Author: Vaishali Jain
III Year | Government Law College, Mumbai
Devadasis comes from a Sanskrit word that means ‘female slaves of God.’ Devadasi system is an ancient religious practice in which parents offer their young girls before they hit puberty to a temple to appease God. The irony is that these girls are called “servant of God but the wife of the whole town.” This is because in reality, the Devadasi system is a morally despicable social practice in which young girls are drawn into a life of sexual slavery and prostitution.
This article discusses the laws and judicial decisions that prohibit and abolish this practice. It also highlights how, despite the existence of such laws, we have not been able to erode the devadasi system in Indian society.
History of Devadasis:
Historically, people revered devadasis. In addition to their commitment to a life without marriage, their main duties were to take care of the temple, to perform rituals and to learn Indian classical dance. The esteemed status of Devadasi started to fade during Islamic and British rule. During this era, the rulers destroyed Hindu temples. Consequently, devadasis were left to fend for themselves without any patronage and status in society. Understandably, this lead to the beginning of the exploitation of the devadasi group.
Devadasis in Modern India:
Now, mostly poor people dedicate their daughters to the devadasi system in name of pleasing gods. Not surprisingly, the practice has turned into open prostitution.  Many devadasis are thus dying of poverty and sexually transmitted diseases. They are suffering due to the exploitation at the hands of influential men and feudal lords.
It is appalling to see that the devadasi system is still prevalent in India; majorly in southern parts of the country. The last survey by the Karnataka state government was in 2008, according to which there are 40,600 devadasis. However, NGOs working with the community, and a study by the Karnataka State Women’s University in 2018, show more than 80,000 Devadasi women in all. .
Laws prohibiting Devadasi System:
Specific State Law:
There is state legislation that outrightly makes it illegal to dedicate girls and women to God such as –
The Andhra Pradesh Devadasis (Prohibition of dedicated) Act, 1988, Goa Children’s Act of 2003 [contains a chapter on Devadasis], The Karnataka Devadasis (Prohibition of Dedication) Act, 1982 and the Amendment Act, 2010, Madras Devadasi (Prevention of Dedication) Act, 1947 and Maharashtra [Maharashtra Devadasi (Abolition of Dedication) Act, 2006.
However, these legislations have failed to curb the evil practice of the Devadasi system due to the simple reason of lack of awareness. The Devadasis themselves are not aware of the laws. Further, the percolation of these legislations down the social and governmental hierarchy is minimal.
The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 comes into the picture when a Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe woman is dedicated to a deity or an idol.
Further, when a child is sexually abused after being dedicated, the offense is registered under The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 for sexual assault, sexual harassment, and abetment of an offense.
Additionally, where the girl or the woman after being dedicated is commercially sexually exploited, the offense is to be registered under the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act, 1956 for inducing a person in prostitution, living on the earnings of prostitution.
Section 370 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) also deals with the Trafficking of Persons but fails to include Dedication as a form of exploitation.
Unfortunately, the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 does not explicitly recognize dedicated children as children in need of care and protection despite the involvement of family and relatives in sexual exploitation.
Judiciary’s Take on Devadasis:
In ‘Vishal Jeet V. Union of India &Ors.’, the Petitioner challenged the inefficiency of police officials under whose jurisdiction Devadasi traditions are flourishing and sought appropriate directions for the stringent implementation of Devadasi legislations. The Supreme Court passed the following directions:-
- State Governments and Union Territories direct Police officials to take speedy action under appropriate law to eradicate the malady of child prostitution.
- All-State Governments and Union Territories to set up Advisory Committee and implement social welfare programs to rehabilitate young girls and protect them from the vice of prostitution.
Most recently, in a PIL filed by the S.L. Foundation seeking guidelines to get the country rid of the menace, the Supreme Court on February 13, 2014, directed the Karnataka Chief Secretary to take all the steps to prevent women from being forced to become ‘Devadasis’.
The act of dedication of young girls into being Devadasis is an act of national shame. We need to stop this in all parts of the country. Although, it is difficult to combat the practice as it emerges from the crossroads of poverty, religion, and societal norms. Despite Central and State laws in existence, Devadasi practice continues to prevail in India. Accordingly, there is a need to enact Central legislation to deal with the Devadasi system. The law also needs some amendments.
The punishment should be deterrent. Further, the State Governments should take requisite steps to rehabilitate the women rescued from Dedication under the “Devadasi Rehabilitation Programme” by providing counselling. Lastly, parents, pimps, priests who act as the torch-bearers of this system and propagate this practice should be strictly punished for abetment and penalized for their continuation and promotion of this practice.
 Ankur Shinghal, THE DEVADASI SYSTEM: Temple Prostitution in India, scholarship (2015), available at https://escholarship.org/uc/item/37z853br
 Mission India, The Plight of Women, Mission India (March 27, 2014), available at https://missionindia.org/what-is-a-devadasi/
 Ankur Shinghal, supra at 1
 See Ankur Shinghal, supra at 1
 Ankur Shinghal, supra at 1
 Dr. V. Bharathi Harishankar And Dr. M. Priyamvadha, Exploitation of Women as Devadasis and its Associated Evils, National Commission for Women New Delhi, available at http://ncwapps.nic.in/pdfReports/Exploitation_of_Women_as_Devadasis_and_its_Associated_Evils_Report.pdf
 Dr. V. Bharathi Harishankar And Dr. M. Priyamvadha, http://ncwapps.nic.in/pdfReports/Exploitation_of_Women_as_Devadasis_and_its_Associated_Evils_Report_VolII.pdf
 Atrocities Act 1989, Sec 3(1)
 POCSO Act 2012, Sec 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 17
 ITPA Act 1956, Sec 3, ,4 , 5, 6
 JJ Act 2015, Sec 2(14)
 1990 AIR 1412
 See supra at 6
 Supreme Court asks Karnataka Chief Secretary to take steps to stop Devadasi system, The Economic Times [February 13, 2014; 1:29 PM] available at https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/supreme-court-asks-karnataka-chief-secretary-to-take-steps-to-stop-devadasi-system/articleshow/30333843.cms
 Ankur Shinghal, supra at 1
 supra at 8
 Id at 17
 See id at 18
Editor: Yashi Tripathi