Theological Thicket: A Policy Analysis of the Sabarimala Decision

Saira Banu, University of Edinburgh

Policies are inherently and unequivocally considered to be anthropological phenomena. They codify social norms and values and articulate fundamental organizing principles of society (Shore, 1997). This essay will examine the decision of the Indian Supreme Court to reverse a century old prohibition on women entering one of the major temples in the southern state of Kerala. It will appose the theories of Discursive Institutionalism (DI) and Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF) and explain how the two theoretical institutions provide a clear understanding of this decision that has been debated for more than three decades. The essay will first provide a detailed background on the case study at hand, including not only the history behind the ban on entry of women but also on India’s approach to secularism. It will then go on to analyse ACF (in terms of decisions and non-decisions), and DI and examine in-depth the ways in which they determined this verdict. Finally, it will argue that the two theories are complementary in nature in this particular case.

Controversy around the ban on women entering the temple of Sabarimala in the southern state of Kerala in India first rose in 1991, when a PIL was issued against a woman entering the temple and performing certain rites in the temple premises (S. Mahajan v Secretary of State of Kerala, 1991). Women between the ages of 10-50 were traditionally banned as the primary deity in the temple, Ayyapan, was famed for his celibacy. Also, menstruating women were not allowed in as they traditionally were considered to defile these spaces (Osella, 2003). The High court of Kerala upholds the ban. More than 15 years later in 2008, the LDF (Left Democratic Front, the opposition party in Kerala) files an affidavit supporting a PIL filed by women lawyers that questioned the ban on entry of women. It is prudent to note that this case was first heard during the LDF rule in 1991. In 2015, the main representative of the temple called for machines that would screen out menstruating women, before the entry of all women into the temple would be permitted (The Times of India, 2015). Following these comments, Nikita Azad, a 20 year old student created the campaign #HappyToBleed to combat what she called ‘Retrogressive, barbaric and misogynistic customs’ (The Guardian, 2015). This, in 2016 led the Indian Young Lawyers Association (ILYA) to file a PIL with the Supreme Court contending that the prohibition violates constitutional guarantees of equality, non-discrimination and religious freedom (Outlook India, 2018). In November 2016, the LDF party, which at this point rules Kerala filed an affidavit that favours the entry of all women to Sabarimala. In September 2018, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India, Dipak Misra, permits the entry of women of all ages into the Ayyapan temple at Sabarimala on the grounds of banning entry of women to a shrine being gender discrimination (British Broadcasting Corporation, 2018). This case that spans almost three decades is a testimony to India’s take on secularism and the bureaucracy that governs the temple, and how these two elements factor into the policy making process. The traditional notions of secularism proposed by Donald Smith, is a strict separation between the Church and the state (Smith, 1963). The Indian state however, sees it as a derivative discourse that merges the western notions of secularism with the communal complexities of the Indian society. India often juxtaposes formal secular governance and an extensive governmental apparatus that regulates religious life (Majeed, 2010). Indian states’ secularism plays a key role in shaping religion through legislation and if we look at this through a policy perspective, we could use Historical Institutionalism to explain the Indian incentive to follow a different approach after colonial rule ended, independence being the critical juncture that led to this.

Coming back to the case at hand, there are two aspects to be considered. First, the stagnation of this case for almost three decades, and second, the rapid progression made in the last three years. Both these phenomenon can be attributed to the Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF) theory, whose key feature is coalitions that seek to manipulate government and other institutions to alter behaviour in order to realize the coalition’s belief system. The extended period between the case first being heard in 1991, and coming back into legislation in 2008 was not because of ignorance or lack of interest in this controversial ban by the public, but because of an inactive policy ‘Non-Decisions’ (Bachrach, 1963). Three overlapping state actors are in charge of the Sabarimala temple (Acevedo, 2016). First, as a public Hindu temple, it comes under the Government of Kerala. Second, the Travancore Devassom Board (TDB), the representative of which made the controversial remarks that led to the #HappyToBleed campaign (Ibid). The influence of the Kerala government pales in comparison to the TDB as they oversee thousands of temples, including the wealthiest religious institution in India. The only entity that can counteract the TDB’s authority is a third state actor, the Kerala High Court (Das Acevedo, 2018). The ACF especially identifies beliefs as the causal driver for political behaviour, and the religious beliefs of the TDB that are predominantly normative ‘deep core beliefs’, also shared in part by governments is the main reason for limiting the scope of actual policy decision making to soft issues by manipulating the dominant community values, myths and political units (Jenkins-Smith and Sabatier, 1994).  Further analysis can help us conclude that the issue of Sabarimala was only ever addressed during the rule of the LDF party in Kerala (Ibid), and hence the selective ignorance of this issue by other Congress led governments can be attributed to the ‘deep core beliefs’ factor. The Sabarimala case can be astutely explained using the ACF theory as it fits the rubric of ACF’s four basic premises. First, understanding the process of a policy change requires a time perspective of a decade which as illustrated, the Sabarimala case entails. The second way to look at policy change over time is to look at policy subsystems, which are actors from different institutions who seek to influence government decisions in a policy, and in this case it would be the trio of overlapping state actors and their coinciding interests. It is only when there was shift in state governments that the issue was brought up. Thirdly, the inclusion of an intergovernmental aspect was included by the subsystems when the case was taken up by the Supreme Court of India from the High court which had initial jurisprudence. And finally, public policies are conceptualized in the same manner as belief systems and their realizations, and the Non-decision to not act upon the Sabarimala case reinforced the belief of the coalition that menstruating women were impure and could not be in the same premises as the celibate deity (Jenkins- Smith and Sabatier, 1994). In this case, there is also another advocacy coalition we could consult. Nikita Azad, who started the #HappyToBleed campaign joined the India Younger Lawyers Association as an intervenor, while the LDF government of Kerala filed an affidavit to support the entry of women into Sabarimala. This coalition can be credited with providing momentum to the case and manipulating the central government to take it up and produce the verdict that aligned with the beliefs of this coalition.

