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Above: Devotees on their way to the Sabarimala temple during the ongoing pilgrimage season/Photo: UNI

Pulling up the Kerala government for not framing a law exclusively for the management of the shrine despite an earlier undertaking, the Court said legislation should be in place by the third week of January

By NV Ravindranathan Nair in Thiruvananthapuram

The Supreme Court has taken note of the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government’s efforts to mix politics with the administration of the Lord Ayyappa Temple in Sabarimala. It has directed it to enact an exclusive law to administer the temple and stay clear of the controversy surrounding women’s entry there.

Conveying its displeasure to the state government for not framing a law exclusively for the shrine’s management despite an undertaking given earlier, the Court asked it to come up with such legislation by the third week of January. This came days after a Constitution Bench turned to a larger bench, saying the September 28, 2018, judgment lifting age restrictions on the entry of women may impinge on the affairs of other religions and would require detailed examination.

While going through the draft legislation prepared by the state government for Sabarimala, a bench of Justices NV Ramana, R Subhash Reddy and BR Gavai observed that despite the state government’s claim in August that it would make a new law, it had not made any progress. The bench was hearing a plea by a Pandalam royal family member, Revathi Nal P Ramavarama Raja, in 2011, seeking a separate committee for the temple’s administration.

However, the most interesting question the bench asked the state counsel, Jaideep Gupta, was about the proposal to reserve one-third of the members of the temple advisory board for women. It wondered what would happen if the larger bench, which would look into issues suggested by the Constitution Bench, took a stand at odds with what was decided in September 2018. The judges said women in the committee would be required to enter the temple premises and, hence, the views of the larger bench would have implications. Gupta replied that in such an event, the proposed members would be women above the age of 50.

The bench asked the state to take into consideration the report of the Justice Chandrasekhara Menon Commission while framing the law. The Commission, which was constituted after the January 1999 stampede which killed 52 pilgrims, had mooted an independent administrative body for the shrine.

Justice Ramana asked Gupta: “Two-three months not sufficient for you?” The bench also said that the state government, instead of mooting a separate administrative board for the shrine, had come up with the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions (Amendment) Bill, 2019. This Bill proposed a common law for the administration of Sabarimala and over 1,200 temples which fall under the Travancore Devasom Board. It said that in view of the speciality and importance of Sabarimala as a seat of spirituality and worship where lakhs of pilgrims throng every year, it has to be managed separately. “You have proposed one administration for thousand temples. It’s unmanageable,” Justice Ramana told Gupta. Admitting that he did not know the contours of the Bill, Gupta said that the state would follow the Court’s orders. The bench said there were already many working models such as the Tirupati, Guruvayur and Siddhivinayak temples and the state government would require something on those lines to be constituted for Sabarimala.

Justice Reddy sought to know if the proposed commissioner was an IAS officer, and added that a senior officer could be put in charge. At this point, Justice BR Gavai sought to know the factual and legal position regarding women’s entry. While Gupta cited the pre­vious restrictions on women in the age group of 10 to 50, Justice Gavai said: “But as of now anybody can enter… right? As of now, the September 2018 judgment revoking prohibition on entry of women is what holds the field.”

As the five-member Constitution Bench had not stayed the September 28, 2018, judgment, there were no restrictions. However, the LDF government, which had taken an aggressive posture in 2018 facilitating women’s entry into Sabarimala, had borne the brunt of devotees’ ire during the last Lok Sabha polls and faced a near rout. The CPI(M) leadership then decided to do a U-turn and took the stand that neither the party nor the government would provide any security to young women going to Sabarimala. As local body elections are round the corner and assembly elections just a year ahead, the government can’t afford to go against the sentiments of the devotees. In such a scenario, the Court’s displeasure over reservation for women in the proposed board is once again a setback.

The Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), an autonomous body constituted under the Travancore Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act XV of 1950, is entrusted with the task of administering 1,248 temples in the erstwhile princely state of Travancore. The constitution of the Board was based on the covenant entered into by the Maharaja of Travancore in May 1949 and concurred and guaranteed by the Government of India. Hindus in the Kerala legislative assembly elect them for three years. Till recently, it had the semblance of autonomy. But after the Pinarayi Vijayan government assumed office, it has usurped the TDB’s powers by amending the Act.

But a separate administrative mechanism for Sabarimala would lead to a big financial crisis in over 1,000 temples under the TDB as the income from Sabarimala has been sustaining them.

For several decades, Hindutva forces and a large section of devotees have been demanding that the temple administration be freed from politics and returned to them. But the LDF and the UDF had taken a stand against it. Once the temples become unsustainable, the TDB will not want to take them over. Moreover, the government will have to pay nearly 5,000 Devaswom employees. But it would help the devotees to have a say in the temples’ administration in future and the government will have to respect the sentiments of the devotees and the customs and traditions of each temple.

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