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Sabarimala verdict brings a new dawn

Last updated on: September 28, 2018 14:15 IST

'What the Sabarimala majority verdict has done is to elevate the principle of equality over all others, including the right to worship, and declared that this will be the litmus test of all practices, and re-emphasise that practices that are ultra vires will be junked,' says Saisuresh Sivaswamy.

'When a man can enter, a woman can also go. What applies to a man, applies to a woman also,' the Supreme Court said in July. Photograph: E V Deepak/Reuters

IMAGE: 'When a man can enter, a woman can also go. What applies to a man, applies to a woman also,' the Supreme Court said in July 2018. Photograph: E V Deepak/Reuters

The Sabarimala verdict brings a new dawn

As a child growing up in a conservative society in Chennai, there were many practices, most of them orthodox, even unconstitutional by today's liberal standards, that intrigued me.

But nothing stood out more than the practice that drove my father into the kitchen three days every month.

Appa was an awful cook, as much as my Amma was a terrific one, so the sudden crash in culinary standards was unbearable.

Tadka that was burnt, sambar that ran like rasam, overcooked rice... The deprivation of tasty food was the initial reason the question popped up in my young mind:

'But why can't Amma cook?'

'Because she can't enter the kitchen for three days a month.'

'But why can't she enter the kitchen?'

'Because of theettu.'

 

Is there such a word in any other language that is so damning, so denigrating and which has been used for generations to perpetuate horrendous practices -- from keeping women out of the kitchen and shrine, to keeping the Harijan out of our homes and lives -- all the while pretending that it was upholding a higher, sacred, god-given principle?

Simply put, theettu means defiled, impure.

Theettu is why a menstruating woman cannot approach god.

Theettu is why the workers at home cannot touch you, eat/drink from the same vessel.

Theettu is what keeps the upper castes cocooned in an imaginary world of racial superiority.

But to a young mind it was incomprehensible that this wonderful woman who was the bedrock of the family, who waged a war to bring up five children out of poverty and destitution, could simply be described as theettu and kept outside the kitchen.

So more than the loss of tasty food, it was the sight of my mother sitting on a stool just outside the kitchen door and instructing my father on how to cut the vegetables, how much water to put in the separator, and of my poor father meekly complying with the instructions, that shocked me and brought tears to my eyes.

So why are we doing this?

Shhh, this is religious practice, cannot be questioned.

But no amount of shushing could silence the questions in my mind.

Did Parvati, Lakshmi and Saraswati also not enter the kitchen three days a month, were they also theettu then?

If theettu women cannot go to a temple for three days a month, did it mean that the goddesses also left the temples on those days they were theettu?

What about angry Kaali, did she also temper her rage and meekly yield to her husband for three days a month?

Were theettu women part of this great notion of Vasudeva Kutumbakam, or will they have to sit outside on a stool for three days a month?

The trouble was, there was no one around who could answer my questions. All everyone did was to shut me up from asking, as religious practices cannot be questioned.

The moment of epiphany came in higher school, when I read about the abolition of Sati. Here was a cruel practice that had the sanction of religion that was successfully outlawed.

Sir, but can religious practice be changed, I asked my history teacher.

Of course yes, social reform is always brought in by law, only after that will society change, he replied.

So sir, what about theettu, can it also be changed by law?

I didn't get a reply then, but what he said remained with me all these years.

And found an echo in today's Supreme Court verdict allowing women of reproductive age entry into Sabarimala.

In its last few judgments -- from decriminalising homosexuality and adultery to outlawing instant talaq to today's order -- the Supreme Court has underscored that gender equality is a cornerstone of the Constitution of India and hence an underlying principle of the Republic of India.

No practice in the garb of religion, tradition and culture can pass muster if they fail the litmus test of equality.

To paraphrase my school teacher, the courts have to be the harbingers of social reform and social justice.

This task is too important to be left to the legislature to act on, or to leave it to society to transform itself.

Naturally there will be voices of protest, even condemnation. It is illuminating that today's court ruling saw four male judges rule in favour of women's entry into Sabarimala; the lone dissenting judge was female.

To quote judge Indu Malhotra, 'Equality doctrine cannot override fundamental right to worship under Article 25; notions of rationality cannot be brought into matters of religion; issues which have deep religious connotation should not be tinkered with to maintain secular atmosphere in the country.'

If you read the words long and hard, you will see that these very words can also be used to justify so many social ills masquerading as religious practice.

For now let me pick out Hindu practices to highlight the fallibility of the judge’s words, though they apply to all religions and their obnoxious customs.

Sati, certainly, could never have been outlawed if you go by the honourable judge's words, we will still be burning our widows.

Untouchability? Oh, it is so enshrined in Hindu faith, how can you even *think* of banning it -- if we were to accept Justice Malhotra's carefully thought out argument?

Widow remarriage? Instead of toilets, the government will have to build housing complexes to accommodate the widows of India, if notions of rationality were not applied to the issue.

Inheritance in favour of the son depriving the daughters? Bingo!

And the right to cremate will only vest with the son, with parents of girl children confined to eternal damnation.

What the Sabarimala majority verdict has done is to elevate the principle of equality over all others, including the right to worship, and declared that this will be the litmus test of all practices, and re-emphasise that practices that are ultra vires will be junked.

It is a new dawn that the judges have ushered in.

There are two options before us. We can either wake up, make a nice, warm cup of coffee and enjoy the view.

Or pull the blanket over us, shut our eyes tightly, and remain in darkness.

Saisuresh Sivaswamy / Rediff.com