaswom

Board, Thiruvananthapuram Ors. (supra) has recorded as follows:

“The testimony of three persons who have direct and personal
knowledge about the usage in the temple is therefore available
before this Court. Of them one is the Thanthri of the temple
who can authoritatively speak about the usage followed in the
temple. His knowledge extends to a period of more than 40
years. The Secretary of the Ayyappa Seva Sangham had been
a regular pilgrim to Sabarimala shrine for a period of 60 years.

A senior member of the Pandalam palace has also testified
about the practise followed and the view of the members of the
palace to which the temple at one time belonged. The
testimony of these witnesses would therefore conclusively
establish the usage followed in the temple of not permitting
women of the age group 10 to 50 to worship in the temple. It
necessarily flows that women of that age group were also not
permitted either to enter the precincts of the temple or to trek
Sabarimala for the purpose of pilgrimage.”
(Emphasis supplied)

13.14. In the present case, the character of the temple at Sabarimala is

unique on the basis of centuries old religious practises followed to

preserve the manifestation of the deity, and the worship associated

with it. Any interference with the mode and manner of worship of

this religious denomination, or sect, would impact the character of

the Temple, and affect the beliefs and practises of the worshippers of

this Temple.

13.15. Based on the material adduced before this Court, the Respondents

have certainly made out a plausible case that the practise of

restricting entry of women between the age group of 10 to 50 years is

an essential religious practise of the devotees of Lord Ayyappa at the

Sabarimala Temple being followed since time immemorial.

66

14. ARTICLE 17

14.1. The contention of the Petitioners that the restriction imposed on the

entry of women during the notified age group, tantamounts to a form

of ‘Untouchability’ under Article 17 of the Constitution, is liable to be

rejected for the reasons stated hereinafter.

14.2. All forms of exclusion would not tantamount to untouchability.

Article 17 pertains to untouchability based on caste prejudice.

Literally or historically, untouchability was never understood to

apply to women as a class. The right asserted by the Petitioners is

different from the right asserted by Dalits in the temple entry

movement. The restriction on women within a certain age-band, is

based upon the historical origin and the beliefs and practises of the

Sabarimala Temple.

14.3. In the present case, women of the notified age group are allowed

entry into all other temples of Lord Ayyappa. The restriction on the

entry of women during the notified age group in this Temple is based

on the unique characteristic of the deity, and not founded on any

social exclusion. The analogy sought to be drawn by comparing the

rights of Dalits with reference to entry to temples and women is

wholly misconceived and unsustainable.

The right asserted by Dalits was in pursuance of right against

systematic social exclusion and for social acceptance per se.

In the case of temple entry, social reform preceded the statutory

reform, and not the other way about. The social reform was

spearheaded by great religious as well as national leaders like Swami

67
Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi. The reforms were based upon

societal morality, much before Constitutional Morality came into

place.

14.4. Article 11 of the Draft Constitution corresponds to Article 17 of our

present Constitution.55 A perusal of the Constituent Assembly

debates on Article 11 of the Draft Constitution would reflect that

“untouchability” refers to caste-based discrimination faced by

Harijans, and not women as contended by the Petitioners.

During the debates, Mr. V.I. Muniswamy Pillai had stated:

“…Sir, under the device of caste distinction, a certain section
of people have been brought under the rope of untouchability,
who have been suffering for ages under tyranny of so-called
caste Hindus, and all those people who style themselves as
landlords and zamindars, and were thus not allowed the
ordinary rudimentary facilities required for a human being… I
am sure, Sir, by adoption of this clause, many a Hindu who is
a Harijan, who is a scheduled class man will feel that he has
been elevated in society and has now got a place in
society…”56

Dr. Monomohan Das, quotes Mahatma Gandhi while undeniably

accepting the meaning of “Untouchability” as intended under the

Constitution:

“…Gandhiji said I do not want to be reborn, but if I am reborn,
I wish that I should be born as a Harijan, as an untouchable,
so that I may lead a continuous struggle, a life-long struggle
against the oppressions and indignities that have been
heaped upon these classes of people.

55 “11. “Untouchability” is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The
enforcement of any disability arising out of “Untouchability" shall be an offence punishable in
accordance with law.”
Draft Constitution of India, Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly of India
(Manager Government of India Press, New Delhi, 1948) available at
http://14.139.60.114:8080/jspui/bitstream/123456789/966/7/Fundamental%20Rights%
20%285-12%29.pdf
56 Statement of Shri V.I. Muniswamy Pillai, Constituent Assembly Debates (November 29,

1948)

68
… Not only Mahatma Gandhi, but also great men and
philosophers of this ancient land, Swami Vivekananda, Raja
Ram Mohan Roy, Rabindranath Tagore and others, who led a
relentless struggle against this heinous custom, would also be
very much pleased today to see that independent India, Free
India, has at last finally done away with this malignant sore
on the body of Indian Society.”57

Mr. Seervai, in his seminal commentary, states that

“Untouchability” must not be interpreted in its literal or grammatical

sense, but refers to the practise as it developed historically in India

amongst Hindus. He further states that Article 17 must be read with

the Untouchability (Offences) Act, 1955, which punishes offences

committed in relation to a member of a Scheduled Caste.58

Professor M.P. Jain also interprets Article 17 in a similar manner.

