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The Supreme Court on Monday asked senior counsels appearing in pleas on discrimination of women in religious places, including the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, to hold a meeting on January 17, 2020 to decide whether issues referred to it need to be reframed or more added, and listed the matter for next hearing in the first week of February 2020.

Assembling for the first time, a nine-judge bench led by Chief Justice S A Bobde told the lawyers to determine among themselves which question would be argued by whom, referring to the Ayodhya hearing where the counsels had neatly divided the issues among themselves.

It directed the Secretary-General of the apex court to coordinate with the counsels regarding issues to be taken up by it.

Justice Bobde said the court would hear the questions of entry of women of all ages into Sabarimala shrine, entry of Parsi women married to a non-Parsi into the holy fireplace of an agyari, Muslim women in mosques, female genital mutilation and other questions referred to earlier by a five-judge bench.

Besides the Chief Justice, the bench comprised Justices R Banumathi, Ashok Bhushan, L Nageswara Rao, M M Shantanagoudar, S A Nazeer, R Subhash Reddy, B R Gavai and Surya Kant.

During the proceedings, senior lawyer AM Singhvi requested the court to reframe the seven issues, referred to by the five-judge bench to a bench of at least seven judges, since they were very broad and would have a sweeping effect on cases since 1950 concerning the right to freedom of religion.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta read out the seven questions and said these broad propositions needed to be fine-tuned.

To this, the bench clarified that it was not objecting to the opinion and would consider the same if the need arises.

Senior advocate Rajeev Dhawan pointed out that the Constitution did not allow the judiciary to decide on religion which is a fundamental right of every citizen individually.

Indira Jaising, another senior lawyer, said the 2018 Sabarimala judgment was not declared bad in law. She told the bench that the questions framed are purely academic in nature and devoid of any ratio.

The bench clarified that it was not reviewing the verdict and had only assembled to find answers to the seven issues.

Jaising also said she would add the question of untouchability as restricting temple entry touches upon that issue as well.

The decision in the review petitions filed against the Sabarimala judgment was kept pending by the Supreme Court, on making a reference to a larger bench to decide the larger question of law as to what constitutes essential practices and to what extent the court can intervene.

A five-judge bench of the court had, by a majority verdict on September 28, 2018, allowed women of all ages to enter the Lord Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala following which several review petitions were filed.

In November last year, a bench headed by then Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi had allowed the review petitions and referred the matter to a bench of at least seven judges.

After taking over as the Chief Justice, Justice Bobde had decided that the questions would be taken up by a nine-judge bench.

— India Legal Bureau

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