The Battle for Sabarimala
15 January 2021 – 14 June 2021
As Indian civil society struggles with the rise of Hindu nationalism, women’s access to Hindu sacred spaces has emerged as a particularly high-profile point of contention. No religious institution has drawn more attention in this regard than the temple at Sabarimala, Kerala, which has long excluded women aged 10–50 from its premises on religious grounds. Indeed, Sabarimala turned into a key campaign issue during India’s 2019 national elections as the Bharatiya Janata Party successfully used legal challenges to the temple’s traditions as a rallying point for its electoral base across the country. What’s more, at the end of 2019, Sabarimala played a significant role in determining the legacy of one of India’s most controversial Chief Justices—Ranjan Gogoi—when he recommended that the Sabarimala litigation be used as the grounds for a significant reconsideration of Indian religious freedom jurisprudence.
This book project draws on extensive ethnographic, legal, and historical research to argue that the Sabarimala dispute demonstrates both the promise and the perils of India’s flexible approach to religion-state relations. The book makes several broad arguments. First, rather than either separating or integrating religion and public life, India has chosen to do both and to maintain a kind of ‘dynamic equilibrium’ between the two approaches; the various stages of the Sabarimala dispute illustrate the ways in which this strategy has and has not been successful. Second, and notwithstanding recent legal scholarship that is critical of ‘juristocracy’, judicially led religious reforms like those that have shaped the Sabarimala dispute can have immense positive potential. At the same time, court-led reform places a heavy responsibility on the judiciary to engage thoroughly and thoughtfully with multiple parties — and as the battle for Sabarimala also makes clear, the courts do not always fulfill this obligation. Finally, the project further develops our understanding of women’s roles in intracommunal conflict over religious spaces by exploring how Hindu women campaigned both for and against Sabarimala’s exclusionary practices.
Deepa Das Acevedo is a legal anthropologist and law professor at the University of Alabama; she received her JD and PhD from The University of Chicago. Her monograph, The Battle for Sabarimala, is forthcoming with Oxford, and her scholarship has appeared in, among others, Law & Social Inquiry, the American Journal of Comparative Law, and the Asian Journal of Law & Society.