He states:

“Therefore, treating of persons as untouchables either
temporarily or otherwise for various reasons, e.g., suffering
from an epidemic or a contagious disease, or social
observances associated with birth or death, or social boycott
resulting from caste or other disputes do no come within the
purview of Art. 17. Art. 17 is concerned with those regarded
untouchables in the course of historic developments.”59

14.5. It is clear that Article 17 refers to the practise of Untouchability as

committed in the Hindu community against Harijans or people from

depressed classes, and not women, as contended by the Petitioners.

14.6. Explaining the background to Article 17, this Court in Sri

Venkataramana Devaru Ors. v. State of Mysore Ors. (supra)

observed:

57Statement of Dr. Monomohan Das, Constituent Assembly Debates (November 29, 1948)
58 H.M. Seervai, Constitutional Law of India : A Critical Commentary, Vol. I (4th Ed., Reprint
1999), paragraph 9.418 at p. 691
59 M.P. Jain, Indian Constitutional Law, (6th Ed., Revised by Justice Ruma Pal and

Samaraditya Pal; 2010), at p. 1067

69
“23. …. one of the problems which had been exercising the
minds of the Hindu social reformers during the period
preceding the Constitution was the existence in their midst of
communities which were classed as untouchables. A custom
which denied to large sections of Hindus the right to use public
roads and institutions to which all the other Hindus had a
right of access, purely on grounds of birth could not be
considered reasonable and defended on any sound
democratic principle, and efforts were being made to secure its
abolition by legislation. This culminated in the enactment of
Article 17, which is as follows: “Untouchability” is abolished
and its practise in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of
any disability arising out of ‘Untouchability’ shall be an
offence punishable in accordance with law.”

14.7. Not a single precedent has been shown to interpret Article 17 in the

manner contended by the Petitioners.

It is also relevant to mention that the Counsel for the State of

Kerala did not support this submission.

15. RULE 3(B) OF THE 1965 RULES IS NOT ULTRA VIRES THE ACT

15.1. Section 3 of the 1965 Act reads as follows:

“3. Places of public worship to be open to all sections and
classes of Hindus:- Nothwithstanding anything to the contrary
contained in any other law for the time being in force or any
custom or usage or any instrument having effect by virtue of
any such law or any decree or order of court, every place of
public worship which is open to Hindus generally or to any
section or class thereof, shall be open to all sections and
classes of Hindus; and no Hindu of whatsoever section or
class shall, in any manner, be prevented, obstructed or
discouraged from entering such place of public worship, or
from worshipping or offering prayers thereat, or performing
any religious service therein, in the like manner and to the like
extent as any other Hindu of whatsoever section or class may
so enter, worship, pray or perform:

Provided that in the case of a place of public worship which is
a temple founded for the benefit of any religious denomination
or section thereof, the provisions of this section shall be
subject to the right of that religious denomination or section, as

70
the case may be, to manage its own affair in matters of
religion”
(Emphasis supplied)
The relevant extract of Rule 3 of the 1965 Rules is also

reproduced hereinbelow:

“Rule 3. The classes of persons mentioned here under shall
not be entitled to offer worship in any place of public worship
or bath in or use the water of any sacred tank, well, spring or
water course appurtenant to a place of public worship whether
situate within or outside precincts thereof, or any sacred place
including a hill or hill lock, or a road, street or pathways which
is requisite for obtaining access to the place of public worship-

(a) …..

(b) Women at such time during which they are not by custom
and usage allowed to enter a place of public worship.

(c)…..

(d)….

(e)…..

(f)…..

(g)….”
(Emphasis supplied)
Section 3(b) of the 1965 Act provides that every place of public

worship which is open to Hindus generally, or to any section or class

thereof, shall be open to all sections and classes of Hindus; and no

Hindu of whatsoever section or class shall, in any manner be

prevented, obstructed or discouraged from entering such place of

public worship or from worshipping or from offering prayers there or

performing any religious service therein, in the like manner and to

the like extent as any other Hindu of whatsoever section or class may

enter, worship, pray or perform.

The proviso to Section 3 of the 1965 Act carves out an exception

in the case of public worship in a temple founded for the benefit of

any religious denomination or section thereof. The provisions of the

main section would be subject to the right of a religious

71
denomination or section to manage its own affairs in the matters of

religion.

