Only 2 judges back Sabarimala verdict, other 3 ask larger bench to review
The seven-judge bench will re-examine the Sabarimala issue as well as that related to the entry of women in mosques, the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) among Dawoodi Bohras and the denial of access to fire temples for Parsi women, who marry outside the community.Updated: Nov 14, 2019 19:55 IST
The Supreme Court (SC) on Thursday referred pleas seeking a review of its September 2018 order allowing the entry of women of all ages into Sabarimala Temple to a larger seven-judge without staying it, saying gender-based restrictions were not limited to the Kerala shrine but were also prevalent in places of worship of other religions.
The seven-judge bench will re-examine the Sabarimala issue as well as that related to the entry of women in mosques, the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) among Dawoodi Bohras and the denial of access to fire temples for Parsi women, who marry outside the community.
The Supreme Court had in April issued notices to the Centre and the All India Muslim Personal Law Board on a Muslim couple’s petition seeking the right for women to pray in mosques. In July 2018, the top court questioned the FGM practice within the Dawoodi Bohra community while hearing a plea seeking a ban on the FGM.
On Thursday, a five-judge bench of Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and justices A M Khanwilkar, Indu Malhotra, R F Nariman, and D Y Chandrachud unanimously agreed to refer the religious issues to a larger bench. Gogoi, Khanwilkar, and Malhotra gave a majority verdict keeping pending the pleas seeking a review of the September 2018 verdict. Nariman and Chandrachud gave a dissenting view.
“There is yet another seminal issue as to the power of the court to determine if the constitutional court can interfere in such integral parts of the religion,” the bench ruled in a majority 3:2 verdict.
The top court ended the ban on entry for women and girls of menstruating age, between 10 and 50 years, into the temple in September 2018. It upheld the right to equality of worship by a majority verdict of 4:1 then, saying that the ban could not be considered essential religious practice and should be lifted. As many as 65 petitions were filed against the verdict.
The ruling on Thursday came two days before the temple is due to open for an annual three-month pilgrimage. Kerala was put on high alert ahead of the court verdict as police stepped up vigil in Pathanamthitta district, where the temple is situated. They have planned elaborate security arrangements and will deploy 10,200 during the three-month season.
The September 2018 verdict triggered protracted protests in Kerala. Devotees have blocked attempts of younger women to visit the temple. Many of them were threatened and pelted with stones during protests against the ruling. Only two women have succeeded in praying inside the temple’s inner sanctum under police protection since the court’s order last September even as about a dozen attempted to do so.
Traditionalists maintain that women of childbearing age should not be allowed inside the temple because the presiding deity, Lord Ayyappan, is celibate.
Both the Congress as well as its arch-rival, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have backed the protests by traditionalists, citing the sentiments of the devotees.
BJP leader B L Santhosh welcomed the SC’s decision to refer the case to a larger bench. “…Welcome decision of SC in the direction of protecting rights of devotees and upholding faith. It was never a matter of fundamental rights. It was a matter of age-old tradition accepted by society,” he tweeted.
Another BJP leader Kummanam Rajasekharan said that the referral of the matter to a seven-judge bench points to some apparent error in the earlier verdict. “The government must show restraint and wait for the larger bench’s verdict. In case women pilgrims in the banned age group try to offer worship, the government must prevent them from doing so.”
Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala warned the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPIM (M)-led state government against “creating issues” by providing security to facilitate entry of younger women into the temple. “Just because there is no stay on the September 28  verdict, the LDF [Left Democratic Front] government must try not to create issues by providing security and allowing women to enter Sabarimala. The state government must not implement its earlier agenda of taking women in the banned age group to the hill shrine.”
Congress leader and former chief minister Oommen Chandy said that the SC’s Thursday ruling will help in protecting the faith of devotees and hoped that the pilgrimage season will be peaceful.
Sasikumar Varma, who is among those who filed the review pleas, said that the SC understood the feelings of the devotees and transferred the petitions to a larger bench. “This means there was some error in the earlier judgment. We feel relieved and happy that the SC has decided to review its earlier verdict. This is Lord Ayyappa’s blessing.”
Sabarimala temple’s head priest, Kandararu Rajeevaru, said that the SC’s ruling gives them hope and will strengthen the beliefs of devotees.
Rahul Easwar, a grandson of a former Sabarimala chief priest, called the SC’s ruling “pro-faith judgment”. “Nobody should interfere in matters of faith,” added Easwar, who was arrested twice last year during the protests against the earlier ruling.
At least 50,000 protesters were booked at the height of agitation against the September 2018 ruling. The protests led to a decline in the number of pilgrims, who visited the temple during the three-month pilgrimage season from November to February.