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In September 1957, federal troops were sent to Little Rock, Arkansas, to protect nine African-American teenagers who had been admitted to an all-white government high school after a US Supreme Court order.
Until then, education across southern US states was racially segregated. But in a 1954 judgment, the court ruled the racial segregation of schools was unconstitutional and had to stop. It took troops to protect the first black students from mobs of furious white supremacists.
I was reminded recently of this troubling chapter of my own country’s history as I watched news reports in India of a 40-year-old woman and her terrified young daughter trying to brave angry mobs to make the pilgrimage to Kerala’s Sabarimala temple.
Women of child-bearing age — held to be from 10 to 50 — have long been prohibited from entering the temple, ostensibly to prevent the reigning deity Lord Ayyappa, who is depicted as a celibate child, from being distracted from his meditations. But the ban is also a version of the widespread Hindu custom of discouraging menstruating women from visiting temples, or participating in religious ceremonies, due to the deep-rooted belief that they are impure and ritually unclean.
Such menstrual taboos run deep: in some rural Indian communities, women are banned from cooking food, denied social contact and sometimes even forced to sleep in barns or sheds, outside their main homes, during their periods.
India’s Supreme Court recently ruled that the Sabarimala temple’s ban on women of child-bearing age violates their constitutional right to equality, including their right to worship freely. The court said banning women was a form of the now illegal practice of “untouchability”, rooted in the belief that some people — typically lower castes — are “ritually polluted”, leading to their stigmatisation and marginalisation.
The court’s verdict demanding an end to a longstanding social custom has provoked outrage among traditionalists — both men and women. Mobs have gathered to prevent the women’s entry which, they say, will desecrate the temple. Kerala’s communist government has tried to protect women devotees seeking to visit the mountaintop shrine but the mobs have gained the upper hand: no woman has managed to get in.
National political parties have fanned the flames. Amit Shah, president of prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party, has vowed to “stand like a rock” with those resisting the women’s entry and has publicly lambasted the Supreme Court for passing orders that he said “cannot be implemented”.
The Congress party, led by Rahul Gandhi, has wavered. Mr Gandhi says he believes women should be allowed to go anywhere but will defer to the party’s Kerala workers, who oppose women’s entry to Sabarimala and are organising their own protests.
The active efforts of India’s ruling party to stir violent resistance to the Supreme Court order has alarmed many political analysts, who say this dangerous precedent threatens to corrode India’s weak rule of law and undermine its liberal constitutional values.
The political mobilisation against the Sabarimala verdict, writes Pratap Bhanu Mehta, vice-chancellor of New Delhi’s Ashoka University, is, “a full-throated mobilisation against the authority of the court itself. It is an attempt to legitimise the idea that it is perfectly fine to resist any Supreme Court judgment if one can make that resistance wear the garb of faith.”
If the protesters succeed in thwarting the verdict and keeping women out of Sabarimala, he added, “it will lend credence to the proposition that any grammar of anarchy is legitimate when it comes to matters of religion . . .[and] prepare the ground for the idea that religion-based political mobilisation has a final veto over any other constitutional principle”.
As a diverse nation of people with deeply conflicting views, India has benefited from its tradition of looking to its Supreme Court to arbitrate disputes, guided by its progressive constitution. But today, the rule of law faces a mounting challenge from the passions of faith.
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