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Above: Women protesting against the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Sabarimala Temple/Photo: UNI

A clutch of review petitions on the Sabarimala temple issue will be heard by the Supreme Court on November 13, affording temporary respite from the protests that engulfed Kerala

~By NV Ravindranathan Nair in Thiruvananthapuram

After much fire and fury, peace prevails in Sabarimala. A week after protests at the shrine, the Supreme Court posted the hearing of review petitions filed against its September 28 judgment allowing entry of women of all ages in the shrine to November 13. For now, the devotees of Lord Ayyappa and the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, which is adamant on implementing the Court order, are keeping their fingers crossed.

While as many as 19 review petitions were filed, the Supreme Court declined to stay its judgment and refused to hear them before it closed for the Dussehra holidays on October 12. On October 23, Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, referring to a petition by National Ayyappa Devotees Association (NADA), said it would be heard on November 13 ahead of the opening of the shrine for the two-month-long
Mandala-Makaravilakku season on November 17.

One of the petitioners, Shylaja Vijayan, president of NADA, argued that “reform” does not mean rendering a religious practice non-existent on the basis of a PIL filed by “third parties” who do not believe in the Sabarimala deity. The Nair Service Society (NSS), which was impleaded in the original petition, is of the view that the Court should take judicial notice that an “overwhelmingly large section of women worshippers are supporting the custom of prohibiting entry of females between the ages of 10 and 50 years to Sabarimala temple”. The lifting of the ban at the instance of third parties, in spite of opposition by a large section of women worshippers, is anomalous, the petition contended.

A petition by Chetana Conscience of Women, an NGO, argued that if a constitution court began entertaining petitions that purely pertain to faith, customs, practices and beliefs, it would unleash hell.

Rehana Fathima was among the women who tried to enter the Sabarimala temple/Photo: Kaviyoor Santhosh
Rehana Fathima was among the women who tried to enter the Sabarimala temple/Photo: Kaviyoor Santhosh

Yet another petition by the Akhila Bharatheeya Ayyappa Dharma Prachara Sabha asked the Court to direct the Kerala government and the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) to bar “non-Hindu” women from trekking up the hill to the temple. V Usha Nandini, counsel for the Sabha, said action should be taken against “erring officials” for using the State machinery to create communal disharmony by encouraging non-Hindu women to trek to the temple.

Ever since the apex court order upheld the 12-year-old plea filed by the Indian Young Lawyers Association challenging the restrictions imposed on women aged between 10 and 50 from entering the temple, the state has witnessed unprecedented unrest with over 1,500 policemen deployed at the shrine.

The TDB, which was dilly-dallying over filing a review petition, had half-heartedly stated that it would file a report on the current situation prevailing at Sabarimala and the practical difficulties in implementing the Court order. Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran also said that the TDB would seek legal opinion and engage Abhishek Manu Singhvi, who had represented it in the apex court earlier, to appear.

But on October 23, it got the legal opinion that filing a report on the prevailing situation would not help and it would be better to file a review petition. The TDB had given sufficient hints that it would discuss the issue on October 23. However, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan was adamant on implementing the Court order and made it clear that there would not be any climbdown.

On his strict instructions, the TDB again retracted from its earlier position of filing a review petition and said it did not discuss the Sabarimala issue in that meeting. “We did not discuss the scope of filing of any review petition or report in the meeting. We considered only the tender formalities meant for the Mandala-Makaravilakku season at Sabarimala,” A Padmakumar, TDB president, told India Legal.

A day after the Sabarimala temple was closed, Vijayan hit out at the Sangh Parivar for “hatching a conspiracy to turn the hill shrine into a conflict zone”. Reiterating his stand clearly on the Supreme Court verdict, he accused Sangh Parivar outfits of a pre-planned move to create trouble. “Attacks were unleashed against women who came to the temple. Simultaneously, their houses were attacked. Parivar protests were part of a pre-planned and deliberate move to create tension,” he told the media.

He also unleashed a scathing attack against the Sabarimala thantris and members of the erstwhile royal family of Pandalam for their statement that the temple would be closed if young women entered it. He said that the TDB was the custodian of the temple and there were instances of major temples being reopened after engaging other thantris. “Thantris should not think that the keys tied to the tip of their dhotis are giving them power to close down the temple. Also, the erstwhile Pandalam royal family should not have any illusion that the covenant they had signed with the government to transfer the temple to the TDB can be revoked and taken back,” he said.

During the six days that the temple remained open for monthly pujas, only 10 women arrived to enter it. Five from Andhra Pradesh were part of a pilgrim group visiting other places of worship too, and had no idea of the customs and practices here. Seeing the protest, they returned without making any complaint.

Out of the other five women, Suhasini Raj, a journalist of The New York Times, was stopped and dissuaded from going to the temple. Libi, a woman from Cherthala in Alappuzha district of Kerala, claimed to be a rationalist and posted on Facebook that her aim was to challenge the custom and not offer worship. Manju, a Dalit activist from Kollam, came to the temple without the customary 41-day varata (penance). At least 15 criminal cases and arrest warrants were pending against her. She too was dissuaded from trekking to the shrine. Kavitha Jekkal, claiming to be a journalist from Telangana, and Rehana Fathima, an activist, who triggered a controversy in leading the “Kiss of love” campaign, were the other two women who came near the Sannidhanam escorted by 180 policemen led by the IGP. A woman from Kazhakoottam also had to return without climbing the hill.

It is obvious that this gender battle will rage on.

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