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Above: Flag hoisting by Tantri Kandararu Rajeevaru at the Sabarimala temple/Photo: UNI

With the Supreme Court referring to a larger bench the review petitions relating to the Sabarimala case, it is unclear whether  the status quo  prior to or post-September 28, 2018, will prevail

By NV Ravindranathan Nair in Thiruvananthapuram

The five-member Constitution bench of the Supreme Court decided last week to refer to a larger seven-member bench the 56 review petitions and four writ petitions challenging its verdict of September 28, 2018, allowing women of menstruating age to enter the Sabarimala temple of Lord Ayyappa. This has come as a relief to the devotees of Lord Ayyappa. Ever since the September 2018 verdict, the state had plunged into chaos with the state government taking an aggressive posture against the protesters. With the court’s verdict it is expected that this year’s pilgrimage, starting on November 17, will have a perceptible change.

The majority decision of the bench comprising Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi and Justices AM Khanwilkar, Indu Malhotra, Rohinton Nariman and DY Chandrachud, however, is not clear whether the status quo prior to or post-September 28, 2018, will prevail. Delivering the verdict, CJI Gogoi made it clear that the larger bench of the Supreme Court would consider the cases involving the entry of Muslim and Parsi women in their places of worship as it had to examine whether the court can decide on the customs, rituals and practices related to faith and religion. Moreover, Justices Chandrachud and Nariman have rejected the review petitions, making it a 3:2 majority decision.

The Supreme Court’s decision to refer the review petitions to a larger constitutional bench has not helped clear the air. Confusion prevails as the Court has chosen not to stay the September 28, 2018, verdict. Reacting to the Court’s decision, Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala said that the government should not act like a facilitator to bring women to Sabarimala. “Interpreting the silence on the part of the Court on whether it is staying or not the earlier verdict, the government should not start bringing women of a certain age to wreck the tranquility of the pilgrim season,” he said.

Expressing relief, Sasikumar Varma, president, Sabarimala Karma, representative of the Pandalam royal family, said the government should understand that by referring the review petitions, the Supreme Court has given the feeling that it is convinced that there had been some anomaly. “As per the wishes of the Ayyappa devotees, the Supreme Court has referred the case to a larger bench. It is a great relief to all,” he said. BJP leader and former Mizoram Governor Kummanam Rajasekharan added: “The fact that the Court has referred the matter to a larger bench, it shows that it must have felt some inadequacies in the earlier verdict.”

Former Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) President and Congress leader Prayar Gopalakrishnan, who had filed a review petition, said it was not the final verdict and the government should not act in haste to bring in young women. “The government should not escort the women activists to Sabarimala at this juncture. Let the Court pronounce its final verdict,” he said. But CPI(M) leader and former Board member N Rajagopalan Nair said that as the verdict has not been stayed, there is a lack of clarity. Former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy added that the verdict was a relief to the devotees and the government should not create unrest, interpreting it in its own way.

Most commentators see the verdict as a face-saver for everyone. The Constitution bench decision is a face saver for the government as well as the opposition and the devotees. As the state is going to hold local body elections by September next year, it is unwise for the government to whip up passions by taking an aggressive posture, as it had done last year.

For the BJP and Sangh Parivar, which had backed the devotees to boost their political fortunes, there has not been much progress since then. Moreover, their commitment to the issue came under question when BJP state president PS Sreedharan Pillai termed the issue a “golden opportunity” for the party to make political gains.

BJP state general secretary MT Ramesh said: “We are with the devotees. We hope hurt feelings of devotees will be assuaged by the court.” He added that the party expected a favourable verdict from the larger bench, like the one on the Ram temple in Ayodhya.

The contention of those who challenged the verdict was that the question of constitutional morality, gender equality and judiciary should not be allowed to tamper with the faith, customs and practices of the temple. They pointed out that there is no ban on women but only a restriction for women of menstruating age.

Meanwhile, the government is planning to construct an airport near the Sabarimala temple, hoping that if the temple is open throughout the year, it could bring in more tourist revenue to the state. However, it is felt that such efforts would impact the temple’s sanctity and the atmosphere of the hill shrine deep within the quiet Periyar Tiger Reserve.

At least 50,000 protesters were booked at the height of the agitation against the apex court verdict in 2018. The protests led to a decrease in the number of pilgrims and revenue. The Travancore Devaswom Board, which runs the temple, said there was a 50 percent dip last year, with 1.2 crore pilgrims visiting the temple against 2.2 crore in 2017. On an average, up to two crore devotees pray at the temple during the season.  The court decision would ensure a normal flow of pilgrims this season besides giving respite to all stakeholders.

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