The Bombay High Court's landmark judgment on Friday, allowing women to enter the sanctum sanctorum of the Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai, has ruffled proponents of keeping women away from Kerala's Sabarimala Ayyappa temple. But putting up a brave face, the Ayyappa Dharma Sena and other "pro-tradition" groups in Kerala are hoping to get the support of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa to back their case in the Supreme Court.

Located in the Pathanamthitta district of Kerala, the Sabarimala Ayyapa temple, which attracts lakhs of devotees from Kerala and neighbouring Tamil Nadu every year, bars entry of women of menstrual age. The supporters of this custom argue that it was put in place by Lord Ayyapan, the presiding deity, himself to safeguard his vow of celibacy.

In January, the Indian Young Lawyers Association challenged the archaic tradition and contended that it was inherently discriminatory and violated women's constitutional right of religion and worship. The case has now been referred to a five-member bench, which will begin proceedings in November.

There has been no dearth of politics around the temple. The previous Congress-led government in Kerala backed the pro-tradition lobby in the Supreme Court. When the Left Democratic Front took over in June, it first went with the previous regime's view. However, following widespread outrage from women groups, including its All India Democratic Women's Association, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) shifted its stand and the party's Kerala secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan slammed the tradition as remnant of feudal times.

Challenges ahead

The Kerala government is expected to withdraw its standing affidavit in the Supreme Court and file a fresh one backing women's entry into the temple.

Rahul Easwar, the media face of the pro-Sabarimala campaign, said the Haji Ali judgment was a "significant setback" to those striving to assert the right to worship as guaranteed in the Constitution. "We feel so many aspects were not presented properly before the Bombay High Court," he said. The Sena is now hoping to help the Haji Ali Dargah Trust challenge the High Court order in the Supreme Court.

Further, the group is all set to coordinate with Ayyappa devotees in Tamil Nadu to seek the help of the State in the Supreme Court. "We will try to meet Chief Minister Jayalalithaa in the first week of September," he said. The rationale behind the move is that more than half the devotees who visit the Sabarimala shrine are from Tamil Nadu and could function as an effective pressure group. Easwar also said Jayalalithaa was known to be an ardent believer with faith in tradition.

The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party officials were not amused by Easwar's statements. A senior parliamentarian, on condition of anonymity, said the AIADMK leader was a strong supporter of women rights. No appointment has yet been given to the groups, the leader added.

In its own territory, the Tamil Nadu government is facing a dilemma in implementing the December 2015 verdict of the Supreme Court in the Archakas case. While upholding "tradition and usage" in appointment of priests to temples protected by the Agamas (set of rules governing temple worship), the court added that such appointments should be done without compromising constitutional rights. The Dravidar Kazhagam, the parent organisation of the Dravidian movement, has interpreted the verdict as a green signal to place non-Brahmin priests in Agama temples. The government though is yet to make the appointments.

On Friday, the Bombay High Court held that preventing women from entering the Haji Ali dargah went against the Constitution. However, the court has stayed its own judgment for six weeks to facilitate an appeal in the Supreme Court.