Section 2(c)60 of the 1965 Act, defines “section or class” to include

any division, sub-division, caste, sub caste, sect, or denomination

whatsoever. Section 4(1)61, empowers the making of regulations for

the maintenance of orders and decorum in the place of public

worship and the due observance of the religious rites and ceremonies

performed therein. The proviso to Section 3 of the 1965 Act provides

that no such regulation shall discriminate in any manner

whatsoever, against any Hindu on the ground that he belongs to a

particular section or class.

15.2. The proviso carves out an exception to the Section 3 itself. The

declaration that places of public worship shall be open to Hindus of

all sections and classes is not absolute, but subject to the right of a

religious denomination to “manage its own affairs in matters of

religion”. Section 3 must be viewed in the Constitutional context

where the legislature has framed an enabling legislation under Article

25(2)(b) which has been made expressly subject to religious practises

peculiar to a denomination under Article 26(b).

60 “2. Definitions –
…(c) “section or class” includes any division, sub-division, caste, sub-caste, sect or
denomination whatsoever.”
61 “4. Power to make regulations for the maintenance of order and decorum and the due
performance of rites and ceremonies in places of public worship –
(1) The trustee or any other person in charge of any place of public worship shall have
power, subject to the control of the competent authority and any rules which may be
made by that authority, to make regulations for the maintenance of order and
decorum in the place of public worship and the due observance of the religious rites
and ceremonies performed therein…”

72
15.3. Rule 3(b) is a statutory recognition of a pre-existing custom and

usage being followed by this Temple. Rule 3(b) is within the ambit of

the proviso to Section 3 of the 1965 Act, as it recognises pre-existing

customs and usages including past traditions which have been

practised since time immemorial qua the Temple. The Travancore

Devaswom Board submits that these practises are integral and

essential to the Temple.

15.4. The Petitioners have not challenged the proviso to Section 3 as being

unconstitutional on any ground. The proviso to Section 3 makes an

exception in cases of religious denominations, or sects thereof to

manage their affairs in matters of religion.

15.5. The Notification dated November 27, 1956 issued by the Travancore

Devaswom Board restricts the entry of women between the ages of 10

to 55 years as a custom and practise integral to the sanctity of the

Temple, and having the force of law under Article 13(3)(a) of the

Constitution. The High Court in S. Mahendran v. The Secretary,

Travancore Devaswom Board, Thiruvananthapuram Ors. (supra)

noted that this practise of restricting the entry of women is admitted

to have been prevalent since the past several centuries. These

practises are protected by the proviso to Section 3 of the 1965 Act

which is given effect to by Rule 3(b) of the 1965 Rules.

15.6. The contention of the Petitioners that Rule 3(b) is ultra vires Section

3 of the 1965 Act, fails to take into consideration the proviso to

Section 3 of the 1965 Act. Section 3 applies to all places of public

worship, whereas the proviso applies to temples founded for the

73
benefit of any religious denomination or sect thereof. Hence, the

contentions of the Petitioners that Rule 3(b) is ultra vires Section 3 of

the 1965 Act is rejected.

16. The summary of the aforesaid analysis is as follows:

(i) The Writ Petition does not deserve to be entertained for want of

standing. The grievances raised are non-justiciable at the behest of

the Petitioners and Intervenors involved herein.

(ii) The equality doctrine enshrined under Article 14 does not override

the Fundamental Right guaranteed by Article 25 to every individual

to freely profess, practise and propagate their faith, in accordance

with the tenets of their religion.

(iii) Constitutional Morality in a secular polity would imply the

harmonisation of the Fundamental Rights, which include the right of

every individual, religious denomination, or sect, to practise their

faith and belief in accordance with the tenets of their religion,

irrespective of whether the practise is rational or logical.

(iv) The Respondents and the Intervenors have made out a plausible case

that the Ayyappans or worshippers of the Sabarimala Temple satisfy

the requirements of being a religious denomination, or sect thereof,

which is entitled to the protection provided by Article 26. This is a

mixed question of fact and law which ought to be decided before a

competent court of civil jurisdiction.

(v) The limited restriction on the entry of women during the notified age-

group does not fall within the purview of Article 17 of the

Constitution.

74

(vi) Rule 3(b) of the 1965 Rules is not ultra vires Section 3 of the 1965

Act, since the proviso carves out an exception in the case of public

worship in a temple for the benefit of any religious denomination or

sect thereof, to manage their affairs in matters of religion.

17. In light of the aforesaid discussion and analysis, the Writ Petition cannot

be entertained on the grounds enumerated hereinabove.

It is ordered accordingly.

…..……….………..J.

(INDU MALHOTRA)
New Delhi;

September 28, 2018

75

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