CJI sets 10-day deadline to finish Sabarimala hearings
The Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde said on Tuesday that the nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court constituted to hear legal issues relating to entry of women into Sabarimala temple and similar practices in other religions will try and complete its hearing within 10 days.
Chief Justice Bobde had set up the nine-judge bench earlier this month to decide constitutional questions raised last year by a five-judge bench that had heard the review petitions against the 2018 Sabarimala verdict.
When the Centre’s second senior-most law officer, solicitor general Tushar Mehta mentioned the matter in court, the CJI made it clear that the parties will have to wrap up their arguments early next month.
The five-judge bench, in its November 2019 judgment, observed that the practices entailing restrictions on entry of women in places of worship was not limited to the Sabarimala case, but also arose in respect of three other cases pending before the Supreme Court. One was on entry of Muslim women in a durgah/mosque and another case was Parsi women married to non-Parsi men into the holy fire place of an Agyari. The third case, the court noted, was regarding the practice of female genital mutilation in the Dawoodi Bohra community.
Thus, the court said in its order, that the issues concerning women’s rights vis-à-vis religious practices require consideration by a larger bench of not less than seven judges so as to ensure that a judicial policy is evolved to do substantial and complete justice. The court also framed seven questions to be decided by the larger bench.
When the nine-judge bench assembled for hearing on January 13, CJI Bobde asked the parties to reframe the questions that the nine-judge Constitution bench should answer, just as they had done for the Ayodhya land title dispute.
A meeting was convened by the Registrar General of the top court on January 17 in this context.
However, Mehta on Tuesday told the court that the lawyers who attended this meeting could not arrive at a consensus on the issues and requested the court to frame and finalise the questions.
Mehta also handed over to the CJI a chart containing inputs of the lawyers on the issues to be considered.
CJI Bobde agreed to the request to finalise the issues while remarking that the case will not be heard for more than 10 days.
The 9-judge bench of the Supreme Court is expected to reconsider a 65-year-old judgment delivered by it - The Commissioner, Hindu Religious Endowments, Madras v. Shri Lakshmindar Thirtha Swamiyar of Shri Shirur Mutt. This judgment, rendered in 1954, laid down a test called essential religious practices test which has been the basis for courts pronouncing upon issues touching upon religion and religious practices.
As per this test, whether a practice is integral to a religion or not should be decided with reference to the doctrines of that religion. A religious denomination or organisation, the court held, enjoys complete autonomy in the matter of deciding as to what rites and ceremonies are essential according to the tenets of the religion and no outside authority has any jurisdiction to interfere with their decision in such matters.
However, in the subsequent years, the court in various matters sat in judgment over what would constitute an essential or integral practice of a religion thus assuming a theological mantle. Thus, the judgment led to a judge-centric approach when dealing with matters touching upon religion and religious practices.
The Sabarimala temple, which is the abode of Lord Ayyappa, the presiding deity is one of the busiest pilgrimage sites in South India. Ayyappa devotees believe that the deity has vowed celibacy, what they call “naishtika brahmacharya”, which is the basis for barring the entry of women between 10 to 50 years of age into the temple.
The top court in its 2018 judgment struck down Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965,which was the legal basis for the entry restrictions in Sabarimala.
Attempts by the ruling left front government in Kerala to implement the judgment by facilitating the entry of women into the temple led to widespread protests and violence across Kerala. Ayyappa devotees and the BJP and Congress parties had accused the state government of hurting religious sentiments of Hindus.
Subsequently, at least 60 review petitions were filed in Supreme Court challenging the September 2018 verdict which was heard by the five-judge bench in open court before it delivered its verdict on November 14 last year framing seven questions to be considered by a larger bench.
The review petitions will be decided after the nine-judge bench answers the legal questions referred to it.