While we can utilize ACF very effectively to explain why this case was ignored for so long, and the decision delayed despite the controversial nature of the ban and the effect that it had on women’s rights, Discursive Institutionalism (DI) helps us to endogenize change by using ideas and discourse to explain this decision (Schmidt, 2010). The events relating to the controversial comments made in regard to women entering Sabarimala, spurred a twitter campaign that was led by 20 year old Nikita Azad. The campaign was initially started to meet and counteract against statements ‘that legitimize gender discriminatory practices’, but soon evolved into a new ground campaign whose explicit goal was expanding women’s access into religious institutions (The Guardian, 2015). DI is concerned with the substantive content of ideas and the ways in which process of discourse takes place in institutions. Some recent innovations to explain change in DI are the following: Firstly, reframing of a narrative in a way to engage with the actors involved. In the Sabarimala case, once the narrative of avoiding taboos surrounding menstruation was adopted, it created a conversation among women who had their basic right to worship repealed because of their gender. Secondly, by recasting collective memories and narratives using the #HappyToBleed campaign many women shared experiences of stigmatization relating to menstruation and how they should not be made to feel ostracized at a place of worship due to a bodily function (BBC, 2015). Third, advocacy coalitions are used, and as previously discussed in this case it would be the #HappyToBleed campaign, the LDF government in Kerala and the IYLA. A deliberative democracy is also an important aspect of discursive institutionalism. India’s concept of secularism in which the constitution enables the state to regulate or restrict ‘ any economic, financial, political or other activity associated with religious practices in a committed effort to reshape key structures of social identity is an example of deliberative democracy (Sen, 2010). A key feature of discursive institutionalism is its ability to engage with the three other institutionalisms and use their findings to supplement its own argument. Historical institutionalism (HI) would look at the 2015 protest and campaigns against the remarks made by the temple chief as a ‘Critical Juncture’ that led to the ban being reversed. Sociological institutionalism (SI) would view the Indian Young Lawyers Association and the #HappyToBleed campaign as social agents who acted in accordance with the ‘Logic of Appropriateness’. Rational Choice Institutionalism (RI) would note that any significant progress in the Sabarimala case has always happened during the rule of the LDF government in Kerala and the non-decision taken by the Congress government was based on the logical calculation that they would offend the sensibilities of their conservative voting pool. DI helps to explain the actual preferences of strategies of actors in RI and HI as well as changes in normative orientations as per SI. Discursive institutionalism brings together all of these factors and overcomes constraints in each of them to create a combined result within this institutional context that has their ideas communicated via discourse (Schmidt, 2014).

When concluding this essay, it would also be prudent to examine a factor that could potentially have had a role in this particular decision. The Chief Justice of India (CJI) Dipak Misra who was heading the panel of judges that reversed the ban on the entry of women to the Sabarimala, had just twenty two days before given another landmark judgement where homosexuality was decriminalized in India (The Guardian, 2018). Four days after giving the verdict on the Sabarimala case, Dipak Misra retired as the CJI of India. Multiple landmark decisions close to retirement could be attributed to SI and relate it to the CJI acting out of a ‘logic of appropriateness’, or it could be the CJI acting according to a ‘Logic of calculation’ as per RI. While the ACF theory helps us thoroughly understand the nature of the verdict in the Sabarimala case and the different coalitions that aides the non-decision and the decision, it is DI that helps us understand the mobilization of the movement and how it accelerated into a verdict that upheld the rights of the women.


Saira Banu is an International Relations and International Law student at the University of Edinburgh. She can be reached here.


Photo Credits: PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP

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