Exclusive: Sabarimala Petitioners Bhakti Sethi, Prerna Kumari on events that triggered the PIL

Exclusive: Sabarimala Petitioners Bhakti Sethi, Prerna Kumari on events that triggered the PIL

Murali Krishnan

The Sabarimala verdict by the Supreme Court of India has prompted discourse among Indians, on more than one aspect. There has been a lot written and said about who the petitioners in the Sabarimala case were.

The lead petitioner in the case, Indian Young Lawyers Association, has a Muslim person as its President. This resulted in political colour being given to the case, particularly in the State of Kerala.

There were allegations that the petition was motivated and was filed by members of the Muslim community with a view to deriding Hindu customs.

Bar & Bench decided to probe the issue further. Who filed this petition? What prompted them to file it? What is their take on the judgment?

Besides Indian Young Lawyers Association, there were other individual petitioners in the matter. As per the Supreme Court website, Bhakti Pasrija Sethi (pictured left), who is General Secretary of the Indian Young Lawyers Association, as well as Laxmi Shastri, Prerna Kumari (pictured right), Alka Sharma, and Sudha Pal, are listed as the petitioners.

A few phone calls later, I was able to arrange a meeting with Prerna Kumari. As luck would have it, Bhakti Pasrija Sethi was also present with Prerna Kumari and I got an opportunity to have a chat with both of them.

How did this petition come about?

In 2006, Sethi and Kumari came to know through some media reports – particularly an article by Barkha Dutt – that a purification ceremony was conducted in Sabarimala. The reason? Jayamala, an actress, had entered the temple.

“The priests at the temple conducted a purification of the temple since women in menstruating age are not allowed inside the temple. Bhakti Sethi, who was the General Secretary of Indian Young Lawyers Association and certain other individual petitioners including me then discussed this and decided to file this petition”, says  Kumari.

Sethi narrates the same in her own words.

“When I read about the news of purification ceremony, I felt that it was very derogatory. That is how it triggered me. I felt this needed reform. I discussed it with Ravi Prakash Gupta who went on to argue for Indian Young Lawyers Association in the matter. Subsequently, we discussed it with other petitioners and decided to file it. That is how this petition came to be filed.”

How many petitioners were there?

“Aside from Indian Young Lawyers Association, Bhakti Sethi and myself, the other petitioners were Lakshmi Shastri, Sudha Pal, and Alka Sharma. Bhakti Prasrija was the General Secretary of Indian Young Lawyers Association. The others were all individual petitioners”, Kumari recalls.

“We did not want to hurt any sentiments. It was not that we wanted to shake anybody’s belief or wanted to shake religious practices or hurt anybody’s sentiments. We felt what was happening in Sabarimala was wrong and wanted a debate and discussion on the issue.

That is eventually what happened. The Supreme Court heard all the parties, gave the opportunity to everyone who wanted to say something in the matter, analysed the subject threadbare, and gave the verdict, Sethi says.

However, after the petition came to be filed, Prerna Kumari had a change of mind. She says,

“When I filed petition in this matter, I was not fully aware of the facts of this case. Further, I am not from Kerala. Justice Indu Malhotra has also said that no petitioner is from Kerala and hence petitioners cannot give a real picture of the case.

I think she is right because after I filed the case I received a letter from a woman devotee. The devotee told me that there are many Lord Ayyappa temples in Kerala where women are allowed to enter and can worship.

Further, there are woman priests also in Kerala. Importantly, she told that women in Kerala are themselves not interested in entering the temple so why was I taking the initiative for them?

I then did some study and felt that I might have unintentionally hurt the sentiments of the devotees there. I realised that I was wrong. I came to know about many facts at a later stage.”

So what did Kumari do?

“I tried to withdraw my petition but the Supreme Court had already been seized of the case.”

Then Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra even remarked in open court that the Court will hear the case even if the petitioners withdraw their petitions since it was a public interest litigation.

The disagreement between friends

However, Sethi stood by her petition. She says the issue was not about faith alone but involved a larger issue of dignity of woman.

“I found that it hit the dignity of woman. How can a temple become impure if a woman enters a temple so much so that purification has to be done?

Prerna is taking into account facts like what women in Kerala are thinking etc but I prefer to go by the larger picture. I feel women there [in Kerala] would also respect this judgment. Obviously, because it is not merely about religious faith, it about something more, it is about dignity.

When a social reform is required, it needs to happen. There have been instances earlier also, like Sati, Devdasi etc. which required to go. Women are many times forced into believing things – ‘this is wrong that is wrong’. Women are conditioned to think in a particular way. Now things have been deliberated at least with respect to this case.”

Sethi, therefore, is welcoming of the judgment and says she is happy.

“I welcome this judgment and I still stand by my stance that I had taken when I filed this petition – that the practice was against the dignity of women. I am happy [that this judgment has come].”

Kumari, however, is clear that she agrees with the dissenting opinion of Justice Indu Malhotra.

“I bow down to the judgment of this honourable court. It is a historical judgment and various aspects of the majority opinion will have an impact on various issues concerning woman’s rights. However, in this case, the issue was about faith. When I filed the petition in this matter, I was not fully aware of the facts of this case.

However, later I have come to realise that it was a custom which is central to this particular temple. As Justice Indu Malhotra said, in matters of faith, people have a right to practice it irrespective of whether it is rational or not.

When it comes to life issues, say genital mutilation etc, it is a different matter altogether and the court has to interfere. But in this case, it was about a particular belief which was harmless.”

At this point, Sethi interrupts.

“If some religious belief hits core values/dignity, it has to go. The Devdasi system was also there in the name of religious practice. What was going on in the name of that? In Sabarimala, we challenged discrimination, not religious practice.”

It is evident that there is a lot of disagreement between the two friends on the issue.

I decide to bring up the stance of the State of Kerala and the politics involved at this juncture.

Politics and faith

Sethi initially says she would not want to comment on it.

“It is upto them, I would not like to comment on that.”

But Kumari is more than willing to talk about it.

“I would like to comment on that. I was wondering why they did that. One person from Kerala asked me, ‘There are other lord Ayyappa temples where ladies visit, why is this temple being targeted?’

I don’t know why. The State changed its stance three or four times. So it was clear that the issue was more than just religion, it was a politically coloured matter. And I feel I might have been wrong in filing the case.”

This gets Sethi to open up on the issue.

“I don’t think it was a politically coloured matter. It is good that the Kerala government has taken a stand to allow women. If somebody is trying to empower the ladies, let us not give political colour to it. It is very good if the Kerala government or anybody supports women on such issues, I am grateful to them.”

The all-important clarification 

I decide to wind up, but not before an all-important clarification is made. A Muslim person is heading Indian Young Lawyers Association and allegations have been doing rounds that the petition was filed by minority community with vested interests.

Since Sethi is an office bearer of Indian Young Lawyers Association, I seek clarity from her.

This time, however, both Sethi and Kumari are categorical in dismissing these claims.

“The petition had nothing to do with Naushad. He had nothing to do personally with this case. I was the Secretary General of the organization. It (the petition) came from me and from Ravi Prakash Gupta ji. We just informed Naushad that we are filing this petition. Except that he had nothing to do with this matter.

It is very wrong that people are projecting it in other ways. It was our petition and that person (Naushad) had nothing to do with it. I don’t know from where people presume such things. It is very unfortunate”, says Sethi.

And Kumari agrees.

“She is very right. She was the person who initiated the case. He (Naushad) had nothing to do with the case.”

Murali Krishnan is Associate Editor at Bar & Bench. He tweets @legaljournalist.

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